Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Are Your Characters Living in the Moment or Watching it Pass By?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

Put yourself in a scene before you put your characters there.

Years ago, there was a bit of a scare in the Hardy household. Our oldest cat took a tumble and hurt his hind leg. He was fine (he just limped for a few days), but until I knew he was okay, I was a basket case. For the rest of the day, I was a nervous Momma, and that continued until my little guy was back to his old self.

In the grand scene of things, it was no big deal.

To me, it was a huge crisis. Someone I loved was hurt.

Even worse, someone vulnerable I loved was hurt and needed my help.

When bad (or even good) things happen to your characters, put yourself in their shoes and look at how that particular moment will affect them. 

As the writer, you know if the situation is just a minor blip or major deal, but the character doesn't know that. To them, it might be the worst thing to ever happen, or something that consumes them while it's happening. If it's a good thing, it might distract them from warning signs or things they ought to be noticing or paying attention to. Consider:

How does the character feel right then and there?

Gut reaction. That instantaneous response they can't help but feel, even if it's the totally wrong response to the situation. Like insane jealousy for a good friend who just got good news, or joy to hear something nasty happened to someone a character can't stand. What is the raw, unfiltered emotion?

This is a great way to get in touch with what a character is feeling and pinpoint the emotional center of a scene.

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Convey Emotions in Your Novel)

What emotion might they be struggling with?

Sometimes we know when we're feeling something we shouldn't and it bothers us that we feel it at all. Or we know an emotion isn't going to help us and we try to block it out to get whatever we have to do, done. It might even be conflicting emotions affecting our judgment or ability to handle the situation.

This is a great way to determine the inner conflict of a scene, or add some conflict to a scene that needs it.

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Add Internal Conflict to Your Scenes)  

What gets pushed completely out of the character's head?

I had things I needed to do the afternoon my cat got hurt, but that all went right out the window (and my head) as I raced my little guy to the vet's office. He became my priority and nothing else mattered. 

A character caught up in an emotional moment (whether good or bad) might forget critical things, not be somewhere they should, or misread a situation.

This is a great way to have a character miss something important to the plot or story.

(Here's more with How to Sneak Clues Past Your Readers and Keep Them Guessing)

What crazy thing might this person do that they wouldn't have otherwise?

Good judgment is often the first thing to go when someone is emotional. They make decisions based on the heat of the moment they might not have made if they were thinking clearly or rationally.

This is a great way to have a character make a bad decision they might not ordinarily have made.

(Here's more with 7 Ways Your Characters Can Screw up Their Decisions)

How does this moment affect their behavior after it's over? For how long?

Strong emotions linger and affect us even after the crisis (or celebration) has passed. A big scare is likely to make someone skittish or overprotective, happiness might make them more agreeable or more forgiving, or anger could cause them a short period of selfishness and cruelty.

This is a great way to have a character act out of character and still be believable.

(Here's more with 4 Ways to Create Emotional Peril in Your Characters)

Emotions aren't the only benefits to being in the moment. You notice more, focus more, when you're not thinking about tomorrow or next week, or even the next hour.

But don't think being in the moment means a character will notice everything. (And please be wary of the old "time slowed down so now I can describe everything in minute detail" cliché) What gets the attention are things related to the moment itself.

On my trip to the vet, I couldn't have told you what color the flowers were, or how the wind was blowing, or who was wearing what—but I could tell you how my cat sounded when he was crying, how fast he was panting, how his eyes looked, how he walked and held himself. How crazy I got when the lady in front of me at the vet's office kept asking questions about flea meds and delaying the time it took for me to tell them I had an injured cat. These were all details that clued me in on how he was hurting and how scared he was (he really hated car trips) and how I was feeling because of that. I paid attention to what mattered to me at that moment. (I did finally butt in and say something, but I was polite about it).

Think about what your character might notice:

Are they looking for clues in the people or items around them?

Someone on the run might notice dangers of ways to escape. Someone who thinks she's about to be proposed to might be looking for signs that her guy is about to pop the question. A guy who isn't sure if he's on a date or just out with a friend might be looking for clues to help him decide which it is.

This is a great way to know which details to include and what you can skip.

(Here's more with Is Your Description Helping Your Story or Holding it Back? )

Would anything they sense enhance the experience they're having?

Comedy clubs use warm up acts for a reason. Once people are laughing, the odds of them finding things funny go way up. If you're at the spa, you'll notice the things that make you feel pampered and luxurious, while a gal soaking wet on the side of the road will notice all the things that make her feel even more miserable.

