Critique Technique, part 14: Out-of-Character Behavior

Comedy has been defined as “ordinary people in extraordinary situations, or extraordinary people in ordinary situations.” But what if the piece you’re critiquing isn’t comedy—or isn’t meant to be comedy? When a character you’ve come to know suddenly acts in a way that makes you stop, scratch your head, and say “huh?”, maybe there’s a problem.

Maybe. That’s an important word. What does the story’s context tell you about this new behavior? If Alice suddenly starts screaming, which she’s never done before, but it’s because the car she’s riding in just went off a cliff, that’s reasonable. If, on the other hand, as the car begins its graceful, 1,000 foot descent, she calmly takes out her .357 Magnum and blows away the driver, well, maybe not so much. OK, I can understand her being pissed at him, but really, what good does shooting him do? [Oh, right. Next, she unbuckles her seat belt, pulls her parachute from the back seat, wrestles it on—how convenient that all the straps are already adjusted to her size—opens the door, steps out, and— SPLAT! Oops, too late! Dang. Well, BASE jumping[1] was never her forte, anyway.]

There are lots of stories in which someone’s personality changes suddenly and dramatically, but the good ones (and some of the not-so-good ones) justify the change. You know why. And if the change makes sense, all’s well.

It is possible for an author to have a character’s behavior change significantly, or have some new and very different-from-the-norm trait appear, without explaining it or setting the context for it before or at the moment of change, but if he does, he’s asking the reader to trust that all will be made clear in good time. That’s fine, so long as he keeps that implicit promise.

Sometimes it can be hard to tell if the promise is kept, however. If you’re reading a long piece like a novella or full-length novel, but you’re only seeing it in increments (chapters), the explanation for the new behavior may not show up in the material you’re reading. In that case, you need to ask about it. If it’s a mistake, it’s possible the author didn’t realize she’d made it.

Your task as a reviewer, then, is to do a kind of sanity check on the sudden change or new behavior. Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Has the author prepared me for this character’s new behavior by establishing the circumstances that warrant it?
  • Has the author hinted that there might be more going on with this character than meets the eye?
  • Have the character’s circumstances changed suddenly, requiring a behavior she hasn’t demonstrated before?

If the answer to any or all of these questions is “no,” then you’ll want to bookmark the moment the new behavior appears and watch for the explanation to be revealed. If it isn’t, this is something you’ll want to flag for the author.

What else do you look for when watching for out-of-character behavior?


[1] BASE jumping is an extreme form of sport parachuting. BASE stands for Buildings, Aerials (or Antennas but definitely NOT Automobiles, falling or otherwise), Spans (e.g. bridges), and Earth (e.g. cliffs).

Writing Goups

Hi, fellow scribblers.  I’m still battling the mega-bug I brought home from Tucson Festival of Books, but a writer friend in New Mexico passed this on to me, and I wanted to share because it’s about WRITING GROUPS, and it’s wise and funny.  Click here.

Hope you’re all healthier than I am!

Critique Technique, part 13b: Timing the Reveal

No Big Red Flag o’ Guilt for me this week, baby! I’m getting this post up on time. (And writing it gives me an excuse for not getting back to working on my tax return. L)

As I was drafting the last post, I wrote three questions for the end of the piece that didn’t quite fit, but were a nice bit of serendipitous revelation. The questions were:

  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time add something important to the story?
  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time distract or confuse me about the character? Might that have been the author’s intent?

Hmmm…good questions (if I do say so myself).

A while back, in part 9, I wrote about timing as it related to conflict. The questions above revealed to me another layer of the writing onion: timing as it relates to revealing character aspects. I have a feeling this is one of those things that many writers, especially new ones and “pantsers” (writers who don’t plan out their stories in advance, but instead write “by the seat of their pants”), don’t think about. I admit I hadn’t until I wrote those questions down. I wouldn’t be surprised if experienced writers, whether they outline, stitch together scenes, or pants-it, do this more subconsciously than consciously, no matter what genre they write in.

But it’s still something worth thinking about: when do you reveal a particular personality trait or characteristic?

Sometimes it’s obvious: if you’re writing a murder mystery, for example, there has to be a point at which the act of killing and the identity of the killer have to be connected. The whys and wherefores might have to have been revealed earlier—as the FBI profiler builds the psychological sketch of the killer—or may come out later—as the killer himself, the investigator, or the prosecutor explains his motivations. In cases like this, the need for and the timing of these revelations are pretty clear.

