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Getting into the Games

My household's thoroughly read copy.

After much nagging from my kids, urging from writer friends, and the debut of the movie–which I thought was really well done–I finally decided I needed to read The Hunger Games.

I’m not big into young adult fiction–though I loved the Harry Potter series–but I can see why Suzanne Collins’ books are such a big hit.

She not only delivers on the emotion, she does just about everything right.

Sympathetic characters? What’s more sympathetic then a group of oppressed people with tragic lives and little hope for the future, who work hard to survive?

That would probably be enough to draw you in, but Collins also gives her characters bravery, loyalty, interesting skills, and selflessness. You couldn’t be apathetic about Katniss, Peeta, and Gale if you tried.

Conflict? The Hunger Games has it in spades. How’d you like to be allies with someone you’ll eventually have to kill if you want to live?

And Collins keeps twisting the knife as the book goes on, but I don’t want to give too much away, in case you haven’t read it.

Setting? North America in some dystopian future where the Hunger Games arena can be anything the Gamemakers can dream up. It’s Gladiator meets Survivor meets Lord of the Flies. I dare you to snore.

I’m not saying everything was perfect. Some of the build-up could use tighter pacing, especially in book two (Catching Fire), but even if young adult books aren’t your usual thing, I think all of us could learn a thing or two about writing compelling fiction from Ms. Collins. And, enjoy ourselves along the way.

What’s not to like about that? Next chance I get, I’m curling up with Mockingjay.

Have you read any of the books in the series? What did you think?

Lightbulb moments

Writers who talk about structure often reference the concept of story beats. Like beats of music in a song, story beats are the little moments that are strung together to make a novel or screenplay.

But I never quite understood how long a story beat was until I started reading STORY by Robert McKee. He’s the first author I’ve read that clearly defined it, and he basically said that a beat is one unit of cause and effect. Or action/reaction. Which made me think of Dwight Swain’s motivation-reaction units. Hmm.

In other words, every time someone says or does something and the other character reacts to it, that’s a beat. Or the character sees, feels, hears, tastes, or smells something and reacts to it with thought, action, or both.

Lightbulb moment.

I love how the more books I read, the more concepts overlap and gel together to solidify an idea I hadn’t yet grasped.

Another one that I didn’t think I’d seen in quite this way before—but, of course, the next day I saw the concept mentioned in Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT! GOES TO THE MOVIES—was the idea of taking the character from one state (or charge) to its opposite. For example, when we talk about character arc, we’re taking our character from unloved to loved, or afraid of fire to able to run through fire, or risk-averse to daring.

So – to +, or the reverse. Boiling it down to two opposing charges really clarified things for me. Such a simple but powerful idea that should make it easier to put the character arc into words and see quickly if it’s really a change.

McKee believes we should not only do this for the whole story, but for each scene, sequence (a string of scenes with its own climax, like a chapter), and act.

I can envision + and – signs alongside my goal/conflict/disaster notes for each scene, and going through my outline when I’m done with the first draft to make sure I flipped the character’s circumstances or way of thinking. Somehow it’s easier when you break it down to employed/unemployed, married/divorced, safe/unsafe, sad/happy, hot/cold, poor/rich.

I’m only on chapter two of STORY, so I expect to have more lightbulb moments along the way.

Had any of your own lately that you’d like to share?

Photo credit: LAPTOP IDEA © Yanik Chauvin |

Same or different?

When my oldest son was in second or third grade, we lived about two hours from my parents. Whenever we visited, my son would go from room to room pointing out everything that my parents had changed since our last visit.

My son is into the details.

I’m the same way. I notice the bumper stickers and license plate rings on my neighbors’ cars. I watch how people react to each other or how they talk about each other and form opinions on their relationship. I see patterns and logic in things, and often try to hang things on a recognizable framework even if one’s not there (which can be dangerous).

So, it’s always an eye-opener when others don’t look at the world the same way.

You mean you don’t know who I’m talking about if I tell you it was the guy down the street with the red station wagon? The one with the USMC sticker and the Iraq War Veteran plate? The one who apparently enjoys living off base where they don’t measure your lawn length?*

Tony Robbins goes so far as to classify people as sameness or difference people (and some combinations of the two). Here’s the gist as I understand it. Sameness people recognize the similarity between objects or people. Difference people—you guessed it—notice the differences. To make this more clear, here’s the example Mr. Robbins used.

