The V-Word

I’m talking about verisimilitude. What did you think I meant, you big weirdo?

Yesterday we talked about what makes a good character according to the Gospel of Jim. We skimmed verisimilitude, though, because this one is tough.

Jim says,

V-factor is the second most important element in creating interesting characters. The most exotic character in the world becomes nothing more than an annoying cartoon figure if he doesn’t behave in a consistant and believeable manner. (*kaffkaff*JAR-JAR*kaffkaff*)

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

So this is part of what I meant when I discussed world-building. People say the devil is in the details, but for a writer, the world is in the details. You have to create a character who exists and has existed in the world you’ve built: your protagonist will have a history in this world, and she won’t bat an eye at the firebats that populate the trees in her backyard. While you may want to describe the firebats in great detail, down to their glowing red ember-eyes, resist that temptation. The more you explain, the more it sounds like you’re trying to convince yourself.

Jim goes on to say that the majority of verisimilitude-creation gets done in scene sequels.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Characters must make rational decisions, and those decisions will be informed as much by their history in your world as by the character’s individual traits. A woman raised in a society that oppresses women will not rebel against that society without some angst and fear about bucking her heritage. Even if she’s a fiesty chick, she’ll still feel some trepidation for going against her upbringing.

Verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position do overlap and can create some friction. A woman raised in that misogynistic society who does not rebel won’t be interesting to read about. To create an interesting character, you need to set her apart by giving her the desire for change and the ability to make a change.

Rory the Nurse

Let’s get more specific. Do you watch Doctor Who? If you don’t, you should. It’s a joy to watch, especially if you enjoy fantasy. Anyway, the Doctor has a variety of companions who tag along on his adventures and act as the viewer’s surrogate, giving us someone with whom we can identify. Rose Tyler is a well-loved companion who may lack a bit on the verisimilitude side, while Rory Williams is a more ho-hum companion who has a high V-factor.

Rory reacts like most of us would: he’s terrified, he bumbles, he’s unsure. A normal person put onto the TARDIS and dealing with scary aliens who erase your memory would probably react similarly. Unfortunately, Rory’s not much fun to watch because he’s too much like us. Viewers and readers like to watch someone special. Otherwise we’d just play The Sims all day instead of reading or watching fantasy.

Rose the Badass

Rose, on the other hand, takes it all in stride. She’ll reason with a Dalek and hug a crying alien. A normal person probably wouldn’t do that. Rose has the V-factor, though, because she’s a normal girl working in a shop and living with her mother. She’s saved from wild improbability by her basic normality. I suspect she’s such a popular companion because the writers struck the perfect balance of verisimilitude, exaggeration, and exotic position.

That’s the trick. You have to balance reality with fantasy. If you play up one of the factors that go into building a character, you’ll push that character too far in another direction.

How do you give your characters verisimilitude? Can you think of some popular unbelievable characters?

Imaginary Friends

I refer to my characters as imaginary friends. They are, aren’t they? I spend more time with them than I do with plenty of my real-world friends. I spend my work hours with them, so they’re also my coworkers. I guide them through the worst times of their lives, and some of them have seen me through some rough times, as well.

It’s a pretty twisted relationship, though. I make them do things that won’t end well for them. I destroy their relationships, their careers, their homes. I’m not one for the too-easy happy ending, so things rarely turn out well for them. I refuse to give them a break.

But who are they? Where do they come from? How have they become real people to me?

Jim says five things help you build interesting characters: exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, and empathy.

Exaggeration and exotic position are two ways of making your characters stand out. I’ll put my current protagonist on the pedestal (which is how she likes it, anyway): Mitzy Morgan is exaggerated both in her addiction to alcohol and in her spoiled-brat ways. Her old money snobbery and her alcoholism are exaggerated, sure, but she’s fiction: the exaggeration makes her amusing.

