Five Ways to Fight Through the Middle

I recently finished Act I of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. That means I’m officially done with the beginning of the book, and I’m starting on the middle. Admittedly, these ideas of three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end are all just scaffolding designed to help us talk about the structure of stories, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors run into similar roadblocks in specific parts of the process. One of the most common problems is a certain…malaise when getting into the middle of a novel.

There’s a lot to be excited about at the beginning of a book: introducing the main characters and setting, and all the big ideas that the book is about. Likewise, the ending has to pull all those desperate ideas and characters into a big exciting finale. But the middle, the middle has to find a way to connect the beginning plot to the end plot in a way that makes sense. It can take many different shapes.

So, as I embark on the middle of my book, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of ways to fight through a difficult middle.

1. New Characters

Usually the main cast of characters is introduced in the beginning (although not always). They’ve had some time to form their relationships and perhaps develop some interpersonal conflicts to spice things up.

The middle is the perfect time to introduce some new characters into the mix. These don’t have to be part of the main cast. In fact, characters may only come in for a scene or a few chapters, as they’re needed. While main characters can often feel like a lot of work, these characters that only briefly touch the story can be an opportunity to try something new. You might hate a quirky or obnoxious character if you have to keep them around for the entire story, but those same traits may make a short-lived character more memorable.

2. New Information

Coming out of the beginning of the story, the main characters probably have some open conflicts to deal with and some goals they’re trying to achieve. However, it may not be clear to them (or to you) how exactly they’re going to do that.

Going into the middle of the book is a perfect time to start laying down breadcrumbs that lead them in certain directions. They might learn something about the villain that can be useful when they face off again. They could find out about people, items, or other macguffins that can help them in their quests.

This mid-book info doesn’t always have to set up future plot points. They can also find out why things have happened. A whirlwind beginning can leave a protagonist lost and confused, in a situation they never wanted to be in. Understanding what happened and why can help them come to grips with all of that.

3. New Obstacles

For some authors, dishing out pain to their characters comes naturally. Others tend to fall in love with their characters and have to fight the urge to give them what they want.

If you come into the middle of the book and things seem to be going a little too well for your characters, it’s time to introduce new challenges and roadblocks. Life is full of ups and downs, and stories are no different. As an added bonus, as soon as a new conflict is introduced, it provides some instant direction to the plot. Characters faced with a problem are going to want to find a way to overcome that problem.

4. New Disasters

Sometimes, a mere obstacle isn’t enough. A disaster can change the whole landscape of the story. And often, the best time for a disaster is just when the characters think everything is going their way.

This might take the form of a villain-behind-the-villain reveal. Friends could turn out to be enemies in a cruel twist. Maybe the characters’ original goals no longer apply, and they’re cast adrift, trying to figure out what to do next.

Disasters can serve as a sort of “reset” button to take the story in a whole new direction.

5. A Victory

A story where the characters just get beaten down continuously can feel exhausting. If the characters never succeed, then it feels like the story isn’t theirs—they have no agency.

If the beginning has left the story feeling bleak and the characters really need a win, give it to them. It doesn’t have to be something big. It may be as simple as earning a breather in the midst of larger battles. The characters have likely been through some things at this point. Now is a great opportunity to let them get to know each other a little better, and deepen relationships.

Don’t Fear the Middle

Getting into the middle of a book can feel daunting. For many of us it’s the hardest part to write. If you’re an exploratory writer, you might wonder if you will even be able to find a way through to a satisfying ending.

It’s not all bad though! Middles are opportunities to really dig into the parts of your beginning that really excited you. Get to know your characters. Find the interesting nooks and crannies of your setting. Remind yourself what made you want to write the book in the first place, and double-down on that in every way you can think of.

Storytelling Class — Round and Flat Characters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was making characters.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

The family had a day this week where just about everyone wrote some poetry, so Freya read everyone’s poems. At school, they’re reading “The One and Only Bob.” My wife is reading her “Wildwood” at bedtimes, and she’s still working through Harry Potter in her free time at school.

