Monday, July 14, 2014

How To Effectively Test Your Characters

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the Ellie Sweet books (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website including the free novella, Throwing Stones.

Last Monday I talked (more extensively than I intended to) about taking a story idea and turning it into a list of key scenes. It's the method I've used for the last few novels I've written and it's worked really well for me. I was a bit skeptical at firstthinking it might feel a bit too restrictive to my pantser heartbut I love it.

So last week, I made a very long list of the types of scenes that I brainstorm, along with brief descriptions. Some of them are more familiar to us than others, and I wanted to touch on the ones that I was unfamiliar with until I started using scene lists for creating stories:



Tests and Armor

During my studies this year, one of my favorite things that I learned was about the idea of establishing what your character brings into their journey that they believe will aid their victory. Another way to phrase this is, "What is it that your character takes from their home world or their old life that they believe will help them achieve their goal?"

It could be something physical. Katniss is good with a bow and arrow. She knows how to hunt. Those are tools or she takes with her into the arena. They make her feel like she could survive this.

Or perhaps the tool isn't physical. In Heist Society, Katarina Bishop believes she can get away with robbing a famous museum because she comes from a family of thieves. Her family heritage is something that aids her belief.

In the book I'm working on now (first draft stage) I used an ideal as a tool. My main character believes she'll achieve her goal because she was mistreated in the opening conflict. She believes her innocence will ensure her victory.

I like to think of these tools as armor because the way characters use them to deflect conflict. Armor has become one of my favorite things to brainstorm because as you figure them out, scenes of the story unfold in your imagination. You're not just brainstorming the character's armor, you're brainstorming what will strip it away. When I realized my character believed herself innocent, I immediately started brainstorming a scene in which she discovered her own guilt in the conflict.

Going back to The Hunger Games example, while hunting and archery skills certainly help Katniss during the games, they aren't what save her in the end. She strips herself of the bow and arrow when she realizes she can't live with herself if she kills Peeta. She'll have to find another way to defeat the enemy during the final battle.

Or in Heist Society, yes, Katarina still has her family heritage. But she'll have to use her own smarts to solve this one because her father and uncle are not able to help.

Fun, right?

Now for the other scene that was a bit too complex to explain in my last blog post:

Atonement with the father

As I mentioned last week, this is by no means a mandatory scene, nor does it need to be taken as literally as its title indicates. This is just a type of scene to consider when you're brainstorming.

Your character likely entered the story with scars from another character. Typically for this scene we're talking about a parent or a guardian of some type. 

I unknowingly did this in The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet. (It's so nice when I'm ignorant but get something right anyway.) So nice and so rare.In the beginning of the book, Ellie mentions that her real name is Gabrielle, but that when she was born her mother didn't think she "looked right" and so they called her Ellie instead. Because of this, Ellie believes she's been a disappointment since she was born. She actually hates the nickname of Ellie because to her it feels like a reminder that she has never measured up.

In the last quarter of the book, Ellie finally gets the courage to insist that she be called Gabrielle even if "she doesn't look right." Her mother is shocked by Ellie's fervor and explains that no seven-pound, bald baby is going to look like a Gabrielle. That they intended to call her Gabrielle when she got older, but the nickname had stuck. This realization corrects the lie Ellie has believe, bonds her to her mother, and builds courage in her to be the girl she wants to be.

And that's what the "Atonement with the Father" scene is about. Healing a wound and strengthening your character for upcoming battles. 

Next Monday, I'll talk about brainstorming the various parts of the story and then I'll be sending out the Go Teen Writers newsletter (which is our free, monthly newsletter) with a printable that you can try out of your own stories.

Does your manuscript have these types of scenes built in? Does your character have armor that you strip away? Do they have an "atonement with the father" type moment?

30 comments:

  1. Come to think of it, I think my novel DOES have some of these elements. How did that happen? I love my subconscious sometimes. :D

    My MC's armor is her way with words. She lives in a matriarchy that's been at war with another kingdom for generations, and everyone else in her (royal) family is good at combat. Her life's ambition, however, is to be proper, diplomatic, and marry the prince of the other kingdom. She's awful at fighting, but she's positive big words are "her thing". They are certainly a key part of her, and they do help her in the grand adventure of things, but she also realize she's been using them to justify her lack of courage and shield herself from her fear of not being good enough to be a true princess of her kingdom. She knows she's different, so she tries to turn "different" into "better", when really it's partly an excuse.

    As for the "atonement with the father", the last quarter of the book consists of closing rifts with family members/other important persons with influence on her life. (And, you know, saving the world...details, details)

    Woo-hoo, first comment today, probably because for once I checked the blog before writing and am not overwhelmed with guilt about it. In fact, my Camp NaNoWriMo projects weren't going as smoothly as planned, and I realized "Whoa, I JUST FINISHED A NOVEL. Why am I still bullying myself about word count?" So I'm taking a break from writing, unless I feel inspired. Until I start edits again, it's going to be a hobby, not a discipline. In edits I'll deal with the weird subplot that peaked at the end without really climbing and that unnecessary three chapter side trip to the marketplace and... *breathes*. In edits...

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    1. Yes, take it easy on yourself! We all need a break. And isn't it so nice when we find we unknowingly did something right?

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  2. Thanks for this post! I've been taking notes! I have one question from the list of key scenes post from last week. Just to clarify, is the Final Battle the same as the climax? If not, what scene would be equivalent to the climax?

