Janice Hardy, debut author of today's new release The Shifter, wrote an exclusive guest post for the First Novels Club! She gives FANTASTIC writing advice on her blog (we're not kidding, it's can't-miss), so we're sure The Shifter is amazing--and we can't wait to read it!
Whose Life is it Anyway?
One of the best things about being a writer is that you get to be really mean to your characters. You put them in danger, throw wrenches in their plans, muck up their lives, all for the sake of entertainment. The meaner you are, the better the story is likely to be.
But this can backfire on you.
If you spend all your time doing things TO your characters, you risk never letting them do things for themselves. They become aimless, drifting from problem to problem, reacting, but never taking their lives in the own hands. Sure, it sounds good to write about someone “caught in the whirlwinds of chance,” but the result is usually a reader wondering what the point of the story is. Because stories typically work best when the protag wants something and works hard to get it. Without that goal, it can feel like the story isn’t going anywhere.
Here’s an easy quiz to see who’s running the show, you or your characters:
1. Your hero has just come downstairs for breakfast and discovered a zombie in his kitchen. Does he:
A. Run screaming from the room.
B. Stand there in shock until the zombie attacks, then struggle to fight it off and barely get away.
C. Grab the rolling pin and start whacking.
2. Your heroine suspects her husband is having an affair. Does she:
A. Sit down and cry.
B. Ignore it until she’s accidentally walks in on them.
C. Hit the local spy shop, buy night vision goggles and start trailing her husband after work to find proof one way or the other.
3. Your hero finds a portal in the woods outside his house. Does he:
A. Think, “whoa, this is freaky” and run away.
B. Keep edging closer until it sucks him in.
C. Start investigating to find out what it is and where it came from.
If you answered A, the author is running the show. They’re putting characters in situations and letting them react to them (even if it’s a natural reaction). No decision is being made on their part regarding what happens to them, so there’s nothing to move the story forward. Authors will often have to create another situation to throw at the character to force them a step closer to the ending.
If you answered B, the author is still running the show, but think the characters are. They’re putting them in situations where they react, but instead of making a choice to do something about it, the situation is acting on them and making that choice for them. The zombie attacks, forcing a fight. The wife is put face to face with the husband’s infidelity, forcing a confrontation. The portal sucks in the boy, forcing him into a new world. These are sneaky situations, because they feel like the character is the one in charge, but when you look closely, they really have no choice in what happens to them.
If you answered C, the characters are running the show. They were put into a situation and made a conscious choice to act in response to that situation. Even better, that choice leads to other complications and problems. The zombie will fight back. The wife will uncover the affair. The portal will lead somewhere. Through these decisions, the characters move the story forward.
And that’s the key to making your characters proactive. Their choices, good and bad (usually bad), wrong or right (usually wrong) propel the story forward. Events are happening BECAUSE OF the character, not TO the character.
The easiest way to test this in your own work is to look at a scene and ask what the character’s goal is. What are they trying to do? Are they running toward something or away from it? Do they have a clear need they’re after or are they just dealing with the problem in front of them? Larger questions include, if you took that event out, does it change the ending at all? Did it affect the character’s plan? (Does the character have a plan?) And by this I mean something concrete that affects that plan, not “it made it harder.” Made it harder how? Is there a specific thing you can point to that upped the stakes?
Which brings us to another key factor in making your characters proactive. Are there stakes? If there’s no horrible consequence for failure, what’s driving them to act in the first place? This is often the culprit when you find yourself with a story that isn’t quite working but aren’t sure why. The characters are acting to solve a plot problem, but there’s nothing in it for them. If they walked away and never looked back, the story would still unfold basically the same way. And worse, the character wouldn’t be any worse off because they ignored the problem. If the character is truly in charge, then what they do matters to them on a personal level.
So, key elements to keep in mind to let your characters run the show:
Give them a solid goal (the end goal and the smaller steps in between) and let them work hard to achieve it.
Give them personal stakes if they fail (both in the end goal and all the smaller steps in between).
Let them choose what happens next based on that goal and those fears.
If they have a reason to act, fear what will happen if they don’t act, then they’ll do all they can to get from point A to point B.
About Janice: Janice Hardy is a voracious reader, which used to get her into a lot of trouble in school. Eventually, she figured out writing stories in class made it look like she was doing actual work, so her teachers left her alone. Since then, writing has worked out way better for her than algebra ever did. She now writes young adult fiction and no one ever tells her to cut it out and pay attention anymore. For her debut fantasy novel, THE SHIFTER, she tapped into her dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. She lives in Georgia with her husband, four cats and one nervous freshwater eel.
About The Shifter (The Healing Wars: Book 1):
Fifteen-year-old Nya is an orphan struggling for survival in a city crippled by war. She is also a Taker—with her touch, she can heal injuries, pulling pain from another person and storing it inside her own body. But unlike her sister Tali and the other Takers who become Healer’s League apprentices, Nya’s skill is flawed: she can’t push that pain into pynvium, the enchanted metal used to store it. All she can do is shift it from person to person, a dangerous skill that she must keep hidden from forces occupying her city. If discovered, she’d be used as a human weapon against her own people.
Rumors of another war make Nya’s life harder, forcing her to take desperate risks just to find work and food. She pushes her luck too far and exposes her secret to a pain merchant eager to use her shifting ability for his own sinister purpose. At first, Nya refuses, but when Tali and other League Healers mysteriously disappear, she’s faced with some difficult choices. As her father used to say, principles are a bargain at any price, but how many will Nya have to sell to get Tali back alive?
Buy THE SHIFTER today on Amazon, B&N, Borders, IndieBound
The Healing Wars blog
The Other Side of the Story blog