characters, dialogue, how to write, novel writing, screenwriting, Story, storytelling, Writing, writing characters, writing fiction, writing tips
Happy Thursday. This week I’m talking about when you get that dreaded feedback that goes something like “I couldn’t connect with the characters” or “she/he wasn’t believable” or “I just didn’t care.” And, there’s more too but you get the point.
Your story is fine, but the reader, or agent, or editor, just couldn’t connect.
What do you need to do to fix it?
If the feedback is that they couldn’t connect or care about the characters, then you need to do more work there.
Revisions like this can seem impossible and your gut may be saying to just keep sending it out to others until someone likes it. I’ve seen writers do this and after two years the agent who took a chance couldn’t sell the work and then drops them and they are right back where they started.
I want to save you time and heartache.
There could be many reasons that this is the feedback you are getting.
1. Your characters are living on the surface
2. Your dialogue isn’t strong
3. Your characters wants/needs and goals aren’t present
4. Your plotting and story arcs are nonexistent (yes some character problems go back to storytelling basics)
There are a lot of reasons but let’s start with these because they are the most common.
YOUR CHARACTER LIVES ON THE SURFACE
This means that you haven’t gone deep enough, and hey, I know that it sucks hearing that and it’s like vaguebooking but it’s a real thing. When you aren’t going deep enough it is because you yourself don’t understand the psychology of your characters.
What? I need that? But, I’m just writing light romance, like a Hallmark movie, she just wants to find a guy.
Nope, that’s not good enough. You need more. Even in lighter stories, you need a real need, want, and or goals for your protagonist that drive her the entire book. The way she handles these things are because of WHO she is and that goes back to her misbelief about herself and that informs her flaws.
The best holiday Hallmark movies have this. Trust me.
EXERCISE-go watch any holiday Hallmark movie that you love and break it all down and you will see that it’s there. Obviously, you can’t know for 100% her misbelief but based on her actions you can make a great guess.
READ-Wired for Story & Story Genius by Lisa Cron–once you do you will understand what I mean. Every single one of us has some misbelief that was created early in life and while we don’t go around and announce it to the world, “I’ll never be good enough!” our actions SHOW who we are. Maybe we push people away, or maybe we have a need to always get straight As and be perfect?–this is just an example.
Here’s an example of a great character from television from the 2000s. Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars. When we meet him, he’s kind of a dick right? Well, not really.
We learn through his actions and dialogue and storytelling throughout the first season (your novel) that his parents are famous actors and never give him any attention and when they do it’s bad. His misbelief (or this is how I see it) is that he will never be good enough and no one will ever really like or love him because if his parents don’t, why would anyone else? So, his character flaw is that he acts like a jerk, all the time. This is his defense to keep himself safe and not get rejected because he knows that will come. Everything he does is based on that misbelief. The writers of that show dug deep! And, you can too!
WHEN YOUR DIALOGUE IS THE PROBLEM
Ah, dialogue-my favorite tool to show who a character really is. I love it because it’s so powerful but so many writers get it wrong. They focus on being clever, especially in women’s fiction and any movie with a female lead. The trope, trend, overused thing that still happens is that the main female is headstrong and sarcastic. Now, we all can’t be that way can we? No, we can’t. If you have written this in your first draft or second, or third and you are getting feedback that the agent, reader, whomever, can’t connect to her, this is why.
You have cleverly filled the pages with clever quips and comebacks, usually aimed at her love interest and in weaker writing he takes it!
Steve Kaplan of Kaplan Comedy talks about this in his comedy workshop and he used an example from a movie with Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson. Kate Hudson’s character insults him over and over and he doesn’t react at all but he keeps flirting and smiling. It’s so true. No guy, no woman, no person would be okay with being insulting all the time, and yet this is used constantly. Look at The Ugly Truth as another example. Katherine Heigel’s character is always insulting Gerad Butler’s character for no reason that makes any sense, it’s really that the writers decided she would be this type of woman for no reason, and he takes it and keeps flirting with her. This is NOT what would happen.
**BTW you can find Steve Kaplan HERE. I suggest his workshops and books for every writer-whether you are writing comedy or not.
Back to dialogue. So, you will stop that clever rude girl and witty dialogue now. Phew, now that’s over remember that every single word that comes out of your character’s mouth MUST be said for a reason. Dialogue SHOWS us WHO your character is. Think about the way you react to a situation and what you might say and how your sister or mother does to the same? You all speak differently right?
