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"As soon as coffee is in your stomach, there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move...similes arise, the paper is covered. Coffee is your ally and writing ceases to be a struggle."~Honore de Balzac

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Story People

The people in your story can make or break your fiction. Readers want to know who they should cheer for right up front. Your first task as a writer is to develop a character we all care about. This fiction writing technique is equally important in a nonfiction work based on a real person.

As readers, we care because the protagonist is just like us. We care because she's in danger in some way. She's trying her best to live her life and be a good person, but trouble keeps getting in the way. Maybe she's got a stack of unpaid bills and credit card debt. Maybe she gets fired from her job or her husband walks out or a child is seriously ill.

Some difficulty in her life reminds us of our own, and we relate. We like her because she spills coffee on her silk blouse right before a job interview, and we recall how we also flubbed an interview. Maybe she has a fight with her best friend and gets so distracted she runs her car into a tree. More debt. More trouble. Sound familiar? Maybe her mother is getting forgetful and is stumbling down the stairs and shouldn't be living alone. Perhaps her daughter has an eating disorder or her son has been diagnosed with an atrial septal defect.

The sky is falling and, while disastrous in life, it's great in story.

The truth is, the bigger obstacles you put in your main character's way, the tighter you rein us in. As readers, we've got our own difficulties to face every day. Now, we have a new friend in the pages of a paperback novel who has even worse problems. While our plate is full, her plate is towering and about to fall. We love this woman for her sense of humor or her vulnerabilities or her klutziness and we want to help her. So we turn the pages, urging this soul sister on to victory or a new man or a lottery win. We can't put the book down because we want to make sure this particular character we've grown fond of makes it all the way though to the story to a satisfying resolution.

As writers, we need to put the WHO, WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY on the first page so our readers know who they're going to cheer for throughout the story. The HOW is the plot or story arc. Who is the character? Where and when does the story take place? What's at risk? And how will she solve the critical problem? Conflict is story and right in the middle of all that conflict is your protagonist, the person your reader must care about.

By fully developing our story people, knowing how they walk and talk, what they carry in their pockets, and how they respond in a crisis, we do ourselves a favor as authors and, in the end, we please our readers, too.

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