Have you been told you have “flat characters” in your story? Reel in your emotions and re-examine your characters. Does your character have little to no internal life? As your character moves through the story, does she overcome nearly every obstacle? Does she have a crystal-clear need? Is she unchanged at the end of the story? If even a few of your answers are yes, you probably have a flat character. Is that a problem? Probably. Flat characters are usually uninteresting and unmemorable. Got flat characters? Don’t worry. You can take your flat characters to genuine in 8 (sort of) easy steps.
1. Diagnosis: Flat vs Round Characters
What Does Flat Mean?
If you guess flat characters are the opposite of round characters, you’re right. But let’s take it a step farther. Typically, when a reader says your characters are flat, they mean the characters don’t feel real. They want to read about realistic characters, people like themselves or people they know. Writers often call realistic characters round characters. A round character is a character who has multiple-dimensions to their personality.
In real life, we humans are a complicated bag of emotions, contradictions, and quirky bits. Our relationships with others are just as complicated as we are. We often make a whole range of mistakes in relationships, jobs, and every other aspect of our lives. In order to write a “simple” story, authors must be certain their characters come across the page as just as complicated, even if not all those bits show up on the page. So the first step in diagnosing flat characters is to see what IS on the page.
What’s On the Page?
To fix a flat character, you must re-examine how that character appears on the page. Re-examining your character is harder than it sounds. You created these characters. You likely know them as well as yourself. Unfortunately, that may be part of the problem. As the creator, you read things into the story and character that may not be on the page.
If you don’t see why readers say your characters are flat, print your manuscript. Mark your primary character’s internal thoughts, emotions, dialogue, and descriptions. (Hat tip to Margie Lawson’s excellent courses.) Then take a step back and look at your pages. Missing one area? That’s a definite area of flatness. If one color dominates the page, lack of balance may be part of what makes your characters flat. Don’t despair. You can fix flat characters.
You can have interesting characters in a striking setting and have a boring book. Plot structure can create tension that keeps the reader engaged and eager to finish your book. But learning how to plot is confusing. Many writers have their own theory on how to create an interesting plot. Some argue the number of types of plot structure and they name anywhere between one (man against man) to seven. Others talk about the elements of or the stages of plot. Those folk teach five, six, seven, nine, or more elements they call stages, or doors, or plot points. They say to use a diagram or an outline or to write freely and figure it out as you go. What’s a writer to do? Learn as much as you can. A good place to start is 7 Plot Structures for Pantsers by John Peragine. If you’re looking for a simple and effective tool for creating a cause-effect, can’t-stop-reading plot use the WHAT-BUT-THEREFORE method.
What is Plot?
At its most basic level, plot is the chain of events that make up a story. But a basic chain of events does not make a story. Consider this pared-down version of Rumplestiltskin by the Brothers Grimm:
The miller says his daughter can spin straw into gold.
The king gave the girl a room of straw to spin into gold.
The girl made a bargain with a droll little man.
The girl spins the straw into gold.
The king marries the girl and she becomes queen.
The queen gives birth to a little girl.
The droll little man wants his end of the bargain.
The queen guesses his name, and he goes away empty-handed.
As a plain chain of events, this classic story has no tension. It’s boring.
A more complex definition of plot is the sequence of events which causes a character to react in a way that affects the next event through the principle of cause-and-effect. With this definition, you can still create an unexciting story. The tension must rise.
The way I make certain story tension grips the reader is to use a What-But-Therefore outline of each scene.
Read how the What-But-Therefore sentences work for Rumplestiltskin on the Writers in the Storm blog. (Sorry, I had the link wrong but it’s fixed now.)
A Note to My Readers
Thank you for your patience. I’m consumed with the packing up of nearly thirty years of furniture and life accumulations so my floors can be refinished. For readers of my newsletter, I am moved into the basement and a little less than halfway through the huge task of having my floors refinished. Next month you’ll get a glimpse of the before, life in the basement, and (I hope) a few of newly painted rooms and my beautifully refinished floors. I estimate the move back in will finish near the end of August. I plan to return to my usual blogging and writing schedule then. In the meantime, enjoy this post on WITS or stay here and search for similar how-to write posts.
This is the beginning of my contribution to The Writers in the Storm blog this month. I share my understanding of Robert McKee’s Forces of Antagonism and how I use those forces as the frame of a story.
In constructing a story, I am both a pantser and a planner. I plan the frame of a story, then place the characters in that frame and discover what they will do in that situation. It’s taken years for me to figure out a method that works for me. I share it here, not so you have a blueprint to borrow, but to illustrate one way to build your own frame. As I explained last month, the first step in building a story’s framework is the story sentence. The next step I take is to decide on the Forces of Antagonism that will best express my story.
I first came across the idea of forces of antagonism in Robert McKee’s book, Story. No disrespect to Mr. McKee, but I didn’t get it at all. I had a more narrow definition of antagonist that I conflated with the word antagonism. Plus, his terminology didn’t resonate with me. In fact, I barely understood what he was saying. Then a friend reintroduced me to the concept.
