The Dangling Carrot and Character Development

September 26, 2011

I ran this post last year, and I thought I’d run it again, since I’m giving this seminar at the Florida Writer’s Conference this weekend.

Since we specialize memoir/biography, I am regularly humbled by people’s experiences and how they had to dig deep to overcome whatever experiences unexpectedly entered their lives. It’s like the Cosmic Muffin looked down and said, “Ok, see that huge pile of goo I just dumped in your lap? Deal with it.”

We never really know what we’re made of until we face that pile of goo. Some people fold like a bad poker hand, and others rise to the occasion and become better/stronger/more thoughtful people for their experiences. These kinds of people don’t know they have the strength within them until they are tested to the limits. Many of have to gain those abilities along the way in order to overcome or push through their experience. Hardship and challenges are the great separator of the wheat and chaff. I love hearing the “wheat” stories.

I thought about those elements that make for great nonfiction and how they play into the character development of fiction. We all know that characters are the vehicles used to unfold the plot, so it goes to reason that these characters need to be three-dimensional in order to maintain our interest. I read a lot of manuscripts, and the biggest problem I see is with character development. They are flat, colorless things,which makes me think the author doesn’t know their characters well enough.

The Dangling Carrot may be an important feature to helping you give your characters a few extra layers and, therefore, a lot more interest and dimension. I’ve separated The Dangling Carrot into three distinct elements.

The Dangling Carrot – three part symphony

The Dangling Carrot is something waves right in front of your face, but it’s out of your reach. The harder you run to grab it, the more frustrated you become because it’s always just beyond your grasp. The only option left to you is to develop new skills in order to nab that dang carrot. You might have to test out a few ideas before you find the one that helps you achieve your goal.

So here’s how that normally plays out:

1)  Your character’s current life:  When we meet your character, he/she is rolling along with his/her life, la dee da.

2)  Holy shock, Batman!:  While your character is innocently moving through his life, something comes along to test/challenge/frighten/influence him. This event, which is your plot, dangles in front of him and upends his world.

3)  “Do I have what it takes?”:   The carrot forces your character to dig deeply into their souls to obtain/overcome/destroy/resolve the plot. The problem is the character doesn’t have the skills to overcome the obstacles facing him, and this forces him to draw upon a strength they didn’t realize they possessed. The act of denying your character of the skills in which to overcome the plot makes for a much richer story because the character is playing off the plot.

What moves the story along is the character’s journey of growth and maturation to meet this new demand because there are numerous choices the character can make that will influence the outcome.  Your character(s) has to rise to the occasion in order to achieve their goal, or they’ll fail. The lovely byproduct is that the character is changed forever, which is your “riding off into the sunset” moment, be it tragic or happy.

Even Superman has his Kryptonite, so absent the clear view of elements 1, 2, and 3, you create a disconnect that pulls your reader out of the story. I’ve found that if writers adhere to the Dangling Carrot, they are forced to delve more deeply into the psyches of their characters’ backstories. It’s an important consideration because I see far too many stories where I feel the author doesn’t really know their characters, that they sprung to life on page 1…which really isn’t the case.

Our characters have a backstory just like we do. They have baggage, fears, and Kryptonite. Your job is to have that clearly defined in your mind when you start to develop your characters. Otherwise, they could be lifeless gobs of goo that I don’t care about…the characters, that is, not the authors!

If you consider the three elements of the Dangling Carrot when you’re creating your characters and the structure of your story, it might be the difference of a ho-hum story to a “Stop the margaritas, beagle, I gotta have that story!”

REact and PROact

February 23, 2011

I happened to be working on my book the other week and hit a stalemate. Nothing was working. What was wrong? I decided I was bored with my main character. She’s a saucy thing, and I felt she’d become dull and lifeless – much like my attempts at baking. Distressed, I walked away from the book for a bit so I could analyze the problem. At two 0’clock that next morning it hit me.

My MC was reacting to everything, and not proacting. What I mean by this is that she was reacting to situations going on around her rather than making something happen. I told her under no uncertain terms that if she was going to maintain Big Kahuna status, then she needed to be proactive. Ever the tart, she told me to get off my lower forty and write her that way. Wench.

