Thursday, July 31, 2014

Film Writes: Character Dreams and Desires

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the Disney movie Tangled.

Pick one of your characters. Visualize that person (creature, if you write paranormal fiction). What is that character's dream? What is the one thing that keeps getting him/her/it out of bed every morning?

It's something you really need to know about each of your characters, especially your protagonists, and even your secondary characters, to round them out.

"I've Got a Dream"

If you've seen Disney's Tangled, you might remember the scene in the tavern, in which a potentially dangerous situation turns out to be cathartic.

If you haven't seen the movie, I highly recommend it, but until you get the chance, here's a link to the pertinent song on YouTube.

Take three minutes and change, and go watch it.

Okay ... got it? Moving on.

Character Wants

Every character must want something. Each character will also have needs (and if the needs and wants conflict, so much the better), but the character has to desire something so much that he/she would sacrifice anything, or even die or kill for it.

Think Tangled.

Have I Got a Dream

In Tangled, Rapunzel's dream is to escape her tower long enough to see the lights in the sky that show up every year, and to find out their significance. She wants it so much that she disobeys her mother's orders, breaks a promise, and puts her life in jeopardy to find the answers.

Flynn's greatest want is to get his hands back on the crown he stole (and lost) so he can live in a palace of his own, and not have to be an outlaw. He wants it so much that he endangers himself to steal the crown and then gets blackmailed into helping Rapunzel achieve her dream.

Even Mother Gothel has a dream --- to be young and beautiful forever. She wants it so much that she kidnaps, deceives, and imprisons an innocent child for the child's power to cause youthfulness, and is even willing to commit murder over her desire.

# # #

What does your character want, badly enough to kill for it? Define that want in a single sentence, and then go through your manuscript one scene at a time to make sure that every action ultimately points back to that deepest desire.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Film Writes: The Frame Device as an Opening

We've talked about the prologue opening and the in media res opening for your story or novel. Now, with help from two classic movies, we're looking at the frame device as an opening.

Frame Device

Think of the frame device as the picture frame outside your main story, or the bookends on both ends of your main story line.

The frame could be another story line moving concurrently (in the "now" or in the "future") with the main line of your story. It could also be a narrator starting the story (setting the stage) and then ending the story.

Here are two examples.

The Princess Bride

The main story of The Princess Bride is about Buttercup and Westley, pirates, monsters, princes, giants, swordsmen, miracles, and true love.

A frame, though, starts the story. A boy (played by Fred Savage) is home sick from school, and his grandfather (played by Peter Falk) comes by to keep him company and entertained with a story --- so the grandfather reads his grandson The Princess Bride.

That frame reappears in snippets throughout the movie, interspersed with the main story line about Buttercup and Westley. At the end, The Princess Bride has closure (Buttercup and Westley kiss) and then the frame story has its own closure (the boy asks if his grandfather can come back tomorrow and read the book again, and his grandfather answers, "As you wish"). Both story lines are brought full circle.

That's a frame device with its own (simple) story line.


Disney's Tangled begins and ends with a narrative frame device. The character Flynn Rider (voiced by Zachary Levi) opens the story to set the stage (with kind of a miniature prologue of back story and setup) with a voice-over. He concludes the story the same way, in a nod to the traditional fairy tale epilogue ("and they all lived happily ever after ...").

That's a narrative frame device.

# # #

Just for the sake of something different, rewrite the first page or two of your WIP and use a frame device as the opening. It's a little more challenging to use a frame device in a written work and make it seamless, but the frame device is just as legitimate an opening technique as the prologue or in media res.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Film Writes: Qualities That Make Your Characters Endearing

Think of someone in real life whom you admire, respect, or genuinely like. What quality or characteristic makes that person someone you admire?

Now think of a character you admire in a work of fiction. What do you admire most about him/her?

Many traits can make a character endearing. You want to include traits that make your characters memorable, in good ways.

Three of my favorite qualities in characters are vulnerability, a sense of humor, and selflessness. And Olaf the snowman from Disney's Frozen embodies all three.


Olaf: "Sometimes, I like to close my eyes and imagine what it'll be like when summer does come!"

Olaf is open about his dreams of summer (whether that's a good idea for a snowman to dream or not). He lets himself express what he really longs for, even when someone else (ahem --- Kristoff) could easily squelch his hopes. There's something endearing about that kind of vulnerability and honesty.

Sense of Humor

Olaf: "Not yellow. Yellow and snow? No go."

Impaled on a jagged icicle? Pursued by an enraged ice monster? Need advice on a fresh color scheme in the midst of a chronically white landscape? Olaf's got the answer, often in a way that calms anxiety and eases dramatic tension for other characters (and the viewers).


