Tag Archives: character development

Character Study: Breaking Bad’s Walter White

Memorable characters in fiction possess one essential quality: complexity. Fiction writers can draw valuable lessons from watching the progression over five seasons of the main character Walter White in the AMC Emmy Award-winning series, Breaking Bad. Characters don’t get more complex than Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

White’s evolution from a down-on-his-luck high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer to a drug kingpin might strain credibility, but series creator Vince Gilligan pulls it off brilliantly. At first, the viewer sympathizes with Walter’s plight as he goes into business with a former slacker student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cooking and selling methamphetamine. The motivation behind the meth business is Walter’s desire to pay for his medical treatment and leave a nest egg for his wife and family after he is gone.

In his excellent craft book, Plot and Structure, author James Scott Bell discussed the three-act structure. Bell stated that writers at the end of Act One must thrust their main character into the main conflict by having him walk through a door through which he could never return. This is manifested by key decisions the character must make that put him to the test. For example, a character must kill another person to protect himself, even though it violates his moral code. Walter White walks through many such doors and each time, he loses much of his former self.

What viewers discovered as the series progressed was that there were two Walter Whites: the downtrodden school teacher and faithful, nebbish parent, and the bright, driven chemist who hungers for power and respect. This hidden side of Walter is embodied by his pseudonym, Heisenberg, which came from the physicist whose uncertainty principle meant that the presence of an observer changed what was being observed.

For a period of time, Walter White leads two lives: the dying parent struggling to keep it together with his family and the grim, determined drug lord, decisive and cunning. It’s an absorbing character study. As the drug trade puts Walter and Jesse in increasingly dangerous situations, Walter’s true nature emerges. The meek high school teacher becomes a ruthless, win-at-all-costs maverick who still wants to hold onto his family, though his activities put them in grave danger.

As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott points out in a lengthy piece on Breaking Bad, Walter White justifies his monstrous behavior again and again. “Walter is almost as good at self-justification as he is at cooking meth, and over the course of the series, he has not hesitated to give high-minded reasons for his lowest actions,” Scott wrote. “In his own mind, he remains a righteous figure, an apostle of family values, free enterprise and scientific progress.”

It’s a fascinating character study that every fiction writer should examine.

What characters from contemporary television and film do you find most memorable?

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Are You NaNo’ing This Year?

A colleague at work approached me several years ago about “doing NaNo.” I looked at her as if she was out of her mind. “What’s NaNo?” I said. She explained it was the National Novel Writing Month and the goal was to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. A look of terror came across my face. I thought, “Now that’s really crazy.” At the time, I had two awful starter novels in the drawer and was struggling with a 120,000-word opus that would become my first published novel. I knew what it took to write a novel. I couldn’t wrap my mind around producing 50,000 words of fiction in just 30 days. Thirty months maybe, but 30 days? No way. Undaunted, she said, “You should try it sometime.”

Though it seemed an impossible feat, the idea of cranking out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days intrigued me. It was the ultimate challenge. The idea of a confirmed “pantser” like me attempting a feat that required writerly attributes like planning, outlining, character development and the like, was farfetched, but if I could pull it off, it would prove I possessed the discipline to meet a daily word count.

I didn’t “do NaNo” that year, or for the next three years, but last year I decided to give it a try. The deciding factor was a full-blown idea for a novel that had been rattling around in my head for 10 years. I never could sit and write it. My trepidation was that the story was in a different genre (murder/mystery) than I usually write. It was a huge leap for me, but the story was terrific. It had all the elements of great fiction: suspense, conflict, romance, murder, and, baseball—one of my passions in life. So I climbed the steps to that high diving board and leaped headfirst.

I learned a number of things. The most important lesson was that coming up with 1,667 words a day, even armed with a fully fleshed out story, is really hard. Another big lesson was to expect the unexpected. On October 28, 2011, the northeastern United States was hit with a freak snow storm and the region lost power for nine days. That’s right. No electricity. No laptop. So I adapted. I used pen and paper to write the initial chapters by candlelight. I hunkered in coffee shops with my laptop. We traveled to Vermont to stay with relatives for a weekend and I increased my word count from 3,000 to 11,000. The biggest lesson, though, was the value of discipline and determination.

On November 29, 2012—one day ahead of the deadline—I finished my 53,000-word first draft of Bonus Baby. What was then a first draft is now my work-in-progress.

