All characters have desires. Desire is the engine that drives your story, it’s what gives the hero a goal—find the killer, fall in love, destroy the death star.
If your characters get what they want on page one, there’s no story left. It’s your job, as an author, to give your characters what they want at exactly the right time. Or not at all.
Until then, you have to play with that desire, use it to develop the drama that will push the story along and pull your readers with it.
There are a few straightforward ways to use your characters’ desires to inject drama into your story, to fuel that engine that will keep your readers engaged.
These techniques are useful for when you’re stuck, when you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen next. They can also help to get back control of your characters when they run off and do their own thing, when they stray away from your carefully plotted plan. Continue reading “Create drama with your character’s desire”→
“Be a sadist,” said Kurt Vonnegut. That’s number six on his list of eight creative writing 101 tips. He added, “No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
Vonnegut knew what he was talking about. He made awful things happen to Billy Pilgrim, his leading character in his most famous novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. It was not enough to send Pilgrim unprepared into the thick of World War II and have him captured by the enemy, Vonnegut then sends him into the worst firestorm of the war—Dresden in February 1945. And that was just the start of poor Pilgrim’s problems. Continue reading “Give your hero a hard time”→
It might seem obvious to say (or just plain odd), but your characters don’t know they’re part of a story. Except for some metafictional works, your characters think they are real people. They want to behave like real people – and readers want them to behave like real people. That means that the actions they take and the choices they make are all done for a reason. What they do has to make sense to them (and the readers).
Your main character chose to be a hero, at least the hero of your story. Certain circumstances led them to that decision and the position they’re now in. They chose to act in one way rather than continue with how their old life was going. It wasn’t a random decision. It was motivated by events, the past and influences from other characters (who also don’t know they’re in a story). Continue reading “Three ways to discover your character’s true motivation”→
Best-selling thriller writer Ian Rankin writes a book a year. At a certain point, usually at the end of the first month, he is struck by “the fear.” He becomes convinced that all the work he’s done so far has been a waste of time, that this new book won’t be any good.
When he mentions this to his wife, she usually asks, “Are you on page 65?” He then realizes that he goes through this phase with every novel, always at the same point. Always around page 65.
Many writers, if not all, experience this kind of doubt about their work at some stage. And, as writing is such a lonely profession, they don’t all have someone with whom they can share their frustrations. Continue reading “Overcome your inner critic”→
A pause, even a long break, can be good to gather your thoughts and decide where you want to go next.
‘A pause at the top, you need a pause at the top to generate momentum.’
John Updike. Rabbit is Rich.
Sometimes our minds say really unhelpful things that are best left unsaid. Sometimes we hold ourselves back from saying what is important because our minds tell us we will look stupid. Instead I would like to encourage you to communicate thoughtfully. To ask yourself what you want to achieve, and then what you need to say and do in order to make that outcome more likely. It is okay to pause.
Paul E. Flaxman, Frank W. Bond, and Fredrik Livheim. The Mindful and Effective Employee: An Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Training Manual for Improving Well-being and Performance.
Whether you suffer from high or low self-esteem, you might find self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation kinder to yourself, and to others.
‘It may be affirmed without delay that Isabel was probably very liable to the sin of self-esteem; she often surveyed with complacency the field of her own nature; she was in the habit of taking for granted, on scanty evidence, that she was right; she treated herself to occasions of homage. Meanwhile her errors and delusions were frequent, such as a biographer interested in preserving the dignity of his subject must shrink from specifying. Her thoughts were a tangle of vague outlines which had never been corrected by the judgement of people speaking with authority. In matters of opinion she had had her own way, and it had led her into a thousand ridiculous zigzags. At moments she discovered she was grotesquely wrong, and then she treated herself to a week of passionate humility. After this she held her head higher than ever again; for it was of no use, she had an unquenchable desire to think well of herself. She had a theory that it was only under this provision life was worth living; that one should be one of the best, should be conscious of a fine organisation (she couldn’t help knowing her organisation was fine), should move in a realm of light, of natural wisdom, of happy impulse, of inspiration gracefully chronic.’