That’s not always the case, though. Take my own WIP (work-in-progress): my heroine, a medical researcher, has to decide if she’s going to try to cure a world-wide plague. Seems pretty obvious that the answer would be “yes,” but in this case, it’s not. So she has to make the yes or no decision and I have to decide when and how to reveal why she makes it. But there are complicating factors. (There always are, aren’t there?)

  • At the time she makes the decision, she might not have a clearly-formed understanding of why she’s making it.
  • Events outside her knowledge or control might make her change her mind or her motivations later.
  • Her initial reasons for making the decision might be wrong.
  • She might learn things about herself she didn’t know before.
  • Her personality might change: she might mature or retreat into immaturity.

All of these things might be true or might happen. So then I have to decide when and how to reveal them as well as her final decision and its true, or at least final, reasons.

Y’know, this is kind of fun. It’s a lot more interesting (to my way of thinking, anyway) than just mechanically creating a list of traits and characteristics for each character and plopping them into the text.

So now it’s time to take off the author hat and put on the reviewer hat. You’re reading someone’s piece, be it fiction or non-fiction, and you’re watching her reveal her characters’ inner lives and workings. Is she throwing out these bits of characterization seemingly at random, or, stepping back from the line-by-line reality of the piece, is there a reason for making each revelation at that moment in that way? How does doing so contribute to the story beyond just telling the reader about this particular aspect of that character?

A couple other points:

  • Not every revelation will be, or needs to be, so significant. Some details are more important than others. As a reviewer, you’ll need to be able to make that distinction—or at least try to.
  • The author might be planting a false lead. Not every revelation has to be the truth, and won’t be if he’s trying to disguise the character’s true nature, or the character herself is.

All right, then, here’s your homework. As you’re reviewing a piece, ask yourself:

  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time add something important to the story?
  • Does presenting this trait in this way at this time distract or confuse me about the character?
    • Might that have been the author’s intent?
    • If it did distract me and that wasn’t the author’s intent, what can she do to make the revelation clearer or more effective?

How do you assess whether an author has revealed some aspect of a character’s personality at the right time or in the right way?



Critique Technique, Part 12: Showing and Telling in Character Development

I’m late with this post so the Big Red Flag o’ Guilt is staring at me from the corner of my Outlook screen. But I have a good reason: I spent the weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books on the University of Arizona campus. By the time each day was done, my brain was full and knowledge was dribbling out of my ears and onto my shirt. Messy. Then I had a 90 minute drive to get home.

But if you’re anywhere near Tucson or even Arizona around Spring Break next year, you’ve GOT to make plans to come to the TFoB. It’s free—that’s right, 100% free—and features well over 100 top-name presenters (this year’s line-up included T.C. Boyle, Richard Russo, Larry McMurtry, Diana Gabaldon, and Terry Brooks), dozens of seminars and workshops, book-signing events, a food court featuring local restaurants, and more than 200 vendor and information booths.

Did I mention that it’s all FREE, including parking?

Wow. I mean—WOW!

End of plug.


“Show, don’t tell.” We writers get told that all the time. ALL the time. (Well, except recently, when blogger Jael McHenry suggested “flipping the script” on Writer Unboxed.)

The thing is, neither telling nor showing are wrong, per se. What’s “wrong” is relying on either one too much, or using one technique where the other would be more effective. This is true in character development and revelation as much as it is in any other aspect of writing. As a reviewer, that’s what you should be looking for in someone else’s writing.

Let’s take a few examples. Carol’s relationship with boyfriend Bob is everything she hoped and dreamed it would be. She gets all tingly and happy whenever she thinks of him. He calls her every day, even when they’ve been together. He gives her little gifts and compliments. She’s thinking he’s “the one.” Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Bob tells her he thinks they need some time apart; he needs to reevaluate the relationship. How does Carol react?

If the author then writes, “Carol was angry” and stops there, that’s “telling,” but it tells us next to nothing. If the author writes, “Carol was angry. Her feelings were hurt. She didn’t understand how Bob could be so loving, then want to dump her. She felt confused and depressed.” That’s all “telling,” too. Yes, it provides more information, but did you notice how much emotional distance there is between you, the reader, and Carol? The writing is clinical, impersonal, analytical. You don’t much care about Carol’s situation. Tough noogies, Carol, you’re thinking. Next story.