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    1. Yes, the final battle is the climax of the book. I'm not in love with labeling it "battle" since I don't often write books with a literal battle, but I haven't thought of anything I like better :)

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  3. Wait my comment disappeared. Are there technical difficulties?

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    1. It's totally gone. Did it get deleted? I'm worried. This is the first time I've shared it with anyone besides agents.

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    2. I guess I can just retype it.

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    3. Actually, no. It feels a little like censorship and that disappoints me.

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    4. Fabio, your comment was deleted because we deemed it inappropriate. This is a blog for serious writers and we have the right to moderate content. Sorry if you feel that was censorship. But this is our blog and we must do what we feel is right.

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  4. I apologize, I honestly didn't mean to offend. I have had some interest while querying, but I understand your concerns.

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  5. Hooray, I accidentally did both of these! For background, my MC Guy's life is threatened because of some bad paperwork mistakes by Death, and he has a chance to save himself by working with a really angry lawyer from the Land of the Dead. Guy's armor is that he believes his own life is something he'll never give up. The atonement with the father scene occurs when he saves himself from a disaster midway through the book because his lawyer fails to show up in time. It eventually leads to some awkward and stiff apologies. :D

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    1. Bad paperwork mistakes by death? Bwahahahaha. This sounds like such a funny book. I would definitely want to read something like that! It's so creative!

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    2. Jessica, this sounds wildly creative. And I love your choice of armor for him! Very well thought out.

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  6. You have such a cool way of writing stories, Stephanie. Thanks for sharing! This will be so helpful when I write tonight.

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  7. My main characters armor is a prophecy that both dooms and protects him. The only problem is that he has no idea if the prophecy is really true or not. His armor is flawed because he can still be harmed just not killed.

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  8. I'd also like to mention that in The Hunger Games, at the midpoint when Rue dies, Katniss loses her Guardian role (if we'd like to use Dramatica/Save the Cat! titles.) She entered the Games to protect Prim, and then Rue became a sort of Prim to protect. With her gone, Katniss has to decide to win for herself and nobody else, so she can defeat the Capitol. I'd say that her armor is stripped in that scene more than in any other.

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    1. What a great insight, Anastasia! I had never thought about it in those terms, but you're absolutely right.

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  9. Each of my three MCs have something about them that helps them but can be easily taken away. MC1 has her smarts and logical intuition but in a world of magic, logic doesn't always apply. MC2 armor is her impulsiveness and blunt nature, but being to blunt doesn't help her some very important situations. And MC3 is trusting and loving, but she learns that not everyone can be trusted over time. But for the atonement scene, well I'm not sure my book has one. But it is only the first of seven, I'm sure one of them will. Lol

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    1. Nicely done! And like i said in the post, atonement is by no means a mandatory scene :)

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  10. Wow... What, my WIP DOES have something of this sort in it. O_O Bahaha, how did that happen? XD Thank you for such a eye-opening post, Mrs Morrill; this is awesome. :)
    Does it HAVE to be a guardian or a parent? Could it be a friend or an older sibling? Would that work just as well? :)
    Because, I'm only at the beginnings of my current WIP, and the MC's parents haven't really been introduced, but my Main starts the story with 'scars' from older siblings, and that situation could use some atonement. Is it okay if I change Atonement With the Father to Atonement With Older Sibling? XD Or does that defeat the purpose?
    I'm sorry if this is kinda confuzzling. I hope you understand. XD Thank you again. :) (And I'm sorry if this question had already been asked and I didn't see.)

    -Koko :)

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  11. I got an Atonement with the Father question. Actually, atoning with the father made me wonder about a certain type of character. You've got protagonists, foils, antagonists, etc., but is there a certain kind of character that's like, a "father-like" character? Like Sirius Black or Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Holt the Ranger in Ranger's Apprentice, Gandalf or Aragorn in LOTR... I usually notice this type of character as who the protagonist looks to in their ultimate time of need, he can't be in the same mess as the MC (ex: Gandalf wasn't the Ring Bearer), there's usually an age boundary, and writers with these characters seem to "starve" readers for that Moment with your MC and father-figure. Is this a real type of character, or are there sometimes just characters like this because readers need a break from all the suspense and action? Is this like Atonement with the Father?

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    1. If I understand your question correctly, I think it's a real type of character. Sometimes it's referred to as a mentor.

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  12. As for just straight up Atonement with the Father, my MC spends a large portion of the book distrusting the "father" character, due to some suspicious activity and her own rebellious spirit. Her atonement is after being saved by the "father" from a sure to be deathly experience, and she realized she'd been wrong all along. Two other characters also atone, one after slipping in faith, and another after betrayal. It's fun stuff!!

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  13. This is great advice, so simply put too. Thank you.

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  14. Thank you for this! I'll be testing this method out during NaNoWriMo and seeing how well it works for me. I have a question though. Is stripping armor, or something related to it, at the root of every test for your character? Your list from part one mentioned having a complication. How does that tie in? Again, thanks! I always feel like the basic structure of my novels eludes me, and I think keeping this list in mind will help me fit everything together better.

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  15. Hi, I was just wondering what type of things should be in the 6 or so tests you have placed in the key scenes post. I want to plan out my novel but I am not 100% sure what to put in the other 5 tests. Thank you!

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  16. My atonement with father scene happens post-mortem.My MC believes her uncle had her adoptive parents murdered and responds in kind- only to later discover he was actually her biological father and was protecting her from something she discovers later in book. Too late to atone, so character must deal with remorse.

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  17. Wow, this is really helpful. Definitely applicable for the characters im sketching out

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