Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Auto Mechanic

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

A character's occupation can say a lot about who he is while contributing to the story's momentum. This week's entry: Auto Mechanic

Occupation: Auto Mechanic

Overview: Mechanics inspect, repair, and maintain vehicles. Some have a general knowledge of all vehicle engines and parts while others specialize in an area, choosing to focus on a certain type of vehicle (cars and trucks, big rigs, boat engines, imports) or specific parts of the engine (air conditioners or transmissions). Mechanics can own their own shop or work as part of someone else’s organization.

Necessary Training: While some shops require their mechanics to receive post-secondary education and become certified through various programs, not all of them do. Completing these programs does, however, improve one’s chances of being hired and making better money. Educational opportunities can be found at trade schools and community colleges, specialized mechanic schools, and through the military. The apprenticeship or on-the-job training model is also very common in this career field.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: Hot-wiring a car, mechanically inclined

Helpful Character Traits: Alert, analytical, curious, focused, honorable, independent, industrious, meticulous, observant, resourceful, responsible, studious

Sources of Friction: Being unable to correctly identify the problem with a vehicle, missing a problem that results in an accident, inattentiveness on the job that leads to an injury, old or sub-standard machinery in the shop, irate customers, difficulty keeping up with changes in the industry, falling behind in one’s training or certification, not making enough money to support one’s family or achieve desired goals, being pigeon-holed at the shop into a certain area of work when one really wants to be doing something else, wanting to start one’s own business but being unable to do so, constantly being asked by friends to diagnose their cars’ problems for free, being accused of dishonesty by customers who buy into the stereotype that mechanics are swindlers, weather conditions (such as extreme heat or cold) making the job difficult

People They Might Interact With: Car owners, other mechanics, the shop owner, vendors, inspectors

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character might become dissatisfied with his career if it began as a temporary endeavor or has turned into something he never intended. Perhaps he wanted to work on race cars or own his own shop, but his plans never materialized, and now he’s stuck doing something he doesn’t enjoy.
  • Esteem and Recognition: While everyone would agree that a mechanic’s job is important, there are those who view people in manual labor fields in a negative light. A character experiencing this kind of prejudice could struggle in the esteem department.
  • Love and Belonging: If the character is struggling financially, it could put a strain on their relationships.
  • Safety and Security: While industry standards require a minimum of safety requirements, a shop owner or employees who are stingy or cut corners could create an unsafe work environment where injuries are more likely to happen.

Common Work-Related Settings: Break room, car accident, garage, gas station, salvage yard, waiting room

Twisting the Stereotype: As with so many other professions, this one is predominantly male. Throw in a female mechanic (think Mona Lisa Vito from My Cousin Vinny), and you’ve got an interesting twist. The field is also a blue-collar one, so what about a mechanic from a white collar family pursuing the career? And when you think about the temperament of a mechanic, likely, the same character traits come to mind. Consider some unlikely possibilities (nurturing, romantic, flamboyant, etc.) to turn the stereotype on its ear.

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Characters in Cars Thinking, or, How to Deal with the Passage of Time

jennie-nashI have been seeing a lot of issues around the passage of time in the fiction I have been coaching. It isn’t the content that’s the problem. The problem has to do with the way time loops around on itself in an illogical way.

Before I explain, let me say that time looping around on itself is a completely and totally different thing than a character going back in time to draw on an incident or memory from their past to make sense of their present. That’s backstory, or flashback, and you want that in your story.

In real life, our minds are constantly pinging around in time as we work to figure things out – pinging back to second grade, back to tenth grade, back to when we were twenty, that time in Denver with our Dad. In other words, the way we experience time in real life is not strictly chronological. Our brains are all over the place as we recall things and remember things, all in service of making sense of what is happening.

Don't confuse the reader! Keep the time sequences straight and your pacing plugging along with these tips

For your characters to feel 3D and real and alive, they need to remember and recall and process events the way real people do – pinging back in time then forward to story present. Jumping around time within the moments unfolding in story present, however, is confusing for the reader.

Those little time loops tend to look like this:

  • We are going along with X action.
  • Then suddenly we loop back to a A FEW MOMENTS BEFORE X action to learn some small nugget of information.
  • Then we jump forward and proceed with X action where we left off.

The reason this is a problem is that it’s very hard on the reader. When time loops like that, we feel like we are being yanked around, and we are forced to think too hard – and not about the things we WANT to think about, like what’s going to happen or why people are doing what they are doing. We are forced, instead, to think about where characters are in time and space – to figure out the logistics. And it’s frustrating.

Let’s break down the time loop in one of Abby Mathew’s scenes (Abby is my co-host on the MomWrites podcast – thanks for sharing your work in progress, Abby!) You can learn how to spot the time loop – and then we can look at her revision to learn how to fix it.

Abby is writing middle grade fiction. The main action of this scene is the main character, Bernadette, having her first kiss with a boy while watching a movie at his house. The scene that follows has the boy’s mom driving Bernadette home (where she is trying to solve a mystery related to her dad, John Thorpe, and to the book Wuthering Heights):

Bernadette looked back at Logan, and saw he was watching the kissing scene, too. Before she could lose her nerve, she reached up and touched Logan’s cheek. He turned to her and just like the movie, their faces were inches from each other. Bernadette leaned in closer, and as their lips touched, she closed her eyes.