Henry James. The Portrait of a Lady (volume I).
By far the most common meaning of ‘high self-esteem’ is evaluating oneself positively; in other words, making and believing positive self-judgements and self-appraisals. (This is often described as prizing, appreciating or approving of oneself.) Now keeping to this popular meaning of the term, please do the following quiz. Answer each statement true or false:
Boosting your self-esteem will improve your performance.
People with high self-esteem are more likeable, have better relationships, and make a better impression on others.
People with high self-esteem make better leaders.
Before I give you the answers, let’s go back in time to 2003. In that year, the American Psychological Association commissioned a ‘Self-esteem Task Force’ to investigate if the claims above (and many other similar ones) were true. So a team of four psychologists from top universities – Roy Baumeister, Jennifer Campbell, Joachim Krueger and Kathleen Vohs – systematically ploughed through decades of published research on self-esteem. They looked long and hard for firm scientific evidence to either confirm or refute these popular beliefs. Then they published their results in an influential journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest. And what did they find? All three of the above statements are false! They also found that:
High self-esteem correlates with egotism, narcissism and arrogance.
High self-esteem correlates with prejudice and discrimination.
High self-esteem correlates with self-deception and defensiveness when faced with honest feedback.
And as if this news weren’t bad enough by itself, when people with low self-esteem try to boost it through positive self-affirmations, they generally end up feeling even worse!
So if trying to raise self-esteem is not worth the effort, then what’s the alternative?
Self-acceptance, self-awareness and self-motivation are all far more important than self-esteem.
Everyone has judgmental, even prejudicial, thoughts. Try to recognise these as just thoughts, you don’t need to believe them and you don’t need to act on them.
“A clergyman has nothing to do but to be slovenly and selfish—read the newspaper, watch the weather, and quarrel with his wife. His curate does all the work, and the business of his own life is to dine.”
“There are such clergymen, no doubt, but I think they are not so common as to justify Miss Crawford in esteeming it their general character. I suspect that in this comprehensive and (may I say) common-place censure, you are not judging from yourself, but from prejudiced persons, whose opinions you have been in the habit of hearing. It is impossible that your own observation can have given you much knowledge of the clergy. You can have been personally acquainted with very few of a set of men you condemn so conclusively. You are speaking what you have been told at your uncle’s table.”
“I speak what appears to me the general opinion; and where an opinion is general, it is usually correct. Though I have not seen much of the domestic lives of clergymen, it is seen by too many to leave any deficiency of information.”
“Where any one body of educated men, of whatever denomination, are condemned indiscriminately, there must be a deficiency of information, or (smiling) of something else.
Jane Austen. Mansfield Park.
While our thinking colors all our experience, more often than not our thoughts tend to be less than completely accurate. Usually they are merely uninformed private opinions, reactions and prejudices based on limited knowledge and influenced primarily by our past conditioning. All the same, when not recognized as such and named, our thinking can prevent us from seeing clearly in the present moment. We get caught up in thinking we know what we are seeing and feeling, and in projecting our judgments out onto everything we see off a hairline trigger. Just being familiar with this deeply entrenched pattern and watching it as it happens can lead to greater non-judgmental receptivity and acceptance.
Jon Kabat-Zinn. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.
It’s normal for your mind to judge, to declare you a failure or a success. The truth is that you’re neither. Sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed. Who you are doesn’t change.
‘It is impossible to be a barrister without imagining oneself a judge, and Ducane’s imagination had often taken this flight. However, and this was another reason for Ducane’s ultimate disgust with life in the courts, the whole situation of ‘judging’ was abhorrent to him. He had watched his judges closely, and had come to the conclusion that no human being is worthy to be a judge. In theory, the judge represents simply the majesty and impartiality of the law whose instrument he is. In practice, because of the imprecision of law and the imperfection of man, the judge enjoys a considerable area of quite personal power which he may or may not exercise wisely. Ducane’s rational mind knew that there had to be law courts and that English law was on the whole good law and English judges good judges. But he detested that confrontation between the prisoner in the dock and the judge, dressed so like a king or a pope, seated up above him. His irrational heart, perceptive of the pride of judges, sickened and said it should not be thus; and said it the more passionately since there was that in Ducane which wanted to be a judge.
