Very Young Writers: What Characters Do

Hello again, VYWs (and all other writers)!

This is totally unrelated, but  do you remember Ship’s Log by Brandis, that little Alen’s War fanfic I wrote (except it’s canon because I wrote it and I’m the author)? Well, school is done, and I finally wrote part two on Figment. Go check it out.

Now, let’s talk for a minute about characters. You probably know by now that I like ranting about what makes a good or bad character, but writers rarely talk about the basics. However, the question is worth asking: what jobs should characters do in a story?

That depends on many things. Characterization has a lot of sub-categories and requirements, and not every character adheres to every one of those requirements (after all, sometimes we break the rules).  There is so much more to writing characters than I can put down here… but it can be simplified. You can find a few components in almost every single character ever written, and those components just depend on what role the character plays in the story. For now, let’s look at the two most basic roles: the protagonist and the antagonist.

The Protagonist (usually, the good guy)

The protagonist is the main character (who is probably also the hero and your viewpoint character). A protagonist should do three things:

  1. Be likeable
  2. Work to reach a goal
  3. Have a “eureka!” moment where they discover the truth

Now for some explanation. Being likeable just means that readers have to like the character; otherwise, they won’t stick around to see what happens to him. A good example is Gru from Despicable Me (who isn’t actually a good guy!). He may be a cruel, mastermind-y sort, but he’s likeable because he wants to prove himself to his mom and, later, to his little girls. That’s something with which we can all identify.

Having a goal means that the protagonist doesn’t sit around and do nothing, but stands up and tries to get the thing that she wants. For example, Heidi (of Heidi fame, obviously) has one goal: to make people’s lives better, and she works toward it no matter where she is. She makes friends of the goatherd Peter, encourages Clara to learn to walk, and brings her grandfather back to God. As a reward for working toward her goal, Heidi ends up with a group of lifelong friends.

The “eureka” moment is a scene that happens somewhere between the middle and the ending of the story, when the protagonist has to realize the truth she has been missing all this time. Rapunzel from Tangled is a good example. She thinks her dream was to discover what the real world is like, but at last she realizes that she was really searching for her true family all along. And she finds it, with the king and queen and with Flynn/Eugene.

Antagonist (usually, the bad guy)

An antagonist, usually a villain, has a few different requirements:

  1. Be understandable
  2. Cause trouble for the protagonist
  3. Be a different version of the protagonist

Being understandable means that while we don’t necessarily have to like the bad guy (although likeable bad guys are fun too), we should understand why he does what he does. For example, nobody actually likes the Elvenking from The Hobbit book. He’s generally nasty and not very helpful to Thorin and Company. But we do understand why the Elvenking wants Thorin’s gold: he thinks that the dwarves of the Mountain had stolen some gems from him, and he wants them back.

Causing trouble means that the antagonist’s goal is totally opposed to the protagonist’s. For example, in the movie Brave, Queen Elinor (who is an antagonist, but not really a bad guy) wants Merida to marry into one of the clans to preserve peace. That’s opposite to what Merida wants, namely, to stay single and let her hair flow in the wind as she rides through the glen firing arrows into the sunset. (Did you see what I did there??) Neither of those goals is absolutely wrong or absolutely right, but they are completely opposite to each other. This is what causes the conflict.

Being a different version of the protagonist means that the antagonist should be like the hero in some way, only gone wrong. This is a little harder to do, but it adds depth to a story. Star Wars is a spectacular example. Luke and Anakin both have the chance to be the Chosen One, the one who would restore balance to the Force. They both save the galaxy multiple times, they both train as Jedi with Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi… they even use the same lightsaber. But Anakin chooses the Dark Side and becomes Darth Vader, while Luke chooses to do the right thing. Same character type, different decisions- like two sides of a coin.

So that sums it up.

There are many more ways to characterize the protagonist and antagonist (like backstory ghosts, character moments, and quirks) and many more kinds of characters (like antiheroes, impact characters, and love interests), and obviously I can’t list them all here. But the protagonist and antagonist are a good start. Characterization is complex, but it doesn’t have to be. Ultimately, your characters should seem real enough for the reader to go on the journey with them, and if these lists of three components help you do that, awesome.

Now get back to writing!