Olaf: "I am not leaving here until we think of another way to save you!"

Perhaps the most poignant line in the movie is one Olaf speaks to a shivering Anna as they crouch by a blazing fire. Anna warns him that he can't stay with her because he'll melt. His response? "Some people are worth melting for," he tells her, as his face and body begin to melt in the heat.

That's the sort of thing that makes Olaf so endearing.

# # #

What qualities make your protagonist and other characters (Olaf is a secondary character in Frozen, remember) endearing? Can you find a place in your WIP to incorporate an unexpected sense of humor, or passion for a personal desire or goal, or an opportunity for your character to be selfless?

Monday, July 28, 2014

Film Writes: Character Roles

Disney’s movie Frozen is a perfect example to analyze for character roles — many roles are represented, sometimes more than once. How many of these roles are represented in your WIP?

> Protagonist — Anna, princess of Arendelle. She grows up oblivious to her sister Elsa’s powers, finds out too late, and immediately sets off to reconcile their relationship. The movie follows her journey to find Elsa and save Arendelle.

          > Sidekick — Olaf, a living snowman. He attaches himself to Anna. Despite his gullibility, he eagerly allies himself to help her, making him one of the more endearing characters in the movie.

> Antagonist — Elsa, queen of Arendelle. Her powers and lifelong fears keep her estranged from her sister and imprisoned, distant from others, until she causes her kingdom to freeze over and then runs away instead of doing something about it.

> Antagonist — duke of Weselton. His deceptive agenda makes him a formidable foe for the incapacitated kingdom of Arendelle.

> Love Interest — Hans, prince of the Southern Isles. He sweeps Anna off her feet and does all he can to prove to her his acceptance and to help her kingdom in crisis.

> Reluctant Hero — Kristoff, ice merchant. His compatibility with reindeer translates to scorn for most people, until he’s really needed.

          > Sidekick — Sven, Kristoff’s reindeer pal. Sven compliments his master’s [initial] reticence and turns out to be a definite ally in dangerous and emotional moments.

> Mentor — Grandpabbie, the oldest rock troll. His wisdom saves one character when she’s a child and again, later in her life, at a critical moment.

> Villain — ?

# # #

That’s the question this time. Who’s the villain in Frozen? One of the antagonists, Elsa or the duke? The other character with deceptive intentions, revealed much later in the story?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Film Writes: Character Motivations: Fear vs. Love (Part II)

Part I in this two-post series started with two questions:

What motivates your characters to act?

Do all (or most) of your characters (not just your primary ones) have desires that motivate them to action?

Fear is a common motivator. This post looks at another: love.

Love as a Motivator

In the Disney movie Frozen, Elsa and Hans act out of fear, with largely disastrous consequences. On the other hand, Anna and Kristoff act out of love.

Anna, kept in the dark most of her life about her sister Elsa’s magical powers, is justifiably hurt by Elsa’s indifference toward her. However, when Elsa loses control and runs away, Anna doesn't hesitate to go after her.

Love motivates Anna to put herself in harm’s way for Elsa, to reassure Elsa that they’ll work together to solve the problems, and even to protect Elsa from a death blow.

Kristoff’s initial motivation may be personal (his ice business), but by the mid-point of the movie, he’s acting out of attraction to and even love for Anna. Attacked by wolves, he sacrifices his sleigh to save them. He’s never far from Anna as she climbs a cliff face (falling off into his arms) and meets her sister Elsa (who freezes Anna’s heart).

His greatest act of love is when he races Anna back to Arendelle so she can get a life-saving kiss from her true love, and then when he returns to the kingdom when her life is endangered.


Love is an equally powerful motivator for character actions.


Are any of your characters motivated by love? What actions do they take that are motivated by love? Are there other desires that could motivate your characters to create more conflict?

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Film Writes: Character Motivations: Fear vs. Love (Part I)

WARNING: This post contains plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

Today we’ll start with two questions.

First, what motivates your characters to act?

Second, do all (or most) of your characters (not just the primary ones) have desires that motivate them?

A character can be motivated by self-preservation, affection, a shared past history with someone else, injustice, or the desire to prove himself/herself.

Consider two more of the most common motivators: fear in this post, and love in Part II.

Fear as a Motivator

The core (human) cast of Disney’s Frozen includes sisters Elsa and Anna, [prince] Hans, and ice master Kristoff.

Of the four, Elsa and Hans are most motivated by fear.