Ducane knew, and knew it in a half-guilty, half-annoyed way as if he had been eavesdropping, that there were moments when he had said to himself, ‘I alone of all these people am good enough, am humble enough, to be a judge’. Ducane was capable of picturing himself as not only aspiring to be, but as actually being, the just man and the just judge. He did not rightly know what to do with these visions. Sometimes he took them, now that he had removed himself from the possibility of actually becoming a real judge, for a sort of harmless idealism.
Sometimes they seemed to him the most corrupting influences in his life.’
Iris Murdoch. The Nice and the Good.
Most of us are far too quick to judge others: to label them as ‘quitters’, ‘losers’ or ‘failures’. If we want to let go of judging ourselves harshly, we also need to do the same for others. The more we point the finger at our fellow human beings, and write them off as weak or inferior, the more we entrench the habit of harsh judgemental thinking. And sooner or later, our minds will turn those judgements back on ourselves.
Life is easier when we recognize there are no such people as ‘quitters’, ‘losers’ or ‘failures’. There are just human beings, who – much like you and me – sometimes quit, sometimes lose and sometimes fail. Likewise, there are no such people as ‘winners’, ‘champions’ and ‘successes’. Rather there are human beings who, just like you and me, sometimes win or are very successful in certain areas of their lives.
Avoiding unpleasant situations works in the physical word, but avoiding unpleasant thoughts or feelings can make your pain worse.
He went into his bedroom and brought back an object in a paper bag.
‘Do you know what this is?’ He pulled out a small bottle of Jack Daniels. ‘I’ve kept this bottle for ten years, ever since I got sober, to remind me of what I overcame, to remind me that I’m stronger than any addiction. But do you know how long I looked at this bottle last night? Do you know how long I considered taking a drink?’
She bit her lip, saying nothing.
‘All night,’ Seb said, glaring at her. ‘I looked at this goddamn bottle all night long.’ He slammed it onto the table. ‘But I didn’t drink. You know why? Because I’m stronger than it. And you’re stronger than whatever it is that’s been trying to sabotage what we have together.’
‘I told you I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘What else can I say?’
‘Are you even hearing me? You don’t solve problems by avoiding them – by drinking or running off with some guy. You need to face what’s hurting you, and acknowledge it, or you’ll never have the life you want. Not with me or with anyone else, Marika. The only way out of your pain is through it. And I wish it were easier, but it’s not. As long as you resist what hurts, you’re going to resist life—can you get that?’
Kira Salak. The White Mary: a novel.
Imagine you wake up one morning and just outside your front door you find an adorable tiger kitten mewing. Of course you bring the cuddly little guy inside to keep as a pet. After playing with him for a while, you notice he is still mewing, nonstop, and you realize he must be hungry. You feed him a bit of bloody, red ground beef knowing that’s what tigers like to eat. You do this every day, and every day your pet tiger grows a little bigger. Over the course of two years, your tiger’s daily meals change from hamburger scraps, to prime rib, to entire sides of beef. Soon your little pet no longer mews when hungry. Instead, he growls ferociously at you whenever he thinks it’s mealtime. Your cute little pet has turned into an uncontrollable, savage beast that will tear you apart if he doesn’t get what he wants.
Your struggle with your pain can be compared to this imaginary pet tiger. Every time you empower your pain by feeding it the red meat of experiential avoidance, you help your pain-tiger grow a little bit larger and a little bit stronger. Feeding it in this manner seems like the prudent thing to do. The pain-tiger growls ferociously telling you to feed it whatever it wants or it will eat you. Yet, every time you feed it, you help the pain to become stronger, more intimidating, and more controlling of your life.
Consider the possibility, as unlikely as it may seem, that it’s not just that these avoidance strategies haven’t worked—it’s that they can’t work. Avoidance only strengthens the importance and the role of whatever you are avoiding—in other words, when you avoid dealing with your problem, it only grows.
Steven C. Hayes & Spencer Smith. Get Out Of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.