Writing Excuses 13.41: Fixing Character Problems, Part II
Key points: Fixing broken characters, part II! When a story just stops, you may need to spend more time developing the characters before hand. When a story stops, check either the character building or the world building. Sometimes you may need to add another character to bring out another side of a character. Sometimes brokenness shows up when outlining. Without a sense of the character, you can’t write (or outline) the scene. Look at the blanks, that may be where your story is. Put the plot aside, and focus on who the character is and why this is a problem. Sometimes, with a big cast and many storylines, you may need to map them out, and combine characters. Sometimes, just lean into the prose. Ignore the story issues, structure, character, or plot, and just lean into the prose. Sometimes you just unravel part of the story, then crotchet or knit it back together again.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 41.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Fixing Character Problems, Part II.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] And we have broken characters. How do we fix’em?
[Brandon] This is part II. We talked about this previously with the other podcasting team. I really want to get Amal and Maurice’s thoughts on what they do when a character just isn’t working. Have you ever had a character, when you get done with your piece, or even midway through it, that you know the character isn’t working?
[Brandon] Okay. Podcast over.
[Maurice] It’s happened a couple of different ways. I remember early on I had a story, it was a young woman, and I was very much in her head, story’s going along just fine, and then I killed off her husband. Then the story stopped. I’m just like, “Yeah, but what do you do next? What…” Nothing. Nothing came after that. That was like the first time when a… I started filing away the whole idea of, you know what, I have to spend more time developing these characters before hand, because… Like I said, this was early in my career, so I hadn’t quite reached that whole let’s spend weeks with the character and really get to know them, because I hadn’t done all that work, that back work yet. I didn’t realize that back work still needed to be done. That’s actually become my big hint is the work isn’t done because the story stops. So either I haven’t done enough character building at that point, or I haven’t done enough world building. Because sometimes the story stops because I haven’t developed the character… The world as a character enough, and the story stops.
[Brandon] Okay. So with you, when the story stops… Is this most of the time, if you’ve got a problem, it’s a need to go back and I have not spent enough time with the characters?
[Maurice] Yeah. Usually that’s the case. But there was a time when it was pointed out to me that a character wasn’t working for me. That was, ironically, with The Usual Suspects, my middle grade novel. The editor wrote back, and among the editor notes, they were like, “You do know that… I love your main character. But he always has a hard edge to him. He’s always hard. That works when he’s in the school situation, but he becomes almost one note because he’s always doing that.” So, her suggestion was, why don’t you add another character to bring out his softer side? So I ended up…
[Mary] A foil? Ingenious.
[Maurice] Right. A foil.
[Maurice] In this case, the foil was a little sister. Because he would act one way at school with his defenses up, but around his little sister, he can’t help but lower his guards around her. That brought a whole new dimension to the character, and a whole new… Basically, a whole new arc to the story. I was just like… I was so pleased by the time it was done, going in and inserting those scenes of the two of them interacting. I was like, “All right, maybe editors aren’t the enemy.”
[Amal] So, in my case, because I mostly write short fiction, I find that… The identifying the brokenness of a character almost always happens at the outlining stage. I say outlining, I don’t act… I mean, my… The way that I tend to write is very slowly, but then my final draft… My first draft is usually very close to my final draft. So there’s a lot of that time that spent kind of figuring out the story, before I start actually diving into prose. It’s usually at that stage that I’ll see a yeah, this character is just not… Like, I mean, if I don’t have the sense of the character, I just can’t write the scene. So it hasn’t yet happened for me that I’ve written a whole draft of something and been like, “Mm, that character’s actually not working. I need to do something.” But the problems that I’ll encounter as I’m trying to do it are usually dependent on whether or not the character has come out of the needs of the plot or whether the plot as come from the character, the idea of the character. So that a story I’ve mentioned before, Madeleine, where with the kind of like memory flashback hallucination thing, that was the idea that I wanted to play with. It actually came out with… I wanted to write… I thought to myself, I want to write a time travel story where the way that you time travel is through sense memory, is through like being triggered through your senses, and it’s an involuntary thing, and you’re literally traveling through time. It was as I was trying to work out the implications of what that meant, that I decided actually, I think what I want to do is tell a story more about someone experiencing this. So it’s less a high concept thing, and more about the experience of memory. I had to sort of keep zooming in on that idea until I had a character, and even then, when I figured, okay, well, so this is the character, I know that her mother had Alzheimer’s, but… But what else? Those blanks were where the story ended up living. The way that I ended up fixing that was basically just by… By putting the plot aside completely and thinking like, “Well, who is she? Why is it a problem that this is happening?” Like, all these other things came out. Like, she’s really, really lonely in the wake of having tended to a parent in the last stages of a really terrible illness. She’s… Her friends have more or less abandoned her, because they can’t deal with how terrible that pain is… How sustained and terrible that pain is. Like, all of those things, they kind of just came together.