Told as a child that her magical powers could result in great danger, Elsa grows up terrified of hurting someone the way she once hurt Anna. Elsa lives locked away in the Arendelle castle and then in self-imposed exile in an ice castle, all because her fear causes her to lose control of her powers and endanger her kingdom.

Hans, whose actual agenda is revealed later in the story, comes to Arendelle in the first place out of fear — fear that he’ll never have a kingdom of his own to rule. He courts Anna, trying to infiltrate Arendelle through her, to compensate for having been the youngest and most overlooked in his family.


Fear is a powerful motivational device — whether your character fears for his/her life, position, identity, worth, or relationships, that character will make decisions (good or bad) as a consequence.


Are any of your characters motivated by fear? What do they desire that leads to fear? What actions do they take as a result of being afraid?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Film Writes: Strong Secondary Characters (Part II)

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

Few techniques bring a story to life more quickly than building up your secondary characters.

In this post, we continue to analyze other strong secondary characters from Disney’s Frozen. (Read Part I here.)


> Hans is a prince of the Southern Isles (anyone who has seen the movie may appreciate that line) and Anna’s love interest. He’s charismatic, genteel, and a natural leader, excellent in a crisis and equally good at mustering support and amassing followers. His ability to sympathize with Anna makes him likable, and he seems to want her safe most of all.

> In contrast, the duke of Weselton (no first name) is mostly unlikable from the start. He admits his agenda from the first time viewers see him — as one of its trade partners, he wants to discover Arendelle’s secrets and exploit its riches. He’s prejudiced, deceptive, and defensive — a near-perfect antagonist.

> Grandpabbie, the oldest and wisest rock troll, acts as a mentor in this tale. He’s calm, generous with his magical powers, and a reasonable voice in otherwise highly emotional and chaotic situations. Without more information about him, it’s hard to say what he wants, but he does have a responsibility to help others, making him approachable.


Well-rounded secondary characters round out a memorable story line.


What secondary characters do you have in your novel? What roles do they play? What wants can you give them to motivate them to action?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Film Writes: Strong Secondary Characters (Part I)

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers for the movie Frozen.

The Stephanie Plum series, by Janet Evanovich, has an extraordinarily rich cast of characters. If the protagonist (the title character, in this case) isn't colorful enough, the secondary characters are wildly interesting. And the whole series is more memorable for it.

It’s easy to put lots of time and imagination into creating your primary characters. Often, though, secondary characters — that entire supporting cast, unless you’re writing a short story or flash fiction — get overlooked.

Why not spend a few extra minutes developing even secondary characters into unique individuals with their own wants?

For Instance

Besides Anna and Elsa, Disney’s Frozen offers an exotic array of three-dimensional characters with fleshed-out desires.

> Kristoff is practical, consistent, and sacrificial, if a little difficult to get along with at first, with a dry, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. He counter-balances his love interest’s flighty enthusiasm. He wants his ice business to succeed (a little hard when the entire kingdom is frozen) and, as time goes on, Anna to be safe (a little hard when she’s in love with another man).

> Kristoff’s reindeer pal and sidekick Sven is melodramatic, easy-going, and loves carrots, which puts him at odds with other carrot-loving (and –wearing!) characters. He wants … carrots, which is an issue when Kristoff angers the merchant who might have sold them more carrots.

> Olaf, a snowman Elsa created and brought to life, is na├»ve, upbeat, literal, childlike, and filled with the best intentions. His ability to misread situations combined with his tendency to state the obvious make him thoroughly unexpected. Olaf especially wants to experience summertime (in an ironic twist) … an issue with Arendelle frozen solid and given his own elemental makeup.

Stay tuned for more secondary characters in Part II.


What secondary characters do you have in your story? Are each of them as fleshed-out and three-dimensional as they could be? What do they each desire most of all?

Monday, July 21, 2014

Film Writes: Foreshadowing ... Or Deus Ex Machina?

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

Has anybody ever read a book and been completely surprised by the revelation at the end?

Think Naked Once More by Elizabeth Peters, in which a woman vanishes before the novel even begins. All the way through, speculations fly about her whereabouts. The revelation at the end, though, caught me entirely off-guard.

Sometimes it’s good to be surprised. If the story was predictable, no one would care. And a surprise can mean that the author did a fantastic job making the foreshadowing an organic part of the story.

Ever read a novel — or, for that matter, watched a movie — when the ending caught you so off-guard that you wanted to call a foul?

That can be an instance of less than effective foreshadowing.

For Instance

In Disney’s Frozen, the villain role sort of (ambiguously) belongs to several people — Elsa, for freezing Arendelle, and the duke of Weselton for planning to exploit the kingdom. (In a side note, the duke’s minions are more sidekick material than outright villains.)

