The Unplanned Fork In The Road

Recently I started writing a new novel. The characters are solid, the story is deep and intriguing and the setting is fun and interesting.  I normally write with a general idea of where I want the story to go and let it take me there. This time I had a clear idea how I wanted to end it. So I set out to get to that ending.  I had a plan.

Each chapter is where and how I want it, the story and character are progressing perfectly then bam! It’s not. Suddenly where it’s going and where I want it to end up don’t line up anymore. I sat back and thought about it. Do I want the story to continue on the line it derailed along? Or do I want to backtrack or maneuver it back in line with the planned ending? I liked where the new angle was going but it couldn’t go where I originally wanted. if I went back and put it back on course then I couldn’t fit in the new angle I spontaneously created… Hmm.

I must have gone back and forth on this for days. It was weird, I could imagine both but neither at the same time. It wasn’t writers block, but a fork in the road of my novel.

As a result I set the story aside. I think about it and play it out in my head. I contemplated ideas, made notes and mulled and mulled until I could mull no more. Then it hit me.

Either I write two versions of the story or I forge a new fork in the road and take it a whole other direction. Whoa! What? Now I have three options. Great, just freaking great.

However the more I thought about a third open option the more excited I became. The what if’s started piling up and I realized something important.

I was limiting myself.

If I had veered off in the first place then the original plan might not be right anymore… It’s not wrong, it’s still good, but maybe it went stale with how I felt the story needed to go.

Now that I’ve decided to broaden my thoughts on the ending I’m not stuck staring at the only two options I limited myself to. Story writing for me is organic, it’s not set in stone before I begin. More often than not, I create as I go. I had an idea for this one that is exciting beyond belief to me, and I didn’t realize I’d painted myself into a corner by thinking the ending I wanted to get to was the only one.

My advice about unplanned forks in the road.
There is no right or wrong way to write a story, you can sit and let it happen as you type, you can plan rigorously each step of the way or you can work from a general outline. Whatever works for you is the way to approach. Don’t be afraid to try a different approach or go back to an old one. 

-Sheryl

Other posts

Desperately procrastinating

Phony-baloney disguised

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Create

What’s Your Story?

Back-story. Background Story, History, Origin story, whatever you want to call it, it is what makes a character who they are before the story started. How important is it to create back-story for characters? Without history and experience a person is pretty dull and can become unbelievable.  Even if a back-story never makes it directly into the manuscript it’s important for it to be there.

A character may be a jerk, but why? Why is it important as the writer to know where a character came from?

To illustrate easily let me ask you… What’s your story? What makes you… you? Everyone has one and this should be true to wrting as well. Writing a generalized jerk is okay, but one that picks specifically on red heads and girls with freckles might have a deeper reason for doing so. That doesn’t mean I have to even mention the reason just that the character only ever picks on those two types.

There are several types of back-story. Here are some that I’ve used.

Influential –

The type that defines a person. For example Jill and Jane were raised in an extremely abusive household. Jill grew up fighting against domestic violence and has a tender caring heart, while Jane internalized and let the situation take seed. She now abuses her daughter and husband and has developed a dependency on alcohol and prescription drugs to cope. Not every situation has to have the same impact on a person. In this case I would have Jill actively speak out against any form of violence or bullying. Jane might be the one that causes all the strife in Jill’s life.

Small –

A minor character or even major one may have an issue with mustard. Perhaps they were forced to eat it as a child and sat crying at the table for hours until they choked it down.  They may not be actively aggressive or upset about mustard now, but they certainly wont touch it and my even be repulsed by someone who eats it. 

Ongoing –

A back-story that hasn’t quite ended. Someone may have had to care for a sick relative and has reached their limit. They are still caring for said relative but the manuscript picks up middle to end of the care process. This can be a great way to have a character spring-board into their journey. They may have to choose to end said relatives life out of mercy, desperation or loathing. They may love them till their last breath and on their dying words are told something that forever changes their life. This sort of back story would pop up often and easily lead to flashback scenarios. 

Trauma  – 

The back-story that causes major change or a huge shift in a character. A happy-go-lucky person, who is strong and successful is injured or loses everything suddenly. A family is suddenly cut in half by a tragic accident causing the protagonist to question their life. 