That moment someone flipped on the lights. The brightness assaulted their senses, and both of them sat back and covered their eyes.

“I don’t know that the two of you are ready for Wuthering Heights,” Mrs. Brock chuckled. “Maybe it’s time to take Bernadette home.”

NEW CHAPTER

Bernadette was thankful that she had left every light in the Thorpe house turned on. Being alone had unnerved her, so the house had been lit up like a Christmas tree since John Thorpe and Miss Amelia disappeared into their books. Conveniently, it made it look as if her father was home and Mrs. Brock didn’t ask any questions about Mr. Thorpe’s whereabouts. Mrs. Brock had driven Bernadette home with the promise that Logan could ride her bike back in the morning, and his mom had also agreed he could stay for the day.

Logan walked Bernadette to her front door, where they stood for a moment. Bernadette felt an odd mixture of embarrassment and happiness… and worry.

Do you see that time loop? The scene goes from the den at Logan’s house to Bernadette’s house, back in time to Logan’s mom’s car, then forward in time to Bernadette’s house.

The solution is to always make sure you are writing in a straightforward chronological way in story present. The clue that you have strayed from that path is often an info dump – the lines about Mrs. Brock and Logan and the bike just plop info down on the reader, and we don’t like that. We want to be present as the story unfolds.

The car ride is a great opportunity for Abby to let us into her character’s head and let us watch her embarrassment and worry unfold. Smoothing out the time loop, in other words, gives Abby the opportunity to simply write a better scene:

Her whole body laughed along, and Logan joined in, too. They shook the sofa with their laughter, and it felt good. Bernadette was relieved that she wasn’t imagining things, that Logan had wanted to kiss her. And the truth was, it was funny. Bernadette wiped her eyes so she could see Logan better, and decided to just go for it. She reached up and put her arms around his shoulders and kissed him on the lips.

“What’s so funn— whoa,” said Mrs. Brock, flipping on the lights.

Logan and Bernadette jumped to different ends of the sofa, but it was too late. Mrs. Brock definitely saw them kissing.

NEW CHAPTER

The car ride home was the worst. Bernadette would have preferred to find her way home in the dark on her bicycle. Instead she sat in the backseat of the Brock’s car, trying to avoid eye contact with Mrs. Brock in the rearview mirror. Bernadette was embarrassed that Mrs. Brock had caught Bernadette kissing her son. At least if she had ridden her bicycle home, the exercise might have helped to work out this angry feeling that was consuming her. It had been her first kiss, and instead of remembering a funny, romantic moment, she would forever remember a humiliating one. She kept her eyes fixed out the window, but she didn’t see the houses or the streetlights. Instead she saw the instant replay of Mrs. Brock’s stupid interruption playing on a five-second loop.

That reading experience is so much smoother for the reader. Since we don’t have to worry about where we are in time and space, we can focus on the story.

The next time you find yourself making a little loop back in time in story present, stop. Ask yourself if the important information is happening off stage – if you are just telling the reader what happened and dumping it in. If so, bring it onstage, in the order in which is actually happened, and let the reader move through time and space with the characters as if we were there.

jennie-nash_framedJennie has worked in publishing for more than 30 years. She is the author of four novels, three memoirs, and The Writer’s Guide to Agony and Defeat. An instructor at the UCLA Extension Writing Program for 10 years, she is also the founder and chief creative officer of Author Accelerator, an online program that offers affordable, customized book coaching so you can write your best book. Find out more about Jennie here, visit her blog, discover the resources and coaching available at her Author Accelerator website, and connect online.

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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Revision and Editing, Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Quieter Protagonists: 3 Ways to Help Them Steal the Stage

While readers love to see larger-than-life characters with passion, take-charge attitudes, and heaps of boldness and daring, not every protagonist wears an extrovert skin. In fact, looking at real-life demographics for a second, I think there’s a lot more people on the quieter side than not. Some of us are introverted, others, on the shy side. People can also be deep thinkers or natural observers. And of course many struggle with doubt and insecurity, and extroverted or not, it’s enough to keep them from actively choosing the spotlight.

Whatever the reason is, it is worth remembering that if we’re to mirror the real world in our fiction, those loud, brash characters are the exception, not the rule. Besides, if all our story cast members have big, BIG personalities it will create a tug-of-war for the reader’s attention, and the story can suffer as a result. We need quieter characters, too…especially because quiet DOESN’T mean boring.

Working with a quiet character? Here's how to make sure they stand out to readers.

The trick with quieter characters is finding a way for them to stand out. If you have a shy woman or a calm and careful man, each will be naturally more reserved with their actions and choices. They likely think before they act, look both ways before crossing the street, that sort of thing. They may be predictable, and if we aren’t careful, they might become forgettable. This is death if your quieter character happens to be the protagonist, so let’s look at three ways to make sure they command the stage.

Use Contrast

Contrast is a great way to bring the spotlight back to your quiet character. Pair them against a flashy cast, like a friend who is bold yet arrogant, or a parent who is feisty and reckless. A teacher who abrasive and opportunistic, or an erratic, superstitious boss. When the people around your quiet hero are creating a lot of drama, then your protagonist can become an interesting and insightful counterweight.

