Monday, September 7, 2009

Dangling The Carrot

Mark Twain said, "Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream."

Believable characters and real emotion are the driving force behind everything that is written - whether it is fiction or nonfiction. If you don't care about the book/article/pamphlet that you're reading, odds are you aren't going to finish reading it.

Think for just a second about some of the books you've read. What are some of your favorite characters ever written about?

I'm immediately thinking about Anne of Green Gables. Anne Shirley was a character-and-a-half! She was impulsive, mischievous, nonsensical, brilliant and daydreamy all at the same time. She was such a sweet person that you couldn't help but like her and such an accident waiting to happen that you couldn't help but see what she'd get herself into next.

Or, what about Elizabeth Bennett? She was headstrong, self-reliant and logical in a society that bred flighty, irresponsible girls. She didn't want a marriage of convenience like was so popular back then, but to really fall in love.

I think we are instinctively drawn to characters that we find common interest. If you tend to be a scatterbrained person, you'll probably love scatterbrained characters. If you are a logical, calculated person, odds are that scatterbrained characters are going to drive you crazy!

So, how do we create characters that people empathize with?

Probably the best question you can ask about your character is "What do they want?"

Anne Shirley wanted to stay at Green Gables. Once she got that, she wanted everyone to be happy. She wanted things to never change and she didn't want people to grow up.

Elizabeth Bennett wanted to love someone - even if it meant living in the poor house. She wanted Jane to be happy. And she wanted her sisters to stop being so embarrassing.

What your character wants will be what drives the plot. If your character is a grouchy old man who just wants peace and quiet, what do you think the story will be about? The grouchy old man never getting peace and quiet... until the end of the story.

If you're working on a story and you've come to a screeching halt, check and see what it is your character wants. Is it believable? Is it plausible? Did they get all their desires fulfilled at the beginning of the story? Make their "Wish List" both complex and simple.

Think for a minute about what you want. Here's my list:

I want:
* Another bowl of cereal
* To have a four-day weekend instead of a three-day
* My family to be safe and happy
* To glorify God

What do you want? Now, look at your character. If your character only has simple desires, you're going to be missing that resonance in your story. If your character only has complex desires, you'll be missing the realistic essence to your story.

What does your character want? And how are they going to get it? And if you write character-driven fiction, you've just come up with your plot.

"Don't say the old lady screamed." Figure out the why. Figure out what it is she wants that she's not getting. And then, bring her on and let her wail away while you dangle that desire in front of her face.

Personally? I think that old lady just wanted Oreos for breakfast and someone told her she was old and needed to watch her cholesterol and that she should have Cheerios instead. But that's just my take on it. What's yours? :)


  1. Wow, how insightful! I totally agree and will definitely take that into consideration next time I get my hands on a pencil.

  2. By the way, I think that it's "dangling the carrot," not "danging the carrot." :)

  3. Wow, great post. When I was writing the draft in my first book, half-way through it I realized that I was being too nice to the characters. Their dreams/goals were coming true too fast, and everything was going way too perfect for them. It was only then I realized I needed to put more obstacles in his/her path. And that's when the story became a whole lot more interesting... and realistic. :)
    I mean, even SMALL things in my life usually don't go perfectly the first time. Like buying a bag of flour or powdered sugar at the store, of all things... whenever I pick up a bag, there happens to be a hole and white powder sprays all over me. LOL. And to make it worse, it also sprays all over the people next to me. And then they yell at me. Just over a bag of sugar.
    If I have a hard time getting what I want in life without it being dangled in front of me, why should I expect my characters to always get what they want the first time? ;)

  4. Great information here!

  5. You mean I CAN have Oreos for breakfast?? YAY!! :)

  6. Thanks for the comments guys! And thanks Anonymous, I totally did not even catch that on the title. :) Arianna - I'm so sorry for your sugar/flour issues, though I have to admit I laughed! And Mom, no you may not have Oreos because you are not old. :)

  7. Haha! I JUST posted something similar on my own blog

    I guess great minds think alike!

    You're never too old for Oreos. Even when your teeth are gone, you can dip them in milk until they're soft enough to swallow. ;o)

  8. Christiana, I just got this mental picture of this toothless old man eating sqooshy Oreos... bleugh!! :)

  9. Hahaha! Just wanted to make that little old lady you mentioned happy!

  10. Lol! Great advice, friend. Love the Oreos. I think you're exactly right. And to show empathy, Audrey and I shared several a few hours ago =P Yes, my 14 month old likes Oreos. And yes, I'm fine with that. lol

  11. Betsy, I knew I liked your daughter. :)

  12. Hi Erynn -

    I just found Scribble Chicks through C.J. Darlington's blog. Great articles! I'll be back.

    Question: How come you done have a Follower widget? I'd sign up now if you did. :)


  13. Excuse me, I've had a migraine all day.

    Correction: Why don't you have a Follower widget?

  14. Susan, I'll be sure to add the Follower widget right away! :)