MAKING STORY CHARACTERS REAL

Susan Vaughan here. I recently spoke to a group at the Jackson Memorial Library in Tenants Harbor, Maine, about the “anatomy” of a novel. The talk was aimed at readers, not writers. So often readers ask how writers come up with ideas and also how we can create characters and plots out of thin air, so I addressed the basics of characters and plot, hoping the information would boost these readers’ understanding of plot movement and character development within a novel.

I’m going to limit today’s post to character basics, although it’s nearly impossible to separate character and plot. A standard mantra of both novelists and film makers is that character is story and story is character. Yes, writers create the personality and background, called backstory, of story people. From that and the plot idea come the heart of a novel (from an anatomy standpoint), the basics of character—goal, motivation, and conflict. A character’s goals, motivations, and conflicts are what create believable story people and make readers care and want to follow along. We as readers want to live vicariously through the characters, feeling every setback, feeling the conflict, and cheering when the characters achieve their goals.

True enough that character is story, but it is conflict that drives a story. Without conflict, we’d have very short, boring books no one would read.

Author shorthand for goal, motivation, and conflict is GMC.  An easy way to remember GMC is this: a character wants a Goal because she is Motivated, but she faces Conflict. To be compelling and three dimensional, story characters need both external (plot) and internal (emotional) GMC. I’ll explain and then offer examples.

External GMC first. A character’s external goal refers to what he or she wants in the story plot—to stop the bad guy, to solve the murder, to help family, to save the honeybee, etcetera. The external motivation, the why he lands himself in impossible, even dangerous situations, why he makes the choices he does. Motivation is possibly the most important of the three elements of GMC. Everything is possible as long as readers understand why the characters do what they do. How many times have you tossed aside a book because you couldn’t believe the characters would do such things? External goals and motivations are usually established early in a story.

That covers the who, the what, and the why. The conflict is why not. Conflict is the reason characters can’t have what they want. Conflict is a struggle against someone or something in which the outcome is in doubt. It’s friction, tension, and opposition.

Now for internal GMC. The internal goal, the emotional one, which the character may not really be aware of or one that the character only believes she wants. Examples of emotional goals are to prove oneself, to be in control, to do it alone, to ask for help. Internal motivation can take longer to develop throughout the story and can change, depending on the character’s choices and challenges as the plot develops. Examples might be the character is unhappy with his current situation, doubts he’s worthy of love, or grew up in a household always in turmoil. The internal conflict is emotional roadblocks, a struggle within the self. It’s what internally keeps the character from learning a life lesson, maybe the life lesson, and growing and reaching that goal he may not have even known he wanted, a goal like realizing he’s worthy because he has earned respect or he doesn’t have to control everything to be happy. That’s it, very simply put, for GMC.

I promised examples. First, Barbara Ross’s excellent mystery FOGGED INN. EXTERNAL GMC: Julia, the heroine sleuth, wants to solve the murder of the man found in her restaurant’s walk-in cooler because somehow she’s at the center of the investigation and the murder has invaded her personal space, but the police have a different view of the case, thus complicating the mess. INTERNAL GMC: She wants to commit long-term to her boyfriend Chris by living together because she loves him, but her long-standing trust issues create tension between the two.

Next, my recent romantic suspense DARK VENGEANCE. EXTERNAL GMC: The hero Jack, a government officer, wants to locate an international smuggler, because the smuggler has stolen uranium for sale on the black market, but Sophie, the woman who may know the smuggler’s hideout, can’t remember the past, crucial three weeks. INTERNAL GMC: Jack wants revenge on the smuggler because the man had Jack’s wife and son murdered and he blames himself for endangering them, but punishing himself with his single-minded pursuit of vengeance means endangering Sophie and he could lose her like he lost his family.