Personally, I never saw Prince Hans coming.

The only indication I had that he might have an agenda was his reference to being the youngest of thirteen (!) brothers, and spending his childhood largely ignored.

When he turned up as the arch-villain masterminding the sisters’ downfall, I was floored.

So What?

If you don’t mind being caught entirely by surprise, you were probably fine with the revelation.

On the other hand, without much foreshadowing, or much more obvious and organic foreshadowing as part of the story line, Hans kind of felt like a deus ex machina device … no less a villain, but less fulfilling.


How might the writers/creators of Frozen done more to foreshadow Hans’s true character? Looking at your own, WIP, do you have the right balance between not too much and not too little foreshadowing?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Film Writes: Foreshadowing and Theme (Part II)

WARNING: This post contains plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

Part I of this two-post series discusses foreshadowing, with the Disney movie Frozen as a good example. You foreshadow something major that will happen or be realized later in your story when you start dropping hints early in the story about what’s coming.

Now let’s talk about how foreshadowing relates to theme.

Theme Defined

Theme is a sticky subject. Ask a dozen different authors what theme is, and you’ll probably get a dozen different answers.

For the sake of simplicity, theme is the overarching idea behind what you wrote. You can start with a theme and write the story out of it, or you can write the story first and then discover what themes you subconsciously included. Either way works.

For instance, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has underlying themes about racism and prejudice. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has themes about the importance of family ties and the inevitability of change. Taylor Steven’s The Doll has themes about honor, personal integrity to your values, and sacrificing the one for the sake of the greater good.

Those are themes. If you like, a theme is kind of the message or moral of your story, but ideally you've worked it into the story line seamlessly so it doesn't stand out and get preachy or argumentative.

So how does foreshadowing connect with theme?

Foreshadowing Theme

In the movie Frozen, Elsa’s magical powers cause a number of problems. The first time around, when she accidentally injures her sister, their once-lovely surroundings (ice rink, snowman, mounds of snow) turn colder and menacing. Later, when Elsa is barricaded in her ice castle, trying to force herself not to feel anything, the palace around her once more reflects her state of mind.

What’s the common denominator?


Whenever Elsa is afraid, she loses control of her powers. The more she tries to force herself to control her powers, the more out-of-control they get, and the more scared she becomes. It’s a terrifying cycle. By the movie climax, she escapes into a full-blown blizzard, raging with her terror.

The movie theme says that love chases away fear and makes all things possible. Elsa’s fear had to be present throughout, and grow in intensity, for the viewers to feel satisfaction when, at the end, Elsa realizes that love is what she needs most of all.


What’s the theme of your current work-in-progress? Try writing it in a single sentence. The theme should deal with bigger, overarching issues than the smaller problems your characters face. Then, see if there are ways you can go back through your manuscript to foreshadow and strengthen that theme.


Foreshadowing and theme, closely linked, deepen reader engagement with your story.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Film Writes: Foreshadowing and Theme (Part I)

WARNING: This post includes plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

Anton Chekhov once said that if there’s a gun on the wall in the first act, it needs to be used by the third act.

That’s foreshadowing.

Call attention to something early in the novel, and the reader will expect you to put it to use. The more attention you pay to that item or character trait, the more the reader will watch for it later, and the more important the reader will expect it to be to the plot.

If you don’t fulfill that expectation, you risk alienating your reader.

Subtle foreshadowing is another effective tool in fiction. You mention a point along the way, and later, that same point shows back up, but organically, as a seamless part of the plot.

Think Disney’s Frozen.

Subtle Foreshadowing

Elsa, princess of Arendelle, is a carefree child with the magical power to create snow and ice, until she accidentally injures her sister Anna with her powers. As Elsa kneels in the ballroom, holding Anna, all the ice around them freezes deeper and colder, with weird, intricate patterns.

Foreshadowing what’s to come.

Years later, after Elsa has run away from Arendelle and barricaded herself in an ice castle far from everyone, she paces alone, saying, “Don’t feel, don’t feel.” And as she does, the ice walls and ceiling around her freeze deeper and colder, and even grow jagged, menacing icicles.


Does something happen to your main character later in your work-in-progress (WIP) that you could foreshadow earlier in the story? What scene could you add to your WIP to foreshadow that future event or change? How can you thread that foreshadowing throughout your WIP so it’s organic and a natural part of the plot?

Look for Part II, about how foreshadowing connects to theme, in the next post.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Book Review: The Doll (Taylor Stevens)

Imagine that you wake in a prison both physical and psychological. If you do not obey the orders you are given, the person you love most in the world will die. If you obey the orders, you betray your professional contract and your integrity to protect your client.