In Gilmore Girls, Paris Geller is a BRILLIANT example of this. Everything she says SHOWS US who she is, and all of that goes back to her misbelief about herself. I suggest you watch a few episodes, especially in the early seasons when we are getting to know her.
Use your dialogue to show us who your characters are and you can’t go wrong.
YOUR CHARACTER’S MOTIVES ARE MISSING
You have some characters and a story but why they are in that story is muddled. They don’t have any stakes and so it’s boring, and not relatable at all. Now, everything doesn’t have to be life or death, it can just be internal too-like Bridget Jone’s Diary. Bridget wanted to improve herself and her dating life so pretty much all of her actions were based on this. At first, she makes a list of all the things she will change in the new year, then she decides she wants to date the bad-boy in the office, Daniel Clever, but since that is something superficial and he is a jerk, she still isn’t happy, so she gets a new job, and is still looking for happiness—the entire movie. Her motives are that she wants to be in love and she wants connection but she has the misbelief that it’s her weight because she doesn’t believe she deserves what others have and that’s why it works. Her motives are clear.
Obviously in Harry Potter his goals are always to fight Voldermort–but are they really? Isn’t Harry a boy who desperately needs a family? Read the first book again and you’ll see that Harry has external and internal wants and needs that are clear.
The stakes MUST be there. In all the really good Hallmark Holiday movies the main character always has a want that we learn immediately. Usually, it has something to do with a promotion at her job, but it’s always clear. Then something happens that derails that and has her questioning everything in her life, but all her actions are based on reaching that original goal.
Look at Legally Blonde-Elle Woods wants to get married and at the beginning we learn that she believes she is going to be proposed to by her boyfriend, who instead breaks up with her so he can go to Harvard and be with a serious girl (his words, not mine). Well, Elle decides to follow him to Harvard and show him that she can be the kind of girl he wants. Her entire story is about getting this guy back, until she gets to Harvard and realizes that no matter what she does she’s never going to be good enough for him, so she learns that she can do things for herself instead of for the approval of others. It’s a “chick-flick” as they used to be called but it’s powerful like Bridget Jones is.
YOUR PLOTTING & BASIC STORYTELLING ARCS AREN’T WORKING
You want to be different and decide NOT to follow traditional story structure, or you simply don’t know or understand it, and therefore your story is flatlining. This isn’t because you aren’t a good writer or anything but you for some reason forgot about it, or didn’t think about it. Maybe you were focusing on wouldn’t it be cool or funny if scenes and not thinking about the big picture.
That’s okay, for first drafts.
You need to follow story structure. You don’t have to have your inciting incident on page 19 in your script or on the second chapter of your book but it does need to be at the beginning because it is the reason for this story. Your story starts with your character’s life being altered in some way. This needs to happen.
Then you need to continue with traditional plotting and arcs, which I will cover in another blog but basically your story NEEDS these elements.
Opening-WHO the story is about and WHAT they want or need
Inciting Incident-WHAT happens to set the story into motion
New World-WHEN the story actually starts moving because of the inciting incident
Middle-a CLEAR middle with a recommitment or mirror moment scene where your character decides to take some action
Climax-everything comes to a head
All Is Lost Moment-when the character wants to give up or feels like they have lost whatever it is
Resolve-your character finds a way to come to a solution to her problem or how to live with her new life.
These things must be there.
Every scene in your story must move the story forward in these directions. There is no reason to have scenes there just because they are fun to write but don’t serve the story. Look at the strongest movies, books, or TV shows and they all do this!
When you are super famous you can break the rules, but when you are new, or not a household name, don’t do it. Even when you are famous it can backfire. Story structure works for a reason.
Ever have that friend who starts telling you a story and they just go on and on and there seems to be no point or they add in details that have nothing to do with what they are telling you? Don’t let that be your book or movie or TV show.
Okay, my Dears! That is this week’s Story Concierge blog and I hope that you found it helpful.
Please follow me on Instagram and TikTok for daily tips on writing and everything writer & story related
Join my FREE Facebook group for women writers https://www.facebook.com/groups/StoryConcierge/
Sign up to be on my VIP email list here https://www.stephaniebourbon.com/join-my-email-list