A-Ha! Moments

Helpful things other writers shared with me to help me write, right...

The following are extracts from e-mails or other sources that lead to a-ha! moments and helped me grow as a writer.  They may be helpful to other writers struggling to improve their writing.

Well-Developed Characters

Deb Dixon’s Goals, Motivation and Conflict (GMC)

This book was useful, but only to a point.  If you’re having problems defining your story and it just seems flat, you may find this book useful as a starting point. 

NOTESthe concepts may be a little too simplified.  You do need to be able to define what your characters’ inner (internal) motivation is, what the external motivation/goals are and what the conflicts between the characters will be, but you can do this and still wind up with cardboard characters.  I found it useful as a starting point however it really didn’t help me to develop the depth of character I wanted.

Two Word Descriptions:  Everyone encourages us to come up with a two-word description for our characters, e.g. Wary Loner, Optimistic Cheerleader, Chauvinistic Adventurer.  While those are fine, I’ve found them less than helpful (i.e. useless) in developing my characters.  They are a trap that leads you to develop cardboard characters with knee-jerk reactions.  It is useful for the synopsis/query letter stage, but not as preparation for writing your novel.


In an e-mail conversation with another writer, I found the way that worked for me, to create the kind of multi-dimensional characters I wanted to write.  Here are the salient points which she raised to my attention:

...External GMC can be thought of as examining the question:  what’s wrong with my world and how can I go about fixing it?

...Internal GMC is:  What’s wrong with me and how can I fix it.  At the deepest level, the internal conflict is almost always between fear of losing, and the desire for self-actualization.

...what the writer is trying to do is make the characters believable -- not understandable.  It's an important distinction...

...Now, what makes a character believable is that they are internally consistent...  All people are wounded.  How they solved the 'problem' of their wounding is what makes them internally consistent.  They will tend to solve similar problems the same way, forever, unless they have some powerful motivation to change.

...In order to understand a character and write about them in such as way as to let the reader understand them, too, you can interview the character to get to the deeper how it is that they did what they did in your book.  How did they come to make the decision to do what they did in your story? 

Here is some explanation of applying this, specific to one of my manuscripts.  I was having issues getting the reader to understand why a character, Charlotte, behaved as she did, and here is what a dear friend of mine asked me to answer.  The answers defined Charlotte’s internal conflict more clearly for me, and allowed me to understand what I needed to write so the reader would understand Charlotte’s behavior.

v      Decide how Charlotte answered the question when she was 10, 15, 20 years old: “What’s wrong with me that nobody wants me?”

v      How did she decide to fix that?

v      Remember, in the areas where she decided “I’m not wrong, they’re wrong,” she will feel anger.

v      Where she decided “I’m unacceptable,” she will feel sadness, or despair.

v      Where she concluded she has unacceptable traits, when those traits leak out, she will feel guilty.

v      Finally, people in Charlotte’s position will usually think they have one or two redeeming qualities, that if they could just get them exactly right, then they would be saved i.e. would find the love and acceptance they crave, or figure out how to live without it.  These are the building blocks that she will craft her salvation from.

v      Answer these questions for Charlotte.  You don’t have to “explain” all of it in the book, but you do have to know it.

Just adding lines to this effect helped clarify Charlotte’s character and her actions for the reader:

Charlotte found years ago that dwelling on her feelings did no good.  When her emotions threatened to overcome her, the best thing to do was to turn her attention to something interesting--a moth, a plant, anything--anything that had nothing to do with her or her uncomfortable feelings.  Thank goodness she was naturally curious.

NOTE:  It is not enough to do this just for your hero and heroine.  It is critical to do this for your villain if you wish the villain to be more than just another “Snidely Whiplash” character.  In fact, it is probably more critical that you determine “how it is that the villain came to decide s/he had to do what s/he did and that it was the best choice for s/he to make at the time”. 

It is not a question of:  S/he decided to kill Mr. Green because s/he wanted to inherit Mr. Green’s fortune.  It is a question of how s/he came to the conclusion that the best way to become wealthy was to kill Mr. Green instead of doing any one of a number of other things such as working for a living, playing the lottery, or asking Mr. Green for a loan.  Since not everyone will kill to obtain a fortune, you need to find out why your villain thinks killing is the best or only choice for them. 

What brought the character to that decision?


This isn't my tip - I got it from a great writing seminar given by Lisa Gardner, but it really does work.  Put your plot points on 3x5” index cards.  You can lay them out on the floor to see how your story flows and if there are gaps (or sagging middles).  You can see if you have enough going on to make an exciting story.

For myself, I find I need approximately 3 plot points that can be developed into scenes for each chapter.  While I don’t use 3x5” cards, I do use an outline with approximately 20 chapters and within each chapter, approximately 3 plot points.

I also find that about 2/3 of the way through any novel, the characters will have developed and changed the story so that some of the plot points may not longer work.  At this point, I generally go back through the final 1/3 plot points and modify them to fit where the story is now going.

Two Turning Points (or more) are critical to make a single title manuscript exciting.  Turning points are events the reader would not expect or anticipate. 

For example, if someone is trying to kill your heroine and she goes to a burned-out cop for help, the reader already knows the cop is going to help her.  You don’t need to drag that out because the reader expects it. 

Once the two characters get “moving” you need at least two turning points where things happen that cause the characters and action to go in an unexpected direction.  For example, the bad guy kidnaps the woman’s child, thereby upping the stakes.  The reader is probably expecting the bad guy to go after the woman.  The reader isn’t expecting the bad guy to kidnap the child, and this turning point changes the course of the book.

After the first draft I find it helpful to write the story line/plot points out on a long sheet of FAX paper (like a scroll) so I can again see where everything happens.  One problem I’ve had is to place too many events during one physical day in the story, so plotting out the story from the first draft onto this scroll, marked with days and actions, helps me to see where I may have made continuity mistakes. 

In mysteries, it is very helpful to document the bones of the story on this scroll because it helps me see where I failed to plant a clue they talked about later, or had the wrong person discover the clue, or planted the wrong clue entirely.

Books by Amy Corwin
The Dead Man's View