Here are some lessons for writers thinking about doing NaNo:

  • Plan out your story ahead of time. If you have a premise and major characters, write an outline a month or so ahead of time. Don’t wait until October 31 to work out your story arc. Having a complete story outline was the difference for me. Even then, I found myself wondering if I could meet the word count and I ended up making a major plot change mid-course, which brings me to my next point.
  • Be open to unplanned changes to your story. For many writers (myself included) the first draft is a period of discovery. The major story elements are there, but those moments of intense creative brainstorming often produce magical surprises that enhance the story.
  • Perfect is the enemy of the good. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to come up with the perfect sentence, paragraph or scene. Just write and keep moving forward.
  • Carve out time every day to write. Tell your loved ones and friends you may not see them for a month and ask for their support. If you are married tell (beg) your spouse to take on more of the household chores during the month.
  • Take time off. I took some time off from work around Thanksgiving just in case I fell behind and needed to catch up. It made a difference for me as those days produced strong word counts.
  • Become part of the support group in your region. When you register on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.com) you will see a link for the regional online forum in your region. Each region as a leader called the Municipal Liaison (ML), who organizes in-person meetings, writing sessions, and orientations for newbies. We are blessed in my region with an energetic and committed ML who organizes meetings, including the legendary “Night of Writing Dangerously,” an all-night writing marathon.
  • Take advantage of the resources on the NaNo website, which include inspirational essays and online forums where you can get answers to just about any question you pose (including how to poison someone, which was the question I posted last year).

If you have done NaNo, what tips do you have to offer to newbies? If you have not done NaNo, what is holding you back?

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What Drives Your Main Character?

When I critique the work of developing writers, I’m often struck by the same thought. The writing is decent, the scenes are well-constructed, and there’s plenty of action, but something essential is missing. I try to put my finger on what is lacking. I re-read the piece and it hits me. What’s often missing is the main character’s motivation.

Craft books point to motivation as a basic ingredient for a successful novel. Why? Motivation moves the story forward. It gives the character a purpose. Without it, a novel is just a series of disconnected scenes. If the main character’s motivation is unclear to the reader early on in the story, the writer has failed and the reader will lose interest. Experts advise writers to make the reader care about the characters in her novel. Developing real, multi-dimensional characters is the way to do that, but the writer must first answer the question, ‘What makes my main character tick?’

What do we mean when we talk about a character’s motivation? We’re not talking primarily about physical needs and wants. The character is dying of dehydration and must find water within minutes. That makes for a riveting scene, but in and of itself, it reveals little about the character, except he wants to stay alive. Don’t most people? To use another example, the main character must return to his home planet before his fuel runs out. These are urgent needs, but effective character motivations should work on a deeper level. The strongest character motivations are emotional and psychological.  A character yearns for the love she never received from her emotionally distant parents. How does that impact her view of relationships? Is she too needy? Will that place her in peril? Another example is the character who has a chip on his shoulder. He is the son who could never accomplish enough to please his taskmaster father. How does that affect his outlook on life? What challenges does that set up for him? How can the writer pay off the ending by having him overcome his fear of failure?

Motivation does a number of things for a writer:

  • It guides the character’s actions and reactions to what happens to her.
  • It adds purpose and depth to the story.
  • It informs the choices a character makes and the consequences of those choices.
  • It allows writers to create deeper, more complex and interesting characters.
  • It ultimately defines who the character is and the challenges she must overcome.

Revealing a character’s motivation is tricky business for a writer. Writers shouldn’t come right out and say it. “Joe was bitter because his father never once gave him a compliment. He was determined to take it out on others.” That may be the case, but it’s better to let the reader discover Joe’s character through his actions.

This topic is especially timely because thousands of writers are getting ready for the annual National Novel Writing Month competition. The challenge is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, beginning on November 1. As I prepare to enter NaNo for the second time, I am outlining my story (yes, it’s true; the old pantser actually decided to prepare a written outline this time). One of the things that’s paramount in my mind is the motivations of the various characters. This story pivots on character motivations.

Even for writers who are pantsers like me, it makes sense as a writer develops the major characters in her book to take a few minutes to think through their motivations. It will give the story purpose, meaning and depth.

How do you determine the motivations of your characters?

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Author Spotlight: Alice Munro

Alice Munro occupies a special place in my pantheon of modern authors. She is part of my Holy Trinity, along with Anne Tyler and Alice McDermott. Long recognized as one of the pre-eminent short story writers of our time, Munro received the 2009 Man Booker International Prize in recognition of her lifetime body of work. She is often called the “Canadian Chekhov.”