Impossible choices.

This prison is the world where Vanessa Michael Munroe, protagonist of The Doll by Taylor Stevens, lives for the duration of the novel. If not for her volatile past, she might have escaped the ruthless cruelty of the Doll Maker, the one who controls a massive human trafficking organization and who demands her help with one victim in particular.

Without her affinity for foreign language retention, her skill with weapons, her impeccable observation skills, and her long-suppressed rage and hatred toward tormentors, the impossible odds against her would have succeeded.

By the end of the novel, you'll wonder whether those odds did, in fact, succeed.

Fast-paced from beginning to end, the novel -- actually the third book in a series with Munroe as protagonist -- is without a doubt one of the tightest and most well-written thrillers I've read in a long time. It took me four days to read, and only that long because I had to put it down to get other things done.

Author Taylor Stevens snatches your attention and your sympathy from the very first page, and the stakes escalate until you're absolutely sure there's no way the story can end well for the characters you've come to care about. By the end of the book, those characters are so real, it's like they're in the room with you, moving and breathing through their lives as you turn pages.

For you adventure buffs who can't get enough of the thriller and suspense genres, The Doll won't disappoint. The best compliment I can give the author is to admit that I'm actively looking to own the rest of her books, as a result of my reading and enjoying this one so much.

Side effects of reading this book may include (but probably won't be limited to) insomnia, jumping at unexpected noises, and checking over your shoulder as you walk from one place to another in a crowd.

Title: The Doll
Author: Taylor Stevens
Series: Vanessa Michael Munroe #3
ISBN: 978-0307888808
Purchase here:

Disclaimer: I received this book free from the publisher through the Blogging for Books review program in exchange for an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Film Writes: Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

If you've been a writer for longer than about five seconds, someone has probably asked you the question that many writers dread.

"Where do you get your ideas?"

Short of saying that all your plots are watered-down or dressed-up versions of tales from the more outlandish members of your family tree, you may or may not have a fantastic comeback.

Heck, sometimes you probably don't even know where your ideas come from. The good ideas (hard to come by, I know) seem to just appear magically out of nothing, or out of primordial ooze, or heartbroken angst, or whatever. The bad ideas are ... well, everywhere.

If you've ever stared at a blank page and wondered what to write next, why not take this idea for a spin?

Revamp a Fairy Tale

Sure, why not?

The Disney movie Frozen did it with flying colors. The story of Elsa and Anna, princesses of Arendelle, is based on the fairy tale "The Snow Queen" by Hans Christian Andersen.

Have you ever read "The Snow Queen"?

Check it out online here.

Don't misunderstand me. It's a nice fairy tale.

But when Disney got done with it, the movie (which, many readers will agree, is a definite winner) almost didn't resemble the original tale at all.

And the movie, with its incredible success, is probably the better for it.


Don't look at me like you're about to accuse me of plagiarism. There are only three, or six, or seven, or twenty, or thirty-six plots in the world, and there are millions of books. There's been some recycling going on for a while.

And if you pick an obscure fairy tale, and just use the tale as a jumping-off point, and change things dramatically enough ... 

It could work.


Check out some fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen (see this page) or the Grimm brothers (see this page). Is there one that sparks your inspiration? How can you morph that basic tale into something novel-worthy?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Film Writes: A Prologue That Works

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Frozen.

We've all heard the debate about prologues. Use one and condemn yourself and your novel to certain doom in the publishing world. Or use one and be the greatest thing since Harry Potter.

Without getting into all the mechanics of the argument (is a prologue lazy writing? the chance to dump back story? something readers never actually read?) I'd rather analyze an effective prologue.


The Disney movie Frozen starts with an extended prologue.

Meet Anna and Elsa, princesses of Arendelle, perhaps four and six or seven years old, respectively. Anna wakes Elsa one morning for some pre-breakfast horseplay with Elsa's magical powers. Elsa can create ice and snow, perfect for making the ballroom a skating rink or the site of an enthusiastic snowball fight.

When Elsa accidentally injures Anna with her power, it takes a harried race to visit the rock trolls, the only ones who can cancel out the injury.

In the rest of the prologue, Elsa and Anna are kept apart while Elsa tries to learn to control her powers. Their parents die unexpectedly when the girls are teenagers, and the sisters continue to grow up estranged.

Why is this prologue effective when so many aren't?

Two reasons.

Show Vs. Tell

If the movie had begun with Elsa's coronation day, which is the first moment in the chronological "now" of the plot, somebody somewhere would’ve had to go back and explain everything that happened up to the coronation.

That's called telling.

