Cutting Your Character To Fit The Tale

Once more I must come up with what my grandmother called “Excuses of chronic late payer.”  I’m late again.  Sorry.  Last night I ran out of spoons so deeply that not only couldn’t I write the post, but I woke up almost twelve hours late today.

So, I feel like a bit of a fraud writing this post, because I don’t — like other authors have assured me they do.  (No, it doesn’t mean that’s what they do.  Come on.  These people lie for a living.) — audition characters for a book and toss one out and pick another one if it doesn’t fit my story.

With me the process is more organic, and normally starts with a character showing up in my head and saying “hey, hey, hey, I want you to write my story.”  (The hey, hey, hey is the mental pokes.  Think of them poking my brain with a pencil tip as they say that.)

The character fits the story because it’s the character’s story.  I mean, I don’t have a story about ballet told by a prize fighter, unless of course his girlfriend is a dancer.

And that’s when we start getting into the how to suit the character to the story.  If you’re one of those writers who audition characters, the process is different.

First, make sure you know what the story is and where it’s going to take your character.  Then make sure what characteristics your character must have so he can tell that story.

For instance, if your character is paraplegic and you’re telling the story of a dancing/gymnastics success, there better be science fiction and a miracle cure or mechanical exoskeleton involved.  Otherwise you’re going to have to audition other characters.

I’m not saying you can’t have a painfully shy character become a superstar, but then you have to make sure that the emotional subplot fits that.  If your plot is so packed up front that you don’t have room for a lot of emotional stuff, then don’t go there, just have your character be someone who copes with crowds and successes like a pro.

So when you’re auditioning the character, in that case, you need to have all the characteristics they should have already in place, and be ruthless about tossing out a character who doesn’t fit.

But what if, like me, you’re stuck with the character who showed up?  Take A Few Good Men (please, it could use a few more sales!) — I had the vague idea in my head the character in that book was going to be a general, leading the battles, etc.  This was somewhat of a problem.  The people I’ve recruited to ask me with the dragon trilogy know I’m not of a military frame of mind.  It’s not the battles that disturb me, it’s the protocols.  I’m not a protocol sort of girl.  I completely understand their necessity, I just can’t write them convincingly.  I keep forgetting ranks, for instance.

Now, it is possible to do it for a limited time, and in a future arm.  BUT as a general?  No.  I could do occasional battles, but I do lone forays better and easier.  My expertise is amateur combat, street fighting and general free-lance mayhem and that my characters can do convincingly.  BUT General?  In an army?

Which is why Luce became a nominal military man, but he’s a desk pilot.  He works in psychological warfare.  He does engage in crazy sorties all on his own, because he’s Luce.  Nat, otoh, whose experiences we get second hand is not only trained in war but is a strategically educated man, so he does the war part.  I could handle the second hand in writing, because that’s how I get the war stories other people tell.

So, you can — and possibly should — split your character, or re-purpose a secondary character, if needed to get the story you need to.

Only, for the love of heaven, don’t have your character be a wimp, or be saved by Deus ex machina.  (Or friend ex machina.)

Look, I’m saying because I did it.  The character I got had such a horrible childhood he was a mess.  This was expected and made sense.  The problem is that he was broken. I.e., like a real person, the fight had gone out of him.  His response to trouble was to roll in a ball and try to die.

Don’t do that.  It might be authentic and full of pathos and stuff, but unless you’re telling one of those plotless stories, you won’t have a story, just a puddle.

So, think carefully of the character you have and how he fits the story, and if story or character can be changed to work.

Even if you get your story fully formed as I do, consider changing things, and incidents and bits.  Because, you know… In the end, you lie for a living.

Now go lie.

Next week: All the tribal lays.  Different plotting for different stories.

37 Comments

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37 responses to “Cutting Your Character To Fit The Tale

  1. Uncle Lar

    Aha! Now I know the reason for all your health problems. It’s those pencil pokes. You have graphite poisoning.
    But you do get even with the nasty critters, now don’t you, putting them through all sorts of trials, tribulations, and sometimes really ‘orrible deaths.
    Such is a writers life after all.

  2. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

    Well, there goes my story about a wimp who becomes a Superhero. [Wink]

    Mind you, that might be an interesting story about a wimpish person who gains Super-powers and how he becomes worthy to be called a Hero. [Smile]

    • freddie_mac

      Peter Parker, perhaps?

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Worse than Peter and more powerful than Spiderman. [Wink]

        • I always liked Don Simpson”s take on Peter Parker in Megaton Man: “You’re an award-winning photojournalist! You have a supermodel girlfriend! You have an apartment in Manhattan! I can’t afford an apartment in Manhattan! So what the hell are you so depressed about?!”