I read the remaining pile of Vertigo comics that my wife snagged for me at a garage sale. Last week, I read the first two volumes of Y: The Last Man, a critically acclaimed series that I found pretty uninteresting. This week I delved into two other popular comics series and enjoyed them both quite a bit. They were:

  • Fables: Legends in Exile (Vol. 1)
  • Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake (a side series, I guess?)
  • Unwritten (Vols. 1-4)

Fables is all about fairy tales come to life and magically transported to modern day New York, forced to shlub it up with us mundane people while keeping their magical identities hidden. The first volume is a murder mystery, with the Big Bad Wolf as detective. It doesn’t end with the most shocking twist, but it serves as a great framework to introduce some of the main characters and the world they inhabit. Moreover, I appreciate a short, self-contained little arc, since comics are so often sprawling arcs and cross-series tie-ins (something Marvel has now inflicted upon films).

Fables: Fairest: Wide Awake is another self-contained arc, but completely separate from the New York fables. This one tells the story of a few fables who come together by chance and end up in the sights of an evil fairy queen.

While I enjoyed the Fables books, I really fell in love with Unwritten. Of the random selection of series in this pile ‘o garage sale books, these were my favorites by far.

Unwritten is about a sad man named Tom Taylor, who just happens to have the same name as the main character in a series of wildly successful Harry-Potter-esque novels written by his father. The story starts with Tom making a pittance attending conventions and signing his father’s books, but he quickly gets pulled into a strange conspiracy that threatens his life. Odd occurrences start to stack up, and it looks like he might actually be the boy wizard from the books, and that the worlds of stories might be just as real as our own.

I liked these enough that I’m going to buy the other 7 volumes, and at some point I’ll probably write a separate post about them.

What Did We Write?

This week I wrote my usual blog posts and finished the rough draft of Razor Mountain Chapter 8.

Freya wrote another chapter of her story, Amber and Floria. She also wrote a poem for the ad-hoc family poem-fest.

Characters

The topic for this week was characters, specifically flat and round characters. These, like so many writing terms, end up being talked about as a sort of binary, but they’re really two ends of a spectrum.

  • Round, deep or complex characters are those with extensive back-story, with many and subtle personality traits.
  • Flat, shallow or simple characters are those with minimal back-story and little personality.

It should be obvious just from these definitions that there is a spectrum here, where characters can be more or less complex.

It might feel desirable to make every character as complex as possible, and this is generally a good instinct. However, it’s important to note that there are only so many pages in a book. Some characters will necessarily take up more of the story, and others will be inherently less important. So even if every single character is equally complex, they cannot be shown with equal depth in the text itself.

Round Characters

To make characters more round, figure out more details about their

  • Background
  • Personality
  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Conflict (what’s their problem, and how do they intend to solve it?)
  • Growth (how do they change over the course of the story?)

Again, it’s fine to know more things about a character than you actually end up using on the page. Sometimes having a deep back-story allows you to hint at bits of their personality that don’t show through clearly, but still give the character a sense of being a complicated, living person.

Flat Characters

The flattest characters are usually purpose-built. They do something specific for the story. The danger with these kind of characters is that they look too much like a plot device and not enough like a real person.

For these characters, having a personality, goals and conflict are less important. In fact, they only matter in that they’re useful to make the character feel real for the short time they’re on the page. Sometimes, flat characters can be defined with a shorthand or handle: specific, interesting traits. These might be something physical, or a mannerism, an unusual mode of speech, or other memorable attributes.

Flat Can Be Okay

There’s a school of thought that says no characters should be flat, and especially not ones that are important to the story, but that’s not necessarily true. While we usually want the characters in the spotlight to be complex and interesting, there are certain types of stories and certain genres where relatively flat characters can be effective, even in a starring role.

