The Fictorians

When to Rein in Your Characters

8 April 2014 | 2 Comments » | frank

SquirrelEver gone to a school performance where the one kid who’s supposed to be a supporting character, like a tree or a second line singer, either breaks out of character and does something hilarious, or performs with such enthusiasm that they steal the show from the lead actors?

Or, imagine this: Two aliens walk into a bar. One is an intergalactic hit-man and the other is a mind-reader helping him hunt down his next target. They scope out the bar and begin closing in on the target. At that point, the story is locked in and the readers are focused either on rooting for the hit-men or for the hapless victim.

But then imagine one of the serving girls stumbles into them, spilling beer all over their clothing and short-circuiting the electronics of their laser guns. When they try pushing past to chase their escaping quarry, she sets their alcohol-soaked clothing on fire and handcuffs them to the bar.

The story focus just totally changed. If that was the intention, perfect. Great twist. If not, then the waitress either needs to become a major focus of the story, or that scene needs to be cut. All depends on what the author has in mind and what the real story is being told.

Sometimes letting a secondary character really roar pays off in spades. The easiest examples can be found in movies:

  • LokiThe saber-tooth squirrel in Ice Age
  • The Joker from Batman
  • Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride
  • Loki from Avengers
  • Even Wilson the volleyball from Castaway

Sometimes when a secondary character bursts free of the originally-planned constraints placed upon them, it can be a good thing. Perhaps it’s your subconscious mind trying to explain that you picked the wrong protagonist or that there is more story to be explored there.

However, sometimes those secondary characters are just unruly and despite how funny or distracting their antics might be, they threaten to derail the real story. In those instances those characters need to be reined in and controlled.

How do you tell the difference?

Well, it depends.

I hate it when people use that answer because it always feels like a cop-out. The reason it works here is that it really does depend on the situation, and only the author can really tell.

For example, In the novel I am writing now I chose to explore some side characters and develop secondary conflicts in greater detail than originally planned because I had not outlined that part of the novel in great depth and I was still searching for the best way to pursue the heart of the story. I accepted the cost and spent the time exploring the characters and the setting and,
although I’m planning to cut most of that work, it helped bring the setting to life and solidify in my mind the most important scenes. Those secondary story aspects threatened to derail the focus on the primary story line, and there is not enough room in the book to follow both. So I’ll kill those upstart character arcs, re-focus the narrative, and consider it time well spent instead
of a waste.

Then again, in another novel where I had to create a secondary antagonist, the resulting character was so fascinating they really became a primary antagonist, and readers loved it. The ‘real’ bad guy carries over into sequels, but this secondary character is the one that helped the first novel shine and set up the other antagonist for greater success later in the series. So in that case,
exploring the secondary character’s fascinating potential really paid off.

In another twist, in my YA fantasy novel, a couple of the secondary characters needed to take a larger role in the story because they provided comic relief and I chose to focus more on the humorous aspects of the story. The resulting changes make them some of the best-loved characters in the story even though they are not the primary protagonist, but their arcs interweave closely with his and result in strengthening the story instead of breaking it.

Inigo MontoyaSo, when to let your characters roam free and when to rein them in? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help decide:

  • If I explore the new ideas, will they fundamentally change the story? If so, is it an improvement?
  • Will this diminish the power of what I’m trying to accomplish with the main character, or will this add complexity and interest to an already strong story?
  • Do I have any idea where the changes are leading? If not, and if I follow that road, I accept the cost in time and rewrites when I hit the likely dead end because that cost is offset by the pleasure of following that road through the fog to find out where it goes.
  • Should I switch to a more interesting protagonist? Or is there something fascinating I can borrow from this secondary character and imbue my protagonist with it to make him more powerful?
  • Are the antics of this secondary character making improvements or are they just hamming up the stage with no long-term gain?

Enjoy the process, make your plan, but be open to flashes of inspiration that might just make it better by derailing it.

Who are your favorite supporting characters, and why?

Take Control – Please!

7 April 2014 | No Comments » | Ace Jordyn

Letting your character take control is essential to maintain the illusion that the events in your story are real. Yes, every story is an illusion and what makes it believable are the details as perceived by the character. When writing a representational story (where the writer never addresses the audience), you will need to let the character not only tell but experience story events in their fullest. That experience becomes believable to the reader when the characters actions, reactions, thoughts and perceptions feel genuine. The only way to make that happen is to let your character take control.

Letting your character take control doesn’t mean the story will run afoul and destroy your plot – it’s about enhancing the plot by making it and your character feel real and not contrived. It is about choosing and placing the important details. It’s about the details that make him tick, that color his world, that give him motive and have created his common sense and hence his intuition.