[Mary] So, I’m curious. You both talked about like the story stops, or looking for the story and kind of the space and putting the plot aside. Are there symptoms that tend to… That you’ve now learned that oh, when the story is breaking in this particular way, this is the kind of fix that I usually end up applying to it?
[Maurice] One of them, one of the fixes happened with my urban fantasy series, because again, I had that big sprawling cast, and again, part of the issue was I had all these different storylines I was trying to track. Then I didn’t realize until actually I was starting to map some of them out, there was like, “Okay, some of these just stop and go nowhere.” I would introduce something that I would never pick up ever again. So what I ended up doing was, and it helped… It actually solved another problem in the book, which was I had so many characters in the book that what I ended up doing was combining characters, which (a) cut down the sum of the characters and (b) it allowed for some character growth and whole arcs at that point.
[Amal] For me, what I’ve realized I do, to the point where now I design workshops around this, is that I feel like the break or the problem happens because I’m trying too hard in one direction. What I end up doing is leaning into the prose. Like, this is going to sound weird and super inside baseball-y, I guess, but what I end up doing is because I also write poetry and I tell all my students that I feel like there’s a day brain and a night brain for poetry, which is a concept that I first heard articulated by my friend [garbled]. But, similarly to the way that when you sing, you use different parts of your brain than when you speak, so that if you have speech impediments with your speech, you might not have them if you sing, I find that if I’m really, really focused on a lot of prose… Like, a lot of story issue stuff, structure or character or plot, if I let myself just lean into the prose that I’m writing and let my poetry brain take over, then I can sometimes just jump over the skip in the record or the scratch in the record rather, and just move into something else and keep going. So that definitely happened in this story. And I… It’s weird. I can’t definitely remember what the line was. I just remember very, very clearly that there was a line where I was like, “I have no idea where I’m going with this,” and I just tried to follow the poetry logic of the line. It took me somewhere unexpected, and into a different metaphor, and then suddenly everything just kind of fell into place for the character.
[Mary] I will let you guys know a thing, because I do… I didn’t have that language for it, lean into the prose, but like you can spot this in my fiction. If you see my character doing an activity, thinking about what it is that they are… How am I going to solve this problem, and Jane is like working with glamour and how is she going to solve this relationship thing? And then she’s like, “Aha!” And she puts the glamour down and goes away. That is me freewriting…
[Mary] To try to figure out a plot problem with my character.
[Mary] That I’m like I can’t get her from this point to this point. I can’t get her over this decision hump. What is the thing that she needs to do? I’ll usually go back and trim that sucker down, and sometimes I’ll pull it out altogether, but one of the things that I have found is that I do like lean into the prose, that I will freewrite as my character and I will give her an activity that she’s doing while she’s trying to figure it out.
[Brandon] This is really interesting to me. It’s going to be a slight tangent, but it kind of plays into a theory I have, where… When I was younger and when I was becoming a writer, I always imagined writing as more of a craft. It’s like you are building something brick by brick by brick and whatnot, and the more I’ve been a writer, the more I realize it’s more a performance art.
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Brandon] You go over something over and over, at least for me, I’m a planner, over and over in my head. I practice it, I practice certain skills, and then I sit down, and it’s like, “Blam.” This thing happens, and then I’m left with this thing. Now I’m going to cultivate it, but the actual creating of the story, it’s like doing a play where this is performance night. Then I get to go back and revise it. It’s this really weird shift that’s happened in my brain, the more I’ve become a writer, which is an odd shift for someone who is kind of an outliner, like me. That always kind of saw it brick by brick.