But she’s right, of course. I do need to pull her out of her reactive role and allow her to do what she does best – take charge. Whether she’s observing her surroundings or involved in a big scene, she needs to be the proactive, driving force behind it. The minute I allow her to lose her star status, the story drags, and she becomes part of the background…definitely not her style.

Mind you, I’m not talking about my MC being the absolute star of every scene, but writing her so that she’s the focal point – even if she’s being quietly proactive. What I mean by that is that she’s still actively involved in the scene even though the current focus is somewhere else. For example, I need to describe the exotic settings because it’s integral to the story – and I need the reader to see it through her eyes.

It’s frightfully easy to fall into the trap of tell vs. show, as in:

She saw the jungle unfold around her, revealing a vast array of greens and yellows that she never knew existed. She walked past giant flowers and leaves.

It’s ok, but a whole diet of “she saw” is dull and lifeless because she’s not proactive in the scene. She’s taking a backseat to the setting. So I rewrote it, using dialog, in order to make her proactive – and more in control of the scene:

Stepping into the clearing, the jungle unfolded around her, revealing a brilliant pallet of colors. She sucked in an unconscious breath. “Whoa. So this is what Picasso’s paintings would have looked like if he was on crack.” She fingered a flower whose deep red hues shimmered when it touched the sun’s rays. “I’ve never seen colors like this. They’re so vibrant, my eyes hurt. Tell me this isn’t poisonous, ok?”

And this is a bit of what I’ve noticed in submissions. The character is described as having wonderful qualities in the query letter, but upon reading pages, I notice how they invariably get lost within a scene.

If a writer isn’t paying attention, plot twists or scenes can take over and shove the MC against the wall. This puts them into the observer role. It’s one thing to observe a setting or situation and be a wallflower, and quite another to actively observe. And our characters do need to observe all kinds of things. How they do it is what turns them into reactive or proactive.

An effective way to keep your character proactive is through dialog or inner dialog because you’re keeping them front and center. The reader stays in their head, and this gives the character automatic control over the scene, no matter how big it is. And it also adds dimension to your character.

Remember, the current story is taking place because something happened “offscreen” that initiated your character’s involvement, so those main characters are the vehicle that propel the plot. They gotta be proactive. It’s the difference between enjoying a book and tossing it against the wall.

Do novels need to be nice?

November 2, 2010

And speaking of character development – the question came up at my seminar in Florida about whether characters should be nice. It’s not a simple answer because there are degrees of niceness. I, for instance, am very unlikable because I lack a heart or soul. On the other hand, many find the beagle very likable, but it’s only because they mistake cuteness for niceness and she always has a full blender of margaritas. These are mutually exclusive characteristics. She only has booze so she can rifle your wallet after you’ve had your fill and are singing at the top of your lungs wearing a pasta colander on your head. And cute does not equal nice. Trust me.

Social Implications of Nice

Many writers look at the social implications of niceness vs. gritty. It’s true that literature has evolved over the years and writers are exploring our own social evolution (or devolution, as the case may be in some instances) in order to investigate plots and characters that color outside the lines. As one who specializes in books that center on how people are influenced and changed by their experiences, and how they deal with those repercussions, I love the introspective look at nice vs. gritty.

So I have no problem with a not-so-nice book/characters. Anything that mirrors real life is bound to have plenty of grit and grime. HOWEVER, I do believe that the protagonist(s) needs to have enough characteristics that make us care. I look at some of our own books – some that are quite controversial in nature. As unsympathetic as some of the characters may appear, there are endearing qualities that make it possible for the reader to sympathize and empathize.

Why Are They Scuzbags?

I believe it’s important to explain why a character has certain foibles that are less than exemplar. It’s not enough to simply have a character who lies to his family and co-workers – you need to develop that storyline to explain why. I think of Dexter (lordy, but I love that show). He’s a mass murderer, and he kills his victims in very dramatic, cathartic ways. BUT there is a backstory as to why he kills. And in the words of Ahhnold Schwarzenegger, “Yah, but they were all bad.” He’s a compelling character because even though he’s inhuman to a large degree, he has a raw, almost childlike concern for people. Killing badies cleanses his soul and protects the victims. A very deftly-written character.

