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Creating the best-worst character. Do you need to?

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A couple friends asked if creating the worst possible character for your story was absolutely necessary. Remember that SAVE THE CAT is a book for screenwriters. And Blake Snyder assumes that when writing a screenplay a writer would like to snag an agent and go to Hollywood. If so, that means writing a high concept screenplay. Let’s investigate.

What does this mean?

Creating the worst possible character means finding the person who by just a glance would fail at the story goal, either because of lack of skill or lack of desire. (Loads of potential may lie beneath the surface.)

According to Blake Snyder this means finding the character who offers the most conflict in that situation and has the longest way to go emotionally.

Some examples?

Anna and the French Kiss – Anna absolutely did not want to be left at a private school in Paris. (How different would that story have been if Anna was headstrong and couldn’t wait to break away from her parents and travel?)

Before I Fall – Samantha was an unlikeable self-centered popular girl before she died and started living the same day over 7 times. (If she’d been a humble, kind outcast she wouldn’t have had as powerful an internal journey.)

Heist Society – Cat Bishop leaves the family business to be a normal girl – even though she has the skill to be a thief.

Princess for Hire – small town girl has to sub for royalty? Clearly worst possible choice – but turns out to be the best.

Harry Potter – Need I explain? What if Harry had been more like Draco?

How does it relate to high concept?

When creating a high-concept logline and story premise you want the reader to immediately think of potential scenes, see the potential conflict, and root for the character. And that means finding the best-worst character.

Is it absolutely needed for your story?

What do you think?

I don’t think you have to create a character like this. It depends on your story. But if your character isn’t the worst possible choice for the role then she/he must have flaws/problems – and lots of them.

Benefits:

  • Instant internal and external conflict
  • Creates reader empathy
  • Creates lots of potential in the reader’s mind for your book

Let’s brainstorm in the comments when it’s okay not to follow this concept. Can you think of any successful examples in literature? Sherlock Holmes anyone? There are lots of them. What made those characters successful then?

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How to get the biggest bang for your plot point.

The inciting incident, the first plot point, the midpoint, the second turning point, the climax – these scenes are the skeleton of your novel. Everything rests on these. Or I guess I should say hangs.

  • First turning point: At the end of Act I.
  • Midpoint: Middle of Act II or smack dab in the center of your novel.
  • Second turning point: At the end of Act II.

These scenes seem to be pretty important. But how do we make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do. And what the heck are they supposed to do?

Here’s what we know about them in a shallow, superficial kind of way:

  • After a plot point, the game should change.
  • The story heads in a new direction.
  • We should learn new information, secrets revealed, or a disaster happens – something that moves the story forward.
  • The main character, faced with a decision, moves forward and eventually deals with the consequences of her choice.
  • The reader should get excited, grip the book tighter, and start flipping pages – reading every word, of course.
  • The event should be big enough that if looking for it the reader can easily pick it out, but written well enough and blended with previous scenes so that it doesn’t stick out. Total contradiction, I know.
  • As Donald Maass says – go BIG!

That covers the basics. I’m sure you could add to it. But let’s dig deeper. These scenes hold incredible power in your book and are one of the reasons readers either fall in love or walk away saying, “Eh.”

Digging into the dark, muddy waters of plot points.

  • It’s not just about the action/event. It’s about what’s going on inside the head and heart of your character – technically, the internal arc.
  • Show the main character making a decision, but don’t just have her make it and move on.
  • Show the doubts. Your character should be conflicted.
  • Show the emotion and rationale behind the decision.
  • Show the risk she’s taking and the reason she makes the decision despite these risks.
  • In the preceding scenes, show the main character experiencing life in a way that when she/he makes the big decision, despite the risks, the reader understands. This will make it believable.
  • During the plot point, show the internal thoughts.
  • Show the visceral response using strong verbs and nouns and the five senses.
  • Use original, specific phrasing. Get rid of the blah.

More than anything you want your reader to connect with your character during these plot points. What I’m trying to say is it’s all about believable emotion.

Use and abuse these plot points, the scenes preceding them, and the scenes after them to endear your reader to your character. Go for it!

So, what’d I miss? Anyone? Bueller? Bueller? (Okay, so you know what decade I was in high school. Big deal.)

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Secrets to a likeable character.

When I see the rule scattered across the blogosphere not to create an unlikeable character,

I pause.

Is this one of those rules that can be misleading to a newer writer? (Because there were plenty that threw me when I was starting off.) An unlikeable character to me is someone I don’t care about. Not someone who is mean.

A likeable character:

  • Does not always mean sweet, innocent, or moral. (Boring!)
  • Does not mean everyone in the story must like them. (No conflict!)
  • Does not mean they have to make morally right decisions.
  • Does not mean they are polite and respectful to their parents.
  • In fact, they could even be kind of obnoxious and mean to their peers. (Ramona, anyone?)
  • And seriously, it doesn’t mean they have to be the outcast. (Though I suppose that’s the easy way to manipulate your reader into liking them.)
  • It doesn’t mean they have to be the one being bullied and mistreated.