          “Well, gee, when you put it that way…”

    • Mystery Men (1999). JoeBob sez, check it out.

    • Not necessarily. That series I started for the family and outlined in broad strokes starts with a protagonist who thinks respect is commanded by position and craves power. By the end of the the first book, the lesson that respect is earned has sunk in and they’d rather not have the responsibility. By the end of the last book, the protagonist has unwanted authority put on them because they feel inadequate despite their training. The protagonist changed.

      If I wanted to be nasty, I would take that series and have power put on the protagonist at the end of book 1. Unfortunately, in book 1 they don’t have much of a clue. They end up without the training, and get controlled through advisers.

  3. Recently I’ve been having characters show up, fold their arms, and inform me that I need to come up with the story to go around them. Un huh. How do you disguise Peter the Great? He couldn’t manage it IRL, so how am I supposed to? Put him on a different planet. Greeeaaaat. Let me guess which one? Yup. And by-the-by, there’s rumors of supernatural stuff, the kind of things that NEVER showed up on the other end of the continent.

    I think I’ll tackle the story about the three sisters in the sewing shop first. One deals with wool and knitters, one does quilts, and the third trims and frames embroideries . . . 😉

    • There are always people like Peter the Great around. It’s just that they normally show up in somebody’s combox and have no power, or they just annoy their coworkers, or they end up dead for being annoying to the wrong people.

      But for ruling Russia? Being a little bit monomaniacal, a little bit ADHD, and a lot annoying… may actually help.

  4. “Last night I ran out of spoons so deeply that not only couldn’t I … ”

    Now there’s an interesting turn of phrase. I don’t recall running across that one before. Portuguese, or pure Sarah?

    • Chronic illness / handicap turn of phrase, actually.

      Really short summary: when a healthy friend asks what it’s like to be handicapped / have a chronic illnesss, give them a handful of something, like spoons. Then have them describe their daily routine. For each item (getting out of bed. Getting dressed. Brushing teeth / hair), take away a spoon. (Two, sometimes, for the really difficult ones.)

      When the friend runs out of spoons, explain that they’ve run out of energy / pain tolerance for the day, and must go rest / take more painkillers that destroy further productivity for the day. Use this to explain how the seemingly limitless energy the normal friend takes for granted instead has to be carefully rationed.

      While originally meant as “this is a way to explain that uninjured / healthy people can grasp”, it has turned into a shorthand among those who know the phrase for “I wanted to do these things, but I was physically unable” or “I really want to do that thing, but I won’t be physically able to do so by that time of the day / point in the week.”

      Origin here:
      http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/

      • Interesting and simple. Thanks!

      • Reality Observer

        I was about to ask that one myself. Thank you, Dorothy.

        Now if I could only figure out how many spoons are going to be in the drawer on any one day… Today, at least, I had enough to get through a family gathering – or at least the soup course and halfway through dessert. I treasure those.

  5. Me, I have absolutely no idea what’s going on until my characters do it. They never tell me anything, let alone consent to being auditioned. ‘Course if they did tell me, I’d use it against ’em…

  6. Sometimes I get enough wiggle room that I can figure out some backstory details or change the character type slightly. But mostly, the story and the character are so intertwined, I could no more audition a new character for the lead role than I could write it in Swahili. Never really have figured out how writers who work the other way go. I’ll hear people and they say things like “It wasn’t til I swapped genders/species/careers on the character that it worked right” and that just boggles me.

    • For me, when that happens, it’s because the character was rather tight lipped. For example the character that I’d nominally tagged as Moorish didn’t fit the story until I figured out he was actually Kurdish. Now He’s cooperating. Often it’s a way of expressing. “I have tried to cram something in that didn’t work and figured out what wasn’t working for the character.” It wasn’t that the character had fundamentally changed, but that I had mislabeled and then tried to fit the character into the label. I rarely have a character fundamentally change their nature. I have had them lie to me about things like their age and species, but I’m a pantser so I’m used to that sort of thing as the story develops. Then I go back and straighten it all out.

  7. Interview? Change? Sheesh, mine go on strike if I get it wrong. And they aren’t quiet about it, either.

    “Me? All full of angst because you killed my girlfriend in the previous book? Oh please, you shoehorned her in after you wrote the whole thing, just because you thought you needed to kill someone I cared about. Just, get over the Litawerey aspoowations, and go fix that. _Then_ I’ll gleefully be all woeful until I realize she survived. Got it?”