Generally, authors don’t spell this out for readers so directly, especially the internal GMC. For me as an author, the GMC statements are tools in my toolbox as I write. The GMCs, both external and internal, are shown in scenes with action and dialogue as well as in characters’ thoughts. In some action-adventure novels and movies, characters may have only external goals, motivations, and conflicts. James Bond comes to mind. But in a complex novel, as the story progresses, the challenges and conflicts characters face, along with character relationships, impact and influence both the plot developments and the characters. GMCs can change, either dramatically or subtly.

Working with character goal, motivation, and conflict for the novels I’ve written has not spoiled my enjoyment of reading novels. My hope is that this post will not reduce your reading pleasure either, but instead will inform and enhance your fiction reading. My library audience asked tons of questions, so I’m looking forward to yours!

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There are so many ways to tell a good story

I spend a lot of time scrolling through the offerings on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, etc. looking for just the right thing to watch. I’m often in the mood for true crime documentary, and I feel sometimes like I’ve watched all the goods ones as I bypass countless reality TV re-enactment-type offerings that I just know aren’t going to give me what I want.

Last night I was lucky enough to choose right.

<img alt="An animation of a young couple walking in front of a photographic image of the clock tower at the University of Texas">

A scene from “Tower,” the rotoscoped documentary about the 1966 University of Texas mass shooting.

I’d read a review of Tower in the Boston Globe months ago, and it intrigued me. The documentary is about a topic I’ve always had a fascination with — the University of Texas Aug. 1, 1966, mass shooting. But this documentary was different, and I wondered if I’d like it. I’m not a fan of re-enactments. And I really have to be sold on animation, and this uses archival footage combined with what’s known as rotoscoping (thanks to Ty Burr of the Boston Globe, or I’d never know what to call that.) It’s when live actors are used, then are animated over (not the technical description, I know!). You’ve seen it on commercials and some other places.

But the subject matter, combined with my memory of Burr’s review, made me click on it.

I was  not disappointed. The documentary uses eyewitness accounts to tell the story, and the combination of the rotoscoping with the real footage is riveting.

I realized watching it that I was way past tired of documentaries with talking heads telling a story they weren’t there for (those ones with celebrities telling you what you just saw on film? Quickest way to get me to turn one off). Ken Burns has given a lot to storytelling, but I can only take so many jangling banjos, sepia-toned photos (which I’m frequently not sure are of the actual subject matter, or are just used to capture the spirit and no one bothers to say we’re not looking at the same thing that’s being talked about). And did I mention talking heads?

“Tower” beat any true-crime documentary I’ve seen recently, hands-down, for dramatic tension. I even forgot in some ways I was watching animation, while at the same time I marveled at just how cool the animation combined with the real footage is. The fact that I knew the details and how it ended didn’t take away from the drama at all, which is saying a lot.

I won’t spoil it, but I’ll let Burr tell you, from his review, one of the best features of this new and exciting type of storytelling:

“There’s a moment about three-quarters of the way through ‘Tower’ that took my breath away — and I was already holding my breath. I won’t tell you what it is, because when you see Keith Maitland’s bravura documentary, you’ll know. All I’ll say is that things suddenly get real.”

He wasn’t kidding. I had the exact same reaction. And, as Burr said, you’ll know it when it hits you.

We live in an age when there are so many new and exciting ways to tell stories. This goes for a lot of things — I’ve become an obsessive podcast listener, particularly of “Casefile,” in which a mostly impassive Australian narrator (we never learn his name) does some really in-depth reporting on some of the more horrific crimes of our lifetime. Hell, before “Serial,” I didn’t even know what a podcast was. After “Serial,” I still avoided them. (I like listening to MUSIC DAMMIT!) But now I’m hooked enough to even have my own.

I sometimes hear authors (none of the ones who blog here, readers!) gripe about all the technology, the social media, the things that distract potential readers and may “take away” from the desire of people to read books. It was the same tune in the newspaper biz when things started going downhill about 10 years ago and many lamented the digital age would make newspapers vanish forever.