Two Reasons I Liked Rogue One

Reminder: Don’t forget about free books!

I feel like this post doesn’t need much of a prelude. Chances are that anyone reading has already seen the newest Star Wars story and doesn’t care about reviews or spoilers, so this is basically a structured rant about a fun adventure/war film. Because I like that sort of thing.

Cinematography…

So yes, I’ve seen Rogue One! I actually watched it about a week before I went to see Doctor Strange (which of course resulted in me wondering why Kaecilius looked so familiar), because although I’m not a Star Wars fan per se, the trailers caught my interest. It didn’t seem like the traditional huge space epic, but more like a smaller and more intricate war movie, which quite honestly appealed to me.

Now you’ve probably heard all the complaining: the pacing was off, the battles were tactless, the characterization was stuffy… and I can definitely agree with most of it. But in spite of all that, I still enjoyed the film. I can’t explain my thoughts precisely in a single sentence, but the closest I can get is this: Despite its mechanical flaws, Rogue One is a genius story idea that taught me two big lessons about writing. And- you guessed it- we’re talking about those two lessons today.

Cue the “blog post proper” theme song…

Reason #1: Most epic use of a plot hole.

Or a ventilation hole, come to think of it.

Anytime I think of plot holes, I think of How it Should Have Ended. Have you heard of it? HISHE is a comedy channel on YouTube that parodies popular movies by asking the question, “Why didn’t they just do X instead of Y?” Thus, they rewrite plots and plot holes and totally change the ending of a movie, to everyone’s amusement. (Note: I didn’t provide a link because HISHE isn’t always clean, and I don’t want to be yelled at for letting little kids watch it. Sorry, kids.)

Now as a moviegoer and fan, I appreciate such parodies and laugh when they humorously point out gaping plot holes. But, as a storyteller, I have a certain fear gnawing at the back of my mind- how does any writer end up with such glaring flaws? Authors’ worst nightmares consist of two things: plot holes, and no book sales. And if we overlook our plot holes, we also get no book sales. Lose-lose.

Well, now let’s talk about the genius of Rogue One.

I imagine that the brainstorming session looked something like this. A bunch of Star Wars fans who also had a thing for storytelling looked at one of the most famous plot holes of all time: why the heck was there a hole in the Death Star that led to the core of the machine? The question had been plaguing fans for years, and these storytellers dared to answer it: The hole was there because the rebels put it there.

For those of you who don’t know, the whole concept of Rogue One is that the guy who designed the Death Star realized too late the destruction it could bring, and he built in a secret weakness with the intent that the rebels could find it and destroy the weapon. Now, the daughter of that engineer and her team of rebels are out to find the plans and bring them to the Resistance.

Thus, what used to be a gaping plot hole becomes an epic heist film.

mind blown

Yeah, that’s how to tell a story.

Lesson learned: seek out and work with the plot holes. They can help you tell a better story.

Reason #2: The bravely creative ending.

Hope.

*spoilers warning spoilers warning spoilers warning*

Let us not mince words.

Everyone dies. 

Seriously, how insane is that? Let’s just leave aside the terrifying awesomeness of Darth Vader- although that, too, was a fantastic scene that no one will ever forget. Think about it; the last twenty or so minutes of the movie is literally a series of death scenes and sequels, which, I think, is quite a fitting end to a war movie about a Resistance team. It’s probably my favorite aspect of the movie: I got to watch a group of regular, courageous people give their lives for what they believed in. It drove the theme home so hard. I get goosebumps thinking about it.

You probably won’t believe this, but at the beginning of the movie, I took a bite of popcorn and thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be great if they all died on this mission so that the rebels could save the galaxy? -But no, that’s crazy. No way would that work.”

And then it happened! Intentionally or not, the story set up a wild idea in my mind and then fulfilled it beyond all expectations.

sherlock benedict cumberbatch sherlock approves

But I have to stop and ask myself, how did that production meeting go? We writers know how it is when we kill just one character; what about a whole cast? There’s always that one lady who despises watching characters die- death is heartwrenching! There’s the money guy who’s still holding out for a sequel- no sequels unless you have characters! And then the focus groups analyst who says that killing characters makes people angry- look what happened to The Walking Dead!