This is a great way to use your setting to enhance an emotion, tone, or mood.

(Here's more with How to Set Tone and Mood in Your Scenes)

Would anything they notice affect their behavior?

When you're paying more attention, you often pick up on subtle signs or clues, especially if they involve other people. What someone notices might change how they view that moment, or how they might act in response to it. Maybe they'll be more compassionate, or see the right thing to get past an obstacle, or realize a course of action is not going to go as expected.

This is a great way to get your character to be better (or worse) at something just when they need to be without it feeling contrived.

(Here's more with Two Words That Lead to a Stronger Novel)

When a character is in the moment that moment becomes real to the reader, and often they make a strong connection with them. The stronger the connection, the more they'll like the book.

Do your character have moments when they live in the moment, or do they plan and consider everything they do? 

*Originally published March 2014. Last updated November 2023.

Find out more about show, don't tell in my book, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).

With in-depth analysis, Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) teaches you how to spot told prose in your writing, and discover why common advice on how to fix it doesn't always work. It also explores aspects of writing that aren’t technically telling, but are connected to told prose and can make prose feel told, such as infodumps, description, and backstory.

This book will help you:
  • Understand when to tell and when to show
  • Spot common red flag words often found in told prose
  • Learn why one single rule doesn't apply to all books
  • Determine how much telling is acceptable in your writing
  • Fix stale or flat prose holding your writing back
Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It) is more than just advice on what to do and what not to do—it’s a down and dirty examination and analysis of how show, don’t tell works, so you can adapt the “rules” to whatever style or genre you’re writing. By the end of this book, you’ll have a solid understanding of show, don’t tell and the ability to use it without fear or frustration.

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue 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. I'm so sorry about your cat- and glad he's going to be all right. The bit about the car ride definitely got the point across about layering the right details into the story. (And made me wince in sympathy- listening to a creature you care about when you can't immediately fix things is hard.)

    I am working on a new WIP and am still learning my main character, so that ending question is a good one for me right now. My character isn't really a planner -he's still figuring out that he has an actual future beyond the next two minutes and can maybe even affect it- but he watches the people around him a lot for cues on how to act, and then tries to nudge them into doing what he wants.

    1. Thanks. Hopefully he'll be back to normal in a few days, poor little guy.

      It's not critical, but if you think about how your character reacts to things, that will help you know how to write him. For example, an impulsive guy won't stop to analyze things, he'll just see them and react.

  2. Hugs on your cat!! Thank you SO much for the help you provide on your blogs!! Your posts are SO, SO helpful!!

  3. Oh no! Your poor cat. I'm glad he'll be ok. I like the way you compared this event in your life to how we can draw on then when writing key moments. Talk about a silver lining. Thanks!

  4. I'm glad your kitty will be okay!

    This has given me some things to think about as I revise my novel. Thanks!

  5. I'm seriously sorry about the cat, love 'em all. This is the best illustration of taking a traumatic event and converting it into something readers will want to be involved in. You are so right, I have been through many trauma inducing events in my career and never thought to break down my reactions quite this way. I feel blessed by it I really do.

    1. I never paid attention to these things either until I started writing about writing, now I notice what I do and why. Looking at our own emotions and reactions gives us perspective on how our characters might feel in a similar situation, or just a situation that has similar emotions.

  6. Great writing advice,Janice.I hope your kitty gets better soon. :-)

  7. Poor kitty, get well soon!

    Your blog is still my favorite Janice, thanks again for all the good advice.

    I was wondering if you already made an article about main characters with unlikable personalities?
    I mean, not classy unlikable, or supersmart bastard like Walter White or Dr House or Dexter or the BBC Sherlock (man, there are so many of them! and all males) but more like my main character who is kind of gross, brutal and not particularly clever, despite some interesting strenghts and a funny quick response. Also her love interest is a lot like her and not even good looking, ahah =)
    Of course this is all going to change through the story, but what if the reader dislike her in the first place? Is their a way to make them root for her without compromising the personality she needs to start the story with, in order to improve along with her (mis)adventures?

    Have a nice day! =)

    1. I don't have an article on unlikable characters but I will soon, thanks for the question. It's a great topic. I'll try to get this one up next week.

  8. Thank you all for your well wishes :) The cat is doing much better now and back to his old self. Still a little tender on that leg, but he's not letting it stop him.

  9. I'm glad your cat is bouncing back!

    This was a great post; thank you! I realized I have one scene planned where my MC is going to have to be more skittish than I realized...hmm...

    1. Oh good, glad it sparked an idea for you.