In some comedy, especially cartoons and sitcoms, it’s common to see characters that are mostly static from episode to episode. These shows typically feature a problem at the start of the episode that is resolved by the end, which means that over time, the status quo is maintained. This allows an audience to “pop-in” to the show at any time, as long as they’re familiar with the characters. They don’t have to catch up on the two or three episodes they missed. When this works, it’s because the characters are largely treated as vehicles for a steady stream of jokes.

Similarly, in certain mystery stories, the detective protagonist may undergo surprisingly little character development. These stories are focused on the mystery: the clues, the false leads, the clever inferences, and the eventual satisfying conclusion. Again, the detective character becomes a vehicle, this time, for the mystery.

Some superhero comics are superlative examples of characters that can remain static and flat. I have a pet theory that superhero origin stories are almost always the most compelling, because the character has an arc in the origin story, but oftentimes becomes much more static after that, enslaved by a serial format that wants to keep selling issues indefinitely. (Of course, this is a gross generalization, but there are certainly examples you can point to.)

Point of View

For POV characters and narrators, who are the reader’s window into the story, having a deep understanding of the character is vital for understanding their voice. When the character is the POV or the narrator, their voice is the voice of the book (or at least the parts they are involved in). It affects what the reader sees and how the reader interprets almost everything.

Examples

As an example of the flat <==> round spectrum in action, Freya and I talked about one of my half-finished stories.

It takes place in a steampunk world where everyone can wield a tiny amount of magic via totemic items, but a rare few (called “hexes”) can wield greater magical power. The protagonist, Edward, is a hex and a former soldier and spy who once worked for the crown. After committing terrible atrocities in a world war, he quit and vowed to never take another life. He’s an emotional wreck thanks to the horrible things he’s done and seen, and he is constantly balancing his natural inquisitiveness and propensity for getting into big, violent trouble with his vow of pacifism.

Early in the story, he gets involved in a mystery and meets a man who calls himself Vociferous. Vociferous is huge. He claims to be a Hex, wears slightly absurd robes and works in a factory, supposedly casting spells as a part of the highly secretive manufacturing process. We quickly find out that Vociferous is a fraud, and not a hex at all. We find this out because Edward is a real hex who knows all about it.

Vociferous is a relatively flat character. We don’t find out much about his personality or past, we just know he’s faking it for money. He has a handful of characteristics to make him more interesting: his distinct look and strange name. His ultimate purpose is to give Edward good reason within the story to explain the way magic works (to another character, and to the reader).

Edward is a much more rounded character. The story follows his point of view. He has a backstory and history with other characters. He has friends and enemies. He has flaws and goals and challenges to overcome.

Next Time: Setting Goals

Next week is going to be a light class. We’re going to talk about goal-setting and growing as a writer.

Dialogue For Lonely Characters

I’m currently working my way through my serial novel, Razor Mountain. One of the challenges in the first part of the book is that the main character, Christopher, is trapped in the wilderness and completely alone. This idea of a character completely cut off from everyone else is not a new one. Disconnected characters can show up in different genres and styles of work, from the classic shipwrecked sailor to the lost astronaut to the post-apocalyptic horror survivor.

Humans are social creatures. Characters interact with one another, and this is a vital part of most stories. So when a character winds up completely alone, certain storytelling tools are removed from our authorial arsenals. Dialogue is a great way to externalize the internal feelings and thought processes of the character, and when they have no one to talk to, those feelings and thoughts are harder to get across.

Something I’ve been considering lately, dealing with my own disconnected character, are the ways to achieve some of the same effects of dialogue, even when the character doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. Here are a few forms of dialogue for lonely characters.

Inner Thoughts

The simplest answer is to get directly into the character’s head and view their thoughts directly. The character’s thoughts may be rendered in italics and written out in much the same way you’d write dialogue.  That style can come off as pretty heavy-handed, and it isn’t as popular as it once was. Depending on your audience, your readers may or may not have much appetite for it.

A less in-your-face version of this is free indirect speech, where the character’s thoughts are described as a part of the narration. This can work in both a first-person and close third-person point of view, and gets the character’s thoughts across while giving the reader less of the feeling that they’re being internally verbalized within the character’s head.

Journals and Logs

I recently read The Martian, which is a master class in the use of many different viewpoints and narrative strategies. The protagonist, Mark Watney, is stranded alone on Mars and spends a large portion of the book with nobody to talk to.

The Martian makes liberal use of logs as a way for Watney to narrate these parts of the story (as well as a useful dramatic pacing device). Journals or formal logs are an opportunity for a character to describe what they’ve done, what they’re planning, and how they feel about it.

The obvious downside of journals and logs is that they have to make sense for the character and the story. For Watney, an astronaut, the use of logs make sense. However, he’s not going to stop and write a log entry in the middle of a frantic action sequence. If he’s going to describe that in a log, it will probably need to be after-the-fact.

Furry Friends and Mannequins

Humans are self-centered. We see ourselves in everything. We love to anthropomorphize animals, and will even anthropomorphize inanimate objects. A lonely character will often be all too happy to socialize with a dog, cat, or monkey if no human companions are available. Even if there isn’t a pet ready at hand, a character who is desperate enough may find an object to be their friend.

In the movie version of “I am Legend,” the protagonist, Robert Neville, has a dog that serves as his friend and companion. However, I thought the most interesting scenes in the movie are the ones involving the mannequins. Neville has posed them. He talks to them, and has even assigned them simple personalities. When he eventually finds them out of place, moved by some unknown person or force, he reacts as though they have betrayed him.

Similarly, the character Chuck Noland in Castaway is stranded on a desert island, where he eventually “befriends” a volleyball with a crude face painted on it. He names it Wilson, and is distraught when it is lost in an accident.

These strategies are interesting, but harder to pull off effectively. Most people are fairly understanding of a person who talks to their pets, but will start to wonder about the character when those conversations get serious, or the human seems to expect any meaningful communication back from the animal. A person who has too many serious conversations with inanimate objects will be seen as spiraling into delusion.

Sometimes, instead of looking outward for a conversational partner, we turn inward. Most of us have probably talked to ourselves here or there. Most of us don’t make a habit of it, however.

A character who talks to themselves now and then can seem relatively reasonable. A character who talks to themselves continuously tends to be seen similarly to the character who talks to the mannequins.

The Humor of the Situation

Injecting some levity into these conversations can help, as a way for the character to wink at the reader and say “Hey, I know this looks a little crazy…”

The fact of the matter is that humans are social. We need contact with other humans. A character who is completely alone for a significant amount of time, especially in a stressful situation, is reasonably likely to see their mental health deteriorate. That can be a dark place for the character to be, and a weight on the reader as well.

If the character can crack a joke here or there, do something silly or absurd, or even just blow off some steam as a way of acknowledging their frustrating situation, it can help to reset the mood, in a way that allows both character and reader to endure yet more suffering.

In The Martian, Mark Watney faces death on an almost daily basis, but he also complains about the bad TV shows and music left behind by his crew-mates. Those little jokes humanize him as much as his suffering and his ingenuity and determination.

Dialogue is Still King

It turns out your character doesn’t need friends to make compelling dialogue, but it sure does help. The options outlined here can help to fill the holes in the story when dialogue just isn’t possible for your disconnected character, but ultimately there’s no perfect substitute for the real thing.

Having to write a character who spends an extended amount of time alone has helped me to appreciate the powers of dialogue. Hopefully my protagonist, Christopher, will find his way back to civilization soon, if only so he’ll have someone to talk to.

Changing Characters: Evolution and Transformation

There’s a popular truism in fiction writing: rounded characters, and especially protagonists, need to change over the course of the story. Now, you might argue that characters don’t always need to change, or that you want to focus on other engines to drive your story. But let’s say you do want your character to change. You want that change to be believable, and you want that change to meaningfully affect or even drive your plot.

In that case, let’s talk about two strategies for making that character change happen: evolution and transformation.

Building Character Background

Characters usually don’t spring into existence at the start of the story. They have history, and that history should affect their current personality, their fears, and their goals. Characters need reasons to be who they are. This gives them depth and makes them believable.

If your character is going to change along the course of your story, they need to have a starting point — a steady state that gets disrupted by the events of the story, leading to change. For the change to make sense, the character has to start in one place, with certain ideas or point of view, and end up seeing things differently by the end.

By this logic, a character change can be broken down into four parts:

  1. The background that shaped the character before the story.
  2. The state of the character at the beginning of the story.
  3. The event(s) that change the character.
  4. The state of the character at the end of the story.

These parts don’t all need to be given equal attention. There may only be hints of the backstory. They also don’t have to be revealed in order. Many great villains initially appear to be unreasonably evil, until their background is revealed later in the story, humanizing them.

In my opinion, one of the easiest ways of figuring out character transformation is to start with #2 and #4. If you know where your character starts, and where they’re going, it’s just a matter of coming up with the reasons why they are the way they are, and the troubles you’re going to put them through to force them to change. However, you can really start with any of these and build out the others. It all depends on what aspect of the character comes to your first, or excites you the most.

Now, let’s look at the actual methods of changing the character during the story.

Sudden Transformation

The sudden transformation is the epiphany, the “ah-ha” moment, the shocking twist, or maybe even the sudden-but-inevitable betrayal.

The sudden transformation is a form of character change that happens all at once…or at least appears to. There is a particular event or short period of time where the reader sees the exact nature of the change. This is usually going to be an important point in the plot. If the character is a protagonist, it almost has to be.

This might be an event where the character’s strength becomes a weakness, or vice-versa. They may undergo something terrible and develop a debilitating fear, or they may be forced into a situation where the only way forward is to overcome their fear. The event might make the character’s goal obsolete, and introduce a new goal. Perhaps they wanted to save someone from the villain, but they failed, and the villain killed that person. Now they have a new goal: revenge.

Superheroes are great examples. Many super-heroes have a sudden transformation where they gain their super-powers and also undergo some event that gives them a reason to use those super-powers.

Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, and he can suddenly run up walls, shoot webs, and smack a bad guy with every limb simultaneously. His first instinct is to use his powers selfishly, but his uncle Ben is almost immediately killed by a criminal, making Peter realize that he has to use his powers to help others.

Let’s look at a more villainous example: the Darth Vader of the original Star Wars trilogy. Vader spends all three movies working to crush the rebellion and bring Luke to the dark side. Only at the very end, when Luke has pleaded with him and Vader sees his son about to die, does he kill the Emperor, sacrificing himself to save his son.

You may notice that most of these sudden transformations aren’t completely sudden. It often helps to throw in a few moments or bits of dialogue that lay groundwork for the change, essentially preparing the character for that vital moment. Peter Parker has conversations about responsibility with Ben before he dies. Luke repeatedly tries to convince Vader to leave the dark side before the final battle.

Slow Evolution

In contrast to the sudden transformation, where character change happens all at once, the slow evolution requires a longer series of events and revelations that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

The character may go through events, conversations and internal realizations that eventually lead to a change in perspective. The character may or may not realize that they’ve changed, but it should be evident from their words or actions that they’re behaving differently than they did before.

On the other hand, this series of small changes could culminate in a moment of realization when the change becomes clear, or impossible to ignore. This is often a decision point for the character. Whereas a sudden transformation comes as a shock that makes sense in retrospect, the slow evolution makes it clear that this moment is what it’s all been leading to.

To contrast with Vader’s sudden transformation, look at another character from the original Star Wars trilogy: Han Solo. Han starts out as a loner, worried about his own problems. He is willing to use people for his own ends, and he tries to avoid getting too close to others. However, Luke draws him into a rescue operation with the allure of a reward, and from there, he ends up entangled with Princess Leia and the Rebellion.

Han’s past catches up with him when he’s caught and imprisoned in Jabba’s palace, but it’s his friends who rescue him: proving once again that being a lone wolf is not a good strategy for him. By the third movie, we find that Han is not only a willing member of the rebels, but is marked as a leader and even volunteers to lead a dangerous mission that is vital to the success and survival of the rebels.

Alignment With the Plot

Characters don’t exist within a vacuum. They interact with other characters. They drive the events of the plot, and the events of the plot affect them in turn.

One of the most effective ways to make character change feel momentous to the reader is to make sure it aligns with the plot. In a traditional three act structure, this means that the most powerful places for character change to occur is at the boundaries of the acts.

Events at the beginning of the first act may influence or illuminate the personality of the character for much of the rest of the story. The end of the first act and the start of the second is typically a major disaster or setback that might cause a character to reevaluate (or double-down!) on their point of view. Likewise, the end of the second act and start of the third usually leads into the point of the story when things look bleakest for the protagonist, and when they are most likely to see a need for change, or have change foisted upon them. Finally, the end of act three is when the plot points resolve. This might be the culmination of a character’s change, when they have the opportunity to make a decision that really highlights the difference from the beginning of the story.

Change is Powerful

It’s always worth evaluating who your characters are, and how they change over the course of a story. Where do they start, and why? What do the events of the story do to them? Do they undergo a slow evolution, with many little points of change along the way, or a carefully foreshadowed sudden transformation? Look for opportunities to align the change with story beats, and use it to drive the action.

Characters have a history that affects where they start. They have experiences that affect who they are, and can subtly or fundamentally change them. Those experiences and that change are one of the reasons we read fiction, and some of the most emotionally impactful parts of a story when done well. Carefully crafted character change is one of the best ways to make characters spring to life, jump off the page, and endear themselves to readers.

Reblog: NaNoPrep: Signing Up and Getting Started — Connie J. Jasperson

Last week, I talked about the good and the bad of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write the entire first draft of a novel in the month of November. Now, November is almost upon us. Are you going to participate?

If you’re on the fence, or you’re just not sure where to start the whole process, take a look at Connie J. Jasperson’s latest NaNoWriMo prep post for a guide to getting a project set up on the NaNoWriMo site.

If you don’t like to plan, you can just start writing after Halloween midnight. If you’re an inveterate planner like me, that strategy might feel overwhelming. Luckily, Jasperson has you covered, with an entire series of NaNoWriMo prep posts linked at the bottom. They’ll get you figuring out your setting, characters, story arc, and more.

Check it out on Jasperson’s blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy…

Reblog: “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story” — Lincoln Michel

We’ve talked in the past about engines that power story: types of conflict and creating and resolving tension. Today, I want to point you to Lincoln Michel’s great article about the false dichotomy between character-driven and plot-driven fiction. Lincoln argues that there are an almost infinite number of engines that can drive a story, and that any single one is rarely enough to power even a short story on its own.

The hard thing about writing—or one of the hard things in the endless series of hard things about writing—is that there’s no one way to do it. Instead, there are infinite paths in the dark woods of fiction leading to infinite types of stories. It’s hard, a little scary, yet ultimately thrilling.

Despite this, there are countless articles that insist there are in fact only two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven. It’s understandable that writing guides and craft classes are reductive. Who would pay for a writing guide that said “lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” followed by 200 blank pages? Still, the plot-driven vs. character-driven binary has always made me wonder why those two aspects of fiction are the only ones allowed in the driver’s seat. Couldn’t a story be driven by voice? Couldn’t setting have a turn at the wheel?

Read the rest over at Lit Hub…

Do Characters Need to Change?

I’m always excited to see someone make a well-considered, articulate argument against the traditional “rules of writing.” Lincoln Michel does exactly that, when he suggests that maybe characters don’t need to change over the course of a story.

Can a good story contain static characters, and instead change their circumstances, change how the reader views them, or just make that static viewpoint incredibly compelling?