“Showing” character means having the character’s actions and behaviors illustrate their mood, personality, etc. Let’s go back to Carol and Bob. This time, the author writes:

Carol slammed the phone down. “You motherfucking son of a bitch,” she screamed. “You’re not going to do that to me.” She stomped down the hall to her armory, where she wrenched open the display case containing her knife collection and pulled down her favorite machete. Stroking the sharpened edge with her thumb, she crooned, “It’s been a long time since you tasted flesh, hasn’t it, baby?” She slammed the blade home in its scabbard, wrapped the belt around her waist, and yanked the catch tight before turning her attention to her gun safe. Which one? she wondered. The pump-action shotgun or the full-auto AK-47?

That’s showing, all right—you can feel the rage—but is it too much showing, or the right kind?

Now, it’s possible that either of these examples could be fine, depending on what the author was trying to do. But if these examples represent what the writer does every time she wants to present some aspect of a character’s personality, that’s a problem.

Then there’s the other aspect of “telling” personality traits that is legitimate and often valuable: when one character describes another’s personality or behavior. There are lots of ways this can be done. The character doing the describing can:

  • Tell the character being described what he perceives her to be: “You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in his thoughts: Alice is such a goofball, Ted thought.
  • Describe the character to himself (and the reader) in narrative: Ted thought Alice was a goofball.
  • Describe the character to another character: “Alice is such a goofball,” Ted told Bob.

Adding an illustrative action by Ted (“You’re such a goofball,” Ted said to Alice, giving her an affectionate hug.) then adds more depth by showing an aspect of the relationship between Ted and Alice, plus one of Ted’s character traits.

These are all direct methods of showing or telling characterization. There are also more subtle, indirect ways. The author can:

  • mention something the character owns,
  • describe the place they live in (not only whether it’s a mansion, say, or a cardboard box, but how that place is furnished and kept),
  • describe how they dress and keep themselves (clean or dirty, satin or jeans),
  • identify who they associate with,
  • describe what they do for a living,
  • describe the pets they keep (or don’t),
  • describe a habit, tic, or trait they have, and so on.

Many of these methods are “showing by telling”: the author is showing the characteristic by telling the reader how it manifests itself in the character’s life.

To summarize, then, neither “showing” nor “telling” a character’s trait is “right” or “wrong.” What matters is whether such showing or telling is the most effective way to present that trait and whether the author relies too much on one technique or the other.

Here are some questions for you to ask as you review a work:

  • Is the author relying too much on one way of presenting character traits?
  • Is the way the author presents a trait or characteristic appropriate to her intent, so far as I can tell, in calling attention to it at this moment in the piece?
  • Is showing or telling this trait the most effective way to do it? Would using a different technique be better? If so, what?

What cues do you use to evaluate how well the author is presenting a character?


TFOB 2012

Well, another Tucson Festival is in the books, you should pardon the pun.  I’ll bet everyone who went can feel a few muscles–walking muscles, stair-climbing muscles, book-toting muscles, and writing muscles.

I didn’t take a lot of notes this year but would like to share a few points I found worth jotting down.

T. C. Boyle, novel and short story writer:

  • Take an ordinary event, such as a man not wanting to go to work, and see how you can up the stakes, push it over the top.

Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig:

  • When you can’t believe in yourself, you can believe in your animals.
  • When the student is ready, the teacher appears.  Sometimes it’s an animal.
  • If you’re writing about animals, ask why you were attracted animals in the first place.  What do you get out of your relationships with animals?

Ilie Ruby, Naomi Benaron, & Sarah McCoy – panel discussion, Capturing a Sense of Place in Fiction:

  • Capture the moment when everything changes for good or ill.
  • History and myth can add depth to a setting.  Show what it has come to mean in people’s minds.
  • Capture the voice that makes you want to write.  Then just write the story.

William Pitt Root, poet and teacher:

  • What do you need to be in touch with in order to write well?

Richard Russo, Margaret Coel, & Louis Bayard – panel discussion on Edgar Allan Poe:

  • Remember to get to the interior life of all your characters.  Villains are people.  They have mothers, too.
  • Everything a character experiences in a story prepares him/her to face himself/herself and  the external challenge at the story’s climax.
  • Read “up”–that is, read work that is better than yours is at the moment.  Read like a writer.  See how good writers achieve the effects that make their work excellent.