Her exotic position is not her job as a detective. Nope, she’s a detective who got transferred from her former job because she… well… I can’t give everything away, now can I? But she also has an exotic position because she has a rare magical talent: she sees magic. This gives her a leg-up in investigating, but it’s also a nuisance because people expect a lot from her.

Introduction is less about the character and more about you. Jim says:

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. When your reader meets any given character for the first time, it is critical to make sure you get the bare bones of your character into his head immediately. By establishing your character firmly, you’ll make the whole process of virtual-story-world-creation move more quickly and easily. There are multiple techniques for planning a strong introduction, but I’m only going to hit on the strongest one: CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION.

A solid CHARACTERISTIC ENTRY ACTION consists of introducing your character to the reader by bringing him into the story in the course of an action which clearly, sharply typifies who and what he is.

I introduce Mitzy on the job, looking for missing magic around the body of a girl drowned in a bathtub full of expensive martini fixings. Exaggerated? Sure. Memorable? Probably. But it ties all her characteristics and a couple of plot points together right from the start.

Verisimilitude probably deserves its own blog post. I’m going to skim this one for now and just leave you with Jim’s take:

When you are writing your characters, it is absolutely critical that you convey to the reader the sense that your character is a whole, full person with his own life outside the purview of this particular story. This is a task that will take a little bit of time, as your reader follows your character around and sees what is in his world.

The single most important technique for doing that is through showing your character’s: 1. EMOTIONS 2. REACTIONS and 3. DECISIONS. When something happens in your story, a character with a decent V-factor will react to it. The reader will see his emotional reaction played out, will gain a sense of the logic of a question or problem, and will recognize that the character took a believeable, appropriate course of action in response.

Mitzy gains verisimilitude in how she deals with the situation: as the plot builds and situations get worse, she drinks more. A low point for her is when another character forces her to sober up. But, like I said, we’ll come back to verisimilitude in another blog post.

Empathy is the key. If you can’t win a reader over to your character’s side, you are, in technical terms, screwed.

I like unlikable characters. I think a Scarlett O’Hara is much more fun to read than a Melanie Hamilton. We all love Melanie, but a book about her would be pretty dull. Unlikable characters need to have redeeming traits, though, otherwise readers get turned off to them pretty quickly.

For Mitzy, it’s the vulnerability she has from feeling she doesn’t live up to her role models’ expectations. For Scarlett, it’s her tenacity and passion.

I don’t want to get sidetracked too far, but Katniss in The Hunger Games didn’t strike that much empathy in me, and that’s why I only read the first book. She’s tough, sure, and I admire her for going to such lengths to save her sister. But she uses people right and left, and she’s wishy-washy about knowing her own heart.

Empathy is tough because it depends so much on your reader. Obviously other people empathize with Katniss, or the books wouldn’t be so popular.

 If you do your job, you will create a sense of empathy in your reader for your characters. This is what makes people burst out laughing while reading. It’s what makes readers cry, or cheer, or run off to take a cold shower.

Like V-Factor, empathy takes time to build and it relies heavily upon the skilled use of sequels. But if you can get the reader to this point, as an author, then you WIN. Big time. This is the ENTIRE GOAL of all this character work, because the reader’s emotional involvement is the single most important factor in how well your story is going to fly.

So, there you have it. Exaggeration, exotic position, introduction, verisimilitude, empathy. What works best for you when designing the perfect imaginary friend?

The Boring Parts

Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. That no-man’s land midway between the first door of no return and that final door to the climax. You know where you’re headed, but you just don’t quite know how to get there.

We’ve been pretty airy-fairy around here lately, readers, so let’s get back to the nitty-gritty. I hit the Great Swampy Middle of Conspiracy in the late summer and autumn of 2009. I had the timeline of my novel, and midway between Big Event 2 and Huge Event 1, there was a big blank space, especially for one character.

So what did I do? I introduced a love interest. A needless character and subplot planted just to move the middle along. This new character was cute and fun, and I had a good time putting awkward Albert into cutesy situations, but I can tell you right now (without having gotten to this part of the book in my reread) that I’ll be cutting that character and her entire plot.