Back-story’s go hand in hand with plot devices. For my characters they have a story to tell. Whether its outright and part of the plot or arc, or if it’s subtle and shown in their behaviors, preferences and life choices. If Johnny has no respect for police officers and it gets him in constant trouble, there is a reason.

Keeping track of back-story is very important no matter how small a part they play. I use charts and lists to make sure everyone has a reason for what they do and don’t do. Does this mean a character’s back-story is set in stone? Nope, I’ve added and removed things to suit them and where I want them to go. But it helps to know where they started if I want them to seem real.

Minor/flat/static characters generally have untold back-story. The exhausted overly cheerful hot-dog vendor works 15 hour days to support his dying wife. The crying child climbing the shelves in the supermarket, driving everyone crazy, just lost his father in a plane crash and struggles to cope. Do I mention all those details? No. Probably not.

The Main/Rounded/Dynamic Characters will have their back-story come out at some point or in small doses along the way. They are after all on a journey of growth and change.

My advice about Back-story
Make sure everyone has one. Decide who gets to reveal them and who doesn’t. Keep the minor characters simple and express their back-story by very subtle means. It’s super annoying to be brow beaten by a paragraph delving into the reason Mike the mechanic rips off his customers. Just that he does, is enough.

-Sheryl

Other character building posts.

Who are you again?

Snoopy McSnooperson

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Climbing

Round vs. flat

Characters are an important part of every story. They are the vehicles to which the story rides.

The diversity of characters in a story should be great. No one character should be exactly like another. (Unless they are meant to be)  I mentioned Dynamic vs. Static characters. Within either of those groups lies another option. Round vs. Flat.

Rounded characters are full, interesting and often multi-layered in their approach. Regardless of the complication or lack of in a character I keep track of them in detail. Consistency is key to character writing.  Rounded doesn’t mean dynamic. Dynamic is changing and evolving(or de-evolving) while rounded means the character has a rich character. Often with a background story that should be reviled in a timely manner within the story. They have emotional depth and react to things and situations. The more rounded a character is the more realistic they feel to the reader.

A rounded character takes time to grow and develop. They need a lot of attention even if they are minor in the story. I like to give minor rounded characters one very distance flaw or quirk. Sometimes they get their own mini side story. For example a character that is picked on my a main character may have a breakdown or a moment of strength. They may impact the main character’s journey but not change it.  Amber picked on Rachel. I let Rachel interact with Amber, Dale and Scott and eventually Rachel stood up for herself just as Amber is starting to question her behavior and life choices. I gave Rachel a back-story, emotional responses, opinions, thoughts and feelings. She reacts to situations but isn’t a key part of them. (See ‘what if’s of imagination’)

Flat characters are the two-dimensional ones. They often have little to no impact on the story. They come and go and are there as a prop for a scene.

Examples of Flat characters
Waiter/Waitress
Counter clerk/sales person
Receptionist/concierge
Co-worker
Relatives
Police officer/fireman/paramedic
Panhandlers/Buskers
Person bumped into on bus, street etc.

Whether they are reoccurring or a one-off flat characters don’t need a lot of attention. I barely give them a presence. A general description if necessary. I don’t go in to detail over what they wear, how they look or act. These people are the cardboard cut-outs and are meant to be. I dislike very much when a flat character gets a full paragraph of introduction then absolutely nothing happens with them. They go nowhere and do nothing.  I don’t care what colour their eyes, hair, skin and clothes are if they have no impact on the story whatsoever.

My advice about flat vs. Round characters.
I often say I write what I like, what I want to read. The same is true for the opposite. Judge carefully who needs depth and who can stay in the background. Two dimensional characters tend to stay that way. If you give them more than you have to make them more.

-Sheryl

Related Posts

 The “What ifs” Of Imagination

Squeaky Clean

Wisely Perpetrating Gullibility

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Timely

Static Vs. Dynamic

There are many facets to writing characters in a story. I like to make mine as layered and real as possible and use charts and lists to ensure I know who they are from their quirks right up to major character flaws that define them.

A dynamic character is one that changes over time. They start off one way then learn and grow as the story or stories progress. Sometimes this happens by design and sometimes it happens out of creative circumstance. This doesn’t always mean for the better. A character can rise up from the ashes or descend blindly to the depths of hell. There is a caution here, having a character spontaneously change is frustrating and weird. There must be foreshadowing, cause and effect put into play. If Scott went crazy for no reason and just snapped it would be weird for the reader. Unless I’m going for shock value. Even then I would have foreshadowed it a little.

