Friday, October 02, 2015

Set Up or Start Up? Making Critical Character Traits Part of Your Plot

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Every protagonist has something unique about them, otherwise we wouldn’t have picked them as our protagonist. This "thing" is often what gets them into trouble and makes the story happen. It’s central to who they are, which means there’s a pretty good chance it’ll be on the cover copy or in the query. Readers will know what it is before they open the book. Which leads to a bit of a quandary.

How do you show that important trait in the opening without it sounding like setup or infodump?

Readers of The Shifter know my protagonist can heal by shifting pain--it says so right there on the cover. Had I started the novel with an example of Nya just using her ability, it probably would have bored folks and they’d have wanted to know when the story was going to start. Instead, I put Nya in a situation where readers could see the trait in action, but the goal of the scene was something that had nothing to do with that ability. And that’s the key to showing important character traits.

It’s not about showing the "something special."

If you have a protagonist with a special trait or ability that's vital to your story, take a look at your opening and what happens in it. Is it a situation only about introducing the protagonist and showing that special trait or circumstance, and nothing else really happens? If so, odds are it’ll feel like setup and the story won’t have a lot of forward drive. Ask yourself:
  • Is there a goal that's separate from the trait? A separate goal will allow you to maintain narrative drive and keep the story moving. It’ll be about something other than a character trait.
  • Does the scene allow you to show the trait in action? A situation that shows the trait in action allows you to get that all-important trait across without stopping the story to say “hey, here’s this important thing you need to know about the protagonist.”
  • Does the trait affect what’s happening in the scene? Letting the trait affect the scene itself allows you to show how this trait changes the life of the protagonist (and after all, openings are frequently about the moment when the protagonist’s life changes).
  • If you took the trait out, what would change about the scene? Taking the trait out helps you determine what else you have working in that scene. If the story can continue without that scene, then you probably have a setup scene, not a story-driving scene.
(Here's more on the difference between good setup and bad setup)

Example from The Shifter: 

Is there a goal that's separate from the trait? Yes. Nya’s goal is to steal eggs for breakfast. Her pain shifting ability has no bearing on this.

Does the scene allow you to show the trait in action? Yes. Nya gets caught, which forces her to use her ability to get away.

Does the trait affect what’s happening in the scene? Yes. She’s spotted using her ability, which triggers major plot points in the story and puts her on the path to the core conflict.

If you took the trait out, what would change about the scene?
The goal would remain the same, but she’d have to find another way to escape. Without using her ability to escape, she would not have triggered the events that lead her directly to the core conflict of the novel. The story would change drastically.

When you think about it, your story probably isn’t about “an X protagonist who does Y.” Such as--an obsessive-compulsive ex-cop who solves crimes. It’s about a “protagonist who does Y who happens to have X.” An ex-cop who happens to have OCD solves crimes. Solving crimes is where the story lies. The OCD is just part of the character and makes his life harder. It causes challenges unique to that character. It’s also probably where the internal struggles and conflicts lie, and the thing that drives the character’s internal growth.

Nya’s story isn’t about a girl who can shift pain. It’s about a girl who has to save her sister, and her pain shifting is both a blessing and a curse for her to accomplish that. If Nya couldn’t shift pain, she’d still have to save her sister. The main goal of the novel remains the same. The plot would change since the pain shifting is central to the character growth and how she achieves her goals, which is why that trait matters to the story. But the story isn’t about her shifting pain. It’s not just a series of events that allow her to do this.

This is where a lot of premise novels stumble. 

There’s a great character with a cool trait (be it something they can do or who they are), but they have no goal other than "see this cool trait in action" to drive the novel. The plot becomes a series of situations that explain or show off that trait, and there’s only so far you can go with the plot, because there’s nothing driving the protagonist.

(Here's more on premise novels)

Try giving your special-traited protagonist goals separate from what their something special is. An easy way to test this, is to say what your book is about in one sentence. If that one sentence is about the trait and not the conflict, then you might want to take a closer look.

How does your protagonist’s “something special” affect their life and your story? 

Find out more about characters, internalization, and point of view in my book, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems.