This was one of Kristin’s Bad Ideas ™.

Jim says,

Those of you who have written this much of a book already know exactly what I’m talking about. You hit that point where you’re not sure what to do next–when small details and points of logic start tripping you up. Where your story begins to veer off from your outline, and feel fairly confident that it’s never, EVER going to veer back. You aren’t sure where things went wrong, exactly. Characters and situations start popping out of your fingers as if of their own volition. They’re often fun, even intriguing, but they’re really a form of denial, you poor deluded, benighted sap. You’re lost. You just don’t want to admit it to anyone, least of all yourself.

Oh, boy. It’s so true. If you’re so bored with your plot that you’re wildly inventing things, your readers are probably bored, too. And they’ll know that sudden, random love interests were planted just to shake things up.

Jim also gives several ways out of the Great Swampy Middle. They are:

  • The Big Middle, in which you drop a plot bomb in the middle of the story. However… you need to plan this plot bomb, otherwise you run the risk of blowing your entire story to smithereens. Think strategically, or you’ll end up like those NaNoers who get bored and introduce ninjas midway through their book. If you want ninjas, you need to plan for ninjas and build up to them.
  • The Mini Arc and the Subplot. These are big and little versions of a mini-story in your story. The key here is to make this smaller story fit into your work as a whole: don’t just send your characters off-track for awhile and then bring them back if it doesn’t add anything to the story. (That would fall under the category of zany hijinks.)
  • The New Character, like I described above. The trouble here is that popup characters can be like popup ads: annoying, irrelevant, and distracting. Don’t add a character (like I did) who contributes nothing to your overall plot or some other character’s development.

Like Jim says, the key is to keep writing.

Are you noticing a theme on this blog?

Don’t give up.

Have you fallen into quicksand in the middle of a plot? How did you escape?

Pigeonholing Your Characters

Wow, it sounds like a bad thing when I put it that way in the title. And the first time I heard this technique described, I thought it was stupid. I still do, sort of.

Something like two years ago, my fiance suggested I assign descriptions to each of my characters and always stick with them—one character could be catlike, another rugged, still another perky. And whenever I would describe a particular character, I would always use the same descriptors and metaphors.

I scoffed and said no way.

Then, this summer, when I was reading over Jim Butcher’s LiveJournal, I came across this very technique, described as tags and traits in his post about Characters:

TAGS are words you hang upon your character when you describe them. When you’re putting things together, for each character, pick a word or two or three to use in describing them. Then, every so often, hit on one of those words in reference to them, and avoid using them elsewhere when possible. By doing this, you’ll be creating a psychological link between those words and that strong entry image of your character…

TRAITS are like tags, except that instead of picking specific words, you pick a number of unique things ranging from a trademark prop to a specific mental attitude. Harry’s traits include his black duster, his staff, his blasting rod and his pentacle amulet. These things are decorations hung onto the character for the reader’s benefit, so that it’s easy to imagine Harry when the story pace is really rolling.

When I saw it again, I dismissed it as idiotic and annoying for the reader. For example, I love J. K. Rowling, but I get so sick of hearing about Ron’s long nose and freckles. Ginny’s bright brown eyes start to bug me. And don’t even get me started on Harry’s green eyes and untidy hair. Even Harry got tired of hearing about them.

Here’s what’s irritating about those descriptions: I REMEMBER THEM. As much as it irks me to reread the same imagery, it does a good job of planting the characters in our brains.

And the really, deeply annoying thing? Last week, I caught myself writing this way unconsciously. A character made her last entrance in my book, and I again used the word “immaculate” to describe her appearance. I didn’t even notice that I’d done it until I reread the paragraph.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d been doing it the whole time. Apparently, tags and traits worm their way into the subconscious so deeply that you use them without even wanting to do so.