I felt about newspapers then, and “book writing” now, that there will always be a need for storytelling and people who can tell stories. How lucky we are to be here, now, when the possibilities are endless. Newspapers can put that court document, or video, online and enhance the story. Authors can share so much of their experience and inspiration through everything from Twitter and Instagram to their Facebook pages and websites, to things like this blog. And even podcasts, if they want to.

I had an opportunity recently to be part of a great online writing series, Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops, which offers video courses on 12 different writing topics, taught by authors. Because, apparently, I did a nice job with some heavy flashback features in my most recent Bernie O’Dea mystery, “No News is Bad News,” I was asked to narrate the backstory and flashback segment. The whole thing is pretty cool and way beyond resources available to writers when I was trying to figure out how to make this work.

When I see a documentary — or hear a podcast, or read a book — that’s really cool, it gives me total joy. I love things that get into my head, make me think, and engage me in a way that’s hard to do with all the noise out there.

“Tower” made me think, not for the first time, how lucky we are to be in an age where there are so many new ways to tell stories, and creative people aren’t afraid to go out on a limb to do it.

There’s nothing like a good story and good storytelling, so get out there and enjoy it.

EVENT:

<img alt="A granite Victorian library building with a sign that reads Lithgow Public Library">

Check me out 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, at Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, Maine.

CHECK OUT MY special brand of storytelling at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, (tomorrow if you’re reading this the day it posts)

when I bring my traveling slide show (yes I do!) to Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, Maine, the library responsible for making me the the mystery writer that I am. Books will be available to buy and I’ll sign whatever you have, but mostly I’d just like to see you there!

Maureen Milliken is the author of the Bernie O’Dea mystery series. Follow her on Twitter at@mmilliken47 and like her Facebook page at Maureen Milliken mysteries. Sign up for email updates at maureenmilliken.com. She hosts the podcast Crime&Stuff with her sister Rebecca Milliken.

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Weekend Update: May 13-14, 2017

Next week at Maine Crime Writers, there will be posts by Maureen Milliken (Monday), Susan Vaughan (Tuesday), John Clark (Wednesday), Dorothy Cannell (Thursday), and Vaughn Hardacker (Friday).

In the news department, here’s what’s happening with some of us who blog regularly at Maine Crime Writers:

From John Clark: John’s story “Relatively Annoying” is in the Day of the Dark anthology, edited by Kaye George and due out from Wildside Press on July 21. Here’s a sneak peek at the cover.

From Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson: In addition to the two Goodreads giveaways of Liss MacCrimmon series titles set up by Kensington, Kaitlyn’s publisher (https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/234971-kilt-at-the-highland-games and

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/234970-the-scottie-barked-at-midnight), there is also a Goodreads giveaway going on right now for autographed copies of Kathy’s short story collection, Different Times, Different Crimes. Here is the link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/235672-different-times-different-crimes. The winner of the giveaway here at Maine Crime Writers was Julianne Spreng.

On Thursday night, Kate Flora, Dick Cass, and Lea Wait will be at the Gray Library at 6:30 to discuss Cozy vs. Hardboiled Mysteries.

On Saturday, May 20th, Kate Flora and Roger Guay will be at the Newport Cultural Center, Newport, Maine at 11:00 a.m. to talk about A Good Man with a Dog.

Readers are reminded that someone who leaves us a comment this month will be the lucky recipient of a bag of Maine books and goodies. Don’t miss your chance.

An invitation to readers of this blog: Do you have news relating to Maine, Crime, or Writing? We’d love to hear from you. Just comment below to share.

And a reminder: If your library, school, or organization is looking for a speaker, we are often available to talk about the writing process, research, where we get our ideas, and other mysteries of the business. Contact Kate Flora

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“Recital”

signing children’s books at about the time this story was written

Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, with a story out of the past—literally. Earlier this month, I received a letter from an old high school friend. She enclosed a short story for children that I wrote in the late 1980s. She had a copy because she and her husband and two kids paid us a visit back then and when I was showing off how easy it was to make changes using my brand new Tandy 1000 personal computer, I used this story as an example. I changed the characters’ names to those of my friend and her children and printed up the result.