Yet, despite all the craziness surrounding it, the production team went for it. And am I ever glad they did.

It’s the bravest endings that stick with us. Resolutions needn’t always be bleak, nor even tragic, but they should always be a fitting close to the tale we’re telling. And sometimes that means asking questions that sound insane:

What if the Greeks built a giant wooden horse?

What if Romeo and Juliet actually kill themselves?

What if the whole team dies on the planet?

Lesson learned: Ask the crazy questions; go for the extreme endings. They may turn out to be the most memorable stories. 

Well, here we are. No matter if you liked Rogue One or not, I think we can all take a lesson or two from the imaginations behind it, as well as learn from its failures. That’s the thing about movies- there has never been a film that can’t teach us something about writing. And now, thanks to one particular Star Wars Story, I’m inspired to be a braver writer than before.

Dear Fellow Writers: No Man Is an Island

Did you enter the eBook giveaway yet? It’s still open, and you can enter as many times as you like, so be sure to jump in! Now, enjoy my latest missive. 

nomanisland

Dear fellow writers,

I need your help.

We’re in a war. This is the age of information, and books are written quickly and in huge quantities. Every week my phone notifies me of hundreds of new books to browse in the Kindle store; and that is just in the electronic library. Humanity has been writing since practically the beginning of time, and people keep producing new stories at a viral rate.

We writers are tempted to view the other authors as the competition. Like generals, we scour the Kindle store to see how we can maneuver our own small army of books and gain more ground. Fairytale retellings are the in-thing now? I must write one so I have a chance of survival! J.K. Rowling wrote another novel? Great, now no one will buy my books!

Those are first-person pronouns because I am guilty. When I saw other authors writing books and publishing them, I felt threatened. After all, that only increases the number of books for readers to choose and lowers the probability that they will pick mine. The war for authorship was raging, and I was losing.

Recently, though, I realized that I was wrong.

I can only write a book a year- possibly two when I graduate from college- but readers collect hundreds annually to grow their minds and imaginations. I usually write in speculative genres, but readers want things like historical fiction and thrillers so that they can make sense of our crazy world. I cannot write a decent love story to save my life, but readers search the romance section to find out what true love is. They need it, and I can’t give it.

The truth is, fellow writers, that the war is against lies, not other writers. Face it- there’s a lot of trash on the market right now, and I just can’t provide enough truth to combat the cultural lies. Couples want to know what to do about an unwanted pregnancy; how can I tell them loudly enough that there’s a third person involved? People want to know if marriage is really no more than two people who love each other; how can I reach them with news of the picture of Christ and the Church?

Thus, we truth-writers are all warriors in the same fight, and we are all in the same army. Especially if we are Christians, every other book by a new or indie author has everything to do with our ministries. A successful book is a victory for us all, and a book that no one reads is a wound to us all. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. No lone writer can fight the war alone. Not even Tolkien, the supreme commander of all fantasy writers could do that, so he had the Inklings. Thanks to that little band of writers, we have masterpieces like The Lord of the Rings and The Space Trilogy.

However, writers have a platform. I say it time and again until people are sick of hearing it: people who won’t listen to a sermon will listen to a story. This is why it makes me sick to hear people say that writing isn’t a real job or that English isn’t a real degree. Legislatures changed the laws on slavery, but it was the writers who first convinced people that those slaves were human beings. Money isn’t the idea here. Writers have more to live for; we are the among the ranks of those who change the world.

Now I’m asking all of us writers to unite. We need more Inklings clubs, more writing circles, more collaborative blogs. We need more indie authors and traditional publishers, teen writers as well as sixty-somethings. We need truth tellers, Christians, and brave warriors, who are authors.

Let’s stop fighting each other about who wrote the best fantasy book of 2016. Let’s start fighting the lies that dragons don’t exist and can’t be beaten.

Sincerely,

Hannah A. Krynicki

Very Young Writers: Break All the Rules!

Adobe Spark (3)

I’m starting a new series of sorts. Yeah, I sound like a Bible-belt preacher. But my little sister has been asking me all sorts of questions about what she should and should not do with the story she’s writing. At last, she asked me to write a blog series for writers her age who just can’t handle all this teenage-and-older advice.

