Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Strong Characters Defined - Part 1 - Reading Market Reports by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Strong Characters Defined
Part 1
Reading Market Reports
Jacqueline Lichtenberg 

This is Part 1 of the Strong Characters Defined Series, even though Part 2 has already posted. 

Part 2 is

Cindy Holby wrote in her Saturday Jan 27th, 2007 post on this blog:
I write very strong characters. Characters that seem to make an impact on my fans as every letter I get mentions how much they love the characters, how much they were drawn into their lives and how much they think about them long after the story is over.
----end quote---------

The few weeks previous to Holby's post, I posted some comments on Genre and how though it is enforced and defended by publishers, Genre is really invented by and perpetuated by readers (the opposite of what Editors think, and yet Genre is defined by publishers). 

As a fiction consumer, you can up your odds of getting what you want from a book by learning something about how publishers tell writers what the reader wants to buy.  Publishers do that via a publication called Writers' Markets, and via columns in periodicals aimed at Writers titled something like Market Reports, which is a report to writers on where to market which kind of property. 

One of the requirements you see over and over in Market Reports (where publishers describe what they're buying now) is "strong characters."

They want "strong characters" because those books (and films) make bigger profits, not because there's no market for Weak Characters but because there's a bigger market for Strong Characters. 

Writers, publishers and readers often mean different things when they say "strong characters.'

Publishers don't mean by the term "strong characters," characters the reader can identify with (as Holby's readers admire), nor characters that have big muscles, nor characters that impress the reader and make the reader remember their names and use the character for cosplay.

Publishers mean characters whose decisions direct and energize the plot.

Publishers mean the point of view character must be the person who makes the decisions (internal conflict) that manifest in Plot Events (external conflict).

The Market Report is telling you to send in stories with a protagonist who makes the initial move that sets the plot in motion, and an antagonist who acts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the protagonist's goal. 

Protagonist and Antagonist define the Conflict.  The writer uses Conflict to Depict the Theme.


Publishers do not want point-of-view characters who agonize, wring their mental hands, or worry without ever taking charge of their own life.  However, a character who merely acts and never thinks or feels, won't be considered "strong" either. 

A Strong Character is one who wins his own Internal Conflict between his Emotions and his Reason -- between Desire and Values -- or whatever dichotomy you choose to illustrate your Theme.

The character who loses his/her Internal Conflict is the Antagonist. 

That's the series on Depicting with links to previous posts.

Confusing the role of Protagonist and Antagonist is one mistake beginners so often make when choosing a point of view character.   

You might also want to read Dialogue Part 9, Depicting Culture.  Very often an internal conflict is best depicted by a conflict between Values and External Culture (or peer-pressure).


That entry also has links to previous parts.

A strong character is defined by publishing as a person whose "character" is strong -- who has values and sticks to them regardless of their own emotional internal pain.  A Strong Character is defined as a person who backs his Values with life and limb, takes risks, stays focused on the goal, and maybe goes down swinging, but never, ever, ever compromises over "right" and "wrong." 

Uncompromising, unyielding, unbending, stubborn, obstinate, obstructionist, are traits which are produced by Strong Character. 

But the words have a negative semantic loading - (look up semantic load if you don't know what that is). 

In Executive Training, these internal character traits are redirected into external manifestation as "Goal Directed" and "Strategist" and "Taking Charge" and "Gets the Job Done" and "Determined" and "Dominant" and "Successful."

If you want to learn to think like a "Strong Character" so you can write the dialogue convincingly, then read some books on Executive Training. 

I've never seen a Market Report where a publisher asked for "weak characters." 

They don't want to buy stories where the main point of view character is someone to whom the story happens.  They want the main point of view character to be someone who makes the story happen, if not at the opening scene, then as the character "arcs" or changes under the impact of Events, the character steps up and takes charge of their own life. 

Now, in Romance, there can be another character who "makes the plot happen" -- whose decisions direct the course of Events.  But the protagonists have to assess that course of Events, and re-position themselves to "succeed" in achieving their own goals, regardless of what the Decision Maker's goals might be.

An example is the Arranged Wedding.  Set in different times over the last few centuries, the Strong Female Lead might cut a deal with the arranged-husband, negotiate for a part of the marriage where she makes the decisions, then parlay that into being the Title Holder.  Or in later centuries, she might arrange for the arranged-husband to meet with a sorrowful accident.  In modern times, she might "just say no" even if it means leaving her religion and her country behind.  But if she's "strong" she will get her own way -- and might live to regret that.

One point of confusion between Strong and Weak Characters lies within the concept "Character Arc" -- we all want to see the characters in a novel learn from their experiences, not repeat the same errors.  We want to see people change their minds about certain fundamental assumptions, but in a work of fiction that mind-changing must seem not just logical but inevitable to the reader.

