Tag Archives: Stein

Competing with God: Making Fascinating People

Stein (from which the examples of this paragraph are taken) says: “There’s a book called Characters Make Your Story that you don’t have to read because the title says it all: Characters make your story”. Readers want to fall in love with your characters, they want to know them and they want them to be so interesting that they can’t shut the book. And to get your readers to know your characters, you have to characterize them. You can achieve this goal:

  • Through physical attributes
  • With clothes or how they wear clothes
  • Through psychological attributes and mannerisms
  • Through actions
  • In dialogue

Don’t just characterize them: show them while they talk and act. You can use exaggerations (“he weighed two tons naked”) or comparisons (“he was Wilt Chamberlain tall”). But avoid clichés: for sexy women you can talk about their hairs, for men their voice. And keep them visual: “he walked against an unseen wind”. You can also use characterization to help your story, for example psychological attributes often connect to the story (“if you got in a car with her you’d find that her sentences were at least ten miles long”).

And most important: avoid protagonists with a weak will and antagonists badly behaved. Readers want assertive characters who want something badly and now.

To develop a character you can use these non conventional questions:

  • Does he behave differently at home, with the family, with strangers, with old successful/unsuccessful friends?
  • Does he speak to other people in a way they find offensive? Does he realize that? Does he apologize?
  • If he had a reason to shout, what would you hear? If he never shouts, what thought is he repressing?
  • Does he use figures of speech or particular expressions? Conscious or unconscious mannerisms?
  • What’s his attitude toward himself? Does he reveal it through some physical tic?

You usually want extraordinary characters, and what makes them extraordinary are personality (specialness, charisma, eccentricity, temperament), disposition (toward people and places, predisposition, mind-set), temperament (how he reacts, how he confronts with new things), individuality (concrete details that define his identity), eccentricity (it’s the heart of strong characterization, an unusual manner of behavior, dress or speech).
You can also use contrasts (a character well dressed who picks his nose).
Somerset Maugham said “You can never know enough about your characters”, and when you have trouble improving the characterization you can view your character from a different perspective: make him complain bitterly, imagine your adult character secretly dressed in children’s clothes (why is he doing that?), imagine him old, or in the nude, ask him questions that are provocative; can you see him trying to fly or kiss everyone at a party?

About other characters:

  • Villains: you can use a slightly disturbing mannerism, or thinking about how they behave with people they don’t know. But you have to avoid villains badly behaved
  • Minor: pick one characteristic that makes them unique

To have a swift characterization you can use the clash of differences between characters, and the process of identifying different worlds can be accomplished through markers: easily identified signals that will reveal a character’s cultural and social background. Clothing can be a marker (designer jeans), a characteristic of the body (black under fingernails), the public conduct with children (screaming vs dressed-up), mannerisms (scratches his crotch), where and how food is consumed, vocabulary and expressions, attitude toward travel, actions they do (at the restaurant, does he complain or overtips?).
There are some questions that can provide markers: what influenced his life? What has he tried to change without succeeding? What family tradition had a good or bad influence? What is the single most important factor in the villain’s upbringing that contributed to his conduct?

Even Stephen King provides wonderful advice for creating good characters – along with other unmissable tips – in his “On Writing”. I will summarize it in my next blog post, so if you want it delivered to your inbox, just enter your email address here and you will get this and the next posts about creative writing – for free:

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I’m also collecting all these tips in a book – if you want more information, you can visit this page.

If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience

If you want to read only 1 book focused on creative writing, my suggestion is Stein on writing (Sol Stein). He says: “If one understands the principles of intriguing the reader, one doesn’t need decades of experience”. And he clearly explains these principles.

Thwarting Desire: The Basis of Plotting

The main one in my opinion is the one he calls “thwarting desire”. Creating characters driven by needs and wants is the key for an intriguing plot, and the more urgent is the want, the greater will be the reader’s interest. The wants must be important, necessary and urgent. There must be a clash of wants which also the reader must perceive as important, because this way he can identify with the character. Some examples of good wants are the gaining or losing of love, achieving a lifetime ambition, making justice, saving a life, vengeance, or doing something that seemed impossible.
If you want to check if the want is important enough, you can ask yourself if it leads to unhappiness, injury or death, if it is about something that values, or an important decision. The clash must seem inevitable and not caused by coincidences. It must involve the most important thing for the character, and possibly surprise the reader with something he hasn’t expected (even better: with the opposite of what he expected).
And then you need to keep the reader’s interest, for example forcing the character to stay with someone he hates, or forcing him in an embarrassing environment, or involving a character’s fear (even better if it’s generated from small things), or a change in relationships, or surprising the reader with something unexpected, with a new obstacle, with a change in circumstances. It’s pretty easy to follow this rule: just ask yourself where you think a situation will lead, and then do the opposite.

A very good way of creating the scenes that form the plot is described by Stein in the “actors studio method”: basically you give two different scripts to your characters without them knowing the other script. For example one is the headmaster of a school where an incorrigible boy has finally been expelled after not responding to the warnings of his teachers and doesn’t want to take him back under no condition; the other is the mother of a first-class student who has been wrongly targeted by the headmaster. This is what happens in real life: every person has a different script (intent) and that’s why there is conflict.
Another way to create the plot is using a “crucible”: the motivation for the characters to continue their conflict is stronger than the motivation to leave.


Keeping the reader reading

The suspense is another very important element for the plot: the curiosity for the reader to discover what happens next must be stronger than the need to do something else than read. Suspense means “to hang”, and the writer is the hangman: he is not the rescuer, he has no compassion, he must leave the character hanged for as long as possible as save him as late as possible. The reader must want something to happen, and that thing doesn’t happen. He wants to stop something that is happening, and you don’t stop this thing.
“The writer’s duty is to set up something that cries for a resolution and then to act irresponsibly”, exacerbating the reader’s need for a resolution.
Examples of situations that cries for a resolution: a prospective danger, an actual immediate danger, an unwanted confrontation (maybe wanted by one character and unwanted by the other), the return of an old fear, a crisis which requires action.
The writer’s duty: not removing the prospective danger, not removing the danger without introducing a bigger one, holding off the unwanted confrontation as long as possible, making the fear even worse than expected, the action backfires and the crisis is prolonged.

The reader is interested in the scenes, not what happens between the scenes, and you have to remove the weak ones. Don’t drive the reader where he wants to go, create more than one lines of suspense. Short chapters create a good pace, but if they are shorter than 3 pages they don’t engage the reader. The chapters should finish with an unresolved trouble.

And finally, the tension. Writers are troublemakers, their job is to give readers stress, strain and pressure. Tension must last for a short amount of time: suspense can last the whole book. Create a sudden stress and the reader will love it, he will feel excited. “Sudden” doesn’t mean that you will quickly solve the conflict: the conflict created by the tension can last the whole book. Actually, it’s better to put it in the book as soon as possible. Example of situations which create tension: a dangerous work (with a child looking!), the approach of a deadline, an unfortunate meeting, an opponent trapped in a closed environment. And add one tense moment to another to raise the degree of tension toward a climax.