Telling is something to be used sparingly in fiction. Almost everyone will agree that you should show, not tell, if you can help it.

The Frozen prologue shows viewers all the necessary back story without the need for the main plot to stop so someone can say, "Well, you see, when Elsa was six or seven years old, and Anna was about four, there was an incident. . . ."

If your prologue is effective at showing the necessary back story and setup, and saves you from telling or throwing an information dump into your novel, use a prologue.

Character Development

The second reason the Frozen prologue is effective is that it has its own neat story arc, albeit a small one, and shows (there's that keyword again) character development early, so we connect with our two protagonists from the start.

The child Elsa starts out as the more mature, more cautious, but equally fun-loving big sister. What carries her character through is her commitment to keeping Anna safe, even when that means avoiding Anna and learning to keep her powers hidden. The foreshadowing is particularly effective as Elsa's powers, and her fear of them, increases until her choices are defined by fear.

The child Anna is carefree and innocent, delighted with every occasion for merriment. She appears unchanged after the accident, but her young heart fills with confusion as at every turn Elsa rejects her company. Anna grows up a tomboy and becomes self-sufficient, used to filling her time with her own hobbies. Her later choices are defined by her assumption that her sister hates her.

Your prologue is an opportunity not only to set the stage for your work-in-progress but also to establish sympathetic characters from the very beginning.

Remember: Reader engagement is key above all else, even when considering the pros and cons of a prologue.


Does your work-in-progress currently have a prologue, or even a first chapter that might actually serve as a prologue because it's out of chronological order with the rest of the story? What do you want to accomplish with your prologue? How will you avoid the stereotypical problems that might arise?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Film Writes: Inner Demons

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movies Iron Man and Iron Man 2.

When I say motivation, what comes to mind in terms of your protagonist?

Many different things can motivate a person or character to action: compassion, anger, greed, desire, envy, or a particular goal.

One of the most effective ways to motivate a major character in your work-in-progress (WIP), however, is with inner demons.

Tony Stark in Iron Man

Viewers meet Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) in the original movie Iron Man. He's a self-described “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” (albeit in a later Marvel movie). To put it mildly, he's obnoxious, and he doesn't have a whole lot going for him (beyond that critically important sense of self-deprecating humor, which at least makes him marginally likable). He's also making billions of dollars off the production of weapons of mass destruction.

For the duration of the first movie, we don't know why Tony is the way he is. When he takes a different path, moving Stark Industries away from weapons production and in a more humanitarian direction, it's easy to tell what's recently changed. He spent months as a captive of a terrorist organization in the Middle East, tortured and tormented, and he saw his selfless fellow prisoner killed trying to help Tony escape.

Yinsen’s last words to Tony are: “Don't waste your life. Don't waste it.”

When Tony is rescued and returns to the States, he closes down the weapons portion of Stark Industries and takes steps to save people from warfare instead of creating it.

Tony Stark in Iron Man 2

By the second movie in the series, we're really wondering what happened to Tony when he was younger. What is it that drives him to be so successful? To carry on the prestigious name that his father, Howard Stark, made powerful during his own time? To be known for his blase attitude and carefree conquests?

Tony himself provides the answer, with an unexpected diatribe about his father. Everyone has lauded Howard Stark for his efforts and brilliance. Tony's take is surprising: “[He was] cold, calculating. My dad never told me he loved me, never even told me he liked me.”

Now we know. Tony's battling inner demons. He's never felt like enough, so he built a lifestyle around making himself feel like the most important, influential person in his father's business empire.

He's still a little boy, trying to win his father's approval.


What inner demons plague your protagonist? An abusive upbringing, past neglect, unfulfilled desires, a devastating loss, derision by a trusted authority figure … any number of things could be motivating your character's actions in the “now” of your novel. Think through some possibilities.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Film Writes: Legacy

If I took a poll and asked each of one hundred writers why they wrote, I'm sure I'd receive at least eighty different answers.

That's to be expected. After all, we're unique individuals.

But I wonder how many of us have taken time to think about the long-term effects of our writing. When you sit down to put words on a page, are you looking ahead to the long-term ramifications of doing so?

I'm talking about legacy.

Legacy, Defined

According to millionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) in the movie Iron Man 2, legacy is “what we choose to leave behind for future generations.”

His lifestyle aside, Tony has a point.


What you do every day has an impact on future generations, whether you know it or not. What you say, think, and choose will affect those next in line—next generations of readers, your children and distant family members, and maybe even English and literature classes far into the future.

Do you take time to think about what you're writing and its place in that greater cosmos?