As may be apparent, I thought it was a good idea. So this week I’m starting a new category of blogs written to Very Young Writers- VYWs, for short- in which I post random pieces of advice for writers who are just starting out. No explanation necessary; you know who you are. And if other blog readers are older and more experienced… you can still stick around and help me cook up some good tips.

So, dear VYWs, my first piece of advice is simple…

Break All The Rules

Let’s face it: we writers have made a lot of rules for ourselves. And that’s kind of sad, isn’t it? Who said that you have to write a certain way or else all the readers will line up and slap your hand?

Now, of course there is something to be said for the good advice of authors who have come before. After all, if you tell rather than show, people will probably yawn and put down your story. If you use bad grammar, people won’t understand the book at all. Some of these rules have a good purpose for published stories.

But- I hate to break it to you– chances are that you are not going to publish a book any time soon. I’m a good bit older than the average Very Young Writer, and I’m still considered rather young to be a published author. So spend your time now figuring out how writing works. Break the rules. At your age they don’t matter as much as experimenting, testing, rearranging, and finding your own style.

Critics say comedy stories always have happy endings? Make it sad anyhow. Older writers say you aren’t allowed to describe an object with a list of characteristics? Do it anyway. Teachers say you shouldn’t jump between viewpoint characters? Try it and see.

When you break the rules, one of two things will happen:

  1. You learn why the rules work and decide on the best way to follow them.
  2. You discover that the rules don’t work and make up some new ones.

I will let you in on a little secret: this is exactly how the rest of us older writers learned to write. For example, I learned story structure not by studying diagrams or reading K.M. Weiland’s advice (which is nonetheless very good), but by writing stories that had different structures. Some of them worked, others didn’t. No matter how many infographics I looked at, I would never have known until I tried it.

You have a brain, too, you know. Use that brain and try different things. The first a writer needs to have is an imagination. So, if you have that, don’t worry about making your story fit a set of rules. Good advice for your older sister just might be bad advice for you.

So break a few rules and find out.

Are you an older writer with some more advice? Or are you a VYW who has questions or ideas? Share it all in the comments. 

Dear Fellow Writers: Do What You Want

dowhatyouwant

Dear fellow writers,

Don’t be afraid to write what you want.

Sociologists will tell you that you have to have characters of every ethnicity or else you’re a racist. Feminists say that you have to have two named female characters who talk about not-a-man, or else you’re a sexist. Politicians say you have to represent every lifestyle fairly, without a preference for one over the other, or else you’re a bigot. I’ve actually heard storytellers (I’m resisting the urge to add quotation marks) supporting these claims.

And that’s nothing but a heap of rot. As much as we admire the social scientists and true feminists for finding the best way for our civilization to work, and as much as we (sometimes) admire politicians for trying to achieve an agenda, none of these folks are really storytellers. Sure, they can learn to tell stories as well, but it’s not automatically their job, just as it’s not my job to analyze statistics or give speeches. However, lately these culture-workers have been sticking sociology’s nose where it doesn’t belong: into writing. And there’s the rub.

In most modernized countries, we have something along the lines of the First Amendment, which says that we can write what we want without getting in trouble. That goes beyond government coercion. We can’t be intimidated into saying something we don’t believe or shutting up about something we do, and we shouldn’t have to be afraid of ostracism when we write a good story that just happened to have differences from what the audience expected. We can write our own stories, and if readers don’t like them, then they can read something else. Maybe they can even write their own book- because honestly, if people have enough time to read that many “bigoted” books and complain about them, they probably aren’t suffering for free time. So that means, in any free country, such pressure is just plain stupid.

Yes, I’m talking about the Bechdel test. I’m talking about the pressure to write in the latest popular genre, and I’m talking about the fad that fantasy and historical writers have to represent every ethnicity in their stories. Really, I’m talking about any non-storyteller that tries to tell writers how to do their jobs. Things like this have no place in literature because they are anti-story. Their underlying assumption is that storytelling is nothing more than a string of conversations or an archetypal set of characters, and when we look at those conversations or characters, we had better find everything we ever wanted.

However, readers have many ways of understanding the deeply-held beliefs of the author. Counting the negligible details of a single interaction in a story is not one of those ways. As anyone who knows the first thing about storytelling would explain, storytelling is about many small components- theme, development, plot, characters, even good prose- built into a larger structure called “story.” That is how we identify a good or bad book.