Ironically, Munro didn’t set out to write short stories. “I never intended to be a short-story writer,” Munro said in a November 1986 interview with The New York Times. ”I started writing them because I didn’t have time to write anything else – I had three children. And then I got used to writing stories, so I saw my material that way, and now I don’t think I’ll ever write a novel.”

She found short stories more satisfying than novels. ”I don’t really understand a novel,” she said in the same interview. ”I don’t understand where the excitement is supposed to come in a novel, and I do in a story. There’s a kind of tension that if I’m getting a story right I can feel right away, and I don’t feel that when I try to write a novel. I kind of want a moment that’s explosive, and I want everything gathered into that.”

Munro sets many of her stories in her native southwestern Ontario Province. The small towns of rural Huron County provide the backdrop for her complex female characters, many of whom feel the urge to break away from their roots, a theme explored to great effect in her 2004 collection, Runaway.

As is the case with Anne Tyler’s work, Munro writes quiet stories that plumb the interior depths of complicated relationships. Some critics say little of consequence happens in her stories, but that is her strength. Munro doesn’t need body counts or car wrecks to keep the reader riveted to her stories.

“Munro’s writing creates…an empathetic union among readers, critics most apparent among them. We are drawn to her writing by its verisimilitude—not of mimesis, so-called and…’realism’—but rather the feeling of being itself…of just being a human being,” Robert Thacker wrote of Munro’s work

In an interview on the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group website, Munro spoke about her approach to writing and why she was attracted to short stories. “I want to tell a story, in the old-fashioned way—what happens to somebody—but I want that ‘what happens’ to be delivered with quite a bit of interruption, turnarounds, and strangeness. I want the reader to feel something that is astonishing—not the ‘what happens’ but the way everything happens. These long short story fictions do that best, for me.”

She also discussed her relationship with her characters. “I always have to know my characters in a lot of depth—what clothes they’d choose, what they were like at school, etc…And I know what happened before and what will happen after the part of their lives I’m dealing with. I can’t see them just now, packed into the stress of the moment. So I suppose I want to give as much of them as I can.”

Munro also made the astute observation that memory is a key element of story-telling. “Memory is the way we keep telling ourselves our stories—and telling other people a somewhat different version of our stories. We can hardly manage our lives without a powerful ongoing narrative. And underneath all these edited, inspired, self-serving stories there is, we suppose, some big bulging awful mysterious entity called THE TRUTH, which our fictional stories are supposed to be poking at and grabbing pieces of. What would be more interesting as a life’s occupation? One of the ways we do this, I think, is by trying to look at what memory does (different tricks at different stages of our lives) and at the way people’s different memories deal with the same (shared) experience. The more disconcerting the differences are, the more the writer in me feels an odd exhilaration.”

At the age of 81, Munro is still going strong. Her publisher announced recently she will publish her 13th book of short stories in November, Dear Life. I can’t wait.

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How Much Back Story is Too Much?

Respected literary agent and blogger Rachelle Gardner discussed in a post how much “back story” is appropriate to include in a work of fiction. Her conclusion? Less than a paragraph. This view is echoed by many agents and publishers.

Fifty years ago, authors liberally used back story as a means to introduce the reader to the characters and their motivations in a novel. Today, back story is something to be avoided. Why? First, let’s define back story. Back story is everything that has happened before the story begins. It includes the characters’ history, events, upbringing, and major life milestones.

The problem with back story is the reader doesn’t need to know all of the mundane details of a character’s life—especially when presented in a multi-page info dump. It is considered bad writing because it takes the reader out of the story. The reader only needs to know those details pertinent to the story and those details must be told in a manner that heightens the inherent tension and conflict of the novel.

This presents the writer with a dilemma. How does the writer set up the story, reveal the character’s hopes, dreams and fears, without delving into the character’s past? There are ways to do it without making it sound like back story. Visualize delivering back story through a sprinkler rather than a firehose. Giving to the reader all at once will knock the reader over with the sheer force of the water, but sprinkling it throughout with deft droplet in dialogue and action scenes is an effective technique..

Let’s say your main character is a man who has failed at every business he has attempted, but still dreams of untold riches. His wife knows differently and the gap between his dreams and reality is a source of tension in their marriage. Now the writer can spend pages chronicling the man’s business woes, but that would bore the reader. How about a dialogue scene that would read something like this:

Man [sitting at laptop]: Honey, come here. Check out my latest business plan. This one can’t miss.