Go step-by-step through revising character and character-related issues, such as two-dimensional characters, inconsistent points of view, too-much backstory, stale dialogue, didactic internalization, and lack of voice. Learn how to analyze your draft, spot any problems or weak areas, and fix those problems.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems offers five self-guided workshops that target the common issues that make readers stop reading. It will help you:
  • Flesh out weak characters and build strong character arcs
  • Find the right amount of backstory to enhance, not bog down, your story
  • Determine the best point(s) of view and how to use them to your advantage
  • Eliminate empty dialogue and rambling internalization
  • Develop character voices and craft unique, individual characters 
Fixing Your Character & Point-of-View Problems starts every workshop with an analysis to pinpoint problem areas and offers multiple revision options in each area. You choose the options that best fit your writing process. It's an easy-to-follow guide to crafting compelling characters, solid points of view, and strong character voices readers will love.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Hey Janice,

    Great post, and so true. The opener is so important, setting the tone for the story, hooking the reader, and it really needs to show without telling.

    This is also a great reminder about character's place in plot. Plot is derived from the inciting incident, not from some special power.


  2. That's a great analysis, and in hindsight, I think I got lucky with the manuscript my agent is getting ready to shop around, because I never thought about it that way. My protagonist, Chris, is a boy who can disappear, who needs to get out from under the thumb of his con-man father. In the opening scene, he's in a bar parking lot slashing tires while his father hussles money out of the people inside--so that their getaway will be unimpeded. He uses his ability to hide when a new car shows up and parks right next to him.

    Here's my question, though: what about a story where the protagonist isn't sure what makes him special yet? In my new WIP, my protagonist comes from a line of people with psychic abilities, but the last few generations have first repudiated their abilities as an evil hoax, and not passed the knowledge down to their kids. (I don't think I'm explaining it well. I mean, like great-great-grandpa had psychic and mind-control powers. Great-grandpa became convinced his father's powers were unholy. By grandpa's time, there's just rumors that ggg dabbled in the dark arts. By the protag's time, there's no awareness that he was actually good at it.)

    So the protag has this ability, but it's dormant, and he doesn't know about it. He will discover it as he gets embroiled in a struggle with people who have this ability and recognize his power and his potential to thwart them.

    So how do I apply it there, when he doesn't know he's special yet?

  3. Huh. Looks like if I use the Name/URL option I lose the ability to get notified of follow-up comments. Guess I'll stick with commenting through Blogger.

  4. "It’s about a girl who has to save her sister"

    I love that. So simple. Perfect.

  5. Wow, so much useful information. I may have to reexamine my first chapter of my book. Because I think ti does kinda lean on the foot about what the story is about or what the special "gift" is but there is defintely something else going on. Hmm, I'll have to double check it. Thanks for the heads up and for teasing me about th eopener about your book, The Shifter. Now I really want to know more baout it, lol.

  6. This is a terrific post, Janice. I especially like your observation about the place where premise novels have trouble. I've certainly seen that a lot of times.

  7. Great advice. I thing my protag has these things. Maybe I should go back and check. Thanks for the advice.

  8. Great points. And your example, as always, makes it easier to understand.

  9. Samantha: Most welcome. Love how you put that. "Plot is derived from the inciting incident"

    Joe: If he doesn't discover it until later, odds are something else is driving the plot up until then, right? There's a problem he's trying to deal with and in the course of that, discovers he has this ability? If so, maybe just follow the plot and reveal the power when it happens. There's no reason to introduce it until it then. You most likely have goals driving the story until then.

    Paul: Thanks! I find having that simple one liner really helps when you're plotting. Keeps you focused on what's important.

    Larissa: Most welcome :) There's more about The Shifter in the "books" tab (and thanks!) if you want. It's not uncommon to setup a power, and sometimes we need to do that to figure out how we want to start our stories. Good luck with yours!

    Juliette: Thanks! I think I made every premise novel mistake with that first prophecy one.

    Mary: I double check stuff all the time in my work. Even if I'm doing it the way I should, I often find ways to make it even stronger when I look at it again.

    Natalie: Thanks!

  10. Every one of your posts is valuable content and makes me think about my WIP. Thank you! You've got me pondering my hero now. :)

  11. As always, another thought-provoking post. Thanks.