There are three things you can do to let your character take control effectively:

1. Understand how a character perceives and relates to his world

  • Physically through the five senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound.
  • Common sense which integrates what we’ve experienced through the five senses. It also helps us see the patterns in our life.
  • Intuition which recognizes the patterns in our lives and allows us to see or project where those patterns may lead us. Your character makes decisions for a reason which must feel genuine to the reader.Emotions which build upon experience and learning and provide a basis for motive and motivation.
  • Emotion is a reaction and colors how information is integrated. For example, a character may react to a strict upbringing by either always being afraid and leery of authority, or may have a total disregard for it. Either way, this will affect how he reacts in specific instances, the words he uses (metaphors) to describe places, people and events.
… larger than life characters … have a sense of self regard. Their emotions matter to them. They do not dismiss what they experience. They embrace life. They wonder about their responses to events and what such responses mean. They take themselves seriously…Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass

As your character lives in his world, he’ll perceive it through is senses, color his experience with his emotions, use his version of common sense and apply his intuition to move forward. When he does this successfully, he’ll be in control, his responses genuine and readers will love him for it.

2. Explore your character
This goes beyond the standard descriptions some writing advice advocates. As Les Edgerton points out in Hooked, a character’s physical description – unless markedly different from the norm – does relatively little to draw the reader in. A character doesn’t usually describe himself. He may describe someone else which in turns grounds the reader. But HOW he describes someone or the scenery around him tells us a lot about him and the lens through which he sees the world. He may even have physical reactions such as running his fingers though his hair when he sees someone’s unkempt hair or a desire to vomit at a certain smell. Thus, you can show rather than tell when you know your character well and you let him take control.

…possibilities only emerge when we demand more from the idea, when we ask more why and what result questions. Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

The easiest way to do this is to write a detailed background history for your character as if you were there. As you get to know his trials and tribulations, the major influences in his life, his fears and desires and yes, even the little things that comforted him, it will become easier to show him in a genuine and full way because the all the important WHY questions become answered. Why does he do that? Why does he feel that? Why wouldn’t he…? Why, if he’s in a responsible position, acting irresponsibly? Why is he so caring about x and then so obtuse and mean about y?

3. Use the things you know about your character against him.
This puts him in a situation which shows who he is and compels him to act (whether running to or from the situation). If your character takes control of the story, his reactions may surprise you. The added benefit is that it cures your writing of the murky-middle syndrome. Often times I’ll ask my character what he sees and how he feels about things. Between his perceptions and his gut reaction, the story moves forward and I have little work to do except to write.

Fictional Characters come to life by giving them individual traits, real weaknesses and heroic qualities that readers can recognize and empathize with. You play these against each other to achieve drama. For instance, a man who is afraid of heights but who must climb a mountain to save his love. The Fiction Writer by Nina Munteanu

In his book, Writing Fiction for Dummies, Randy Ingermanson sums up why you should let your character take control: A character’s past determines what sort of person you have coming into the story. The past is only the imperfect guide to the future, though. Your character has a free will and can choose to break loose from his past and pursue a new future. But will he succeed? Your goal as a novelist is to make it plausible that he might without making it a certainty.

When you know your character this well, he’ll control the story without you losing control.

Happy Writing!

Setting the Scene with POV and Two Aliens in a Bar

4 April 2014 | No Comments » | Leigh Galbreath

Ah, the bane of writers everywhere—the joys of “setting the scene”. For the longest time, I admit, I had only the vaguest, unformed idea what that meant. I mean, I knew it was describing a setting or situation in which your characters are placed, but I kind of missed the important part. It’s the describing of a setting or situation where something is about to happen. It is a description that implies conflict and tension.

That critical bit about things getting ready to happen is the hard part, and in my opinion, viewpoint is probably one of the best tools for setting the scene when telling a story. Over and above word choice and setting and dialogue and all those other things we like to harp about when talking about technique and storytelling. Why’s that? Because, in my opinion, all those things come from your point of view.

It may be obvious, but point of view is one of the very first decisions on how to tell a story, so, for completeness sake, lets run down the differences real quick. We’ll keep to 1st and 3rd here as 2nd person is so little and specialized in use that it deserves it’s own post (which you’ll get from Tracy Hickman, so stick around for that!).

With 3rd person, we have the external narrator with varying levels of distance, from omniscient (furthest) to limited (closest) viewpoints. With omniscient, you get the “god” perspective. Objective is through an impartial observer, and limited traps us in the head of one character at a time.

With 1st person, we have an extremely close narration that allows the reader to take on the experiences and personality of the narrator. The constant use of “I” reinforces this aspect, which makes empathy with the narrator an almost given.

Each has its uses and can be very effective in particular genres and situations.

