All Hail Dilemmas: Why Your Characters Need to Make Tough Choices

choiceLast month I began a series on story lessons learned or refined during my multi-day Story seminar with Robert McKee. (It was fantastic. If you get a chance to attend, I highly recommend it.) The first post was about cultivating the gap between reality and expectation, or Turning Points. This month, I wanted to talk about the necessity of giving characters agency, or setting them up to make active, well-structured choices in fiction. (Even if their ultimate choice is not to act.)

To illustrate the points McKee made, here’s a scenario to contemplate:

On the edge of a forested rest stop in southern California, two characters stumble across a scene of animal cruelty. A crowd of thugs has congregated in a meadow just south of the parking lot. They’ve nailed two dog leashes to a stump and, armed with pointed sticks, take turns poking at their terrified hostages.

One of our characters arrives by motorcycle and is taking a leak in the park when he overhears the sounds of canine distress. He’s wearing leathers and zips his pants with a hand decorated by crude prison tattoos. The last thing he wants to do is become embroiled in local conflict, what with the $200,000 in his saddle bag, the arrest warrant out in his name, and the Mexican border a whisper away.

The other drives a Prius with an Amnesty International bumper sticker. She’s hungry but rather than drive distracted, she pulls over to snack on a chocolate vegan granola bar made by the green company she founded. It’s a sweltering night but she’s also a survivor of sexual assault, so when she cracks the windows to cool off and hears yelping and male jeers, the last thing she wants to do is investigate.

In this scenario, which for our purposes takes place in a cellular dead zone, let’s assume both parties make the choice to render immediate aid, if they can. And let’s say that a careless foot and a dry twig have now ruined their attempts at stealth.

Without weapons and heavily outnumbered, with the gang turning in their direction, they have a second choice to make. Which of these two people will run to their vehicle and drive away? Who decides to act as a decoy and loses the thugs in the forest, looping back around to free the animals?

For the sake of illustration, let’s assume they both pick the second option and return to the clearing with only enough time to release one pup. Who selects the yappy Pomeranian? Who frees the black Lab?

Takeaways about choice:

First, McKee makes the point that character can only be revealed when protagonists are forced to make choices under pressure.

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Linguistic Quirks: What Wordbirthing & Name-Nicking Can Do for Fiction

Jasper spring 2011I awoke from a nightmare last weekend and did the sensible thing. I got up and showered off the flop sweat, crawled back in with the ToolMaster, and poked him in the shoulder — firmly, since he was the cause of my distress.

“Hey,” he said with a fair degree of irritation. Then something must have shown on my face. “Another bad dream? What do you need?”

While he wrapped his arms around me, I told him the sordid tale.

Despite it being considered a huge no-no in fiction to begin with a dream, I’ll repeat myself here. I’m hoping to first illustrate some linguistic elements, then discuss how they might be intentionally used to help with world-building and characterization.

So, the dream…

On a gorgeous day in early spring, we’d gone for a family hike in the mountains. The snow was a good three feet deep but packed underfoot, so navigable, if slow going. To the right was a half-buried snow fence, and a yard beyond that, a canyon carved smooth and deep by a river.

We were alone, free to enjoy the sounds you’d expect in such a setting: from far below, the gentle shushing of meltwater. From a quarter-mile back, the voices of our kids as they argued about an episode of Dexter. Overhead, the loopy birdsong of robins that had dined on fermented mountain ash berries.

At one point, the ToolMaster turned to say something to me — knowing him, it involved some kind of Jan-ribbing — and he lost his balance. Before I could draw breath, he slipped sideways, his momentum carrying him over the snow fence and toward the canyon’s edge. At the last second, he grabbed the branch of a pine tree on the proximal side and his feet found purchase on a narrow ledge.

If he’d stayed there and waited for a rope, he might have been fine, but he looked down. Whatever he saw spooked him.

He pinwheeled backward, ended in a worse position yet — feet on that small shelf, shoulders on the opposite wall of rock, his life depending upon the strength of his core. He might have been a tree lodged at an angle, except that he was clad in layers and wearing the latest in moisture-wicking technology.

I screamed to the kids to get help and went to him, stretching out from the pine tree. Naturally, I awoke as he was risking it all to grasp my hand, and Molly and Frank were disobeying my orders, easing past the snow fence to try and haul us up. If you saw their body mass versus ours, you’d know it couldn’t end well. Without equipment or help, we’d end in a daisy-chain of doom.

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Characterize through Experiential Description, Part 2

It was 5 years ago that I wrote a post for Writer Unboxed on using experiential description to add characterization to a narrative.

Pause for HOLY COW, 5 YEARS!? Yep, it was 2007. My, how time gallops.

I coined the phrase “experiential description” to express the blending of a character’s perceptions of a setting, person, or an action with description of the literal what it is/what is happening.

The reason I’m writing about this again is that I’ve been teaching experiential description in workshops at writers conferences, and my understanding of it has grown to appreciate that what makes experiential description work is that it’s gut-level, unconscious reactions or perceptions, not thoughts or internal monologue, that inject character into description.

Look at it this way: when you drive up to your home, you don’t simply see a rectangular structure with windows and doors and landscaping that includes green grass and an oak tree and a cluster of cedar trees.

No, all of your experiences are loaded into your instant of perception. Let’s say you notice that a window is open. Your internal description is not: The left corner window is open.

No, your experiential description might be: The baby’s window is open.

When you enter the kitchen, you don’t see: The kitchen has gray ceramic counters, a stainless steel sink, and a black refrigerator.

I call this a snapshot, a photographic image that only communicates physical qualities. [Read more…]