To make this work, ensure that something about them (a trait, a talent, an interest or hobby, knowledge they have, or something else) is special and connected to the current problem or what’s at stake. For example, imagine half a dozen superficial, attention-jockeying teens on a school hiking trip who become separated from the larger group. Between blaming each other for getting lost and hysterics about starving or being mauled by a bear, no one in this group is capable of solving the problem at hand. But imagine that one of the kids assigned to this group is our protagonist, a logical thinker who spends his time Geo-caching for fun. Who is suddenly going to be the focus as he’s the best suited to navigating everyone back to the campsite?

Offer Readers Something Unexpected

People can be meek and mild, but in books, a too-quiet introvert will quickly bore the reader. Imagine a schoolgirl, her perfectly combed hair, her steps careful as she watches for cracks on the sidewalk. You can see her, can’t you, clutching books to her chest, unassuming, polite, so different from the hormonal teen freak show going on around her. She does her homework. Raises her hand enough to stay off the teacher’s radar. Her schoolmates don’t know her name and find her utterly forgettable…and readers will too if we leave her in this Plain Jane purgatory.

Writing a quiet, introverted character? Here's how they can stand out to readers.

Yet, if we give her something unexpected, the very details that made her fade will bring her to life. Maybe we give her a secret, or allude to a desire of hers that is so much bigger than her blah exterior.

We could also reveal something about her that will make a reader’s breath catch.

What if those books she clutches are holding something in place…an injured bird found on the way to school? But she’s not holding it there to protect it. Instead, each twitch, jerk, and flutter floods her body with exhilaration, so much so that she squeezes harder, smothering away its cries as claws dig through her sweater, until finally, all movement stops.

Her carefully controlled demeanor takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

Create Reader Empathy Using Deep POV

When characters don’t have noticeably extroverted traits and behaviors, they don’t usually express themselves outwardly to the same degree as those that do. However, one thing every introvert has is big, deep thoughts. They might not be showing their emotion as actively as other characters do but you can bet they are thinking, reflecting, and FEELING.

Pulling the reader inside your quiet protagonist is a great way to show their raw emotions as a scene plays out. Deep POV means instead of watching everything from a distance, readers see through the eyes of the protagonist and experience the visceral quality of their emotions. (This in turn lends more weight to any outward expressions because their body language is layered with the context of their thoughts.)

Deep POV means what a character sees and senses becomes a shared emotional experience for the reader. And in heightened emotional moments, they often find themselves remembering their own life experiences when they themselves felt something similar to what the character is feeling. These echoes mean that deep POV is a powerful tool for creating closeness and that all-important empathy bond. Click here to download our One Stop for Writers checklist on Deep POV.

Do you have a quiet character? How do you make sure they capture your reader’s heart? Let me know in the comments!

Need more help? Check out Resident Writing Coach September Fawkes‘ great post on Making Secondary Characters Stand Out.

If you are building your character from the ground up and need to make sure they have a interesting and compelling personality, please take a peek at the Positive Trait & Negative Trait Thesaurus books.

Posted in Character Flaws, Character Traits, Characters, Description, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Empathy, Experiments, One Stop For Writers, Point of View, Positive & Negative Thesaurus Guides, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 22 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Real Estate Agent

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Use your character's occupation to characterize them to readers. Here's information about being a realtor. #writing

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Real Estate Agent

Overview: A realtor, or real estate agent, oversees the buying and selling of homes (or properties, commercial or residential). For a seller, they will investigate comparative properties to aid homeowners in setting a price, set up the listing, arrange for pictures and obtain home specs to include in advertisements and website listings, arrange and oversee realtor-only showing and open houses, negotiate between parties (including counter offers), and steer the closing process. Often the realtor will weigh in on any esthetics that may need to be addressed before listing (both decorative adjustments and home repairs – a realtor will be able to tell clients what improvements are worth doing, and which will not offer a return on investment as far as price and ease of sale.)

If the realtor character’s clients are the buyers, they will research suitable listings based on the client’s needs and price, understand current lending rates and convey this to clients should they need this information, set up viewings, investigate the area for information on schools, services, property taxes or anything else new homeowners may wish to know. They also accompany the client during showings, and once a match is found, the realtor will submit an offer on the client’s behalf, negotiate price and terms, steer the closing process behind the scenes, and arrange for a final walk-through and key hand off.

Realtors must be flexible, attentive, efficient, and hands on, as often the buying and selling of a home is time sensitive, especially in a hot market. A character in this job must attend to all client needs promptly, and be willing to meet at different hours as often home showings and negotiations happen outside of work time. As realtors have multiple clients at once, this can require a lot of schedule juggling and a need for excellent time management.

Necessary Training: Agents take a pre-licencing course (the length of which depends on the country and state) where they learn the terminology of the business, realty practices and processes like how to assess a home’s value, understand banking processes, lending rules, and how to be an effective advocate and negotiator. After meeting the training time of the course, they must take and pass their licensing exam, and then pay for a license to practice.

