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Thread: How do I write a novel about character development?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW satyesu's Avatar
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    How do I write a novel about character development?

    So far my novel doesn't have a "central plot." It's more about a 17-year-old's transition from high school to college, Catholic to atheist, and kid to adult. Of course, stuff happens to him, but I'm not sure how to make it interesting, complex, and keep action going over the course of a year. Would someone help, please? Thank you!

  2. #2
    Not a real eskimo Quinn_Inuit's Avatar
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    Once a scene is done, why should the reader turn the page and begin the next? And don't say, "because they like the characters." Characters are vital, but they don't keep readers on the edges of their seats. That's what plot is for.
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  3. #3
    practical experience, FTW
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    What's at stake? What challenges/obstacles/problems does the character have to face and overcome? If there are some, you have a plot. If not, you don't have a story.

    caw
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  4. #4
    practical experience, FTW satyesu's Avatar
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    I have a few plots involving the main character, but the action mostly involves side characters and his involvement really amounts to his reactions, his involvement with side characters (typically friends/family), and what he learns from them. I'm really stumped as to a "central" plot or even how to otherwise connect the others. Would you please make some suggestions?

  5. #5
    Seashell Seller Layla Nahar's Avatar
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    A story is about a person. A person with a problem. What the person does to cope with the problem causes the events in the story. Look at the stories (novel, movies etc) that you have enjoyed so far, and identify the story problem.

    For example, Frodo has a magical ring which must be destroyed - and the only way to do it is to enter enemy territory and throw the ring into a volcano.

    Another thing about the story problem - the final goal has to be an action*. Luke has to deliver a droid to the rebel alliance, then he has to shoot a torpedo into a small target.

    Look at other stories to identify the person's problem and the final action they must take to solve the problem.

    Summary: A person has a problem, they have to take a specific action to solve the problem. The events of the story are the result of how the person handles the problem.

    *I saw a movie where nothing much happened - it drifted and meandered but it was compelling - you always wanted to know 'what's going to happen next?'. The MC's goal was to get her art into an New York city gallery - that's an action, whether its her and the gallery owner shaking hands, or it's hanging up the pictures - the goal is an action.
    Last edited by Layla Nahar; 10-29-2017 at 07:16 AM.
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  6. #6
    Just Another Lazy Perfectionist Brightdreamer's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    I have a few plots involving the main character, but the action mostly involves side characters and his involvement really amounts to his reactions, his involvement with side characters (typically friends/family), and what he learns from them. I'm really stumped as to a "central" plot or even how to otherwise connect the others. Would you please make some suggestions?
    This... could be difficult. Your MC sounds rather passive, lacking a point or agency, a pair of eyes to wander about. That's tough to get readers to care about unless you have a very, very engaging style or voice. What is the reader supposed to be watching him do? What's his goal? Does he have one, or is he just drifting at the whim of the four winds?

    As an exercise, try writing your side plots with a side character as the MC - with the current MC (I'll call him Ace, for convenience) involved, but not central, demoted to the outfield or the bench. Ace weaves his way through the other stories, but the action focuses on the characters who are acting, not simply reacting. This would allow Ace to passively grow (if that's really how you want Ace to be) as he puts together building blocks of lessons, and maybe offer the odd insight or commentary, but he wouldn't have to carry the story or reader interest himself, leaving the heavy lifting to the more active characters, whom readers might find more engaging.
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  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW
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    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    I have a few plots involving the main character, but the action mostly involves side characters and his involvement really amounts to his reactions, his involvement with side characters (typically friends/family), and what he learns from them. I'm really stumped as to a "central" plot or even how to otherwise connect the others. Would you please make some suggestions?
    One thing you might want to examine is whether your protagonist is currently passive. That can make it tough to keep the story engaging. All stories begin with an inciting event (which would ideally be a cool hook into your story), but then after that point, ideally the protagonist is driving the action. I can think of a few examples offhand (Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda is one) where the protagonist is somewhat reactive/passive in parts of the book, but those had such amazing voice that it carried the novel. Usually keeping your protagonist active is a stronger bet.

  8. #8
    Swooping is bad. mpack's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    I have a few plots involving the main character, but the action mostly involves side characters and his involvement really amounts to his reactions, his involvement with side characters (typically friends/family), and what he learns from them. I'm really stumped as to a "central" plot or even how to otherwise connect the others. Would you please make some suggestions?
    What does your character want at the beginning of the manuscript?
    What does your character want at the end of the manuscript?

    The way the answer changes between those two questions might help you link the subplots into an overarching story.

  9. #9
    figuring it all out
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    Research "coming of age" stories, and definitely give your protag a clear desire or goal. If it's to earn the love of his father, for instance, that's a character-based goal that would make the protag choose definite actions to try and fulfill. That's story, character-driven. At the end of the book, the reader will learn either the protag gets that love, or he doesn't, or he discovers he had it all along, or whatever. But every drama needs something like that to tie it all together.