Forces of Antagonism
… the principle of antagonism is the most important and least understood precept in story design.”Story, by Robert McKee
The first part of the principle is easy. It’s about people. Humans conserve energy, all kinds of energy. It’s part of our DNA. If we see two choices ahead of us and one seems easier than the other, most of us will do the easier thing. We avoid taking risks, if we can.
Mr. McKee explains “the principle of antagonism is that a protagonist and his story can only be as intellectually fascinating and emotional compelling as the forces of antagonism make them.” He says the more powerful and complex these forces are, the more completely realized the character and story must become.
If you’re like me, you read antagonism and think antagonist. Most likely you are thinking of a single person or group who will oppose your protagonist. But that’s not quite right.
The Frame of a Story
Read the rest of this post and learn about the principle of Antagonism, how I interpret the four forces, and how I use them as the frame of a story so I can be both a planner and a pantser on The Writers in the Storm.
Host J. Alexander Greenwood of the Mysterious Goings On Podcast interviewed me a couple of weeks ago and one of his questions and my response, inspired this post. If you haven’t listened to the podcast, go ahead. I’ll wait… Thanks for listening. Can you guess what inspired this post? It was my last comments about my belief that nearly everyone is creative. And that we, society in the USA, don’t value creativity very much. Even a lot of creative people don’t value their creativity as much as they might, myself included. If that’s true, then what are ways you can value creativity more? Celebrate your creativity.
We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, new jobs, graduations (particularly this time of year), and the purchase of a new house or car. But we rarely celebrate smaller accomplishments. When was the last time you celebrated writing a page of words? Did you celebrate trying a new twist on an old recipe? Or how about the color you painted on the wall? You wrote a piece of coding that did more than the customer asked is a creative solution. Celebrate.
Why Celebrate the Small Creative Wins?
It’s easy to berate ourselves for mistakes or errors and not just call them failures, but label ourselves as failures. Our caveman DNA means we are on the lookout for problems 24/7. But in modern times, when the problem isn’t a saber-toothed tiger wanting to eat you, we sometimes see ourselves as the problem. And when we don’t celebrate the small wins “we end up diminishing our motivation, and motivation is what keeps us on the right path and gives us the strength to soldier on to the top of the mountain.” (lifehack.org)
You can’t acknowledge what you’ve done if you don’t track your progress. Track it in a journal or on the calendar or by scratching off items on a to-do list. Acknowledging what you’ve done helps you see progress, especially in long projects. Celebrating your accomplishments gives you a dopamine hit, which increases your desire to work on the next step to get another hit. Not only that, when you increase your dopamine, you increase your pleasure and your happiness throughout the day. Celebrating the small successes gets us “addicted to progress” because we want to repeat that dopamine hit. We want to feel that pleasure and happiness.
The progress principle: Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work. And the more frequently people experience that sense of progress, the more likely they are to be creatively productive in the long run.”
We are wired to respond to rewards… it’s another way how our brain works. So those small-step celebrations boost our self-esteem and our self-confidence. When we feel better about ourselves and our projects, our productivity increases.
The positive psychology research has shown that celebrating the small wins, the small accomplishments, and more frequently has a bigger impact than waiting for that one big thing to celebrate. It keeps you engaged. It helps you to remember that you’re on a path that’s working and you feel good when you get a chance to celebrate the small thing.”
The trick in rewarding yourself is to make it meaningful, but also to keep it tied to the progress you’re making.
How do you do that? You create small-step goals. For example, use things you consider rewards, but it would work something like this: a coffee at the end of the week of successes, an hour of television at the end of the month, and a fancy dinner out at the end of the quarter.
If you have a goal aversion, tie your rewards to your efforts. Three hours of focused work on the project earns a reward. Six hours win a bigger reward, etc. Up the “ante” of your rewards proportional to the amount of effort or work you’ve accomplished.
Got it? So what do you use for rewards?
Reward Your Creativity
Your rewards don’t have to cost money. They do have to be specific to you, feel like a reward to you. Still need examples? There are literally thousands of ways you can reward yourself.
Raise your arms in triumph and literally jump for joy.
Give yourself a gold star. X number of stars and you get a “bigger” reward.
Write yourself a note of praise.
A cup of your favorite beverage (like coffee or chai latte).
A window shopping trip.
TA trip to a museum or zoo or a movie.
An accessory—jewelry or scarf or fancy belt buckle or shoes.
An extra half hour of sleep.
A long bubble bath.
An extra hour of reading.
An hour of watching stupid pet tricks on YouTube.
Watching an episode of your favorite reality show.
An extra play date with your kids or pets.
An occasional dinner out can be a reward
Tickets to the next game played by your favorite local sports team
Play a video game or a game of hopscotch.
One caution: don’t reward yourself when you haven’t done the work. That doesn’t mean you can never have a dinner out or play a video game except as a reward. It means be aware of what your “fix” is. If you get addicted to the reward (a glass of wine, or a favorite food—chocolate anyone?), then your focus isn’t on the goal (finishing the painting or the sweater you’re knitting.)