This is one of those pieces that grew out of the fact that, even as a child, I had strong opinions about things. At the time I wrote this short story, I was concentrating on writing books and stories for middle-grades readers. A writer much more successful than I in this market, Jane Yolen, had recently been keynote speaker at a “Young Writers Conference” held at the University of Maine at Farmington. One of the things she said impressed me greatly. It was her opinion that someone who wanted to write for children didn’t need to have children, and didn’t even need to like children. It was only necessary to remember what it was like to be a child. I did remember, and what follows is one version of one of the results.

 

RECITAL

“I want to die!” Nessie wailed. Lisa and Cheryl ignored her. “I just want to curl up and die!”

“Oh, Vanessa, cut it out.” Lisa hoisted herself up to sit on the cement ledge that ran along the outside of the gym and brought out her noon hour supply of candy.

Nessie waved away a gooey chocolate, peanut, and coconut bar. “I mean it! I can’t go through with it. I’d rather die!”

“So tell your parents,” Cheryl suggested. “Tell them you don’t want to be in the recital.”

“I can’t. They won’t understand. They think the recital is the important part. It took me two years to talk them into lessons. If I say I don’t want to be in the recital, they’ll think I don’t want lessons anymore either.”

“Do you?”

“Of course I do. I like learning to play. I just don’t want to do it in public.”

“Oo tud bwake a finner,” Lisa mumbled through her peanut butter-toffee-caramel bar.

“I could what?”

“Break a finger,” Lisa repeated slowly. “Remember when I fell off the skateboard right before the ballet recital and broke my toe. I couldn’t dance. If you broke a finger, you wouldn’t have to play the piano.”

Nessie held out long, slender fingers. Her stomach flipped over. She didn’t want to play in the recital. The idea made her nervous enough to throw up. But she couldn’t just break something, either. Besides, then she wouldn’t be able to play piano for herself.

“Maybe you’ll be lucky and get your hand caught in the door,” Cheryl said.

Lisa giggled. “Or the food processor.”

“I wish I’d never brought it up.”

pretending to play the piano at age twelve–I was never any good at it

Lisa finished her third candy bar and licked her fingers. “You really mean that, don’t you? You’re scared.”

Nessie felt her face getting red, but she nodded. Lisa and Cheryl were her best friends. If they couldn’t help her, nobody could. “I don’t want to go out there in front of all those people and make a fool of myself, especially since I’m so much older than all the other first-year students.”

“So don’t. Don’t show up.”

“Mom and Dad are going to pick me up right after school and drive me there. I can’t escape.”

“Then you’ll just have to think positively,” Cheryl said. “Convince yourself you’ll be great.”

“There’s no way I can be,” Nessie told her. “My recital piece is awful—all sixteenth notes. It’s a Ukrainian folk dance and it’s harder than anything in my first year piano book.”

“How come?”

“How come what?”

“Why did you pick it if it’s so hard?”

“But I didn’t. Mrs. Glasgow chooses all the tunes for us. This year’s recital theme is folk music from around the world. She’s had me practicing that dumb dance for three months now.”

“Sounds like the recital is to show off Mrs. Glasgow,” Cheryl said, “instead of her students.”

The three friends lapsed into silence, leaning against the warm bricks of the school building. Suddenly Nessie sat up straight and nearly tumbled off the ledge.

“I’ve got it!” she shouted.

“You’ve got a funny look on your face,” Cheryl said suspiciously. “What are you plotting?”

“Come to my recital this afternoon and you’ll see.” She wouldn’t tell them any more than that.