If I throw down a handful of coins and asked people if they were the same or different, here’s what I might get.

Sameness-oriented person: “The same. They’re all coins.”

Difference-oriented person: “They’re all different. One dime, a 1999 nickel, a 2004 nickel, a Wyoming quarter, and an Arizona quarter. Plus a wheat penny and a Canadian penny. And this quarter's all beat up, but the other one is in mint condition.”

I’m betting that sameness people aren’t good with faces unless the variety is huge. (Try telling apart a bunch of men in the same uniform with the same haircut. No wonder they wear name tags!) On the flip side, it stands to reason that even twins might not look alike to an extreme difference person.

The reason I brought all of this up is because I’ve been giving a lot of thought to my characters and I’m trying to figure out how to show their unique personalities through deeper POV. Maybe sameness/difference orientation, or level of attention to detail is one more trait I can use to make my characters unique.

As always, the challenge isn’t in the knowing, it’s in the doing. Thoughts?

*Fictional compilation of real and imagined neighbors. Maybe.

Blowing it

When I was seven, I was tasked with bringing my friend to the basement of our apartment building (overseas base housing in Germany often had odd things like basements and attic maids’ quarters) for a surprise birthday party. Terrified that I was going to somehow mess up and bring her in before everyone was ready, I left her on the stairs and went to check. So, of course everyone yelled surprise, my friend heard it, surprise blown.

I messed up by trying not to.

I’ll bet if you ask my dad he probably doesn’t even remember the incident. It looms much larger in my own mind, though. In fact, I still feel like a screw-up when I think about it. I cringe and go right back to being seven again. The ache of regret and shame rises up as if it were yesterday instead of decades ago.

Though small and seemingly unimportant, these are events that invoke strong feelings, and emotional moments are our most memorable.

Like a golfball hit repeatedly by a club, it’s the dings and cuts of life that make us unique.

Which got me thinking about my characters. In addition to the standard background information, I always have one or two defining incidents in my characters’ back stories that help define who they are and their motivations. Usually, though, the events are major or long-lasting. Death of an important person, a violent attack, life with an alcoholic, being trapped in a fire.

(I could choose good things, but where’s the fun in that?)

What if I picked a few smaller life moments for my characters and fleshed them out? Maybe I don’t even have to share them with the reader. But those moments can still inform the character’s self-esteem, fears, quirks, and motivations.

Or, an event in the current story might trigger a memory of one of those minor incidents, causing an unexpected reaction.

Now the real challenge is figuring out what the small moments should be and how to use them.

I hope I don’t blow it.


Get intimate with your characters

I recently picked up a book called Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You by Sam Gosling. Not only did it sound interesting, but I figured I could pick up something that would help with characterization. While the book wasn’t quite the field guide to which traits certain bits of “behavioral residue” were linked to that I expected, I still gleaned plenty of useful and interesting ideas.

One of my favorite sections was about a series of studies done by Dan McAdams to determine the requirements for escalating intimacy. That is, what kinds of things do we need to know about another person to feel like we really know him or her? How do we move into those deeper levels? And can we move through those levels in a matter of hours or days instead of months or years?

Aha, I thought. This applies to me.

In a romance, we're often trying to throw the hero and heroine together and get them to a happily ever after in a few days or weeks. It's always a challenge to make it believable. This is why reunion romances are popular. It's easier to believe a person would fall quickly in love with someone she already knows, rather than a complete stranger.

So here's the payoff for sticking with me this long. According to McAdams, there are three layers of identity, each one providing a deeper level of intimacy with the other person.

  1. Traits. These are the basic, outward manifestations of personality that are fairly easy to spot. The five he uses are: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. When describing someone’s traits, you might use words like kind, honest, smart, sexy, fun, loud, lazy, moody, or shy.
  2. Personal concerns. These include the person’s values, political beliefs, goals, roles, regrets, and skills. She might be a wife, mother, and writer. She may want to be published by age 40, lose 10 pounds, and spend more time with her kids. She may value things like peace, family, and health.
  3. Identity. This is the inner story of the person, her past, present, and expected future as she sees it. If she strongly identifies herself as a computer expert, she’ll do everything in her power to maintain that identity, even go back to school to ensure that she’s always on top of the latest technology. If he identifies strongly with being a successful executive, he may struggle with more than just he bills if the gets laid off and can’t find equivalent work. This is why people kill themselves when the stock market crashes.