What kind of a legacy do you hope to leave behind you? What do you want to be known for? What do you want your writing to do for others, or for the world?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Film Writes: Upping the Stakes

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers for the movie Iron Man 2.

Never give your protagonist just one problem, goal, or obstacle to deal with at a time.

The only time to do so is in a short story, when you don't have space to develop more than one issue.

Otherwise, in a novel, if the hero faces one problem, solves the problem, and then faces another, in a neat chronology, the pacing drags. And your reader gets bored.

Remember: the ultimate goal is always to keep the reader engaged.

With that in mind, it's better to pile on the obstacles. If the hero solves one, there's at least two more still in the action queue.

Here's what I mean.

For Instance

In the movie Iron Man 2, protagonist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) starts the movie in serious trouble. The technology keeping him alive (that back story is in the first Iron Man movie) is also slowly poisoning him to death. He's always been a lone wolf figure, so he doesn't tell anybody what he's facing.

Meanwhile, the United States government targets him as a potential threat to national security and demands that he turn over his “Iron Man weapon.” Just when he's convinced them that no one else anywhere in the world has developed anything similar to the Iron Man suit, a technologically brilliant maniac turns up at a race track in a less-than-sophisticated (but no less deadly) version of Tony’s invention.

All of which happens in about the first twenty minutes of the movie.

And it gets worse from there. Tony turns over his company, Stark Industries, to his long-time assistant Pepper, and she shuts him out so she can sort out the company chaos. Because he's dying, Tony chooses to go out with a bang, and alienates his friends.


In other words, there’s never just one problem or obstacle to be faced at a time. Most of the problems are interconnected, which only increases the tension and pacing. Movie viewers stick around to find out how on earth Tony’s going to finagle his way out of the huge mess he’s in.

Readers of your novel should be motivated to stick with your novel to the very end to find out how your protagonist is going to solve all of his/her problems.


What two or three problems or obstacles is your protagonist facing in your novel? What can you do to increase those problems and raise the stakes even more? Are there ways you can interconnect the problems to make everything worse?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Film Writes: Sympathy for Unlikable Protagonists

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Iron Man.

It's easy to get a reader to sympathize with a likable protagonist. We can get behind someone who is kind, generous, thoughtful, or compassionate.

But what if your protagonist is inherently unlikable? How do you generate sympathy so that your reader doesn't hate your protagonist and throw your book against the wall?

An Unlikable Protagonist

Tony Stark, played in the movie Iron Man by Robert Downey, Jr., is an unlikable protagonist. He's got almost nothing going for him in the “positive attributes” department.

Sure, he's good-looking, but that's not going to be enough to convince viewers to like him, let alone sympathize with him, especially when he's also immature, rude, uncouth, discourteous, selfish, womanizing, and making millions of dollars off the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction.

It's not even enough to put Tony into the military cavalcade that comes under attack and nearly have him blown to smithereens. If he wasn't likable or sympathetic in some way, viewers would have cheered his demise and moved on.

So how do you get viewers to root for someone so unlikable?

The answer is: Show glimmers of hope for the character.

Likable Glimmers

The writers of Tony Stark's character probably suspected that he wouldn't be an easy person to relate to. With that in mind, they reached for a character attribute that most people can connect with.

He's got a sense of humor. Better still, sometimes it's even self-deprecating.

In the very first scene of the movie, with its in media res opening, everyone in Tony's Jeep is stiffly silent. Finally, he speaks up. “I feel like you're driving me to a court-martial. This is crazy. What did I do? I feel like you're going to pull over and snuff me.”

He looks at the others, whose focus is beginning to crack, and adds, “What, you're not allowed to talk? Hey, Forrest!” to the nearest soldier.

“We can talk, sir,” the soldier says.

“Oh, I see. So it's personal?” Tony says.

“No,” says the female soldier driving the Jeep, “you intimidate them.”

“Good God, you're a woman!” Tony exclaims. “I honestly … I couldn't have called that. I mean, I'd apologize, but isn't that what we’re going for here? I thought of you as a soldier first.”

“I'm an airman,” she says, but with a smile.

“You have, actually,” Tony continues, “excellent bone structure, there. I'm kind of having a hard time not looking at you now. Is that weird?” He looks around again. “Come on, it's okay, laugh.”

Within seconds, it's clear that Tony is used to being the odd one out, but doesn't mind. It bothers him when people are stiff and formal around him because that's not his style, despite his status and wealth. His sense of humor and his ability to poke fun even at himself breaks the ice and makes people warm to him, even when he’s being uncouth.

That, right there, is what saves Tony from being a hopelessly unlikable protagonist.

Then, when the Jeep comes under fire, viewers are worried.