A character in this field will most likely join a brokerage to start, pulling on the networking of a larger firm, and later on they may choose to set our on their own. In a more populated area, realtors usually choose a specialty, be it homes in a specific area of the city, working with either residential or commercial properties, having a practice focus on ranches and farms, or only taking listings in a certain price range (such as high-end properties). A smaller town, they will likely have a variety of clients and listings as this is necessary to make enough commission to live on. How your character specializes can tell readers more about them: who they like to work with, values, and level of hustle and drive. They also require excellent people skills, and have a smooth, pleasant demeanor.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, a knack for making money, carpentry, charm, exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, haggling, hospitality, lip-reading, lying, making people laugh, multitasking, photographic memory, predicting the weather, promotion, reading people, writing

Helpful Character Traits: ambitious, analytical, bold, calm, charming, confident, decisive, diplomatic, disciplined, discreet, efficient, extroverted, industrious, intelligent, meticulous, organized, patient, perceptive, persuasive, professional

Sources of Friction: clients who aren’t ready to pull the trigger and just want to look and see what’s out there, wasting everyone’s time, competitive agents vying for the same sale (few listings and many real estate agents), clients who are late or especially demanding, clients who are hoarders or leave their home a mess before a showing, a theft that happens during an open house, clients who refuse to get financially pre-approved and them grow upset when they lose out on a house offer, clients who want more for their home that it is worth, clients who have big expectations yet a small budget, a client who likes to hit on the character or makes inappropriate comments and advances, an angry past client who tries to unfairly smear one’s good name, drama at the office, other real estate agents within the firm poaching clients, a break-in at a home resulting from a realtor lock box not being secured

People They Might Interact With: administration staff, bank employees and mortgage brokers, freelance photographers and copy writers, other realtors, home inspectors, homeowners, home buyers, family members of the clients

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization:  Because of the huge time commitment and irregularity of hours in this profession, a character may find they do not have the time or energy to devote to meaningful goals or growing their knowledge and skills in other areas that will lead to fulfillment.
  • Esteem and Recognition: Within the industry, quarterly and yearly sales are constantly being used as a metric to judge the realtor’s abilities, and competition is fierce. A bad month or two can lead to a bad year, and one’s standing dropping among others in one’s industry, leading to feelings of low self-esteem.
  • Love and Belonging: The non-steady hours and need to always be hustling for work in tough markets means often family and relationships come second. This can make it hard to make time to find a partner to share one’s life with, or to keep current loving relationships intact.
  • Safety and Security: Because a realtor may not always know who is going to show up for an appointment or to walk through an open house, it is possible that they could be in danger if caught in a home alone with the wrong sort of people.

Common Work-Related Settings: attic, backyard, bank, barn, basement, big city street, break room, child’s bedroom, coffeehouse, elevator, farm, flower garden, garage, gas station, kitchen, living room, man cave, mansion, nursery, office cubicle, parking lot, patio deck, penthouse suite, ranch, residential bathroom, run-down apartment, small town street, teenager’s bedroom, tool shed, wine cellar, workshop

Twisting the Stereotype:

Real Estate Agents always come across as a bit pushy and overly friendly, and usually only point out the highlights of the property. Why not have your character’s ethics and values cause them to be overly honest about the property, even if it means costing a sale?

Characters cast in this role are always well-groomed and articulate. Why not try a character who doesn’t care about what others think of how he or she dresses, but is exceptionally good at what they do, so much so that rumpled clothing or  rougher language is overlooked?

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Critiques 4 U!

Hello, beautiful people! I hope you’re all having productive, efficient, kick-butt weeks. It’s time for March’s critique contest, but I wanted to take a moment and thank all of you for your encouragement. Your kind words, reviews, and support, yes, keep it all coming :). But I get just as charged when I run this contest each month and see so many writers putting themselves out there, risking criticism, knowing that if they win, it means more work. You guys are amazing, and I wish you exponential growth and wild success on your journeys!

Critiques 4 U

CONTEST CLOSED!

If you’re working on a first page and would like some objective feedback, please leave a comment that includes: 

1) your email address. Some of you have expressed concern about making your email address public; if you’re sure that the email address associated with your WordPress account is correct, you don’t have to include it here. But if you do win and I’m unable to contact you through that email address, I’ll have to choose an alternate winner.

2) your story’s genre (no erotica, please)

Also, please be sure your first page is ready to go so I can critique it before next month’s contest rolls around. If it needs some work and you won’t be able to get it to me right away, I’d like to ask that you plan on entering the next contest, once any necessary tweaking has been taken care of. 🙂

ONLY ENTRIES THAT FOLLOW THESE INSTRUCTIONS WILL BE CONSIDERED

Three commenters’ names will be randomly drawn and posted tomorrow. If you win, you can email me your first page and I’ll offer my feedback. Best of luck!

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Deepening Our Story: Theme It Like You Mean It

jami-goldOur story’s themes—our messages to readers of what to value or believe—can add depth and meaning to our writing, but to avoid being too on-the-nose, our themes are usually developed in the story’s subtext. Unfortunately, working in subtext means we can accidentally create unintentional themes—sometimes the opposite of what we intend.

What Creates a Theme?

To understand how we might create unintentional themes, we first have to understand what creates themes within our story—what impressions we’ve created:

  • Story Themes: What’s the premise of the story? Who’s supposed to win or lose—and why?
  • Character Themes: How does the protagonist change over the course of the story? What do they learn?
  • Plot Themes: During the story’s turning points, what do the characters attempt? Do they succeed or fail—and why?
  • Choices Themes: What choices are the characters making? Do the results match the Story or Character Themes (choices that agree with the themes should succeed and vice versa)?
  • Villain Themes: Are the villain’s beliefs reinforced or disproved by plot events?

