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Eccentricities vs. Character Building: The Fine Line Between Awesome & Creepy

If you want an old character to be awesome and enjoyable, you can give the character some personality quirks (eccentricities) that make the character unique, unexpected, and hilarious (see “2 Types of Kick-ass Old Characters That People Love“). So what do you do if you want to make the old person (or any character) creepy and horrifying? Easy. Give them personality quirks.

Wait. What?

Yeah, it sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it’s true. Personality quirks can make a character awesome or creepy or annoying (or something else). In fact, the same personality quirks could do any of the 3. For example, saying whatever comes to mind:

            “This boot makes a great hat!”

Let’s say that Aunt Mabel (who can’t sew but loves quilting bees, bakes delicious cookies for visitors, and would never hurt a fly except in defense of her houseplants) said this as she pulled a boot out of the closet and stuck it on her head. Assuming that the characters around her shake their heads and chuckle, the audience is liable to be amused, too (unless this is simply not their style of fiction).

On the other hand, if a maniacal serial killer (with blood splattered across her face, a dead body at her feet, and a big toothy smile) said this as she pulled the dripping boot off the corpse’s body and puts it on her head, it’d be a whole other story. The characters around her wouldn’t laugh unless they were hysterical or equally twisted, and the reader is more likely to be shocked, disgusted, or horrified than amused.

And if the main character’s kid sister (who never shuts up, has the energy of a humming bird, and has the bad tendency of following the main character around and ignoring any hints or commands to stop) said it in a store as she grabs a boot off the rack and sticks it on her head giggling (after doing similarly time-consuming and pointless stuff for the last half-hour), the main character’s more likely to explode with irritation and spent patience – and the reader will probably cheer.

These are 3 very distinct reactions to the same statement made by a female character. The quirk of blurting out whatever she thinks is the same, too. But that’s only a minor facet of the characterization. Core values, context, actions, and character interactions are all bigger parts of the character than his/her quirks. Those big details shape the reader’s response far more than the eccentricity alone.

Think of eccentricities as an optional spice in a recipe. Yes, having the spice and putting it in can make the recipe better. But you can make the recipe without it. You can’t, however, make the recipe by adding that spice and leaving out other non-optional (A.K.A. essential) ingredients.

So you can’t rely on a quirk alone, and you need to make sure that the character building backs up the quirk for the effect you want. The first (a character with plenty of eccentricities but no real depth) ends up becoming a caricature instead of a strong character. The second option could turn your lovable, hilarious, and awesome kung fu master into a creepy, villainous, or annoying kung fu master that the main character really shouldn’t listen to. It’s a surprisingly easy transition.

Long story short: eccentricities are great, but character building is everything.

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Plotting & Progress Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

I tend to forget how much I like plotting. The adrenaline rush of figuring out the twists and turns, the superior feeling that comes from tying up loose ends, the thrill of realizing the perfect spot to sneak in a red herring: that’s all forgotten about 2 chapters in.

See, once I get into writing the story, plotting starts to feel like a delay. Instead of moving the story forward, it puts the draft on hold while I figure stuff out (if it don’t add to word count, it don’t count [sic.]). Sometimes, I’ll even keep writing when I shouldn’t because the urge to make progress overwhelms my desire to plot my course. That’s when I end up having to re-write – after I do some plotting.

Counter-intuitive as it is, there are times when pausing to plot is a better way to make progress than writing.

And after all the delay tactics, I get into the plotting and suddenly remember, “Hey! This is fun!” There might even be some maniacal laughter as I route the characters through the story. Or as I imagine tricking unsuspecting readers (if I had roommates, I’d probably end up in a cell). How could I forget how entertaining plotting can be? I get to build a story. I get to weave it together, throw in all sorts of complications, and lead characters around by the nose (or whatever).

What’s not to like about that?

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For a Fast-Paced Cut, Study TV Shows & Their Transitions

Like books, the story in a tv show needs to be cut down to skip non-vital scenes and to speed up the action. Even individual actions need to be cut down. Ever seen something recorded in real timeIt’s sooooo slow. We can’t stand to sit through it. We want shows to be fast-paced. At the same time, we want them to have good plots and characters.

Don’t ask for much, do we?

From a writing perspective, it’s a serious challenge. In an hour-long slot, about 40-45 minutes ending up being show, and in half an hour, the average is 22 (that’s about 22 pages of properly formatted script). That means that no story gets cut down quite like that of a tv show. They have to have just enough hints, red herrings, characterization, conflicts, resolutions and whatnot to make a good story without getting bogged down or ending abruptly (oops – we spent too much time there. Time for a deus ex machina!).

The very sparseness combined with the limited time-frame is what makes them such excellent teachers for getting down to the bare bones (at least, the good ones are). You can learn a lot from what they decide to leave in. What better excuse for watching tv? (You’re welcome.)

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Is Something Missing from Your Story?

Sometimes, I get about 50,000 words into a book and realize that I’m a bit too close to the ending. If I keep going straight through, I’m going to end up with more of a novella than a novel. That’s not necessarily bad, but it’s generally not what I’m trying to do.

When this happens, it’s because I only wrote the meat of the story, the main scenes with the main characters that lead directly to the climax. While that can work, it’s not going to push the story to its full potential. See, a great story is like an excellent meal: there’s a first course, an entree with sides, dessert, and some fabulous wine (or a beverage of your choice). There may be even more courses than that. Sure, you could get full from the entree alone, but it’s not as emotionally satisfying. It also doesn’t have the same build-up.

On the first run through, I tend to overlook the salad, the bread, and even the wine. I go straight to the heart of the matter, and about 40,000-50,000 words in, I start to feel like something is missing.

At that point, I go back to my post-it plot and start adding scenes, minor characters, and everyday stuff. The more I add, the more complicated the plot becomes, and the more fleshed-out the story gets. Once I’ve beefed up the story up to that point, I move on.

I don’t know how many authors write this way (if any). Many are probably better about planning out all those smaller details and writing them from the beginning. I know I get better at it with each book, so maybe someday this won’t happen anymore. Or since it works for me, I may work this way no matter how many books I write. Who knows?

Along with my usual “find the way that works for you,” my point is that you can always add intricacy. If the idea of keeping track of twelve different points-of-view or hundreds of tiny plot points makes you panic, you can simplify the story to begin with. To mix my metaphors, you can write the skeleton first and then add the flesh and other systems to it.

Remember: you’re writing a rough draft. If your first draft of your book is a bit short or not fully fleshed out, figure out what it’s missing and start adding it in. Add new scenes, tweak existing scenes, etc. You can always put more in, and sometimes, it’s easier to add the complications once the main path is solid.

After all, don’t you usually plan meals around the main course?