    Right. Blackmailed into reviving a tacked on character, who then insisted on her story getting written, and then the big reunion scene . . .

    Look, can I send just my subconcious in for counseling, without getting hauled away in one of those jackets with the extra long sleeves?

    • Hey, Joschka was supposed to be a one-time walk on ally, not the flaming love interest! Boy howdy did that play merry hob with the plot arc. Author: “Ah, you are already re-married.”
      Joschka: “And?”
      Author: “And both of you being reasonably religious people, you are not going to throw over Adele for Rada.”
      Joschka (eyes starting to shift): “You have no idea how long I can wait. Or have been waiting.”
      Author: “Oh sheet.”

      • Oh yeah, the walk ons. Speaking part, wasn’t even going to give him a name . . . now the main character in five stories, oops, no, make that six . . . he doesn’t seem to be interested in stopping.

        • Reality Observer

          I am so glad to find out this is not just a personal aberration…

          “By the way, if anyone can get out ahead of the T’Kar attack, I’d bet on Commander Nekoshe.”

          That was IT. Fini. Never hear about this person again.

          Let me see… OK, another mention in the relief chapter. Now, THAT has to be it. Never hear about this person again.

          Urp. She just got together with two other characters last week. NOW she has staked her (their) claim on the last chapter of Book Four – and bids fair to take over most of Book Five. She’s acquired PARENTS, for God’s sake.

          Sigh…

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Any of those books available for purchase?

            • Reality Observer

              I thank you for motivation, sir! But, sigh…

              Right now I’m pushing to get two shorts out by the end of the year, but those aren’t even in this universe; they’re kind of “doodles” that I’ll release under a pen name. Pretty much, they are to get my mistakes made on Amazon with “lesser” works.

              The blog is scheduled (ha!) to start up in the middle of this month.

              In the meantime, I’m pounding away on the first full book, and a related short that, deus volent (and a sufficient supply of spoons) will release first quarter of 2016 – then start rolling out the next ones in that series on alternate months, at least by the current plan.

              So far, I’m having fun with the career change, although I wish it would just go faster!

              (Pardon, Sarah, if I’m doing something like marketing here. Let me know if I am being gauche, please!)

              • You’re fine. This is a blog for writers, so answering direct questions like that is expected. Now, were you to start going “I released! Buy my book! Buy my book! Oh, yes, replying to your comment, and did I mention buy my book?”, we’d be having a different conversation. 🙂

                When you get your blog up and running, or when you get your Author page up (Website, Amazon author page, or what have you), it’s generally considered good form to start sticking that in the “website” blank on the commenting form, so people who think you sound interesting have a way to click through and check you out, without having to repeatedly mention where and what and how.

                Note for all readers: why yes, yes that does mean that if you think those commenters sound like they will entertain you, you should click on the linked names and go see and sample their work.

          • I have GOT to close that wormhole between universes mine and thine… I swear, the whole place is populated by walk-ons that took on a life, a history, and in one case a civil war all his own…

      • The Other Sean

        If that’s the case, I think your stories have it well set up. That he’s attracted to Rada should not come as a surprise to most who’ve been reading your stories. All those awkward moments make for more sense if more than mere friendship is involved.

      • Christopher M. Chupik

        Ah, yes, the character who hijacks your story and holds it for ransom. That’s happened a few times to me. Sometimes that happens when the protagonist isn’t nearly strong or interesting as they should be.

        • And then you have to decide if you’re telling the story from the wrong POV, or you need to rev up your MC. If only our subconsciouses would just come right out and tell us what the problem is!

    • For an exercise, I interviewed some characters. The kids freaked when they found out. One said “Don’t go there, Daddy.” It did help flesh them out by giving even minor characters a backstory, which in turn fleshed out the workings of the society.

      There were no great surprises. One thing that shook out was for it all to work one of the villains had to be someone crooked enough to be willing to go along with the Big Scheme, but not so crooked that he didn’t feel uneasy, and look for a way out. But the interview with the villain who died in the book was like meeting a Hannibal Lector who realized he was a fictional character. The character believed he was the one who was wronged, and could almost convince you of it.

    • Mary

      I had a character in the first chapter who was getting too big. So I killed him.

      He stayed dead. But he didn’t stay out of the story.

  8. Mary

    Of course, there are the times when the character shows up, but you have to audition the cast to make sure that they will play the supporting roles, and form suitable foils, and otherwise flesh out the story.

    (This is especially important if your characters, by default, tend to be the same sort of personality.)