Themes are powerful to insert into fiction, deepening the story. Visit for how to do it right and pitfalls to avoid. What Are Unintended Themes?

Unintended themes undermine our message. As an example, with a theme of “Friends help us succeed,” we might accidentally weaken our message in the following ways:

  • Story Themes: Our protagonist succeeds because of luck rather than help from friends.
  • Character Themes: Our protagonist never learns to value friendship.
  • Plot Themes: Our characters succeed at tasks when even friends aren’t around to help or fail despite the help of friends.
  • Choices Themes: Our protagonist succeeds despite making choices that dismisses or disrespects friends.
  • Villain Themes: Our villain isn’t defeated due to our hero’s friends or our villain’s lack of friends.

Those story points could create an unintentional message to readers: Luck helps us more than friends. Probably not what we meant. *smile*

Potential Unintended Themes Lurk Everywhere

Every choice our characters make, every plot point, every obstacle—in other words, every cause and effect—can potentially create the wrong message.

  • If our “hero” succeeds even when incompetent, we’re sending a message about what heroism looks like in our story world—and it’s not pretty.
  • If our romance hero’s interest focuses on a superficial or temporary status (such as virginity or “innocence”), we’re implying their relationship will end when the innocence is gone.
  • If our “chosen one” protagonist “earns” the label of hero solely due to right-place-right-time or a certain genealogy rather than heroic acts or sacrifices, we’re saying greatness is a matter of circumstance and not action.
  • If our villain’s eventual failure isn’t related to their “wrong” beliefs, we might create the impression that our hero wins simply due to luck.

How Can We Fix Unintended Themes?

It’s often difficult to recognize unintentional themes in our writing, so feedback from others can be crucial. Once we’re aware, we need to identify what’s creating the wrong impression:

  • Do we have plot events developing the wrong theme?
  • Is the climax (or other emotional turning points) the source of the problem (often the case)?
  • Is a plot event itself a problem, or just the results/decisions for the event or scene?
  • Would changing earlier scenes improve the theme arc by showing a “trying and failing” approach until they learn to do it right?
  • Is it a characterization problem (how they’re shown) or a word choice problem (too harsh of words)?
  • Do minor characters tell one theme but character actions show another?

In essence, we need to pay attention to the cause-and-effect chain in our story—especially the why: Why is the character experiencing each success or failure?

The answer to that question—as well as any results or responses to events—should follow the lead of our theme. Otherwise, we need to refine the theme to fit the realities of our story. A single scene or reaction can be the cause of problems, and the right tweaking can fix the theme for the whole story.

How Can We Vary Results without Breaking the Theme?

That’s not to say that our protagonist should never succeed unless they’re perfectly in line with the theme. In fact, an exception often occurs during our story’s Black Moment, as the purpose of that turning point can be to make characters question their efforts to improve when they fail despite trying to do the “right” thing.

To avoid unintended themes in those cases, we could ensure the character wasn’t doing the “right” thing completely enough yet, or they were doing the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, or we could show how they’ve “lost faith.” Whatever our story’s situation, if we write with purpose, we’re less likely to create unintended themes. *smile*

Do you have any questions about themes—intentional or unintentional?

jami-picture-200-x-300_framedAfter muttering writing advice in tongues, Jami decided to put her talent for making up stuff to good use. Fueled by chocolate, she creates writing resources and writes award-winning paranormal romance stories where normal need not apply. Just ask her family—and zombie cat.

Find out more about Jami here, hang out with her on social media, or visit her website and Goodreads profile.

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Posted in Resident Writing Coach, Subtext, Theme, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 28 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Rancher

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Choosing the right occupation for your character: Ranching is a good choice, fraught with risk and danger

Occupation: Owning and overseeing a large tract of land primarily used for growing livestock (sheep, cows, horses, alpacas, emus, etc.)

Overview: Ranchers are responsible for the day-to-day operations of running a ranch. Their duties may include choosing which livestock to raise, breeding the animals, feeding and watering them, seeing to their physical health, hiring and overseeing the necessary personnel, selling livestock, and maintaining the ranch’s physical structures. They may also choose to raise crops that can be used on the ranch, so as feed products for the animals.

Necessary Training: Many ranches are family-owned, and the necessary skills are taught from one generation to the next. An outsider entering this career field might sign on with an existing ranch to gain experience, or they could take over an existing ranch and hire skilled workers to do the manual labor.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for making money, a way with animals, basic first aid, carpentry, exceptional memory, farming, haggling, mechanically inclined, multitasking, predicting the weather, repurposing, sharpshooting, super strength, survival skills, whittling, wilderness navigation

Helpful Character Traits: Adaptable, adventurous, alert, ambitious, calm, cooperative, courageous, disciplined, focused, gentle, independent, mature, nature-focused, nurturing, observant, organized, patient, persistent, resourceful, sensible

Sources of Friction: An illness spreading through the herd, a disease spreading through the area that specifically attacks one’s livestock (such as an avian or porcine disease), a predator preying on the animals, poachers, one’s land being taken away (by the government, because of a highway going through, etc.), an accident befalling a careless worker, the animals being mistreated by workers, financial difficulties, a drought or famine, social or cultural changes that make one’s livestock or their byproducts undesirable (the Vegan lifestyle becoming more popular and making beef an unwanted commodity, studies being published that show that cheese is actually bad for you, etc.), strife between family members about how the ranch should be run, bad PR (word getting out that the ranch was acquired through unethical means, people protesting the treatment of one’s animals, etc.)