To be honest, most of us will be doing 3rd person limited or 1st person these days. While omniscient viewpoint works for milieu tales, like Lord of the Rings or Dune where the setting and culture take precedence, it’s gone out of favor over the last few decades. Objective can work, too, but my favorites are when you’re in it with the person your supposed to sympathize with rather than hearing about it from someone else.

The real issue is: the further from the character’s personal viewpoint you get, the less the reader tends to care about them. If your story is about a the setting, like with Dune, distance works. Not so much for a character piece.

So, let’s take our prompt—two aliens walking into a bar.

With a 1st person narrative, obviously, we have to pick a character. For simplicity’s sake, lets pick the human guy sitting alone in the corner who sees our aliens come in together. Say, our human is a drifter with a snarky personality, who’s had dealings with this particular species and tells us right off, they don’t get along. Instant tension. Our drifter gets uncomfortable, keeps his eyes on the newcomers, pushes his glass away and asks for the bill right quick. All the while, we’re getting the narrator’s snarky version of what’s going on. The scene is being set just by having the narrator get antsy in his own personal way. With 1st person, personality is key, and we’ve only got our narrator to tell us how to interpret what’s happening.

Third person gives us a little more leeway. What if the first alien, Bob, is from a culture where public inebriation only happens when someone dies, and there’s a birthday party going on. When he gets into the bar, he starts thinking about the funerals he’s been to. Suddenly, you’ve got tension with what’s actually happening around him and the somber mood he’s now in. Bob gives us information about his people and their ways by how he handles the situation. Maybe he’s upset that he’s mood got soured by the joviality. Maybe he finds humans obscene for using alcohol to celebrate a life rather than a death. Maybe Bob picks our drifter in the corner because of his uncomfortableness, thinking this lone human might agree with him.

Depending on the distance with 3rd person, we could get as particular in limited perspective as with 1st person—Bob’s been dying for a certain beverage, but it’s too sweet for the somber mood he’s now in—or more generalized with Bob’s recount of how his friend accidentally picked a fight with the drifter, if you want go more of an objective viewpoint. Both of these, of course, keep us in Bob’s head, so we open the scene up a bit to things that our drifter might have missed while we were so focused on his pithy turns of phrase. At the same time, we’re not buried under exposition as to why Bob’s people think parties are for the dead, because we’re right with Bob as he experiences things.

With 3rd person omniscient, all bets are off. We can get information from Bob, his friend, the drifter, the bartender, the birthday party-goers. We can learn the history of Bob’s people, the trouble the drifter had with them, probably even a few facts about the bar even the owner didn’t know. We’re also often supplied with what it all means and why its important. We lose much of the detailed personal impressions that our characters might have for more of an overarching view of the point of the scene.

Setting the scene isn’t easy, but picking the right viewpoint from the start, can make it a lot easier in the end. Pick carefully, my friend.



Why First-Person is Popular in YA: A Theory

3 April 2014 | 5 Comments » | Kristin Luna

You may have noticed that many popular YA titles today are written in the first-person narrative. But why? Why is first-person so popular with the YA audience?

In her blog, YA writer and children’s book illustrator Ingrid Sunberg shares five reasons why authors choose to write in the first-person. Ingrid observes that first-person gives the reader a quick connection with the protagonist, makes the story believable, helps develop the protagonist, is somewhat easy to write, and creates an agreement with the reader of how the story will be told.

To help find the answer to why readers connect with first-person narratives, I decided to make a graph, because graphs are my jam.

First, I took thirty titles of popular YA fiction all the way from the mid 1800’s to 2013. These titles are or have been enormously popular, and a couple of titles are just a few of my favorite YA and Middle Grade books. Next, I went through and marked which stories are told in first-person and and which were told in third-person (limited, objective, and omniscient).

1st Person Year Published 3rd person Year Published
1 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 1884 1 Little Women 1868
2 The Catcher in the Rye 1951 2 Anne of Green Gables 1908
3 To Kill a Mockingbird 1960 3 The Secret Garden 1911
4 Island of the Blue Dolphins 1960 4 Charlotte’s Web 1952
5 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret 1970 5 Lord of the Flies 1954
6 The Perks of Being a Wallflower 1999 6 The Phantom Tollbooth 1961
7 The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2001 7 A Wrinkle in Time 1962
8 Twilight 2005 8 Hatchet 1987
9 The Book Thief 2005 9 Number the Stars 1989
10 The Lightning Thief 2005 10 The Giver 1993
11 The Host 2008 11 Ender’s Game 1994
12 The Hunger Games 2008 12 Holes 1998
13 Divergent 2011 13 Eragon 2002
14 Incarnate 2012 14 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 2003
15 Vampire Academy 2013 15 Inkheart 2005

The information I gathered already surprised me. I assumed that of the thirty books, at least 66% would be written in first-person. But of the thirty books I chose, exactly half were written in third-person.