Wife: Sure, I’ve heard that before.

Man: No this one’s a winner.

Wife: Look, I’ve had it. We both know that every half-baked idea you’ve hatched turns out to be a rotten egg.

The dialogue could continue in this vein as the man’s wife points out each one of his business failures. This way of letting in the back story is superior to exposition because it also reveals much about the couple and the underlying tensions in their relationship. It also speaks about a man who doesn’t give up on his dreams, and creates a degree of sympathy in the reader.

Another effective strategy for divulging back story is to wait until the time is right. Don’t tell the reader the main character can’t swim until his friend is drowning and it’s up to the character to save him.

When I was working on my first novel, Small Change, the original version of the story started when the main character was 10 years old. I couldn’t get the voice to work, so I chopped out the first four chapters and began the story when he was 14 years old. My first thought was that I lost a lot of essential back story, but when I finished the manuscript, I found I didn’t lose much at all. I was able to weave the important attributes of the main character and the essential family history into other scenes.

It’s essential for the author to know the back story, but she must be careful in how much and when to reveal these details to the reader.

What is your view on back story? Is it ever appropriate?

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Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.

The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).

The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.

The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.

Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.

I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.

My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.

Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.

How important is the setting to your novel?

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Setting: An Overlooked Element of Fiction

Why do fiction writers choose a particular setting for their work? Ask a fiction writer and you will likely get one of these reasons:

  • I visited there on vacation and it was a magical place.
  • The setting enhances the story.
  • I love nature and the plot lends itself to an outdoorsy setting.
  • It’s one of the biggest cities in the country and people will identify with it.
  • I really didn’t give it a lot of thought.

It’s the last answer that should trouble any writer. Setting is one of the overlooked elements of fiction writing. Writers should consider carefully the setting or multiple settings for their story. Setting is where a story takes place, but it’s more than that. The setting grounds the story in time and place. It provides an orientation point for the story. Most importantly, when described well, the setting can function like a major character, giving more depth and meaning to the story.

There are two types of settings in fiction writing:

  • Real (examples include cities like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles)
  • Imagined (Hogwarts and Scott Turow’s Kindle County come to mind)

Here are some tips regarding setting:

  • Establish the setting early; it will give the reader a visual to orient her about the story.
  • Use all of the senses. You want the reader to see it, hear it, smell it, touch it and even taste it.
  • Don’t go overboard on details, especially when describing settings that are actual places. Everybody knows what Times Square looks like. Select details that help enhance the mood and the tone you are seeking to create.
  • Describe your settings in stages. Avoid the early information dump when describing your setting. Nineteenth Century writers could get away with that because there were no movies then, but it is just not done in contemporary fiction.
  • Make sure the setting aligns with the genre and the theme. In Gone with the Wind, Tara is not only the plantation owned by the O’Hara family. It represents the values of the Old South.
  • Use richly textured, specific descriptions.

When using an actual place, make sure to get the details right. It’s a good practice to visit the settings of your novels, although writers have penned credible novels on the basis of careful research.

Historical novels present special challenges when it comes to the setting. Writers not only have to describe a particular place, but the details must be accurate and reflect the housing, transportation and technology that was available at the time. A novel that takes place in the 18th Century cannot feature a character turning on a lightbulb.

 

Author Elizabeth George, in her book, Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, placed a great emphasis on setting. In her book, she discussed setting before plot because “setting explored to its fullest is not only part of character, it can also be the key to plot.” George identified several functions of setting. It creates atmosphere. “Setting not only promotes the reader’s understanding of what kind of novel he’s reading, it also establishes a feeling that the reader takes into the experience. Setting triggers mood as well.”

Another function of setting, George wrote, is to reveal character. “Through a character’s environment, you show who he is. Everything else is interpreted by the reader,” she wrote.

Setting can also serve as a contrast to an event. She gave the example of P.D. James’ novel, A Taste for Death, wherein a gruesome double murder took place in the hushed vestry of a church.

George also rejected the notion that you should write what you know when choosing a setting. Her novels are set in England and George lives in southern California. “What I believe,” George wrote, “is that your setting should be a place that you want to know about, a place you are interested in exploring, a place you want to describe, a place that resonates with you or a place that evokes a personal and intensely visceral response in you.”

She strongly recommends visiting the setting you have chosen and describes at length the details she records when she visits the setting she has chosen.

When used correctly setting should orient the reader to the story, support the themes and enhance the narrative, without getting in the way.

How do you go about selecting a setting for your story?

 

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