And that’s where I believe books must fall. I am of the opinion that few want to read about a scuzball who has no redeeming qualities. Heck, that’s why the Great Cosmic Muffin invented politicians. So while we may want to read about real life, we have to remember that our characters are the vehicles who move the plot along. Without well-developed characters, there is no plot. Without something likable about them, no matter how small, there’s no book.

Character development – Ken and Barbie vs. The Seven Deadly Sins

October 25, 2010

While at the FWA, I gave a seminar, “Why Did You Reject Me?” I like this particular talk because authors receive form rejection letters and have no clue as to why they got rejected. My seminar outlines the major causes for rejection.

One of those reasons for rejection is character development. Of course, we want fully developed, three-dimensional characters, but there’s a  lesser known aberration, and that is the tendency to make them too perfect. It’s a natural consequence because we lurve our characters and hate the thought of making them appear unlikeable. It’s an overreaction.

And that’s exactly what can get you into trouble. I call it the Barbie and Ken Syndrome.

Oh, how I loved Barbie when I was a wee bairn. She was perfect in every way. Great hair, great clothes, perfect body, her makeup never smeared, and I’m willing to lay down good money that she never farted or burped. And don’t even get me started on her pink convertible. Le swoon.

And Ken? What a dudemeister. He always had the perfect tan, perfect white teeth, his swimming trunks fit like a glove (hey, I’m a Southern Californian, I notice these things), and he always had plenty of money to take Babs to all the great places in an equally groovy car. I’m certain he never farted or burped either. Well, never in front of Barbie.

And this is what writers tend to do with their characters because they can’t bear the thought of readers seeing their characters in anything other than a good light. The outcome, however, is that the characters are as deep as the beagle’s margarita glass. They’re boring and one-dimensional.

As I grew older, I began to have some serious doubts about Ken and Barbie. C’mon, my devilish side argued, no one is that perfect.  I began to wonder if they ever argued. If they did, what would they argue about? In my mind, Barbie took on the guise of the consummate Valley Girl and spoke only in Valley Speak. Ken morphed into a boor who had too much time on his manicured hands, and Daddy’s money gave him the freedom to cheat on Babs while she was away on her job as an astronaut, doctor, or a flight attendant. Lord knows he never seemed to be burdened with those pesky things like a job. The only thing I ever remember him doing is scuba diving.

I imagine a typical conversation as going something like this:

Babs: Keeennnn <sound all whiny like>, when are you going to take me to that, like, totally awesome new restaurant? I bought the most radical outfit that shows off my perfect body.

Ken: <yawning while checking out his reflection in the window and worrying mightily because he already has reservations for the restaurant – only he’s taking that hot little beach bunny he met last Tuesday> Like, really? I heard they disguise rat droppings for ground pepper. Dad suggest we make more appearances at the country club, since he was just elected president.

So all of a sudden, Ken and Barbie have some human qualities that invite more meat for conflict and juice to the story.OMG! Ken and Babs now have some dimension!

After my seminar, a lovely woman (and I wish I could remember her name so I could give her proper attribution) told me that her crit group had such a problem with the Ken and Barbie Syndrome that they started calling it The Seven Deadly Sins.

I love that.

This isn’t a literal idea where you need to limit yourself to wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust (hello, Ken, you two-timing bastid), envy, and gluttony.

It’s the quick tattoo-to-the-forehead reminder that writers must ensure their characters reflect the qualities of real people. And think about it; the more human your characters are, the more delicious things you can do to them. My original vision of Barbie and Ken was that they were so perfect there wasn’t anything to talk about. And that is what makes agents and editors reach for a form rejection letter.

Don’t be afraid to give your protagonist human failings. Ken may be a rich womanizer right now, but who’s to say he won’t undergo a huge transformation when Babs develops breast cancer and looses her job and health insurance? As long as you have enough positive characteristics to hang our hat on, we’ll forgive human failings because we all got ’em.