Four hours later, Nessie stood behind the curtain, her hands clenched and beads of sweat standing out on her forehead. The boy at the piano was playing “Turkey in the Straw”—badly. It was worse because everyone knew how it was supposed to sound. Nessie was beginning to wonder if she’d made the right decision after all, but it was too late to back out. The boy played one last jarring chord and stood up. It was her turn to walk onto the stage.

Nessie reached the piano bench, but she didn’t sit down. Instead she took a deep breath and swung toward the audience. She picked out her mother and father sitting in the middle. Mrs. Glasgow was on one side, making fluttery motions at her to get on with it. Lisa and Cheryl were way in the back. Well, Nessie thought, at least they’ll understand.

“My name is Vanessa,” she announced. Her voice broke, but she cleared her throat and went on. “I’m going to play my favorite song from the first year piano book because I like it better than my recital piece, and because I can play it better too.”

She sat down quickly, before she could lose her nerve, and struck the first notes.

The audience seemed to fade away as Nessie concentrated. Soon she was only aware of her piano and the music she was making. She forgot to be scared, forgot to wonder if she would hit the right chord, forgot to worry about whether Mrs. Glasgow was angry with her or not.

Note by note, her excitement grew as she realized she was performing flawlessly. The end of the piece came much too soon. With only a moment’s pause, Nessie started a second tune. Halfway through the Ukrainian folk dance she began to smile.

This is the first time this story has been in print, although the gist of it became part of the backstory for a character in my romance novel, Separated Sisters (ebook published under my original title, Family Lies). There were a lot more magazines for children back in the day, so it racked up a total of eleven rejections in several versions before I stopped submitting it. Here’s a question for readers: what do you think was the number one reason given for rejecting it? I’ll put the answer in the comments section after folks have had a chance to chime in with their thoughts. Hint: it was not the fact that I used way too many exclamation points.

Kathy Lynn Emerson/Kaitlyn Dunnett is the author of over fifty books written under several names. She won the Agatha Award for best mystery nonfiction of 2008 for How to Write Killer Historical Mysteries and was an Agatha Award finalist in 2015 in the best mystery short story category for “The Blessing Witch.” Currently she writes the contemporary Liss MacCrimmon Mysteries (Kilt at the Highland Games) as Kaitlyn and the historical Mistress Jaffrey Mysteries (Murder in a Cornish Alehouse) as Kathy. The latter series is a spin-off from her earlier “Face Down” series and is set in Elizabethan England. New in 2017 is a collection of Kathy’s short stories, Different Times, Different Crimes. Her websites are www.KaitlynDunnett.com and www.KathyLynnEmerson.com

 

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New Mainers, New Authors

On the first Saturday each month, Brenda Buchanan, Mary Brooking, Laura Kilmartin and I host Books in the Brook at Continuum in Westbrook. I’ve blogged about it before. We’ve had phenomenal authors, including many bloggers on this site, read from their work. This past Saturday, we did something a little different. We invited students from Westbrook High School to read. Six students came and blew us away.

They are all recent immigrants to Maine and they wrote of their journeys to Maine and their dreams for the future. Several had been in Maine for less than a year. Many had harrowing stories, including a bomb placed in a car or having to choose between escaping with their father or staying with their mother who hadn’t received a visa yet.

Imagine for a moment being a teenager, uprooted from your homeland because of violence and fear, struggling to learn a new language and new culture, facing prejudice and fear on top of all the angst and difficulties inherent in being a teenager anywhere. Now imagine that instead of crawling into a hole, as I might, you find the courage to tell your story. And not just to your friends or a supportive teacher, but in front of a room of strangers like these kids did at Books in the Brook.

They are amazing and Westbrook and Maine are lucky to have them.

WHS Students at Books in the Brook

Jossy Nsenga reading Discovering the New Me

Alhawrra Kareem reading Journey to the New World

Omar Abduljaleel and Doaa Al Bayati, who read You are Human and One Street Away

Zainab Almatwari reading The Transform Plate between LA and Sacramento.

Ahmad Qasem reading Journey.

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