For example, a teenage couple hooks up at a wild party and has unprotected sex.  Then comes the dog-fight over abortion, what's right, what's wrong, what should we do, what can we do, whose decision is it anyway?  Oh, and what will the rest of their families think?

The Shot Gun Wedding used to be the only choice.  Now, life is more complex.

So if one says do the abortion, and the other says that's just wrong, one of them must "arc" - one mind or the other has to be changed.  In real life, that doesn't happen.  In fiction, it has to happen for clear-cut reasons that bespeak the Theme.

Say for example, the woman wants to do the abortion and the man says no, and they are both strong characters but are too young to do a good job of considering the other person's position.  So she does it anyway, as is her right because it's her body even if it is his son.  Neither has changed their mind, and it's way too late now.  The argument is moot. 

They part in a STORM of toxic emotion.

Ten years later, pushing 30, maybe one or both are divorced after an infertile marriage, and they meet as professional rivals -- say two Lawyers faced off over opposing Clients, maybe arguing before the Supreme Court.  Or maybe they are each CEO's of new-hot-tech companies, chewing at each others' market shares.  They are pitted against each other.

The ferocity of their professional battle will mirror the ferocity of the battle over abortion, and you will have an opportunity to depict two cultures in a fight to the death over right and wrong. 

If you are doing this in Science Fiction (maybe with Time Travel) or Fantasy -- maybe with Paranormal Romance where ghosts figure in to the plot -- you can depict the "might-have-beens" and that she could not have gone to college if she'd had a child to raise, and that he could not have finished a Ph.D. if he had a wife and kid to support.  But the bone of contention in their current rivalry involves a 10 year old boy -- the age their son would have been by now.

See the potent drama unfolding? 

When women are raised to be Weak Characters so that men can always dominate them, and men are raised to be Strong Characters (regardless of their individual Nature), the situation appears a lot more peaceful -- but only on the surface.

When women are raised to be Strong Characters just as men are, you have the Clash of the Titans, and people must determine their own criteria for what is Right and what is Wrong. 

If men and women are equally "Strong" in their stance on what is Right and what is Wrong, then the only Resolution of the Conflict (Internal and External) is "Character Arc" -- one or the other (or both) must admit to a flaw in their concept of "Right vs. Wrong" and either or both must change the basis of their thinking.

That is the typical story of, say, a Religious Conversion leading to an Alcoholic going sober and staying sober. 

The hardest thing a human being ever does is to admit to having been wrong.  We all need to know beyond doubt that what we understand to be Right is in fact Right because we put our lives on the line for it.

In Fiction, the moment when a Strong Protagonist admits to having been Wrong is called "The Epiphany" -- because it is a sudden, blinding, shift in perception of the world just exactly like a Religious Conversion. 

Constructing an Epiphany moment for a Strong Protagonist is a complex (and dangerous) thing for a writer to attempt.  But it does make for a memorable novel.

The key to learning to create a believable Epiphany moment is to go through your everyday life asking yourself, "What would I accept as proof that I am wrong about XYZ?"  Challenge everything you believe, from politics to morality, from religion to science (especially science) with that question, and take notes on what your mind does. 

To write a "strong character" from the inside, you must be a strong character.  To write a convincing Epiphany from the inside, you must experience an Epiphany of your own (and take notes.)

So what kind of book do you want to read?  Do you prefer to read about someone who is a victim of circumstance because of their own ineptitude or lack of forethought whose problem is ultimately solved by someone else's actions?  There is a market for that. 

Or would you prefer to read about someone who was a victim of circumstances and despite paying a huge price, prevailed over circumstances and made the world a better place for it? 

A strong Character has, as primary consideration in crafting goals, the ultimate fate of others.  The strong Character does not put him/herself first. 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. "Might have been": Have you read MY REAL CHILDREN by Jo Walton? It follows two alternate lives of one woman in two alternate worlds (each one similar to our actual timeline but not the same, so the reader has no grounds for assuming one history is "real" and the other isn't). In one, she marries her first love and discovers it's a big mistake. She has a life that's miserable in many ways, but the meanwhile the world develops into a much more prosperous, peaceful, scientifically advanced place than in our history. In her other timeline, she has a happy, fulfilled personal life but in a world that deteriorates to near-dystopia. As an elderly woman near death in a nursing home, she apparently has the chance to make her choice -- marry or not? -- over again. It's a "Lady or the Tiger" scenario that remains unresolved at the conclusion, leaving the reader to mull over the alternatives. This is a book that will stick with you!