[Mary] I mean, this is a thing that I think I talked about in my very first episode with Writing Excuses, before I was a full-time cast member. That my training as a puppeteer was to break techniques apart so that when you got into the art of it, you worked thinking about the technique anymore, you could just do the performance. I think that that’s a thing that early career writers, we’re still thinking about all of the technique. So when you’re trying to figure out a character problem, it’s… Like a character problem can lie in so many different aspects of character. It can be a motivation issue, it can be a back story issue, it can be a goal issue, it can be the personality issue, that the character’s personality doesn’t fit with the thing you need them to do. Learning to identify where these problems lie is difficult. Once you figure that out, a lot of it does become very intuitive.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop for our book of the week. Book of the week is actually The Only Harmless Great Thing.
[Amal] Oh. Yes. Oh, my gosh, I love this so much. The Only Harmless Great Thing is a Tor.com novella by Brooke Bolander. It’s amazing. It’s about… Oh, it’s about… Ostensibly, it’s about the fact that during wartime on Coney Island, they started teaching elephants to use paintbrushes so that they could paint, I think, what was it, clocks with radium or something like that. So they basically offloaded the extremely dangerous and terrible task of interacting with radium onto elephants, because they could survive longer than the underprivileged women who had been doing it until that point. So it’s about this woman who is teaching this elephant how to do this at first. But it’s a narrative. It’s also broken up by a kind of… It’s an alternate future sort of where those events took place. So imagine an alternate future from that same actual real thing that happened, but it’s intercut with elephant folklore, like folklore that elephants have with mythologies that elephants have, so it imagines that elephants have this storytelling tradition that reaches back to the mammoths, and that they have incorporated this incident into their own mythology. So it’s this beautiful, beautiful defamiliarization of a bunch… It’s doing so much stuff that I could go on and on about, but the thing that struck me was that because Tor.com also put out novellas about other megafauna and alternate histories, which are Sarah Gailey’s River of Teeth and The Taste of Marrow. Those are like rollicking heist novels, novellas. So because Brooke Bolander’s stuff that I’ve read up until this point has been very fast-paced, very… Like, just like… I think it’s like… Whiskey is the way I talk about it, it’s like knocking whiskey back, is like what Bolander’s stuff…
[Mary] Why would you do that?
[Amal] I know. Well, when it’s hard and you’re angry and you want the burn, like there’s… Right. So. But, so that’s what I was expecting from this. I knew it would be difficult and full of unhappy things, but I still expected it to be what I think of as a Bolander story. Instead, it’s slow. It’s like… It’s like sipping that whiskey. It’s like a slow, long pour of something. The voices are so distinct and so sustained and it’s just beautiful. Like the… Being in the mammoth space and that kind of like elephant mythology voice, just forces you to slow down, and really appreciate everything beautiful that’s going on in the prose. It’s absolutely wonderful. It comes… Yeah. It came out in January. So…
[Brandon] Awesome. So let me throw a question at you guys that I threw at the other podcasters, which is, is there a time where you pushed yourself on a character that maybe was giving you trouble, or that when you were outlining, you were like, “This is going to be a little bit tough,” that was rewarding? That you’re glad you did?
[Mary] This is exactly how we all answered it.
[Amal] I’m trying to think of an exclusively character instance. Because the one that I want to use is the character in The Truth about Owls, who is a girl named Annise. Anisa, rather. I made that mistake. Anyways, she… Like initially when I… This kind of plays into some of the things that we were talking about in other episodes. Initially, I was going to have her be Indian, and I had wanted the story to be about gender, and I was going to explore those things through the Blodeuwedd story, which is a Welsh story about a woman made of flowers who gets turned into an owl. I had like all these important structural things I wanted to do. Then I realized I couldn’t do any of them, because I had no idea who this character was if she was Indian. Like, I had no access to the things that I wanted to talk about. I had like some thought processes for why I had wanted that, but it was insufficient. This discouraged me to the point where I just didn’t want to write the story. I literally wrote to the editors and went, “You know what, I just don’t think I can do this. I’m sorry. I’m going to back out early while it doesn’t have a problem.” The editors, Julia Rios in particular, went, “But, we really want a story from you. Can you not just tell this story, like through backgrounds that you’re more familiar with?” I ended up making this character Middle Eastern instead. I ended up making her of Lebanese extraction, and everything fell into place. Every single thing that fell into place, I fought. Basically. Because I did not… I was like, “Okay. She’s going to be… Her family is from Lebanon, but I really don’t want to write a story about war, so I’m… I’m… No. I’m just not going to do that part.” Then I realized that the time constraints that I had chosen set it squarely in the time when Lebanon was being bombarded by Israel in 2006. I was like, “Crap.” Okay. So. Well, I’m going to put her in this other part of Lebanon, where she won’t have experienced any of that, because most of the bombing was on Beirut. I put her in Rayak, which is my mom’s village, which is a place that I spent time in. Then did a tiny bit of research and realized the only other airfield in Lebanon is in Rayak…
[Amal] It also got bombed. I was like, “Oh, God. There’s just no escaping this. I’m going to write this stupid war into this story, and I didn’t want it to be about any of this.” But as soon as I made those decisions, then the writing came out, and it all sort of happened. Every difficulty, everything that was like, “No, like I just, I didn’t want to do this.” As soon as I decided to like, “Fuck it. Fine, I will do it.” It ended up working out.