What happens when you celebrate your creativity?
You may feel awkward or dismissive of the celebration the first time you celebrate your creative small step. Remind yourself that your creativity is of value to you and to others. You earned the reward because you did something creative.
Besides feeling better about your creativity, you are giving your creativity positive feedback. And that positive feedback perks your creativity up and leads to another idea and another. So celebrate your creativity. Heck, spread the joy and help another creative celebrate their creativity. Let’s change our corner of the world and teach ourselves and others how to value creativity.
What’s one way you’ll celebrate your creativity today?
Sometimes ideas seem to hit you like a tidal wave. They come so fast and so hard you can barely keep track of them all. Other times it’s as if you’ve awakened in the middle of of the 5.5 million square miles of the Antarctic desert. Cold. Dry. Miles from anything resembling a creative idea. What do you do? You start in the dark to reignite your creativity.
Start in the Dark
You’re looking at me like I’m crazy, right? Give me a minute. You’re already in the dark as far as your creative ideas go, so why not give it a little therapy? Step away from your creativity.
Drink in other people’s creativity. What do I mean? If you’re a writer, read a really good book. Or a terrible one. If you’re a knitter or quilter or painter, visit a museum or art display of your favorite artist. Feed your muse with inspirational examples from others in your field.
Good or bad, doesn’t matter. Immerse yourself in the sights and sounds and textures and world of your area of creativity. Two words of caution: no comparisons. You’re looking for different angles, not to judge how worthy or unworthy you feel. Give yourself permission to ask what if? What if I could do this? How would I do it differently?
Let it go. Er, let go of your inhibitions and play like a child. No, your play doesn’t have to be within your area of creativity. No rules. No limits. Just have fun. Splash in a puddle. Finger paint with your non-dominate hand. Sing nursery rhymes. Read poetry aloud in a Bugs Bunny or Betty Boop voice. Chose an activity you remember enjoying in your childhood and do that for an hour or two. Remind yourself of the imagination and energy you had when you were a child. It’s still there, just buried by the demands of society and responsibilities of adulthood. Let it out as often as you need it to reignite your creative sense of play.
I created the video below a few years back, but I think it speaks to why you should play.
Your creative light can flicker or dim whether you’ve just started or have been at your creative craft for a very long time. When that happens, fear often floods us. We’re afraid we aren’t good enough, or that we’ve used up all our talent, or that we’ve lied to ourselves about our abilities. Remember,
Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. “
Dune by Frank Herbert
Use your mental imagery to see your goal. Make positive connections with your craft. See yourself being practicing your craft successfully. Where are you? Who is there with you? What are you wearing? Be specific.
In another kind of play, play with your senses. All five of them. Take one at a time. Focus on just that one sense for as long as you can. You’ll be amazed how much more you discover when you’re focused on one at a time.
It doesn’t matter what type of creativity you’re involved in. Find something to look at that you can look at for a long time. What colors and shapes do you notice first? What do you notice when you’ve been looking for more than a few minutes?
Engage your hearing. Listen to music, poetry, nature, or even total silence. Take a deep breath and listen. What do you hear? What else can you hear?
Focus on taste. Try something new or an old favorite, but really focus on what that tastes like and how that taste changes what you feel and think.
Take a sniff of a flower, a seasoning, or the air. Close your eyes and draw that aroma in. What memory or emotion does it stir?
Touch. Let the world of textures and shapes talk to you through your fingers. Let your fingers take a stroll across new shapes and textures. Then try feeling some familiar shapes and textures. How does the new make you feel verse the familiar?
Remove the Negative
Sadly, sometimes the most negative people in our lives are family. Sometimes they are quite vocal in their negativity. Sometimes it’s their energy that is negative.
It can be difficult to keep your passion alive when those around you think your art or your talents are worthless. Focus on finding positive people who can help keep your energy and passion up. Online communities can help. Search your favorite social media site for like-minded individuals. Ask your librarians if they know of creatives like you. Find your people. Supportive people. Tune out as much of the negative energy as you can.
Give to Get
Give back to your creativity community. Share your passion. Share your knowledge. Volunteer to teach a youth group. Support others by going to their shows, their book releases, or whatever. The more you share, the more give, the more you keep your passion alive.
Ask Yourself Questions
Ask yourself the right questions. Not can I do this, but if I knew I could not fail, what would I do? You can be or do anything. Put it in writing and place that writing where you will see it every day.
Ask yourself how will today’s creative decision affect my life ten or twenty years from now?
Finally ask yourself, does this bring me pleasure? If it’s not bringing you pleasure, why are you doing it? If it’s for delayed pleasure from your craft—say you’re learning a difficult skill—then remember the big picture.
Reignite Your Creativity
You are not alone. Creative energy ebbs and flows for all of us.
I’m here to help fan those creative flames. But you can’t rely on me or anyone else to keep you passionate about your projects. Only you can keep the flame that is your dream alive.