How do you make your protagonist likable? Have you ever played with the idea of an unlikable protagonist? What attribute could you give that protagonist to help readers bond with him/her?


Even an unlikable protagonist needs to have one likable attribute readers can bond with.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Film Writes: Hooking Your Reader "In Media Res"

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Iron Man.

You've heard about the different ways to start a story or novel. You can start with a prologue or a frame device, with dialogue or description (of setting or character).

Some of those are pretty self-explanatory. Others, maybe not.

In Media Res

Sometimes you want to drop your protagonist directly into the middle of the action, and then pull back and show how he/she got there in the first place.

That’s called in media res.

Here’s what I mean.


The movie Iron Man, with Robert Downey, Jr., starts out with Tony Stark (Downey) in the back of a Jeep in a military cavalcade, somewhere in a Middle Eastern desert. Tony’s making small talk with the military personnel in the Jeep with him.

Thirty seconds later, there’s a massive explosion, and the cavalcade comes under enemy fire. Most of the soldiers are killed. In a panic, Tony dives out of the Jeep and comes face to face with a rocket, which explodes before he can move. He’s knocked on his back, unconscious.

The screen goes black, and words flash across: “36 hours earlier …”

From there, the movie jumps back in time, thirty-six hours earlier, to recount how Tony came to be in the cavalcade in the first place.

Once viewers reach the opening sequence again, now in the context of the story line, and relive it with Tony, the movie picks up from there and continues to its eventual, chronological conclusion.


The in media res beginning works well to grab your reader’s attention immediately. Who is this character? Where is he? What’s he doing? Why is he under fire? The immediacy of the action sequence pulls the reader in and makes him/her want to know more, and you’re almost guaranteed to get the reader to stay through the entire story to find out what ultimately happens, even after the recurrence of the opening sequence.


The downside to the in media res opening is that it hinders tension during the flashback. Think about it: the reader already knows that the protagonist survives at least until the recurrence of the opening sequence. The savvy author does a lot to build that tension back up again and leave unanswered questions that will make the reader want to read past the recurrence of the opening sequence, once the story picks up again in “real time.”


What kind of opening does your story or novel use? If you’re not using in media res, would your story be stronger with it? If you are using it, how do you plan to maintain tension and reader interest during the inevitable flashback?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Film Writes: Story Arc in a Series

WARNING: The following post contains plot spoilers from the movie Thor: The Dark World.

One of the biggest challenges in plotting a series of books is how to plan a character arc so it spans not only the whole series, but also each individual book, like this:

Think about it. Your protagonist grows and changes from Point A (beginning) to Point B (end) in the first book, and from Point C (beginning) to Point D (end) in the second, and so on (each of the blue lines). Meanwhile, he or she also changes from Point A to Point D in a bigger, overarching way (the green line).

One way to accomplish that change over a series is to raise the stakes in every subsequent book --- make the outcome even more important to your protagonist.

In the Beginning

In the first Thor movie, Thor starts out as an immature child, completely unfit to rule. He can't even hold a civil conversation with someone without starting a fight.

At stake in that movie is his pride, at first, and his identity --- is he the successor to the Asgardian throne, or unworthy of the honor?

By its end, he's sacrificed enough and matured enough to be deemed fit for rule some day.

Raising the Stakes

In Thor: The Dark World, the second movie in the series, we have to go somewhere with Thor's character again, or he becomes a static character (unchanging). Static characters are boring. Since Thor is now mature, stable, renowned, and fit to rule, something had to throw him.

So the writers upped the stakes.

First, the woman Thor loves is infected with (or possessed by) an evil, otherworldly substance that could kill her. Then, Thor's mother is murdered, and his father takes a mentally unstable turn. Thor has to get help from his brother Loki, who has proven untrustworthy before, because Loki has information that Thor needs. Finally, there's a ticking time bomb: as the alignment of the nine worlds approaches, the evil Dark Elves enact a plot to bring total darkness and destruction throughout the entire realm.

At stake, then, is Thor's continued integrity to be worthy of the throne, the family honor, the desire to avenge his mother and visit justice on her killers, the life of the woman he loves, and the existence of all nine worlds and the entire realm.

Not bad.

By story's end, Thor has accomplished everything with aplomb and even matured to another realization: despite being good at ruling, he has no desire to rule Asgard. His priorities are different, so he walks away from that opportunity.

But he wouldn't have grown to that new realization about himself and his abilities if he hadn't faced worse stakes in the second movie.


Have you thought about writing a series before? What's at stake for your protagonist in your first book? How could you up those stakes in the second book to put the protagonist on another trajectory to change and grow?