Next, I charted how many books from both POV’s were published in ten year increments from 1800 – 2013.

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 8.12.39 AM


You may or may not be surprised by my microcosmic, pedestrian research. What surprised me was that technically, third-person isn’t any less popular as a whole. In fact, according to my chart, it’s been steadily increasing in popularity through the years. Note that while I only took the first books in popular series, keep in mind how popular all of the Harry Potter books were (third-person), with the last book published in 2007. Third-person YA stories aren’t going anywhere. They’re steadily increasing in popularity, according to my small-scale study.

First-person narrative YA and Middle Grade novels increase sharply in popularity according to my chart, especially in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. First-person narrative is trendy, but it has also steadily grown in popularity as well.

But why has the first-person narrative become so popular recently in YA and Middle Grade fiction?

This brings us to my theory: chicks and their diaries, man.


Chicks, man.

In this article from The Guardian, Vanessa Thorpe summarizes a 2009 study in which researchers interviewed 2,000 people about their reading habits. Researchers found of the women interviewed, forty-eight percent could be considered avid readers, while only twenty-six percent of men could be considered the same. Thirty-two percent of men admitted to only reading two books per year, while eighteen percent of the women interviewed said the same. According to this article on NPR, surveys conducted in the U.S., Canada, and Britain concluded that men account for only twenty percent of readers in the fiction market.

While it could be argued that maybe many of the study’s participants were adults and did not read YA fiction, an article in Publisher’s Weekly claims otherwise:

“More than half the consumers of books classified for young adults aren’t all that young. According to a new study, fully 55% of buyers of works that publishers designate for kids aged 12 to 17 — known as YA books — are 18 or older, with the largest segment aged 30 to 44, a group that alone accounted for 28% of YA sales. And adults aren’t just purchasing for others — when asked about the intended recipient, they report that 78% of the time they are purchasing books for their own reading. The insights are courtesy of Understanding the Children’s Book Consumer in the Digital Age, an ongoing biannual study from Bowker Market Research that explores the changing nature of publishing for kids.”

 From this evidence, we can conclude that women read more fiction novels than men by a wide margin, and that plenty of those women are reading YA.


Diaries: The Missing Link to First-Person

For as long as I remember, I’ve kept journals. I have an entire bookshelf dedicated to my journals, one dating back to fifth grade. According to this January 2013 article by Carolyn Gregoire, I’m not the only one. According to a study, eighty-three percent of girls aged 16-19 write about their lives in a journal.

Let’s examine common characteristics of the female diary entry.

Disclaimer: these characteristics may or may not match your own diaries. These are typical characteristics I’ve noticed from the diaries I’ve snuck into (Okay, only once, and I feel awful about it. The saving grace was that the entry I flipped to talked about wanting mango ice cream instead of vanilla, and then I stopped reading immediately), have heard fellow females talk about, or have read as published works.

  • Almost always (I can’t imagine otherwise, frankly) written in first-person.
  • Focus on emotional reaction to situations and events.
  • Chronicles important events.
  • Marks events that have just happened.
  • Divulge true feelings and secrets.
  • Examine secret longings.
  • Heavy on self-evaluation.
  • Usually written in a stream of consciousness fashion.
  • Has voicing specific to the person writing the journal

Now, let’s compare those characteristics to a YA first-person story with a female protagonist:

  • Focused on one central character who tells the story
  • Emotionally charged
  • Has voicing specific to the protagonist
  • Tells important events through the protagonist’s point of view
  • Lets the reader peek into the mind of the protagonist, viewing her longings, desires, and emotional reactions
  • Usually follows as steady span of time without skipping through time.

Seeing the strong connection between the two? Now think about the target for most YA fiction. Research shows that most avid readers are women. Research also shows that many young women journal. When you combine the two facts, it makes a compelling case.

My theory is this: girls aged 12-18 who read regularly can and do connect quickly with a first-person narrative because it is reminiscent of their own journaling behavior. That is to say, how young girls process important events in their lives through journaling is very similar to a protagonist’s process of self-evaluation and self-discovery in a YA first-person narrative.

When a young girl picks up a YA first-person story, she is looking into the mind of the protagonist, almost the same as reading that protagonist’s own diary. As the young girl grows into a woman, whether or not she decides to continue journaling, she will understand the connection of first-person narrative because she has already written it.

Third-person in YA is in no way dying, but it may not have the strength of connecting so immediately with its audience as YA first-person storytelling does.


What do you think about the connection of girls who journal and girls who read first-person YA novels? I would love to know if you agree or disagree! Please let me know what you think in the comments.


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