[Maurice] So, I already talked a little bit about the process of writing a middle grade. That would have been one example. I can give two examples that all revolve around the same issue. The issue was agency. So one… I’ll give one example where I fixed the problem in one example where it kind of slipped by all of us. Which was an interesting experience. So my… The story that I have with Uncanny Magazine, Ache of Home. I’d sent the story in, they loved the story. They were just like, “Yeah, but that ending. You know, your main character, she doesn’t seem to have enough agency in solving the problem. Is there a way that…” We need to fix that, basically. So they gave me some notes. So it basically involved going back and… Actually, whenever I think about fixing character problems, I have this visual view, like when you’re, I know, [garbled]
[Mary] You’re looking very frightened right now.
[Maurice] But, like you were crocheting the other day or something, and just the whole idea of just… You sat there, and you’d be like, “And now we’re going to unravel.”
[Mary] Oh, yeah.
[Amal] Oh. Yeah.
[Maurice] That’s what the process was like. I was like, “Okay, now I’m going to unravel the last third of my story.”
[Mary] I’m so glad that you said that, because that was… That’s a thing that as an early career writer, when you’re fixing character problems, one of the most liberating things for me was realizing that I could just pull a giant chunk of text out and write a different chunk of text and it cost nothing.
[Maurice] Not a thing.
[Mary] It’s like the thing I enjoy personally about writing is writing, so… It was like… My husband said this. He was watching me pull a bunch of crochet out, and he’s like, “But… But… You did all of that work.” I’m like, “Yeah. But I get to crochet again.”
[Maurice] Right. Right.
[Mary] Like, I’m still getting to crochet.
[Maurice] Yep. So, when I unraveled, and then I got to re-knit it back together. The re-knitting, for me, it just looked like… In a lot of ways, it was just a matter of reordering and reprioritizing, just doing a series of just little shifts here and there. Ultimately, that’s all it took, was just some little shifts here and there. I’m like, “The story was already there. I just had to bring it out a little bit more.” Now, the one that slipped by a lot of us was with Buffalo Soldier of all things. It isn’t a major critique or anything, it was just one review that said, “Loved Buffalo Soldier. Loved the world building. Loved all these aspects of it. It’s just that the child that the main character’s protecting has no agency, and is little more than a damsel in distress.” That’s one of those things that just kind of haunted me. Well, it’s just like… Hum, that one slipped by me. I get where… Because the whole story started with the whole image of… My nephew’s on the autism spectrum, and is like the worst hide-and-seek player ever. Because like we’ll play in teams, and like me and him will go hide. Like, as soon as someone goes, “Hey! Where’s Orion?” He doesn’t want you to be worried about him, so he’ll jump out of the bushes. “Here I am!” You are awful at this game.
[Maurice] So, the whole premise of this story revolved around the idea of like trying to play… It was basically a chase novel with a child whose like, “Hey. You know what, why are we hiding?” But it was one of those things where it was like, Mm… He doesn’t… While he drives the story, I missed the fact that he doesn’t really have a lot of agency in the story. So it’s one of those things where it’s like lesson learned. I will keep that in mind for… If I come back to write more of this, that problem will be fixed.
[Brandon] Well, I’m going to stop us here. This has been really good. I’m glad that we did this, this kind of one-two punch on this topic. I have some homework for you guys. It actually relates to some things Maurice and Amal were talking about. I’m… I find that often the way to fix a character problem is to add or subtract a character. So I want you to take one of your characters from a story you’ve written, and I want you to split them into two people. See what happens with those two people interact. Then, in another story, I want you to try combining, for a scene, two characters that have been the same person… Or two different people for a while, combine them into one and see how that scene plays out with a character combined, with two characters combined. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.