Monday, December 07, 2009

What I Learned From Brandilyn About Writing Fiction

Today Forensics and Faith is pleased to participate in the official launch of the latest book from Christy-winning author, marketing guru, and Snowflake Guy Randy Ingermanson. Writing Fiction for Dummies is now hot off the press. Randy is running a special promotion today, Dec. 7, through Wednesday, Dec. 9, on his
web site. To see what kinds of free goodies you'll get if you buy Writing Fiction for Dummies (or if you've already bought the book), go here.

Randy Ingermanson is the award-winning author of six novels. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at Berkeley and writes fiction about life at the intersection of Science Avenue and Faith Boulevard. Randy also publishes the free Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the world's largest electronic newsletter on how to write fiction, with over 18,000 readers.

Here's what Randy has to tell us about Writing Fiction for Dummies:

I'm a big fan of Brandilyn's book on fiction writing, Getting Into Character. I'm a character-based fiction writer, so I'm always eager to learn more about how to develop characters in fiction.

One thing that I picked up from Brandilyn's book was the importance of "values" in defining a character. She talks about this in Chapter 1 of her book, and a lot of it was new to me when I read her book.

Please note that the word "values" is overloaded with all kinds of meanings. Different people use the word in different ways. In this post, I'm going to define exactly what I mean by "values"
and then explain why it's so critical to writing compelling characters in fiction.

I define a "value" to be "a core truth that is self-evident--a person believes this core truth without needing to give a reason."

Let's unpack that a little, since it seems different from what we usually mean by a "value." People often say that they value money, or family, or fame, or whatever. What does that have to do with "core truths?"

The answer is simple. If somebody "values" family, for example, then that really means that they believe the following: "Nothing is more important than my family."

Notice several things about this statement:

* It's stated as if it were a factually true statement.
* It actually is just the opinion of the speaker.
* It can't be explained or defended in terms of some deeper truth.

It is so "obviously" true to the speaker, that it cannot and need not be explained. (If there were some deeper truth that explained your value, then THAT would be the real value.)

Most people have a number of values that they hold true. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson held that certain truths were self-evident--that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, etc.

A self-evident truth is self-evident--it need not be explained. In fact, it can't be explained. It's "obvious." That's what I mean when I talk about a "value". It's a core truth that is self-evident.

Please note that what's self-evident to Mary may not be self-evident to Joe. Different people have different values. That's what makes life interesting, and fiction too.

Please note also that what's "self-evident" to Adolph may not even be true. Some people hold fast to "core truths" that simply aren't true. No matter--those core truths are still values for them. This is not relativism. It's the opposite of relativism. It's a recognition that people can genuinely believe things that are flat out wrong.

A person's values determine much of who they are and what they want out of life. For example, the value of the Jackal in Frederick Forsyth's novel The Day of the Jackal is this: "Nothing is more important than living the good life." The Jackal is an assassin. He kills for money because it lets him live well.

The Jackal knows that money is the necessary means to live the good life. So his value leads immediately to a desire to retire in wealth and security. This is what I call an "ambition"--an abstract goal of a character. Ambitions spring from values. A key point to notice is that ambitions are abstract. They're vague and fuzzy. What does it look like to "retire in wealth and security?"

The answer comes into focus for the Jackal when he's asked to assassinate Charles De Gaulle. He knows that it's a high risk proposition, but he's willing to do it for half a million dollars (in
1962 dollars) because he knows that he can then achieve his ambition to retire in wealth and security.

That then becomes the Jackal's "story goal"--which I define to be his concrete goal for the story. The story goal MUST be some concrete action or thing or achievement that will fulfill a character's abstract ambition.

A good story goal has these five properties:

* Concrete (you can visualize it)
* Objective (if you reach it, everyone will know)
* Worthwhile (in the light of the character's values)
* Achievable (not a pipe dream)
* Difficult (not a walk in the park to get it)

When you have a story goal that is all of those things, you have a great story. The story reduces to this: "Will the character reach his story goal or won't he?"

In a nutshell, a value (a core truth) leads to an ambition (an abstract desire) which leads to a story goal (a concrete way to achieve the desire).

But there's more to values than that! A really interesting character has multiple values and they conflict.

The Jackal is not a deep character. He has one value. So let's look at another character with more depth.

Don Corleone, the lead character in Mario Puzo's novel The Godfather, has several values. Two of them conflict right from the start:

* "Nothing is more important than family."
* "Nothing is more important than respect."

The conflict begins early in the novel when Don Corleone's oldest son, Sonny, shows him disrespect in front of a rival Mafia gangster who is trying to do a business deal with Corleone. Corleone doesn't like the proposition. Sonny does, and he shows it--thereby dissing his father's judgment.

Corleone's two values now come in conflict. Does he value his son more than he values respect? Will he punish his son to maintain his respect? Or will he let his son slide and lose respect? He can't do both!

In the novel, Corleone fails to punish his son. Soon afterward, the spurned gangster guns down Corleone in the street, in hopes of doing a deal with Sonny. This launches a bitter gangster war that carries the reader through a long and complex novel.

All because of two values in conflict. Values matter. Values matter enormously in fiction. When a character's values conflict, the reader can't predict what will happen next. But the reader will believe whatever happens next, so long as it's in line with one of the character's values.

This is the secret to balancing believability with unpredictability in fiction.

There's more to be said about values, ambitions, story goals, and all that. Much more. Some of it I learned from Brandilyn. Some of it I learned other places. Some of it I pulled out of my own twisted little brain.

If you're interested in learning more about characters (and plot and theme and storyworld), let me point you to my new book, Writing Fiction for Dummies. You can find out more

Randy's launch freebies includes excerpts from writing books by numerous other authors, including my Getting Into Character. Don't miss the launch!

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