Well, I don’t…

Say, before you develop that character…

September 7, 2010

Make sure your character is actually fictional. It’s a fact that many of us novelists draw inspiration for our characters from people we know/knew. The trick is to not lift so many of their traits and experiences that they become recognizable, lest said author and her publisher end up in court.

And lose.


Off to Alaska today. I’ll report in as to how many bears I see. I’m guaranteed to see at least one shark.

Character tug-o-war

March 3, 2010

Nathan Bransford has a good post about runaway characters and their authors who let them do it. Nathan makes a lot of sense – like, duhh, doesn’t he always?

I hear this comment all the time: “Well, I had my story all figured out until my character decided it should go in another direction.”

Ok, I’m willing to play along with this notion – to a point. This is where character tug-o-war comes into play. First thing you should ask yourself is, “who’s in charge of this insane asylum?” Ostensibly, it’s you.

Nathan suggests that it’s a danger to allow the character too much of a voice in the decision-making. As a writer, I think this is murky territory. I have a very strong vision of my story’s structure, the conflicts, and eventual resolution. But when I get into the nitty gritty of actually writing the chapter/story, it does seem as though my characters gently take me by the hand and offer up other solutions. Or twists. Lawdy, I love it when they come up with plot twists.

Yah, I know how schizoid this makes me sound. But you’re all writers, so you’re just as crazy as I am. Right? Um…right, guys?

Where I tend to part ways with the whole character tug-o-war thing is when the story veers off the literary railroad tracks. I remember critting a piece last year and then seeing it again at another writer’s conference. “What gives?” I asked, “Didn’t Sophie kill her aunt for stealing her boyfriend? So why is the auntie now a major part of the story and is Sophie’s best friend?”

“Oh, heh heh, Sophie suggested that the story wasn’t as strong that way.”

Um. Ok, this is when I double-check to make sure we’re not alone ‘cos I find this a wee bit creepy. As Nathan said, our characters are as “alive” in our heads, and most of us react to the logic of those characters. To go completely off the reservation because a “character told me to” is a serious case of character tug-o-war.

You’re the captain of your literary ship, and you have first, middle, and final say over how the story unfolds. You thought up the plot, the foundation, the characters, the conflict, and the resolution. If your story is being held hostage by your characters, then I recommend a good literary exorcist.

Otherwise, it’s like allowing the beagle a voice during contract negotiations. Utterly illogical and downright crazy. but what can I expect when my executive assistant is paid in expensive tequila and designer chewie bones…

Is your main character vanilla?

February 26, 2010

I’m not a fan of vanilla. To me, it’s the “safe” flavor, the flavor that gets picked because all the other choices seem too “out there.” Me? I’m a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines kinda gal. I like lots of flavor because it’s more interesting to me. Either that or I have unusual taste buds.

Like my food, I like equally flavorful characters. I just finished reading a novel [pubbed by Simon & Schuster] whose main character was about as vanilla as they get. While she is going through some heady issues of feeling abandoned by her mother and realizing how this has shaped her life, her personality was as dry as my meatloaf.

The author surrounded her Ms. Vanilla with rich, colorful characters, whom I found far more interesting. I kept wondering why on earth Mr. Hunky Doood – and all the other Hunky Dooods – would fall for her since she displayed as much personality as our Homecoming Queen in high school – an empty vessel of beauty and zero brains. I got to the point where I just wished for the book to end.

Why her/him?

Your main character is your main character for a reason, right? Presumably you love this character because they display some kind of trait that’s worthy of exploration. For instance, this MC went to another country for one reason and ended up reconciling her past. Cool, heady stuff. But the author forgot to make her endearing. I kept wondering what it was about this character that the author felt worth focusing on.

It was like the author gave her all the right conflicts and a great setup, but she forgot to give her a personality. Because her supporting cast is so vibrant, the MC blends into the wall. Had she not occupied Lead Dog status, she would have stayed there.

Main character status does not mean he/she gets a free pass to likeability any more than a cheeseball of a boss can demand respect. It must be earned. Why do we like your main character? Her/his internal dilemmas aren’t enough to engage us.