On the flip side of a dynamic character are static ones. The static character remains steady. They don’t grow and develop or crash and burn. They simply are there and stay that way.  Most often a static character is on the side or comes around infrequently. I’ve noticed the “advice givers” or wisest of characters are often static. they don’t have a journey to make they’ve already been there and done that.

Examples of typical stationary characters:
Boss’s
Parents/relatives
Best friends with no strife in their life
Teachers
Co-workers not tied to the story
The guy selling hot-dogs on the corner
The advice giving barista
Doctors and or nurses
The doorman/server/maid/concierge

Basically, anyone in a dynamic character’s life that are not directly a part of it. There have been times when a static character is pulled into the story and becomes dynamic, but I choose them carefully and try to replace them with another static character.  I’ve also had characters that are constantly around the most dynamic and still stay the same. Not everyone needs to grow and evolve or fail and de-evolve.

A static or background character runs the danger of becoming inert. They can easily have an impact on the story, good or bad. They can easily help the dynamic’s of the story move along their path. A static character isn’t a one-off appearance. They are there more than once, often a support system of sorts. They should not always be dull or invisible. I call this the cardboard cutout character. The one that is there but not.  The easiest way to give them some color is to give them humor or make them the ‘middle-man’.

Confusing growth with change is easy to do. Circumstances can change for a static character, they can react/act within that change and still remain static.  Dale is a character that hasn’t grown, rather his circumstances have changed and he adapts within his set parameters that I created. He is still the same and hasn’t become more or less of a hero, nor has he become or more or less of a villain. Scott has changed for the bad. He is slipping into an old dark shoe that has nothing to do with this story but affects his personality. This is known as back-story. His change was foreshadowed with actions, expression, and words.

My advice about Static vs. Dynamic characters
We spend a lot of time focused on the Dynamic characters. I think it’s important to give Static one’s depth too. Give them a history, purpose, range of emotion and response. They don’t need to learn, but they shouldn’t be cardboard cut-outs either.

-Sheryl

Character related Posts

I don’t know how to do that.

Becoming Bad

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 Blindly

Shut your cake hole

Blabbermouths are common in the real world. To your face or behind your back. So why not put them in the story? I love a good jerk, the one that makes you grip the book a little harder and hope they get their comeuppance or feel bad for what they’ve done. Whether they know they are loudmouth squealer or not, doesn’t matter. That they stir the pot does. A proper bigmouth can change the game and save a floundering storyline.

Here is a little tid-bit of mine from a work in progress:

“Good morning Nell, Wendy.” Hank smiled and sat at the meeting room table.
“Oh good morning Hank.” Wendy gushed. She had no problem flirting with the unnaturally handsome Hank. “How was your weekend?”
As usual, Nell sat quietly since Wendy cut off any chance of casting Hank a greeting. Hank finished his tales of golf, beer and a spontaneous trip to the beach without a glance toward Nell. “How about yours Wendy?”
“Ah same ole, same ole.” She waived her hand. “Now Nell had quite the adventure.” Her sly tone was devastating.
There was zero chance Hank would drop the subject. Nell shot her a what-the-hell look. She knew better than to confide in her friend, but did it anyway.
“Oh really.” He slid his gaze to Nell. “Do tell, what could Nell possibly do that has her redder than your blouse Wendy?”
“She had a hot date.” Wendy ignored Nell’s kick to her leg. “Like really hot.” Wendy fanned herself.
Hank tilted his head staring at Nell. She was quiet, mousy and barely noticeable on a good day. All work and no play. Usually. “With whom?”
“Wendy.” Nell’s clenched teeth made her plea to shut up, louder than she meant. The last thing she wanted was Hank, of all people to laugh at her. “Please don’t.”
“Now I have to know.” Hank chuckled.
“She and Barry from accounting went to Point Garrison beach yesterday. Apparently it has an amazing view.” Wendy waggled her eyebrows.
Nell’s cheeks drained of all colour as he smiled broadly, understanding that he was the view.

My advice about Chatterboxes.
Use them. Make them make your story tantalizing or spice up a dull storyline. Someone spilling the proverbial beans can start a good conflict. I like to use it as an opportunity to let someone behave outside their comfort zone.

-Sheryl

 

Other posts of mine

Oops! What did I just say?

Eyes that carry worlds

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Cake