God is in the Details. Great. But don’t get so lost in the trees that you can no longer see the forest!
Let me start with an example. “Letters to an English Professor” (title will be changing) was a project I started back in 2007. Actually, that’s not true. A very preliminary idea was started in 2004, but I never finished it and it was really cheesy. The only element that survived that draft was Conn’s name, and the fact that he was Dr. Connagher, an English professor at Drury University. I finished the first draft around 49K (don’t laugh — I was trying for less than 30k!) and decided that I would add Conn’s POV in order to reach a single-title novel’s length.
Sitting there looking at roughly “half” a story and trying to decide where to put Conn’s sections, I came to a crucial realization.
- I claimed that Conn was a professor, but he never did professor things on page.
In short, I had defined a bunch of details for my hero, but they were flat and useless. Those character elements I’d thrown into the story because I thought they were “cool” were nothing more than a bunch of trees. I’d lost sight of the forest entirely.
CLUE #1: If you can remove a major trait or detail from a character and the plot isn’t affected, then you’ve got a problem.
Sitting there in horror, my jaw on the floor, I realized that I could have made Conn a firefighter who sometimes quoted poetry. A doctor. Anything. And that’s bad when the title (at the time) involved “English Professor.” Even the poetry quotations were “fluff” — or leaves to continue the forest metaphor — that did little to carry the story forward.
In short, I had a lot of revisions to do.
Solution #1a: Make a list of ways to use the element to drive the story.
I created a list of eveything an “English Professor” might do.
- grade papers
- prepare and give exams
- office hours
- student interaction: cheating; missing class
- other teacher interaction: dealing with problem students; award ceremonies; substituting
Then I started brainstorming ways to use these elements as KEY scenes for Conn. Some of these scenes were only for him, while others began affecting Rae’s scenes. The more detail I added for Conn, the more I had to change in Rae’s story line. (A great example of chaos theory: A butterfly flaps its wings on page 1 and a tornado destroys Act III!)
At first, this scared me. I mean, I didn’t plan to change *that* much. But the process was necessary. If a scene became important for Conn’s arc, then naturally those scenes eventually had to affect hers. In fact, I finally realized that I’d missed some fantastic opportunties in the first draft that now I could build on.
Solution #1b: Consider making the character detail a static trait.
Conn’s habit of quoting poetry became his static trait. He doesn’t just quote a fluff piece now and then — the poetry builds and supports the rest of the scenes. I made the poetry more important by adding “pop quizzes,” an element that was barely there in the first draft. He quizzes Rae on poetry several times throughout the story, and in one crucial scene, Rae realizes that he sometimes quotes poetry to calm himself and gain some control. The plot became more tightly integrated, making the poetry quotations and pop quizzes more than a lark.
If I cut those scenes out, the story falls apart. That’s a good thing. That’s exactly what I want.
Clue #2: If you can remove the character entirely and the plot holds, you’ve got an even bigger problem.
In trying to flesh Conn out better, I gave him a best friend, Dr. Mason Wykes, mathematics professor extraordinaire. I even had a theme song for Mason–More Than a Memory by Garth Brooks. Mason had a nice backstory. But very early on, I realized he didn’t do much for the story. He was a supporting character, Conn’s best friend, yet he SUPPORTED nothing. I couldn’t even call him a crutch.
Solution #2a: “Every character is the star of his own story.”
If you can’t give the character his own goal and motivation — and then put him in direct conflict with another character’s goal in the story — then you don’t need that character. To fix Mason, I sat down and really plotted out his arc. What did he want? What did he need? How did that affect Conn? Could Mason be a source of conflict between Rae and Conn? Absolutely. In fact, I could probably do an even better job in this arena — I’ll watch for that opportunity as I go through editor revisions.
Give the character a goal — or gut him.
Solution #2b: Axe the character or combine with others into a new more 3-dimensional character.
I didn’t do this with Letters, but this solution did help me with the original version of The Rose of Shanhasson, which had literally a “cast of thousands.” I thought that creating a multitude of characters with backgrounds and personalities was a good thing, when in reality, it merely cluttered the story. Rhaekhar’s mother was in the first, and second, I believe, drafts, but she really had no goal. She wasn’t a source of conflict. When I axed her, I gave a lot of those “nurturing” elements to Alea. As a result, she became a more rounded character.
Clue #3: Bigger than life characters are interesting.
One of the flukes of Letters was Miss Belle, Conn’s grandmother. I must give credit where credit is due, and admit that I got a ton of ideas for her from a list Evil Editor did a long time ago for “Miss Pettipants.” I gave her several really funny or odd quirks.
- she talks to ghosts, specifically her dead husband
- she appears to be senile — but that’s what she wants you to think
- she looooves pink
- she can’t cook
- she’s nosy
And that’s just a few! However, where I went wrong with Conn, I went right with her. All of these little quirks are SHOWN on page and affect the plot in some small way.
- Rae believes Miss Belle to be a crazy old lady, but soon realizes that the old harridan is actually wickedly clever and could put the fear of God into General Sherman himself.
- Miss Belle is the driving force behind the story from the beginning–but Rae doesn’t discover this until much later.
- Miss Belle wears pink; she makes Rae sign the contract with a pink pen; she paints the columns on the front of the house pink; she gives Rae a pink parasol to beat her grandson over the head when he’s too bossy.
- She talks to Colonel Healy’s ghost — and even makes a bet with him — but she also acts as a medium for Conn’s best friend.
In short, she’s memorable because she’s larger than life. You can’t forget her because she’s so outrageous, and every time you think she’s just a crazy old lady, you suddenly find out some new plot she masterminded. The reveal of the cook’s husband’s murderer at the end displays that to a T.