Give ’em a personality

I had a friend back in college who, for years, I tried to like. She was a Steady Eddie type – dependable, caring, kind , and…just…there. She was so bland, so vanilla that, as nice as she was, I began to avoid her and bugger off to the library when I saw her coming. I felt like going to the Science Dept. and ordering up a freeze-dried personality that I could slip into her coffee. She had an interesting backstory, but geez, have a little spice. Please.

What kind of personality do they have? Are they outgoing? Funny? Shy? Do they have a great quip to ease tense situations, or do they curl up into the fetal position? Are they angry? Aggressive? Think of the people who populate your dance card. Write down their personality traits and think about how you can paint your character’s blank canvas.

But please, for the love of all that’s holy, do not make them flat, dull pieces of talking cardboard where all they do is react off their much richer counterparts. They MUST stand out.

Think logically – cause and effect

There is absolutely no excuse for your MC being devoid of a personality. You are the creator – you are your own Literary Cosmic Muffin. Oh, the power! Think logically – heh, my dad would laugh himself into a coma seeing me say that, since logic used to elude me much as the beagle eludes work. But I digress.

If your main character is popular, or sought after, then there must be a logical reason why. Making them flat and lifeless isn’t logical because readers are hideously smart. First thing they’ll ask is why this MC is so…fill in the blank.

It’s a case of cause and effect. If a character is respected, then she can’t be a dimwit who says, “yanno” a lot. Likewise, if a character is seen by his peers as dim bulb, then he can’t be Ivy League magna cum laude.

In the book I just finished, the main character had all these lovely characters who love her and consider her a member of their family. I couldn’t help but wonder why. She had done nothing to deserve this honor. Her vanilla personality wasn’t endearing, exciting, or anyone I’d want to meet. So what did they see in her? There was no cause and effect going on, so it was an illogical disconnect.

Readers will not go from Point A to Point B unless you lead them there.

Avoid cliche

Oboy. Is there anything we hate reading more than a cliche character? Why is it that every detective story is populated with a burnt out ex-cop, divorced, struggling with smoking or booze, down on his luck – or some flavor of this? Are there no happily married, well-adjusted detectives out there? I realize that we need to give the character some sort of inner conflict that usually coincides with whatever case he’s trying to solve, but geez, folks. We’re writers, so can’t we puhleeeze break the mold?

And why is it that women’s fiction or romance invariably have a main character who’s a clutz? Oh yes, we use that affectation in order to meet Dreamy McHunky, and it’s supposed to make us laugh and love her all the more. “Oh look, isn’t she cute?” we all mutter. Bleh. Enough already. I’m tired of clumsy characters. Does no one know how to walk in romance or women’s fiction, or is this anomaly only appropriate in other genres?

Ok, I’ll admit that I did manage to have my MC dump her dinner on my other MC’s leg, but that was the only clutzy thing she ever did, and it was only because she’d had too much champagne. This, I forgive. But to make her a Clumsy Clara throughout? It’s overdone. Move on, please.

Good supporting cast Literary Newtonian Law of Motion

A good character needs an equally good supporting cast. Your characters are the vehicle which moves the plot. The more colorful your cast, the more engaged readers will become because they have dimension.

I always harken back to John Lescroart – because I adore his books – and how he surrounds Dismas Hardy with a rich supporting cast. They allow Diz  “bounce-ability.” The supporting cast is his Literary Newtonian Law of Motion where every action has an equal and opposite reaction. It’s through his supporting cast that Diz’s personality shines through.

That action/reaction comes through good interaction. The supporting cast is helpful in propping up the MC, while also helping to propel the plot. So much information and pertinent backstory can be divulged seamlessly and effortlessly through the supporting cast, so use them liberally and wisely. But don’t let them overpower your MC.

I have no idea whether the author’s editor was asleep at the wheel or what, but remember: if we don’t like ’em, we don’t care. You can have a rich inner conflict or the most amazing plot in the world, but if the characters are vanilla, we’ll throw the book across the room and order up a Bavarian chocolate mocha peppermint rocky road and pralines ice cream.

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