Friday, March 23, 2018

Building the "Why" of Your Story--Inner and Outer Purpose for Characters Is the Key

Characters are it, in both fiction and memoir, if you want to publish.  Of course you have to have a good plot, something happening.  And your characters have to be externalized enough that we readers feel they're believable, interesting, intriguing.  But characters drive a story, and no more than in today's publishing market.

Several of my clients have had happy news these past weeks--agents or book contracts--and almost all of them have emailed me about their agent or editor loving the characters.  Those who get rejections know that this is also the most common complaint:  I just didn't fall in love with your characters.

This week, I'm sifting through "notes to self," gathered this past year in my own writing and in my students' and clients' writing, to see exactly how characters are coming alive on the page--and when they aren't.  I what to share my new finding in the Afternoon Characters Intensive I'll be teaching at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis next Thursday, March 29.

One of my private clients told me that her most important lesson on writing characters came when she learned about their inner and outer purpose, and how these purposes must conflict.  Although I'll go into this in much more detail in the workshop, here are a few tips to try this in your own writing.

1.   Most memorable characters come into the story with some inner obstacle or memory or belief that makes life challenging for them.  Since A Wrinkle in Time is hot in the news (movie, at last!), let's look at Meg's inner obstacle.  She knows she's smart, but she believes she doesn't fit in--anywhere.  She also believes she's the only one really concerned about watching out for her baby brother, Charles Wallace.  Finally, she has a secret mission to find out what happened to her father.  Meg has to face her misunderstanding about herself a lot during the story.  She comes to a new place by the end.

2.  This inner obstacle or false belief conflicts with the outer purpose.  Meg is asked to go hunt for their dad.  She thinks she's a mega failure in life, so how can she succeed at this?  Her love for Charles Wallace will force her to do it anyway, and she'll reach many crossroads where she has to decide what's really true--her false belief or what's in front of her.

3.  Backstory and interiority (thoughts and feelings) are how the false belief is shown to the reader.  One of the great techniques for finding out relevant backstory is by writing a character bio.  You'll be astonished by what you learn.  If you were to write Meg's bio, only stuff that happened before the story began, what do you imagine it would include?  She's such a great character, I suspect Madeleine L'Engle might have done this.

These three tips are just a few of the ways you can bring out "why" of the story--the real reason it's happening.  Rather than just depend on outer circumstances to drive your story along, consider the line from cause to effect.  Which is all about characters.

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