Let’s look at it this way. 12 Angry Men or Fifty Shades of Grey: Which one is more likely to encourage men and women to think critically about social bias? And which one is more likely to (at best) demean women? Well… guess which one actually passes the “feminist” Bechdel test? Yeah. And this is what non-storytellers have to offer the world of writing. It’s great for educational textbooks, but horrible for stories.

What’s the first rule of writing? Don’t overthink it. The first rule is to write what you want. When writing stories, you don’t have to write for your mom, your professor, feminist critics, the government… you are in charge. Sure, the beta-reading and polishing phases will require a little more thought, but for the first draft, no one hired you to write a politically-correct vampire romance. Don’t ever let a non-storyteller tell you what to do.

Write the story that only you can write.

Sincerely,

Hannah A. Krynicki

Three Storytellers No One Even Thinks About

You all probably know by now that I overthink and philosophize about things. Some weeks ago I was in the car feeling bored, and I started thinking about a few examples of good storytelling that are all around us, even though we don’t recognize them as such. And I can tell you, it was an interesting list- such that I had to write a post.

Here we go: three examples of good storytelling that no one even thinks about.

The Geico Fast-Forward Ads

If you have ever watched a video on YouTube, you may have seen one of these. For example:

Uh-huh. Now you have to click on that link and find out what happened, don’t you? This is the genius of Geico. If they had played the whole ad (which, let’s face it, is pretty stupid), you would just be annoyed that Geico would dare to come between you and your Blimey Cow. But, by fast-forwarding to a bewildering end shot, Geico reels you in. What happened in between? You have to know, so you watch the full ad (and hopefully switch to save 15% on insurance).

Likewise, writers only have six different plots or so, and we need to give readers a reason to care about a “predictable” story. People know that the young farm boy will save the princess from the dark lord, or that the band will slay the dragon and get the gold, or that the hero will make a huge sacrifice to defeat the villain. What they don’t know is what happens to the characters along the way. That’s where we come in: we make people curious about the whole journey, not just the happy (or tragic) ending.

What If Cartoons Got Saved? by Chris Rice

Chris Rice as a songwriter is a genius. Each one of his songs captures a facet of the Christian life in beautiful color and mind-blowing perspectives. Seriously, even secular songwriters can learn from his music: for example, his moving Christmas song and “Go Light Your World.”

But, ages a few years ago, Chris Rice wrote a lively song with a comical premise: what if cartoon characters became Christians?

Now that we’ve had our chuckle for the day… what can we learn from Chris Rice? In each of his songs, particularly this one, he chooses a counter-intuitive way to make his point. He uses a downright strange idea to teach a good lesson: it’s our job to praise God, and there’s a good reason for that. Worship is a theme which songwriters have emphasized for centuries, from the Doxology to “Oh Praise Him,” but Chris Rice engaged an old audience in a new way, making them laugh even as they look at worship from a different angle.

Likewise, writers need to use their crazy ideas. Let’s face it… our brains are not normal, and our imaginations are frighteningly overactive. Most of what we invent is insanity that never makes it to the page. But why not use some of that insanity? Look for the potential in even the craziest of ideas, and who knows? You might end up using Smurfs to bring glory to God.

Calvin and Hobbes comic strip by Bill Watterson

Calvin and Hobbes has been popular with our family lately, even more so than The Peanuts, and it’s easy to see why. Meet Calvin, a six-year-old INTP with a curious perspective on the world, and his tiger-friend Hobbes (did you get the reference?). They invent transmogrifiers and build monstrous snowmen just to mess with Dad’s head. Through the antics of these two companions, Watterson blurts out realities of life, asks tough questions, gets people to be honest about their doubts, and even pokes fun at Marxist philosophy.

The thing writers can learn from Calvin and Watterson alike is to look at the world through a child’s eyes. Isn’t this the very essence of storytelling? It’s our job to tell things as they are, but with a spin or some new lesson that makes readers think differently about the world we live in. Rarely do people ever stop and ask, “Why is this the way it is? What if it was different?” Asking the important questions is not only the job of the child or the genius, but also the writer. So let’s do our job.

Happy writing.