The Marriage of Facts and Emotions

This post started as a series of complaints and muttered grousings made to a sleeping dog over the course of the last week. It later coalesced as what was going to be an audio post I just sort of fired off, and now, after pacing the first floor of the house, it’s a blog post.

When you spend time reading manuscripts and manuscript excerpts, be they for submissions or for contests or just for critique, you see a lot of the same mistake made again and again. Even if the specific words are different and the topics covered are different, the same mistake crops up.

And this is where we make sort of a record scratch noise and have a little sidebar.

Look, I know that this post is about to go out to a lot of people who haven’t really read much of this blog, and while I am thankful for your reading it, I would be completely unhappy with myself if I didn’t disclaim that I am not in the business of rectal smoke or being a cuddly kind resource that flounces around and doesn’t address the art and craft of writing with practicality and an edge to it, because my job and passion isn’t to be your friend. It’s not to make you all warm and fuzzy when you’re clearly treading water. It’s to make you better. Because I want you to be the best you can be, and if you’re about to say, “You can be nice about it” I’ll nod and still tell you that if your shit sucks you can and should fix it and if you’re clutching your pearls and feeling attacked just wait until you get beset with years of rejections and no feedback because you stepped out of your echo chamber unprepared. My job is to help you get better. So let’s get you better. No illusions, not a lot of hand-holding. This is art. This is craft. Here, we work for our successes. You want to masturbate over the dream, head elsewhere. 

Okay, back to the post.

So many openings make a critical error in their openings. No matter the genre. No matter the POV. The text lays there sort of flat like old soda, and doesn’t interest people. It’s boring. It doesn’t grab people. No matter how many carriage returns you use. No matter how many swears you use. It’s limp. It’s old spaghetti. It’s not going to make someone read more.

That error is the imbalance between fact and emotion.

Fact, for our discussion here, is any statement that provides information to the reader that they either didn’t have or need to have because some other fact benefits from it. This can be anything from a setting description to saying what kind of boot a lady wears. It’s all about telling the reader something they need to know going forward. And we assume these facts are always true, unless something in the presentation tells us otherwise.

Emotion, for this discussion, is any statement that evokes or educes a feeling from the reader. It’s describing how someone feels sad when the other lady kicks the bucket. It’s describing how the clouds inspire hope. It’s everything from the flowery to the straight -up assignment of feelings to a character.

Fact without emotion is dry. It would be like reading a few pages of dictionary. It’s informational, yes, but does it really make someone want to turn the page to the next columns of S-words? Information alone is not engaging, and it is not the thing that makes people turn pages, give a shit, buy books, leave reviews, or say nice things in tweets.

We are led and driven by emotion. Emotion, when you partner it with fact, gives a context and a reaction. It’s that reaction we’re looking for. Here’s an example.

It kept raining all night. Gary snarled when it thundered.  Gary hated the rain.

Those are 3 facts. It establishes several pictures in your head, and it doesn’t matter if Gary is a dog, a grizzled detective on a stakeout, or the king of horseshit cliche magical creatures, because it’s not until we get to the word “hated” that we have a context for the images in our head.

We want context. Context helps provide depth and engagement with the reader or audience. Context isn’t going to just appear because you provided a paragraph of facts about what two people did in a room, it’s going to show up when you take the facts and add some kind of character development to them. Evocative language (verbs, nouns, adjectives, whatevers) is your key to building context.

You want to avoid any situation where you can be asked, “What do you want me to do with this info?” or “Why should I care?” as they’re both signs that there’s a lack of context through which the reader can clarify or connect to or want to connect more to the basal picture you’ve put in their heads.

We’ve previously established that characters need to feel human so that we can connect with them and without them giving some kind of emotional reaction to the world around them, those characters might as well be the colored cut-outs we used to make on popsicle sticks in art class – flat, not terribly precise, limited – story tools.

This is not a call where every fact needs an emotional element following shortly thereafter like a kid brother who just won’t leave you alone when all you want to do is stare at the girls on the bleachers down at the park.