People They Might Interact With: ranch workers, family members who live on the ranch, veterinarians, farriers, inspectors, delivery people, breeders, customers seeking to buy the livestock or their byproducts

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: A character’s self-actualization might be affected if they’re working the farm out of a sense of duty, rather than because they really want to—if it was a family business, for instance.
  • Esteem and Recognition: A rancher’s esteem could take a hit if they’re really awful at certain aspects of job and are being shown up by their workers. Someone with a growth mindset would likely learn and grow from their employees, but a rancher who is more fixed could internalize his failures and begin to doubt his abilities.
  • Safety and Security: A situation impacting the rancher’s safety or security might be a disease that spreads easily between livestock and humans or a scenario in which once-docile animals become violent toward the people caring for them.
  • Physiological Needs: If one’s survival depends on the ranch’s success, a threat to that success could threaten their physiological needs, making it all-important for them to do well.

Common Work-Related Settings: Barn, campsite, country road, county fair, farm, farmer’s market, ghost town (old west), hunting cabin, meadow, mountains, old pick-up truck, orchard, pasture, pond, ranch, river, slaughterhouse, small town street

Twisting the Stereotype: Again, ranchers are typically portrayed as men. A woman rancher might be just the ticket for providing a twist on this stereotype. Also, because ranches are usually family-owned businesses, the people running them are typically familiar with the setting. What about someone from the outside taking over, or a group of ranches being run by a co-op?

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Raise the Stakes By Making It Personal

Compelling novels have many different ingredients that make them fascinating to read, but one standard components is a healthy, continual dose of ACTION. The protagonist is always doing something: weighing alternatives, choosing options, making decisions and then acting on them, good or bad.

Sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? We throw something at a character and they deal with it. Seize the day, steer their fate. The plot rolls ahead, filled with glorious momentum, with the character tackling challenge after challenge as the reader is carried breathlessly toward the story’s finish line.

Only…that’s not what happens.

Why? Because characters are stubborn. They fight action, fight decisions, fight change. Most would rather sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips as loud music blasts from the stereo speakers so they can pretend they don’t hear the author banging at the door.

What’s missing is Motivation. To act, a character must be motivated to do so, especially when danger is present, the odds are unfavorable, or the consequences are grave. No one willingly throws themselves into a fire. They need to have a reason to do so, especially when fear is involved.

Fear The Reaper (And A Lot More)

As people, we make associations with fear (most negative). We tend to avoid things that scare us—a psychological response common to us all. To create believable fiction, what happens in the real world should be mirrored in the fictional one, so we need to apply this same mindset to our characters.

Raising the stakes creates intensity in fiction. Using fear and consequences is a great way to make the stakes personal so the hero or heroine will get involved, even if they don't want to!

Fear comes in many flavors. In addition to specific fears the character has based on past negative experiences (backstory) such as a fear of the dark, fear of poverty, fear of abandonment, etc., there are universal fears that come onto play, like:

  • A fear of pain or injury
  • The fear of losing something (or someone) one cherishes
  • The fear of failure
  • A fear of losing oneself (identity)
  • The fear of change
  • The fear of death

Story catalysts (the “motivation” aspect of the Motivation-Reaction Units (MRU) can be positive or negative, and both can trigger fear. So when dread paralyzes action as effectively as a pair of cement boots, how do we get our characters to push past their fears and act?

We Raise The Stakes

Stakes are the consequences which will come about if your character does nothing. If the consequences seem far removed or more of an “inconvenience” than hardship, chances are, a protagonist will not be willing to step outside their comfort zone and get involved. But if the stakes are higher, and the consequences more dire or personal, then it pokes at a character’s moral soft spots, hitting them in the place where their strongest beliefs of right and wrong live.

The most effective way to raise the stakes is to personalize them to the protagonist in some way. One option is to use fear—more specifically, to activate a higher level of fear where doing nothing is worse than trying to do something despite the risk.

Fight Fear With Fear

If your protagonist fears failure…then have another character pay the price of failing. Nothing motivates someone faster than a loved one having to pay a steep price instead of the protagonist themselves.

If your protagonist fears losing something they cherish…have another suffer a loss undeservingly as a result if the hero or heroine does not succeed in their mission.

If your protagonist fears a loss of identity…have another be forced to sacrifice theirs as a consequence should the hero or heroine not step up and do what is right.

If your protagonist fears pain…create an end game scenario where another will suffer agony should the hero or heroine be unable to put themselves in the path of pain instead.

These are just a few examples, but there are many other ways to personalize stakes. Sometimes it can be helpful to have a list to brainstorm from, so we’ve created one at our other site, One Stop for Writers. Follow this link to download it, print, or share!

When you need your character to act, go through this list to see if there is a way to nudge their moral compass in the right direction.

And, if you want to see specific examples of stakes, visit One Stop for Writers’ Character Motivation Thesaurus, as we list possible stakes for every goal there’s an entry for!