In fact, when done well, some of my favorite characters started off kind of like the bad guy. (I heart villains!)

Secrets to creating a likeable character:

  • Create a thought life that connects the reader to the character. Major subtext needed.
  • Make the reader care about the character even if he’s still rough around the edges.
  • Show a home life or life outside of his/her peers that explains why a character is acting unlikeable. (Get straight to the heart.)
  • When no one is looking, show the soft side. Have him a save a cat or something like that.
  • Show all the areas where this character could grow.
  • Show the why behind the character’s unlikeable actions.
  • Give him a goal that will force this unlikeable character to change.
  • The most unlikeable character to me is the boring character. But show some juicy internal conflict and I’m all yours!

Any other tips? Any unlikeable likeable characters come to mind?

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Kate Messner talks parents in fiction.

Welcome Kate Messner, the uber-talented author, here to celebrate the upcoming release of Sugar and Ice as she shares her wisdom in dealing with parents in fiction. Welcome! Let’s throw confetti and blow the party horns. Woo hoo!

 

The big question for authors of middle grade fiction is, “How are you going to get rid of the parents?” After all, middle grade kids can’t have fabulous adventures and exciting plots with Mom and Dad hanging around…or can they?

Both of my novels with Walker/Bloomsbury feature girls with strong families, parents who aren’t perfect by any means, but who are involved and care about their kids. And interestingly enough, during the revision process for my figure skating novel, Sugar and Ice, one of the things my editor asked me to explore more was the relationship between the main character, Claire, and her parents.

Claire is growing up on a small-town maple farm near the Canadian border, in a place where all the kids are expected to pitch in and help when the sap starts running, where it’s all hands on deck the weekend of the annual pancake breakfast. When Claire is offered a scholarship to skate in Lake Placid, more than an hour away, her parents are incredibly supportive.

As an author, though, I needed to look beyond that initial support to figure out how her family really felt about her new schedule, her new friends. And what was it in her parents’ background, particularly her mother’s, that provided the foundation for her parenting? I thought a lot about that question as I revised, and the answer came in a scene right before a big skating competition, while Claire and her mother sit at the kitchen table, sewing more sequins on her competition dress. Each one learns something about the other in that scene, and even though it wasn’t in my original draft of the book, it ended up being one of my favorites.

Thanks Kate! And here’s a summary of Sugar and Ice!

Sugar and Ice

A Junior Library Guild Selection

For Claire Boucher, life is all about skating on the frozen cow pond and in the annual Maple Show right before the big pancake breakfast on her family’s maple farm. But all that changes when Claire is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity-a scholarship to train with the elite skaters in Lake Placid. Tossed into a world of mean girls on ice, where

competition is everything, Claire soon realizes that her sweet dream-come-true has sharper edges than she could have imagined. Can she find the strength to stand up to the people who want her to fail and the courage to decide which dream she wants to follow?

“One moment Claire Boucher is tapping the sap from her family’s maple trees; the next she is plucked from obscurity by a coach who sees her skate in the Maple Show and offers a scholarship in Lake Placid…. Even those who don’t know their double toe loops from their single salchows will enjoy…reading about what it takes to make it on the ice.”

~from Booklist

I love how Kate brings it back to developing three-dimensional parents and how they affect the main character! Love it.  Thanks, Kate! Best wishes for the release of Sugar and Ice this December! What a great gift for elementary kids and middle graders!

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Talking Teen

Okay, I’ve wanted to say this for over a year. I think it’s totally creepy to stalk teens just to listen them to talk. It’s creepy to follow them around a mall. It’s creepy to tape record their conversations. It’s creepy to purposefully sit near them and write down what they say. Sorry.  (Maybe this is the parent in me?)

When writing for kids, voice and dialogue seem to be factors that make or break a story. Plots can be tweaked, an ending rewritten, characters strengthened, but capturing that teen voice in a YA novel is crucial. Heck, capturing any voice for any age in any novel is important.

Teens aren’t robots in that they all talk the same way. A group of peers might have similar lingo but you might not want to include trendy lingo in your story because eventually it will be outdated.

Kids, even teens, talk a lot like their parents. My children talk a lot like me – similar phrasing and word usage. And as much as I hate to admit it, I sometimes talk like my parents.

And the last thing we really want is authentic teen dialogue (or any authentic dialogue). Read Joanna S. Volpe’s thoughts on the GTLA blog this week.

What’s more important is what they talk about. What they are worried about. And you don’t need to stalk them to find these answers. Read books. Read psychological development books. Read other YA books.

And then, get to know your character – that will determine voice and how he/she talks.

What do you think? What are the limits to eavesdropping? Is there a right and wrong way to go about it? (Feel free to disagree with me!)

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