You can have groups of facts get shepherded by an emotion (like my dog and the toys she wants to have near the couch versus those she brings to a spot under the desk) when related or necessary as in the description of your dystopia all getting the label “oppressive” either overtly in text or implied by other word choices you’ve made.

Now, yes, your reader will supply some emotions because they’re human beings with experiences and naturally they want to correlate their emotions with their imagination that you’ve been fueling and prompting by giving them images for the movie screen in their head. But you’re not just letting them assign any old emotion to your story, right? You’re trying to take them down a particular path, and to do that you want them to experience and think about certain emotions more than others, right?

So your persecuted lovers in a medieval kingdom shouldn’t feel like a casual comedy when you’re trying to make people feel bad when Gwen nearly gets her head taken off by the axe before Bill confesses being the wizard before the evil Duke.

So your fish-out-of-water has an appropriate sense of wonder when they, the abused orphan of prophecy gets the cliche acceptance into a cliche brand new world that will forever cliche dazzle them as they cliche proceed over many stories with cliche villains and cliche tools that allow them to cliche deal with the cliche prophecy in a cliche way so that they learn a cliche lesson.

To associate emotion with fact, you need to be clear on what emotion you’re intended, and how you’re going to use sentence structure to deploy it. If you want X emotion to be felt as a result of reading Y paragraph, what words do the emotional creating and propagating?

Here’s a delightfully merciless exercise.

  1. Go double-space and print out your first page, or the page of the MS you’re the most proud of, no matter where it is in the story. And grab one highlighter and one pen (or two different colored pens, but I’m going highlighter/pen combo here).
  2. Choose either the highlighter or pen. If you’re using the highlighter, mark all the facts. If you’re using the pen, circle the facts. Yes you can mark a whole sentence if you want, but try to focus on whatever you think the facts are.
  3.  Now pick up the other thing you didn’t use in Step 2 (for me, this is where I get the highlighter because I just used the pen) Again, if you’re highlighting now, mark all the parts of the text that convey emotion. Or if this is the pen, circle them.
  4. In the margin, at the end of every paragraph, I’d like you to write down the number of facts in that paragraph. If this number seems very high, consider what you’re trying to do deploying info piece after info piece.
  5. In the margin, at the bottom of the page, I’d like you to write down the number of total emotions conveyed on this page.

Now because I sense that some of you are going to say, “I don’t get it.” Here’s an example page. EMOTIONFACT

Notice how the emotional stuff helps build voice and the factual stuff frames what I want you to picture in your head. And if I didn’t have the emotional stuff, you’d have a very boring recitation of A to B to C to D events, without many points for reader connection.

Voice is important. Facts are important. But you have to partner the two together for the whole page to lead us forward to the next page.

One of the major reasons why queries and manuscripts get rejected is because the mix of fact to emotion is skewed as to either bore the reader or under-detail the pictures intended to keep us reading.

To close here, let me point out that when I say emotion I’m talking about 2 types.

First, the emotions of the characters that help establish the voice and tone of the piece. And second, the emotion intended to be brought out of the reader.

By showing the character having an emotion (or even just emotions in general, a whole lot of stories start with boring people not feeling anything yet able to fully explain what they do as if telling me that they’re a tired worker is an emotional incentive to invest in a person for 300+ pages), and then be able to reference that emotion by coming back to that scene (think of a movie soundtrack where every time a theme comes back into play we feel a thing) or a shade of that scene, you reinforce the emotion in-character without bludgeoning the reader by always saying that Ronald is sad.

A lot of people pause here to say, “What about pacing?” What about it? If you’re early on (first page or pages), it’s obvious that you haven’t built pacing yet and that you’re building it there, so we know that you’ll hit 60 miles an hour after you accelerate up from zero. Also, good detail that paints a picture in the mind and reinforces voice does not slow down, it escalates it. Because the picture in mind will be clearer and the inertia will sweep me along like an avalanche.

Instead of a second sidebar, let’s rock a little wrap-up.

Hey creative. How are you? Ready to get up and give this a try? I know, there’s a lot here. But I want you to do me a favor – just think on this as you write:

I’m in charge of putting a movie in the reader’s head. So I need to control what the person sees, how clearly they see it, how they feel when they see it, and how they understand why I’m showing it to them. This book is my film. I need characters and emotions and arcs and decisions and risks and goals, not buzzwords and GIFs and excuses and fear. I’m going to make this movie on paper, and then share it with people because it’s awesome and it makes me happy to do so. None of the shit that the barnyard chickens cluck about matters, it’s just me and this movie and my want to get it out. 

You can do this. Even if you think you can’t right now, even if you tell me a whole host of reasons why all these other things need to be a certain or how other people need to act in a certain way or whatever fluffy cloud of shit you dredge up, you can do this if you keep at it. One word after the other, one idea moving into the next. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be yours. 


Happy creating.

The Passage of Time In Story

Good morning. Welcome back to the week. The sky is clear, the sun is out, I think today might be worth seizing. So let’s pour ourselves a morning glass of iced tea into our best mug (mine talks about butts) and talk writing, shall we?

Today, I want to talk about time as it is used in a story. Time is one of the most manipulated and relied upon elements of storycraft, because it’s instantly familiar to the audience regardless of genre or any reader specifics. We all know about time, we all have feelings about time, we all know how time works.

And like the other instantly familiar concepts (like emotions or world physics), when it’s done well, the story maintains its cohesion and proceeds as planned. However, when time gets monkeyed with (and I don’t mean as a function of the story, I mean when the author sucks are expressing the passage of time), it can stick out like a sore thumb.

It’s that point I want to address. Time has a lot of story components, some of which I think warrant more explanation and definition, rather than just a blanket statement.

Have you ever defined time? It’s the progression of events in one direction, presumably forward. We have different units of time that we all agree upon (seconds, minutes, centuries), unless the genre calls for a change to them, as may happen in science fiction where a particular planet has a month marked in 41.3 days or something.

There’s something known as baseline time in storytelling, and that’s the idea that there’s the accepted measurement of time in story as the readers have in real life. When a story mentions a day, they mean 24 hours, that sort of thing. This baseline creates familiarity, and keeps the author from having to eat up valuable space in a manuscript laying out the chronological metrics.

There’s something known as assumptive time, which is the basis for Stretch Theory. Assumptive time is the idea that a “moment” where a story beat happens isn’t defined unless the story calls for it. A bomb defusing scene, for instance, has a need for time to matter more than something vague like “And then Sharon went to the grocery store.” because we don’t need to know that Sharon spent 9 minutes and 3 seconds in the store, just that she went there. Stretch Theory is based on assumptive time, and says: A beat stretches  or dilates time as needed in order to present the most complete version of itself. Translated into English, Stretch Theory says things take as long as they need to.

There’s something called narrative time, which is the time that passes during the story as the events of the story happen. Harry Potter, for instance, measures narrative time in an imagined school year, allowing for seasonal changes as well as social change to be factors in-story.

There’s also something known as read time, which is how much time the reader spent in the act of reading, both on a sentence-by-sentence case, but also the bigger scale of how much time the person sat down to read.

When you combine all these things together, you start to see the potential of time as a story element. You want to maximize read time, because more reading is good, and builds audience, is enjoyable and leads potentially to sales, etc etc. You want to use accepted time as a way to keep the reader following along, giving them a frame of reference they can understand, so that they can focus on what you’re talking about (also maximizing read time) and you want to manipulate assumptive time so that you present the most interesting beats and moments in a story.

Let’s do an example as we dig deeper. Suppose we have two people, let’s call them Kerry and Tracy. Assign genders and age as you like, but let’s put these two people in a relationship. Let’s not marry them yet, but let’s say this example is the story of how they met, and concludes with them getting married. Let’s also agree that we’re not going to introduce too much randomness into this example (like there’s no magic spell to make them fall madly in love on a Tuesday and be married Wednesday). Here are two people in a story, regardless of genre, and we’re telling their story.

Time and relationships is tricky, because while yes, I have tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands) of words I can devote to creating this relationship, there’s a sweet spot as to what’s going to be believable and what isn’t. Take too long, and the reader can grow impatient, assuming the obstacles preventing the relationship’s development aren’t substantial (Tracy not calling Kerry back “just because” is not as substantial as Tracy not calling Kerry back because Tracy is still getting over the loss of their ex due to a tragic playground accident.)

Move too quickly, and the reader won’t believe these characters truly care. (I’m looking at you Les Mis and Twilight). This is due to reader experience almost universally indicating them that outside the world of your story, relationships take time. This is particularly important if we’re going to put some realism in our story, because realism is going to require us to mirror reader experience.

So how do you find the sweet spot?

The good news is that you can look to other story elements to figure it out. A relationship is a symbiosis between people, so it’s important to have a sense of the qualities and shortcomings of each character in the relationship as well as a sense as to how they overlap.

Coming back to Kerry and Tracy, let’s keep Tracy with a problem letting go and a dead ex, and since we’re building a healthy relationship here, we can either give Kerry a skill at letting go, or a comparable issue with relationships, since we want to see the two characters develop together by working on their issues collaboratively as well as individually. Let’s give Kerry different issue, so they’ll have no problem with letting go, but they’ll instead have a problem that Tracy can assist them with.

(This is called “simple symbiosis”, when Character A’s faults play to Character B’s strengths and vice versa.)

But, you ask, how long can this take? Stretch Theory.

Map the expression of the plot and symbiosis across beats, not chapters, and here’s why: Because beats compose chapters, and staying fluid here allows you to let Stretch Theory be an asset and not a bore.

Take the problem at the heart of the story: Tracy and Kerry need to get together, stay together, and get married. If we present this arc as three beats, or even 3 chapters, it’s going to be a very short progression, and its brevity asks a lot of the reader – the less information provided, the more assumptions you’re tasking the reader to make and agree with. (There’s a danger in information saturation, where there’s too much material, but we’ll get to that.)

We can divide this whole relationship into pieces. When slicing, try to end up with even or divisible numbers, because your overall structure benefits with division. (It’s easier to tell a story in 8 parts with 4 two-parters, than a story in seven parts with 1 4-parter and 1 3-parter.)

Here’s Kerry and Tracy’s relationship, divided into thirds, because three act structure.

1. Characters meet
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy

4. A date is arranged
5. Dates happens
6. Relationship faces difficulty

7. More difficulty
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties
9. Marriage!

These 9 elements could be scenes, they could be chapters, they could be beats. Right now, this is the story mapping stage, so I’m not concerned yet with word counts for each part, because I’m just putting my ideas on paper. Subsequent development will have my putting word counts to each section, and expanding this very crude outline, likely with dialogue and a breakdown of the moments that interest me: specifically 3, 5, and 6, because those moments are where I can write some really fun stuff and show off my writer skills.

Notice though that there’s no concrete mention of a chronology with graduations. I’m not specifying here how long the 9 steps take. Step 5 must take some bit of time though, because I’ve labeled it as “dates” (plural), so I must have some idea about multiple things that will happen. The unspoken graduation is forward progress, and that’s established in the idea that the sections are meeting, together, marriage. But within the three parts, there’s additional progression baked in, one thing leading to another until we reach our goal.

When we put time into this outline, we start to see a sense of scale and pace. Let’s put together a really simple progression and use the seasons as our chronology. This will turn our outline into this:

1. Characters meet (SPRING)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER)

4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER)

7. More difficulty (WINTER)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER)
9. Marriage! (SPRING)

By partnering our outline with seasons, not only are we giving our story a sense of “how long is this gonna take”, we’re also playing with the assumptions and expectations a reader may have about what the seasons mean to them. Spring is often rebirth, so we end our story with these two people starting a life together with new growth, winter is a dark and miserable time, so we partner it with the rough part of our story.

But this still doesn’t tell you enough about how long this should be. Even if we add in word count, like this:

1. Characters meet (SPRING) (5k)
2. Tracy is interested/disinterested in Kerry (SUMMER) (4k)
3. Kerry is interested/disinterested in Tracy (LATE SUMMER) (4k)

4. A date is arranged (AUTUMN) (4k)
5. Dates happens (AUTUMN TO WINTER) (10k)
6. Relationship faces difficulty (WINTER) (5k)

7. More difficulty (WINTER) (2k)
8. Efforts made to overcome difficulties (END OF WINTER) (6k)
9. Marriage! (SPRING) (5k)

word count isn’t an indicator of time passing within a story. I can spend a thousand words in the present tense while describing the contents of a suitcase and never advance narrative time forward, though reader time passes, because human reading is not instantaneous.

Story believability is not a function of narrative time. Many adventures take place over an unspecified number of days, often without characters doing anything outside of the specific adventure (Hi, first season of 24, where Jack Bauer doesn’t stop to pee). For our Kerry and Tracy relationship, we’re not counting on time doing the heavy lifting of broadcasting our idea. Time is there, but it’s a support structure: the actual events and character growth relative to those events are what’s going to make this relationship feel realistic.

(For the people still looking to get incredibly crunchy and prickly over time, I’d like to point out that the montage, flash forward, and scene transitions all show time as a malleable narrative factor if that’s the story’s need.)

Go back to our outline, and look at item 5, where there are multiple dates happening. We’ll likely have to subdivide that time into its constituent date components of planning, executing, resolving, and the repeating those phases for each date. Additionally the successes and failures stack, so that date 4 is predicated on date 3 going well, and over the course these dates we’ll also escalate the attraction and presumably throw these characters into bed together, likely after they laugh while getting caught in the rain after one too many margaritas at happy hour … or something.

I point these dates out because each date is important, but not the timing of each date. One date might be seeing a movie, written out in two or three sentences, despite the movie consuming 2 hours of narrative time. The total read time for that date? Depending on how long it takes to read the paragraph, so … seconds? Our seconds translate into their hours.

Time is malleable, and we buy into its progress not because we micromanage it, but because we use it to buttress our developmental efforts.

There isn’t a clear formula where you plug in variables for number of characters or word count and get the precise amount of narrative time necessary. In two words (“Years later…“) I can advance time a non-specific amount, even though I give you an indicator of its vector when I use later, suggesting that time has advanced, so likely Kerry or Tracy has an eyepatch or scar or cybernetic limb in the dystopia spawned from in an alternate timestream only visible to Kerry while dreaming after a date night when they stayed up too late playing a very aggressive game of Uno.

The amount of information I use to distribute the the progress and growth of characters is not always proportional to the importance of the thing the character does in order to grow. Yes, it might take years to master an ancient martial art, but I can turn Tracy into a warrior within less than a dozen words: Tracy eventually mastered Fighting Hippo Style.

Let’s wrap today by taking our outline and putting it into a paragraph breakdown. We’ll include the 9 steps parenthetically.

Tracy and Kerry meet (1) at the corporate mixer for new employees of The Job Corporation. Both Tracy and Kerry were hired by Gary, and both of them develop a friendly relationship after some initial professional competition (2 and 3). When their individual dates bail/were secretly killed by Gary, Tracy and Kerry agree to go out together (4), and eventually see more and more of each other (5), though Tracy’s rigid martial arts training that started after their ex was killed by a rogue jungle gym and Kerry’s inability to avoid office drama, keep their relationship somewhat unstable (6).

Gary institutes more corporate changes in his bid for power, and the Tracy/Kerry relationship hits its lowest point (7), when Kerry is kidnapped by Gary’s robot army and Tracy must use their martial arts training to rescue the person of their dreams (8). With Gary ultimately defeated, the couple reunites and moves forward with their lives (9).

Framed like that, time becomes an afterthought rather than a panic engine. This story will develop at the pace it needs to, because we see the whole map, and we’re not just faffing around when we want our characters to grow/change along a particular arc.

My many thanks to my client ZA Maxfield for suggesting this topic. I’ll see you on Wednesday, when we’ll grab a question out of the inbox.

Happy writing.

The Ins and Outs of “Good” Fiction

I hope you’re enjoying your Friday. Fridays as a freelancer have always felt like every other day of the week, in that there’s always some kid of work to do. Granted, the workload isn’t always the same, but there’s always something I could be doing that isn’t a video game or watching Netflix.

Today I want to talk a bit one of those questions I tend to deflect, because there’s always some other question to answer first, but today seems like a great day to answer it. I don’t skip this question because it has no answer, it’s just that the answer it does have is really … never what a person is expecting.

When the question is “What makes good fiction?” there are two ways to take that question. First, it’s “What book can you recommend?” but more often than not, I’m being asked as a freelance editor or as an editor at Parvus Press, “What makes for a good MS?” meaning “What can I do to get my MS published?”

If you’re asking for book recommendations, I just finished The Force Awakens audiobook, because I’ve been listening to it while driving places. It was a full production, with the Williams score and sound effects under great narration. Totally worth the $20-something iTunes price tag.

But chances are you didn’t come here for books to read/hear today. So let’s talk manuscripts.

Before we get too much farther along, I have to disclaim that what I’m talking about here is specific to me, and that while many people may share similar suggestions, because “good” can be such a subjective decision, you may find that what I like, some lady over there may hate. And I know, I know, a lot of writers decry the fact that there’s no enforced standard, but I’m glad there isn’t. Because all of the variation in writers and criteria and edits and revisions, we get a wealth of books on the shelf rather than a collection of sameness. We’re not making beige cubes at our local Norse furniture emporium, we’re telling stories – we wouldn’t want them to be the same.

Here then are my signs for “good” fiction:

Characters I can connect with in multiple ways. I will prize a character above all else, because they’re the people doing the stuff in the stories. A good character has many different ways  I can connect/agree/believe in them, whether that’s their attitude, their decisions, their moral compass, or their skills I envy. I put myself as the character in the story, and ask, “Were I in this spot, would I do the same thing?”

It’s not that I believe myself to be the character (do you know many cops, detectives and superheroes I’d be?), but I can project myself into their situations and get a sense of whether or not I’d do what they do. It helps ground the character for me. It helps me to feel like I’m connected to an actual person, even if they’re a space robot with shoulder missiles.

Conflict that matters. A boring story is boring because I’m not sure why people are bothering to do whatever they’re doing. There are supposed to be stakes, and they should be high, relative to the scope of the story. The bigger the scale, the higher the stakes. If the whole world is in trouble, I expect to see a big deal at the heart of the matter.

I want to see the characters on an atypical day, a day that isn’t like the ones you haven’t mentioned, even if all your characters do is save the world Monday through Friday. Why should I care about what you’re making these people do? What’s the point? Why do I want to read on if you’re just telling me that they’re going out for tapas? Find your stakes, and elevate them, consistently, keeping a view on the consequences and their potential rewards or failures. Make what the people do matter. Give these things weight.

Dialogue that sounds like people. Yes, I know, you’re maybe not writing people. You’re writing an advanced race of techno-yeasts that want to save the galaxy from the outbreak of the Bast virus, but if you want people (readers) to relate to your yeasts, they need to communicate in a way that we can understand and empathize with, else we’re right back to the “Why should I care?” problem discussed above.

One of the ways, and I think the strongest way, is to get a ear for hearing how people speak. Get a sense of their cadence, their volume when speaking some words over others. Listen for how they break up the sentences. Listen to how they run on. Find the quirks. No, I don’t mean manufacture quirks just you can insert world-building jargon (looking at you BSG and “frak”, you’re that sore in the mouth that would just heal if everything stopped being so damned cutesy about it), I mean distinguish characters not only by aesthetics or cosmetics, but also their linguistics. How someone says something can be as or more important than what they’re saying.


These are all practical skills that take time to learn. Nope, it’s not easy. But that’s why we take our time writing and rewriting. You can get better at this stuff, just keep writing.

I’ll see you guys next week. Have a great weekend.


Happy writing

Wants, Risk, Drive, and Fears – Character Motivators

So while I’m laying here recuperating today, and in anticipation of my birthday tomorrow, I wanted to talk a little about character development.

When you’re writing a character, whether that’s a protagonist, an antagonist, a character you’re about to portray in a game, or some side character with a few lines, it’s helpful to frame them in your mind so you can deliver what you think the best performance is, situationally speaking.

To find that character, here are five questions:

  • What does this character want?
  • What is this character willing to risk to get what they want?
  • What drives this character forward to whatever comes next?
  • What is this character afraid to lose?
  • What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss?

And here’s the breakdown:

What does this character want? What are the character’s goals, both the short and long terms? Do they just want to rob this one bank, or are they going to spend their whole life getting rich? Do they just want to stop this badguy, or does the whole city need protecting?

Goals are tricky to identify. Yes, they can change, and one goal can masquerade as an other, but there’s no denying that everyone has goals. And those goals are getting pursued in nearly every action they take. Yes, a character can have more than one goal, but when lots of little goals tie together into a larger goal, those little goals are just steps towards the bigger achievement. Stealing the chemicals + kidnapping the scientist + testing chemicals on civilian hostages  are all individual goals sure, but they all combine as steps in the antagonist’s plan to hold the city hostage and threaten chemical warfare.

What is this character willing to risk to get what they want? Risk is a “conflict motivator” because there’s danger present in whether or not loss will happen. And since you can’t lose what you’ve never had, whatever’s being risked is something the character already has at the time they make the decision to be risky. Yes, there are circumstances where some risks are dependent on other risks – robbing the bank risks capture or death in a shoot-out, and gambling with that stolen money won’t be possible unless you rob the bank successfully – but on an individual basis, risk is put into the story to change the status quo.

A character willing to risk something means they want to change that status quo. It also means that the thing being risked is either of sufficient value that you’re willing to use it as collateral to change the status quo or it’s of such little value that any risk is negligible. The valuable stuff getting risked must mean the challenge seems sufficient to warrant it, right? Why would you risk your life over something tiny? There are side questions here to explore as well, about how the character will change with either the success from the risk or the loss because of it.

What drives this character forward to whatever comes next? Usually this is concept or a core part of the character’s moral code. (Shameless plug – I wrote a great article on character development that talks about moral codes, it’s on Smashwords). Superheroes are driven by a need for justice or redemption or vengeance or something broad but universal. (The more universal the concept, the more the audience can project onto the character and escape into their adventures.). More grounded stories often personify this driving force – a child, a wife – to show a broad category of “reasons to do the right thing.” This can too easily become obvious, dull, and expected though if every hero is driven by the exact same thing(s) as the hero on their right. But there does need to be a reason for the hero to move forward, and it should be bigger than the plot.

Yes, the plot will give them a reason to go forward – the hero has to defuse the bomb after defeating the villain, the lady has to lead her people into battle after accepting the mantle of authority – but consider what the character would do if there wasn’t a plot. Is your character sufficiently realized and developed that you could think of them as something more than a plot-solver?

What is this character afraid to lose? What does this character do to protect themselves from that loss? Loss and risk aren’t the same thing. Risk requires a choice to be made, loss can happen outside of a person’s control. You risk money when you gamble, you lose something when the house burns down. It’s entirely normal to be afraid to lose things. And those “things” don’t even need to be objects. Yes, I’m afraid of losing my glasses or my pills or my dog, but I’m also afraid of losing control over my anxiety. I’m afraid of dying. I’m afraid of discovering that no one cares about me or my work, and that I don’t matter.

Because we can quantify and qualify our fears, we can act in ways to prevent them from coming true. We can earn income so we don’t have to fear poverty. We can make friends or learn to like ourselves so we don’t have to fear being alone. The same is true for characters. We don’t need to reduce them down to some infantile idea of them just afraid and lashing out, but understanding the reaction between being afraid and taking steps to avoid that loss can give a character a dimension that can help explain everything from anger they feel to decision making.

Don’t think though that a character has to exist only in the space between fear and acting to avoid that fear. You can stack the protections and the actions into an interesting chain. For instance:

A character is afraid of getting sick -> So they avoid sick people -> But they keep finding sick people -> So they discover a chemical to boost their immune system -> But it’s expensive and only in one place -> So they decide to steal it

You could have easily clipped this chain of ideas off at “avoiding sick people”, but by giving more context, by adding in more story elements, you’re creating opportunities, risk, and a plot.

These five questions can give flat characters some extra nuance and facets. I hope they serve you well.

Happy writing.