So if my characters are forced into a situation where he reveals his integrity and she proves her kindness, then they move on to scenes where their personal concerns are illuminated, and finally are thrust into circumstances that challenge their very identities, they might be able to develop a believable level of intimacy in a short span of time.

Now I just need to figure out what all of those illuminating situations are going to be.

Want to read more about characters and personality? Try these posts:

Fun with Dick and Jane

But, why did they run?

Goal: Determine GMC for my main characters

Motivation: To write a better story with believable actions and conflict.

Conflict: It's hard work!

I want to know what my characters want, why, and why they can't have it. Yes, I'm working on my new book's GMC. Again.

Here's the thing. This time around, I really need to know that I have plausible, believable goals, motivations, and conflicts for each of the main characters before I move too far into the story. Not just my main characters, but the antagonists too. I think the reason I've struggled in the past is because my GMC wasn't as solid as I thought, and it only became evident once I wrote enough words to get stuck.

GMC goes right to the heart of internal and external conflict. What's keeping my characters apart, as well as what's bringing them together. External conflict is much easier to come up with. Physical barriers are like mosquitos in my backyard. Plentiful! It's the internal conflicts that I need to solidify before I can go on.

This Mills & Boon article on emotional conflict makes the following suggestion:

A good exercise to try is deciding what story you would tell if your characters were trapped in one room for the entire book! Think of the emotional journey your hero and heroine would go on without any outside influences. How would you sustain the tension between the couple, build up to the highs and lows, when all they can do is talk to each other?

I'm not going to write this, but I am going to think about how the story would develop without any of the suspense plot that I've spent so much time trying to get right. Focusing on the internal conflict before throwing gun-toting bad guys, back-stabbing best friends, or evil CEOs into the mix should make the story stronger. And, I hope, easier to write.

Got any advice for GMC or internal conflict? I'd love to hear it!

Tomgirl or tomcat?

Until I had boys of my own, I'd never given much thought to how difficult it can be for boys who don't conform to traditional male roles in our society. Some might call them tomgirls. Others might label them gay, regardless of their sexual orientation.

Maybe I didn't think about it because I grew up with a dad who's a nurse (see yesterday's post). Maybe I was just too focused on my own attempts to buck the traditional female roles. Whatever the reason, I started thinking about it a lot when my boys began expressing their own interests.

Even though women are still not paid equally, or always treated equally within society, in many ways they have more freedom than men. We applaud women for breaking barriers (and rightfully so).

On the other hand, acceptable roles for men are much more limited. A man who chooses a career outside the norm (nurse, elementary school teacher, receptionist) faces ridicule, snickers behind his back, and epithets remarking on his sexuality. Possibly, even as we applaud him publicly.

As MaryC so eloquently stated in a comment on yesterday's post, “I think the main qualification for any job should be a passion and talent for doing it.” Exactly, but when will we get there? Probably not in my lifetime.

As a writer, I often worry about perpetuating the male sterotypes. Do I have a responsibility to push back against our society's definition of a “real man”? Will I be proud to show my own boys my work (when they're finally old enough to read it)? If I try to write something different, will anyone buy it?

In my experience (yes, myself included), most readers expect the hero of the story to be a strong, masculine character, worthy of our respect and adoration, and the heroine's love.

He's the typical alpha male, leader of the pack, oozing testosterone, sex appeal, and honor. He likes guns, beer, meat, sports, and sex. He can easily carry a woman over his shoulder while running a five-minute mile, shooting at bad guys, and bleeding from a bullet wound. Even better if he wears a uniform and is willing to martyr himself to save her. Hoo-yah!

If human strength isn't enough, there are always vampires, werewolves, shape-shifters, and gods. Talk about alpha male. Eegads. What's a little boy who doesn't like toy trucks, guns, and plastic soldiers to do?

In an ideal world, everyone could like whatever they like without shame. My boys experienced such a world for a short few years while in an excellent Montessori school. It was like a little Utopia where respect for others was demanded of all students, and the children were free to be themselves without ridicule (well not out loud anyway).

But eventually, my boys had to face public school, because the rest of the world is not so understanding. I didn't want them to be sheltered from society forever, because they have to live in it. If they choose to buck it, it'll be with a full understanding of the consequences, fair or not.

I hope my own boys won't be afraid to be true to themselves.

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