Clue #4: Every character should be unique, but he should also reflect a common theme that ties the story together.
All along, the theme of Letters was the idea of “Making Things Right.” This is Rae’s slogan for her restoration company. But this story is also her chance to “make things right” with Conn. This is his chance to right a mistake he made five years ago on the last day of finals. Miss Belle believes she’s always right (and so far, she’s right), so she justifies butting in to help people because they must all be wrong! Mason ends up with a chance to make things right with his wife who passed away years ago.
Great, right? What’s the problem?
Going back to my mathematical background, there are several ways to prove a theorem. You can prove it straight forward in a linear fashion. If A is true, then B is true, then C is true; therefore A implies C sort of logic. I learned a very important and humiliating lesson in a topology class one year. To DISPROVE a theorem, it only takes one example that shows it’s false. I’d labored for hours over what I thought was a straightforward proof. While I stood at the board giving the proof to the class, someone raised his hand and with a just a few lines, provided an example that violated every single thing I’d just proven.
Similarly, we sometimes proved a theorem by negating both “sides” and proving it. e.g. if A implies C, sometimes it was easier to prove that Not C implies Not A. Sounds crazy, but true.
One important thing the Witch taught me years ago was the idea of a “unified” story. Every character in the story should either prove the theme or its opposite. For a well balanced story, I like to have at least one character who shows the darker side of the theme. If there’s a positive side to a theme, there’s also a negative side, and that’s a most excellent place for an antagonist.
Solution #4: Use a character to prove the OPPOSITE of your theme or to reflect the negative aspects.
If the theme of Letters was “Making Things Right,” I needed a character “Making Things Wrong.” The prominent antagonist in the story is Rae’s ex-husband. As backstory, everything he did while married to Rae was “wrong.” On page, he set about trying to get her back, but everything was tainted and negative. He was abusive. He was a stalker. Frankly, he was scary.
Richard (Dick) was the hero’s opposite, and I used him to compare and contrast a controlling, abusive man (Dick) and a sexually dominant but caring and loving man (Conn). Dick let me show the negative aspects of what could (and did) happen to Rae if she was passive in all aspects of her life instead of merely sexually submissive. There’s a difference, and the opposite of the theme helped me show that. How had Richard “made things wrong” and how would Conn “make those things right?” What mistakes had Rae made with Dick, and how could she avoid them with Conn? They played off each other, even though Richard wasn’t on page much at all.
Do you have too many trees in your story? Can you hack some down — or share some clues in how to salvage those lovely trees into a cohesive, well-planned forest?
9 thoughts on “CC101 – Lost in the Trees”
Wow, Joely! This is so impressive and helpful. It makes me think I’m not as deliberate as I should be in setting up stories. I don’t know – plot has always been my weakness so I do a lot of prewriting and work geared toward making that work, having a story that holds. The characters always came – like I said yesterday, they’re typically whole, I just have to uncover enough of them to show you that’s true – and worked. I’ve been told I have “good” characterization… and yet, looking at this, I am missing a whole lot of opportunity. The next story I work on I’m going to try something new and be more conscious with my characters up front – I typically felt they were stale if I tried to plan them. It’s strange how one can be at once methodic and organic, no?
What an awesome post! I think I do get lost in the trees. Frequently. 🙂 Theme is a big, fat, hairy problem for me. I never have one, at least, not that I’m aware of, and that’s a huge problem, and I think, one of the main reasons my stories never hold together at the end (and/or why I can never finish anything satisfactorally). What you’ve said above is making me think maybe I should start looking at the elements that are driving the story and try to ‘find’ my theme hidden in them… I know, that’s totally backwards. But that’s how I do most everything else, so why not. 😀
😯 I’m like floored.
Excellent post! Like Jess, characters come rather naturally to me but then I end up with, as you said, “a cast of thousands” and nothing to do with half of them. I know I’ve heard all of this before but I guess you have put it in such a way that “clicks” to me. Thank you, you’ve given me a ton to think about with my current projects.
I did do the combine-the-characters trick for the first time in TDB, though. I had a love-interest doctor and an irritating trip leader, and showed some friends the synopsis, and one asked, well, why don’t you combine them? There’s not much conflict with the love interest… and it was like a lightbulb. 🙂
Jess, I totally agree. Writing has always been a strange, complex blend of organic and analytic for me. I thought one would kill the other, but that’s not true at all — but I do have to find a balance. You *do* have good characterization. I think a story ends up stronger when the characters are unified to the theme. You’ve probably got the elements there — you may just need to concentrate or highlight certain details to bring it more tightly together.
Bethanie, I didn’t think about theme (deliberately) for a long time. The Shanhasson trilogy specifically — I didn’t have any theme or plan when I started. It took three hard revisions over three years before I really figured out WHAT I wanted to say. That’s okay — but I’m trying not to work that hard on each story now that I know what works for me a little better.
Yay, Soleil, I’m so glad it helped! I thought seeing a mistake and how I tried to resolve it might help more than me just flapping about something.
Jess, I’ve had lightbulbs like that, definitely. It definitely makes more complex and interesting characters when several different traits/purposes are combined!
😯 OK, I am totally bug-eyed that you didn’t think about theme for Shanhasson at first, given the result. That gives me hope, stangely enough. 🙂
I really enjoyed this post J! It’s a nice neat little list of things to check about your WIP. I do have a bad habit of having too many trees…and to many meandering paths through it. That’s why I’ve gone so overboard with the plotting out of this latest WIP–to try to avoid all those unnecessary trees and scenic routes that detract from the actual story.