Monday, August 27, 2012

Do Violence to Your Reader, Part IV: Stretch Your Characters on the Rack by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

Hey writerly friends, have you noticed the longer you work on a story, the better you get to know your characters? Me too! Annette here. This week, Jill Elizabeth Nelson finishes her great series by sharing how making things tough on our characters will keep readers hooked. Enjoy!

Do Violence to Your Reader, Part IV: 
Stretch Your Characters on the Rack
by Jill Elizabeth Nelson

A first draft will not explore and stretch characters to anywhere near their potential. So it is vital to go back in and poke and prod and stretch them until they reveal fresh layers of their lives, including personality, character, and backstory.

One caveat—writers will not necessarily use everything they know about their characters within the confines of the story at hand. An author should know more about their characters than they could ever use in a single manuscript. In other words, your character's dimensions should be broader and taller than the scope of your novel. This way they will utterly fill the canvas of your story-world.

One way that a writer can stretch their character on a virtual story-rack is to bring them to a place where they must do something they would never do and/or say something they would never say. If that moment is natural to the story and pivotal to its resolution, the reader will suffer agonies along with the character and love every moment of the delicious torture!

For example, Desiree Jacobs, the heroine of my To Catch a Thief series, is the CEO of her own international museum security company. She's a never-say-die-person. Give up is not in her vocabulary. When she sets her mind to do a thing, it gets done.

Toward the end of Reluctant Runaway, the second book in the series, I place her in a situation where she finally hangs her head and says, "I give up." The unthinkable admission takes an emotion-laden scene and supercharges it to gut-wrenching. In the next instant, an unexpected twist occurs, hope is resurrected, and we race on toward the conclusion of the story.

A common short-coming, particularly for newer writers, is to go too easy on our beloved characters. The opposite produces a story worth telling . . . and worth reading. Be vile and cruel to your characters. Take a bad situation and make it worse. Confront them with impossibilities. Drag them through their worst nightmare. Force them to face their greatest fear. Ultimately, shove them in a corner and make them do what they would never do. The result will amaze and enthrall readers.

Here’s your assignment:

Evaluate one of the characters in your current WIP (work in progress) and drill into them until you can “see” their personal line in the sand—the place which serves as their personal boundary of thought or behavior. Now, devise a situation in which they will be confronted with the necessity of doing or saying the unthinkable. Can you incorporate this moment into your story in a way that will deliver that all-important Emotionally Resonant Reading Experience?


Award-winning author and writing teacher, Jill Elizabeth Nelson, writes what she likes to read—tales of adventure seasoned with romance, humor, and faith. Jill is a popular speaker for conferences, writers groups, library associations, and civic and church groups. She delights to bring the “Ah-ah! Moment” to her students as they make new skills their own. Her handbook for writers, Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View, is now available at Amazon (see links below).

Connect with Jill:

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