Have you ever conditioned your readers like this? Was it deliberate, or did you realize you’ve been conditioned to condition?

Crime of a Scene

Yesterday I/Jim Butcher said every scene needs a conflict. Today lets look at what scenes are, what they do, and, specifically, how conflict operates in every scene.

Jim (don’t you love how we’re on a first-name basis now?) says this:

Ah, conflict. The heart of every story. If you screw up absolutely everything else about a scene but GET THE CONFLICT RIGHT, you’re gonna be way closer to getting published than most people ever manage.

Conflict is what happens when someone, for some reason, up and decides that your character needs to fail in his goal, or else is pursuing a goal which, if met, will prevent your viewpoint character from reaching his goal….

And, done right, the conflict poses an implied SCENE QUESTION. Will your character succeed? Or even better, WHICH character is going to succeed?

The scene question is where Jim really helped me. For my first book, I had two types of scenes:

  • the “inspired” scenes, where I knew exactly what would happen and how, and daydreamed about the scene for days, weeks, and months before I wrote it
  • the “in between” scenes where I knew I needed something to happen, but I wasn’t sure what, and it took me days of yawning and sighing to write a ho-hum scene.

For Shaken, I knew where the novel was going, and I set up a trail of scenes as stepping stones (or roadblocks) to Mitzy’s final goal. When I got started, I wrote a scene question for each of those planned, plot-driving scenes and chose answers to those questions before I started writing.

Jim says there are four answers (and you should really read his post for his descriptions of them): yes; yes, but; no; and no, and furthermore!

Answering all scene questions “yes” leads to a boring story. Looking at yesterday’s ninja-waffle story, answering, “Can Kristin get waffles?” with, “YES,” leads to a pretty boring story. But answering it “NO, AND FURTHERMORE she can’t even get to her car without falling prey to a band of marauding pirates,” is a little insulting to me, but plenty interesting to read.

Now, here’s the question I don’t want you to ask: Did I do this for every scene?

The (interesting) answer is, “No, and furthermore…”

I did not sit down before every scene and list the goal, conflict, and setback. Why not? Because that format gets a little repetitious.

An author I love has a third book that does this, and it’s maddening. Can the characters happily reunite? No, and furthermore the male main character is married to someone else. Can the main characters make it to America? No, and furthermore, the female gets kidnapped by pirates. Can the male main character rescue the female main character? No, and furthermore, she jumps off the ship and swims to a tropical island… you get the idea.

It became a series of zany hijinks, and just plain annoying. Sometimes you need to a little “yes, but” to move the story along so that the reader doesn’t pull her hair out in frustration at your characters’ increasingly outlandish antics and inability to achieve any of their goals.

And sometimes you need scenes to do more than just push characters toward their final ends. Sometimes scenes need to be funny. Sometimes they need to be loooove scenes. Sometimes they need to offer character development. If you’re smart, you’ll make scenes do double-duty.

Take a scene from Shaken. Mitzy needs some information from her mother, and her mother wants to spend time with her daughter. The conflict is mild, because there’s really no point in me denying Mitzy the information. Still, there is a conflict (Mom wants to hang out with her daughter, daughter wants to get her job done) and that conflict also serves as character-building for both mother and daughter. There’s some humor in there, too.

So, takeaways:

Scenes need conflict of some kind or another, because otherwise it’s just a bunch of characters sitting around congratulating each other.

Try setting a goal for each scene in the form of a question. You can still free-write, if that’s your style, but answer the question you asked with the scene’s action. This will keep your scenes from meandering all the map, kind of like this blog post did.

Make scenes do double-duty. You can write a scene in which I go to the ATM for my waffle money, and you can answer the scene question with yes, but: perhaps I’ll also meet my longlost ninja brother without knowing him and think he’s sexy or something else that’s weird. There you have goal-reaching, character development, and creation of a really twisted subplot, all in one zany episode.

Tomorrow: scenes and sequels.