What is your favorite way up raising the stakes? How have you used personal stakes to motivate your character? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in Characters, Fear, High Stakes, One Stop For Writers, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons | 6 Comments

Garlic Breath For Writers (aka, Bad First Pages)

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“If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.” – Agent, speaking at a recent writers conference

The opening page of your novel is your big introduction. It’s what an agent will read with most interest, to see if you can write (which is why page 1 is often the first thing read in your proposal. You may have spent 100 hours on a killer synopsis, 50 on an irresistible query, but if the writing itself is not up to snuff, the busy agent can save time by tossing the whole thing aside without reading the rest of the proposal).

Think of it this way. You are at a party and the man or woman of your dreams is across the room. The host offers to introduce you. You walk over. There is great anticipation, even from Dreamboat, who is there to meet people, too. So Dreamboat extends a hand, you take it, and say, “Nice to meet you.”

Only you have a horrendous case of garlic breath. Dreamboat winces, whips out a phone and walks quickly away, muttering, “I have to take this.”

Bad First Pages Are a Turn-Off. Start your novel off right by avoiding these common problems

Well, that’s what it’s like for an agent reading your first page. He or she wants to like you, but if you’ve got garlic breath, it’s all over. Bad first impression. See you later.

I taught at a writers conference recently, where attendees were invited to submit the opening page of their manuscripts – anonymously. We then put these on two transparencies. The first one as is, the second I had marked up as a tough editor might.

It was quite educational. I got 12 first pages in all, and none were ready for prime time. There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:

Characters Alone, Thinking

This was in the majority of the first pages I reviewed. We did not get a scene, which is a character in conflict with others in order to advance an agenda. We got, instead, the ruminations of the character as he/she reflects on something that just happened, or the state of his/her life at the moment, or some strong emotion. The author, in a mistaken attempt to establish reader sympathy with the character, gave us static information.

Such a page is DOA, even if the character is “doing” something innocuous, like preparing breakfast:

Marge Inersha tried to mix the pancake batter, but thoughts of Carl kept swirling in her head, taking her mind off breakfast and back to Tuesday, horrible Tuesday when the sheriff had served her with the divorce papers. Tears fell into the batter, but Marge was powerless to stop them. She put the mixing bowl on the counter and wiped her eyes. How much more could she take? With two kids sleeping upstairs?

Marge is certainly hurting, but you know what? I don’t care. I hate to be piggy about this, but I really don’t care that Marge is crying into her pancake batter. The mistake writers make is in thinking that readers will have immediate sympathy for a person who is upset.

They won’t. It’s like sitting at a bar and guy next to you grabs your sleeve and immediately starts pouring out his troubles to you.

Sorry, buddy, I don’t care. We all got troubles. What else is new?

Don’t give us a character like that on page 1.

Dreams

Agents and editors hate it when you open with a dream. And so do most readers. Because if they get invested in a cool opening, and then discover it’s all been a dream, they feel cheated. So you may have a gripping first page, but you’ll ruin the effect when the character awakens.

Yes, I know some bestselling authors have done this. When you start selling a gazillion copies, you can do it, too. Until then, you can’t.

Exposition Dump

In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.

In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.

This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.

Weather Without Character

Bad First Pages Are a Turn-Off. Start your novel off right by avoiding these common problems

Another complaint you’ll hear from editors and agents is about “weather openings.” This is a catch all phrase for generic description. Chip MacGregor, agent, described his opening pet peeve this way: “The [adjective] [adjective] sun rose in the [adjective] [adjective] sky, shedding its [adjective] light across the [adjective] [adjective] [adjective] land.”

If you’re gong to describe weather on the opening page, make sure you’ve established a character on whom the weather is acting. And make sure that character is not alone, thinking.

Point of View Confusion

Another big error was a confusion about Point of View. This comes in several guises.

  • We don’t have a strong POV character. Who does this scene belong to?
  • We “head hop” between different characters on the same page, losing focus.
  • We have the terrible sin of “collective POV.” That is, we get a description of two or more characters who think or perceive the same thing at the same time: John and Mary ran from the gang, wondering where they were going to go next. The 300 Spartans turned and saw the Persians approaching.
  • We have First Person narration without a compelling voice. First Person needs attitude.
  • We don’t have a POV at all until the second or third paragraph. We have description, but no idea who is perceiving it. We need that information right away.

There you have it! A load of breath mints for your opening pages. Let the meet-and-greet begin!

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Jim is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, Plot & Structure, and numerous thrillers, including, Romeo’s Rules, Try Dying and Don’t Leave Me. His popular books on fiction craft can be found here. His thrillers have been called “heart-whamming” (Publishers Weekly) and can be browsed here. Find out more about Jim on our Resident Writing Coach page, and connect with him online.

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Posted in Openings, Point of View, Resident Writing Coach, Show Don't Tell, Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Occupation Thesaurus Entry: Corrections Officer

Jobs are as important for our characters as they are for real people. A character’s career might be their dream job or one they’ve chosen due to necessity. In your story, they might be trying to get that job or are already working in the field. Whatever the situation, as with any defining aspect for your character, you’ll need to do the proper research to be able to write that career knowledgeably.