    If this isn't possible for your protag, maybe you have the wrong protagonist. Look at promoting the most compelling side character to protag and demoting your current one.

  10. #10
    practical experience, FTW satyesu's Avatar
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    Thank you very much! And to everyone else who posted, too.

  11. #11
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Another word for you: bildungsroman -- "a literary genre that focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to adulthood (coming of age), in which character change is extremely important"

    Yes,it's a thing. There are many, many examples. You are not alone! Look it up, and see how other people have handled it well.

    Of course, what everybody above says about there needs to be story in your story is true. But remember that story is not necessarily the same as plot. There doesn't necessarily have to be a lot of Action (much less Adventure) to make a satisfying coming-of-age story.

  12. #12
    Such a nasty woman SuperModerator Old Hack's Avatar
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    You could look at something like the Save The Cat beat sheets, and see what happens if you slot your various events into one of those. I know a few people who have found this transformative for their writing.

  13. #13
    Old Hand in the Biz Barbara R.'s Avatar
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    What you're describing are passages in person's life, or a sort of fictional biography--- not a novel. Novels are constructed around a central, specific challenge that the protagonist must grapple with. It has to be something of great moment, to the character at least, not something trivial, or readers won't care about the outcome. The onset of this challenge provides a starting point for the novel and its resolution marks the ending. You seem to have an interesting character in mind, but you lack that problem or challenge.

  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW benbenberi's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Barbara R. View Post
    What you're describing are passages in person's life, or a sort of fictional biography--- not a novel. Novels are constructed around a central, specific challenge that the protagonist must grapple with. It has to be something of great moment, to the character at least, not something trivial, or readers won't care about the outcome. The onset of this challenge provides a starting point for the novel and its resolution marks the ending. You seem to have an interesting character in mind, but you lack that problem or challenge.
    Yes.

    Mpack's questions above are a good place to start constructing the story of your character's transition:
    What does your character want at the beginning of the manuscript?
    What does your character want at the end of the manuscript?
    The difference between these states is the transformation the character has experienced. The story explains it.

    Some more questions:
    - How do the people your character interacts with connect to this change? Do any of them influence the character (directly or by example)? Do any of them contribute to the character's conflicts? Are any of them a mentor, an obstacle, a supporter, a distractor, etc.?

    - How do the events of your character's life contribute to this change?

    - Are there points where the character makes decisions that have consequences?

    - What challenges does the character face? Where do they fail? Why? What do they learn from it? How does this affect them afterwards?

    - What is the character's main goal at the beginning? Do they achieve it during the story? If so, did it give them what they wanted? What next? If they don't achieve it during the story, do they still want it at the end? Why or why not?

  15. #15
    figuring it all out
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    Your MC must be challenged. We get to know them by the way they respond and how the events impact them. Let them f**k up, let us see how they develop as an outcome of that. As for plot, it is,surely, the characters life.

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    ....... Harlequin's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    I have a few plots involving the main character, but the action mostly involves side characters and his involvement really amounts to his reactions, his involvement with side characters (typically friends/family), and what he learns from them. I'm really stumped as to a "central" plot or even how to otherwise connect the others. Would you please make some suggestions?
    No, I won't. Because no one can do this for you. If we could give you a straightforward answer on how to "make a character interesting" we'd all be nobel-winning laureates by now. What you're asking is how to write and that simply doesn't have an answer which can be solved by examples.

    The kind of book you're talking about is probably a literary novel with a high amount of interiority. The only way to learn what you're wanting to know, is to read other novels which have already done this. What novels have you read which fit that bill? Alternatively, I'm sure many people will be happy to give suggestions.

    The answer to all writing questions, is always in books.
    "Though one evil spirit may drive a woman out of Eden, all the devils in hell cannot drive Heaven out of a woman."

    -- George MacDonald

  17. #17
    Perpetually in transit Helix's Avatar
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    Maybe the character you've selected to be your MC is the wrong one to tell this story.


  18. #18
    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Harlequin View Post
    No, I won't. Because no one can do this for you. If we could give you a straightforward answer on how to "make a character interesting" we'd all be nobel-winning laureates by now. What you're asking is how to write and that simply doesn't have an answer which can be solved by examples.

    The kind of book you're talking about is probably a literary novel with a high amount of interiority. The only way to learn what you're wanting to know, is to read other novels which have already done this. What novels have you read which fit that bill? Alternatively, I'm sure many people will be happy to give suggestions.

    The answer to all writing questions, is always in books.
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  19. #19
    professional dilettante Lakey's Avatar
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    Harlequin has a good point, Satyesu. Many of the questions you have been asking around here lately are not easy questions with quick-tip solutions. That's good, because it means the questions you are thinking about go right to the heart of storytelling and good writing. But to develop answers to these questions, one of the best things you can do for yourself is read a lot and read widely. Are you doing that? Everything you read will show you new ways to answer every single question you have asked here.

    Everything you read can give you new ideas about how to do things in your novel - ideas about how to structure things, how to convey emotions, what kinds of events should happen in the novel, how to ratchet up the stakes, how to generate a consistent voice, how different types of POV affect the reader's experience of the story, and on and on and on.

    That's not to say that you can't also ask questions about all those ideas and discuss them here - those discussions can be very fruitful and interesting. But if you're not already reading like mad, and reading with your writer-brain engaged to discover what other writers are doing with their tools, you're neglecting the best opportunities you have to learn.

  20. #20
    figuring it all out BLMN's Avatar
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    I throw stumbling blocks up in front of my characters.
    Catholic to atheist - what if your character is in love with someone who clings to their faith or someone who pushes them to turn away from God faster than they want to. What does God do or not do?
    High school to college - what obstacles are in your characters path? Does he want to go? Can he afford it? Does he leave behind/escape someone who needs/hates him?
    Kid to adult - too slow? Too fast? What drives or lures him?

  21. #21
    cutsie-pie Curlz's Avatar
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    Step 1: read three novels which contain character development
    Step 2: make a list of the stages through which your character is going to go as their developent. Because that's what development means, right? Going from point A to point B, but it doesn't happen overnight... Answer a few questions for yourself - why does your character change? What makes them think of change in the first place, and why.
    Step 3: throw obstacles at your characters. Maybe there's something stopping them from going from point A to point B. Maybe somebody disapproves of that change. Maybe the change is very difficult for them, because... Think of some reasons.
    Step 4: read another three novels and try to find out how characters deal with change there. Can you pick their motivation? Can you see their reasoning?
    Step 5: go through the internet and look up for stories of real people who've been through the same as your character. Try to find out what their reasoning and motivation is, how they did it, and why.
    Step 6: Think of your favourite novels. Make a list of all the things that made them interesting for you. What did you like about them?

  22. #22
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    Quote Originally Posted by Curlz View Post
    Step 1: read three novels which contain character development
    Step 2: make a list of the stages through which your character is going to go as their developent. Because that's what development means, right? Going from point A to point B, but it doesn't happen overnight... Answer a few questions for yourself - why does your character change? What makes them think of change in the first place, and why.
    Step 3: throw obstacles at your characters. Maybe there's something stopping them from going from point A to point B. Maybe somebody disapproves of that change. Maybe the change is very difficult for them, because... Think of some reasons.
    Step 4: read another three novels and try to find out how characters deal with change there. Can you pick their motivation? Can you see their reasoning?
    Step 5: go through the internet and look up for stories of real people who've been through the same as your character. Try to find out what their reasoning and motivation is, how they did it, and why.
    Step 6: Think of your favourite novels. Make a list of all the things that made them interesting for you. What did you like about them?
    Great suggestions. A Step 7 may be: Think about a big change in your life. What made you change? Why? Did you notice it at the time? What emotions were attached to it? How did you cope?

    It's not about getting autobiographical in the story! It's about tapping into authentic emotion. And reminding yourself how hard it is to actually change anything. We humans are lazy animals!

  23. #23
    practical experience, FTW
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    Quote Originally Posted by satyesu View Post
    So far my novel doesn't have a "central plot." It's more about a 17-year-old's transition from high school to college, Catholic to atheist, and kid to adult. Of course, stuff happens to him, but I'm not sure how to make it interesting, complex, and keep action going over the course of a year. Would someone help, please? Thank you!
    Have you given any thought to structuring the book as a set of linked short stories? If all the plots involve secondary characters, could each of these secondary-character plots be written as a separate short story in which the current MC is involved and would be the link that connects all of the stories?

    Just a thought.

  24. #24
    practical experience, FTW indianroads's Avatar
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    Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions" was only about the meeting of two characters. No major conflict, and not really much of a detectable plot - and yet... remarkably, I enjoyed the story.

    Look it up - maybe reading it will give you inspiration.

  25. #25
    practical experience, FTW Antipode91's Avatar
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    You've been writing a novel without any plot? I don't know if I should be impressed.

    Even if the story is about the growth of a character (as pretty much all stories are about), you still need some kind of plot as a reason to propel their growth. For instance, looking at a very flimsy plot: The Last Song by Nicholas Sparks. The plot is basically girl moves to new place, meets boy; boy is responsible for burning down his father's whatever. It's a romance novel, mostly about the romance between two characters. But a simple plot was still needed to move things along.

    Reading other books will help, but look at your own story. See where a plot makes sense.

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