Alison Hawthorne Deming, Heid Erdrich, Ofelia Zepeda – Layers of Knowing – poetry reading & discussion:

  • Efforts are being made to save indigenous languages that may contain ways of knowing that we need for survival.
  • Arts improve empathy between individuals and between people of different generations.

Pam Houston, writer of fictionalized memoir (I’d recommend Sight Hound)

  • Looking for something to write about?  Feel around for your own emotional bruises and press on them.
  • Shine the light as strongly on yourself as you do on others.

Hope there’s something useful in this potpourri of ideas.

Critique Technique, part 11: Lack of Character Development

Where HAS the time gone? I need to get back to doing these posts weekly, so I’ve put Outlook’s task bar to work. If I don’t get one done every Sunday, the Big Bad Red Flag of Guilt is going to stare at me from the screen until I do. That’ll teach me!

Anyway, we’ve been talking about characterization. One of the key things readers want to see in a story (fiction or non-fiction) is some sign of change—positive, we hope, but that isn’t required—in the characters over the course of the story. The protagonist may not get what he wants by the end, or even what he deserves, but he should grow or change in some way. The same is true for the secondary characters.

Even the antagonist needs to change. She doesn’t have to see the light, realize the error of her ways, and become the good person we always knew she could be, and that she always wanted to be deep down inside. That’s awfully cliché, isn’t it? Nor does she have to end up dead, even though she might richly deserve it, but she, too, needs to change in some way.

A short story or an article doesn’t give the author much room to show that change, so it may be enough from the change to be small. Even so, it needs to be significant in some way.

Similarly, a scene in a novel, even a whole chapter, may not provide enough time and space for major change, but the change it reveals needs to be a part of that overall path, that “character arc,” that takes the character from what he was at the beginning to what he is at the end.

Particularly in longer works, negative change can be more interesting than positive. Do we readers want to read about Pollyannas, getting better and better every day in every way? No, we can be evil, mean, and nasty people. Sadists, every one of us. We like it when the protagonist screws up or reveals a flaw. The worse, the better, in fact. When Polly really steps in it, when she finds herself in deep doo-doo (think Princess Leia in the giant trash-masher in the first Star Wars movie), especially if it’s all her own doing (or is that doo-doo-ing?), c’mon, admit it, that’s more interesting, isn’t it?

Of course it is!

Technically, that’s called “creating tension.” How the heck is she going to get out of that mess? we want to know. And so we keep reading. Maybe we’re trying to assuage our guilt over our latent sadism by wanting to see the protagonist succeed, or at least overcome her latest difficulty—until the next one appears, anyway.

But wait, there’s more. While Polly’s wiping off the doo-doo, we want her to not just clean up her dress but clean up her act. We want her to learn from that mistake or problem or whatever—to change—and become a different person, even if just a little bit different, so that over the course of the entire piece she becomes someone else, the sum or more of all the pluses and minuses of her journey through the story.

As a critiquer, your job is to keep your eyes open for those changes or, and this is harder, the changes that didn’t happen but should have. Even in a short piece, you need to ask not only if any change occurs at all, but if that change matters. In a longer piece, there’s another wrinkle to consider: is the character’s revised personality consistent with the changes he’s been going through? Would it make sense, say, for a character to go through a life-threatening experience—an assassination attempt, a natural disaster, even a major traffic accident—and be the same happy-go-lucky guy he was before it happened? Probably not. If he doesn’t change, there’d better be a darn good—and clearly evident—reason why. (Consider Forrest Gump. He could be the exception that proves the rule: given everything that happens around him, we expect him to change but what makes him interesting is that, at his core, he doesn’t.)

Here are some questions to ask about character development as you review a story:

  • Have the major characters changed over the course of the piece?
  • Can I see how those changes matter to the character and to those around her?
  • Can I believe the way he’s changed given the experiences he’s had?
  • Is her changed behavior consistent with the experiences she’s had and the personalities she was before?

What do you look for in character development when you’re reviewing a work?


Mission Statement

My goal is to write books, stories and scripts for the pleasure of the people who grow my food, assemble my cars and fix my plumbing. At the end of a hard day, when the kids are in bed, the garbage sits out by the curb, and the last load of clothes is in the washer, I want people to put up their feet and ease into another world of my making, and there be entertained with intelligence, honesty, wit, and compassion.