Enter the Occupation Thesaurus. Here, you’ll find important background information on a variety of career options for your character. In addition to the basics, we’ll also be covering related info that relates to character arc and story planning, such as sources of conflict (internal and external) and how the job might impact basic human needs, thereby affecting the character’s goals. It’s our hope that this thesaurus will share some of your research burden while also giving you ideas about your character’s occupation that you might not have considered before.

Occupation: Corrections Officer (Prison Guard)

Overview: a corrections officer works in a prison, guarding inmates serving out their sentences, ensuring they are afforded their legal rights while obeying facility rules and local laws. They rotate through different assignments, staffing different areas including the gatehouse, observation towers, unit deployments (accommodation wings, infirmary, recreation area, etc.). Some positions are very hands-on (such as new prisoner intakes, which require pat downs and inmate paperwork, escorting prisoners, and monitoring pod areas as prisoners engage in daily activities such as card-playing and TV watching). Other assignments include monitoring controls, running headcounts, room checks for contraband, and overseeing paperwork. They also may assist with vocational training for prisoners, helping them to make the best time of their incarceration both for personal wellness and to help them integrate with society upon release, and help inmates address behavioral issues that are tied to their offenses.

Correctional officers are responsible for the safety and rights of the inmates under their care as well as the safety of their fellow officers. Working in a prison is much different than portrayed on the screen, although no less dangerous. They may have to respond to fights, medical emergencies, and other incidents and know what to do in each situation, displaying complete authority. Despite needing to adhere to the same restricted spaces and routines as prisoners and the boredom that can result, correctional officers must remain alert and aware, which can be both physically and mentally draining. Inmates constantly test officers to determine any weak points, especially if the guard is someone new to them. They try to find out what gets under their skin, what bothers them, how to distract them, and where the lines are. Maintaining discipline by remaining professional, adhering to protocol, following through on one’s word, and treating everyone equally will allow your character to command respect and establish a functional level of rapport.

Working in an environment where people lie consistently and they have done a variety of unconscionable crimes can lead your character to adopt a jaded or darker viewpoint, especially and it can be a challenge to stay above it by treating each prisoner equally regardless of their crimes. Depending on the jail environment (level of security, type of prisoners, the support of management, etc.) this career can lead to burn out. Officers able to hold to a calling of modeling good behavior to inmates in the hopes of making an impact and rehabilitation stand the best chance of keeping a healthy and balanced mental state.

Necessary Training: Non-federal prison require a high school diploma or a completed general equivalency diploma, while federal prisons require a bachelor’s degree or three years of counseling and supervising others. Officers must also pass background checks and both a mental and physical health assessment.

New hires are usually placed in an academy and then also continue with on the job training. In addition to comprehensive education in facility procedures, institutional policies, and legal restrictions, officers receive training in firearms, learn self-defense, and are taught how to restrain, disarm, and neutralize prisoner threats.  If an officer is part of a tactical response unit they will be trained in how to respond to riots, hostage-taking, and any other dangerous situation that may occur. Training is usually ongoing, both to continually hone their skills and to keep them updated as new procedures and policies take effect.

Useful Skills, Talents, or Abilities: A knack for languages, basic first aid, blending in, enhanced hearing, enhanced sense of smell, esp (clairvoyance), exceptional memory, gaining the trust of others, good listening skills, haggling, high pain tolerance, lip-reading, making people laugh, photographic memory, reading people, self-defense, sharpshooting, strategic thinking, super strength, survival skills, swift-footedness, wrestling

Helpful Character Traits: alert, analytical, bold, centered, confident, cooperative, courageous, courteous, diplomatic, disciplined, focused, honorable, just, observant, organized, persistent, persuasive, proactive, professional, responsible, tolerant

Sources of Friction: trying to manage friction between gangs, overcrowding issues, poor quality of living leading to volatile prisoners, prison rapes and attacks, a drug problem, discovering inappropriate conduct between a guard an a prisoner, a corrections officer who is unreliable, family problems due to shift work and frustration at work being brought home, disagreeing with a fellow officer’s way of managing prisoners (too permissive, abusive, playing favorites, etc.), witnessing a bribe, breaking up altercations between prisoners, a riot, a murder, an attempted hostage-taking, being accused of misconduct, seeing injustice (such as prisoners with untreated mental illness going untreated in general population)

People They Might Interact With: prisoners, prison staff, administration, the warden, psychologists, doctors and nurses, police officers, investigators, FBI, visitors, lawyers, delivery people

How This Occupation Might Impact One’s Basic Needs:

  • Self-Actualization: Because this work is mentally taxing and can drain one’s spirit, it is easy to adopt a jaded, negative worldview. This could prevent the character from fulfilling a life pursuit that has personal meaning or even seeing society at large as being worthy of working toward something better or higher.
  • Love and Belonging: shift work and overtime can impact one’s ability to keep family relationships strong, or make time for loving relationships
  • Safety and Security: prisoners can be deceptive, violent, and have nothing to lose, so working as a jail guard means a constant risk to one’s safety, especially in pod situations where one guard may be responsible for watching nearly fifty prisoners.
  • Physiological Needs: becoming overwhelmed during a riot or attempted hostage situation would mean an immediate risk to one’s life

Common Work-Related Settings: ambulance, break room, courtroom, hospital room, juvenile detention center, morgue, police car, police station, prison cell

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments