Auntie Deborah’s Autumn Writing Advice Column

Dear Auntie Deborah: Help! My characters have gone amok and won’t follow the plot of my book! What can I do to whip them into shape?

— A Frustrated Author

Dear Frustrated: The short (but brutal) answer is that your characters behave the way you created them. Their histories, personalities, goals, and motivations are all part of that creation. So if you — like so many of us! — find your characters resisting the demands of the plot or going off on their own adventures, it’s time to take a step back and delve deeper into what’s on the page and what’s in your creative imagination that isn’t explicit but nonetheless exerts a powerful influence over the character’s behavior.

Looking at it another way, stories can be driven by plot (a series of actions where one leads inevitably to the next) or by character (the motivations and inner conflicts dictate the character’s goals and actions). (Other possibilities include ideas — mysteries, for example — or environments — where the world itself is the focus. But your problem really pertains to the competing demands of plot versus character.)

If you’ve conceived of the story as a plotline first and foremost, of course you want interesting characters but you also want them to follow the script. One way to do this is to work backward to discover what kind of person would make those choices and have what it takes to overcome those obstacles. You cannot simply plug any character into any role and have it work (unless your characters are all “cardboard.”) “Misbehavior” = mismatched personalities and roles.

If, on the other hand, you have a compelling, fascinating character with an agenda of her own that doesn’t fit your plotline, you can always chuck the script and see where the story goes when driven by this character.


Dear Auntie Deborah: Why are poets so underpaid in comparison to novelists?

— Impoverished Poet

Dear Impoverished: I can speak best about my field: I write science fiction and fantasy, at a pro level for over 30 years, at lengths ranging from about 5,000 words (short for me) to 150,000 (on the long side for me). Typically short fiction is paid by the word, and the current pro rate is 8 cents/word. So that 5,000 word short story would be paid $400. Very few modern poems are even that long. Go back a couple of hundred years, and you’ll find book-long works of poetry, but not today. So poetry is typically paid not by the word but by the piece, often around $50. Most poetry magazines can’t afford to pay more, btw, even if they’re subsidized by universities.

If this seems unfair, it is! Poems are not easier to write than prose. They’re exquisite little gems, where every word must be exactly right, and the whole is crafted for precise emotional and intellectual impact. I’ve written a little as part of my novels (like song lyrics or quotes of poems a character has created) and it’s exhausting. I’d rather write pages and pages of prose narrative than a 10 line poem. So it’s likely that a poet’s output will be much less in terms of word count.

All that said, poets are treasures of their culture and until recently have been supported by wealthy or noble patrons who recognized how poetry gives voice to the best ideas of its age. Today, as pointed out elsewhere, accomplished poets are likely to be supported by grants or other awards. That happens occasionally for novelists, but mostly not. I’m in awe of true poets, in view of how painfully I wrestle with a few lines here and there, while turning out an entire novels is relatively child’s-play.



Dear Auntie Deborah: Which is easier to write, a screenplay or a novel?

— Get Rich Quick

Dear Get Rich: Is writing poetry easier than writing screenplays? Is writing screenplays easier than playing jazz piano? Is dancing ballet easier than writing a novel? Is painting a landscape in oils easier than singing in an opera?

Everyone’s mileage varies. All of these (and more) are different art forms, to which are suited by temperament, training, and experience.

If you’re looking for something that is “easy” and does not require discipline and dedication, try… I can’t think of anything worthwhile that doesn’t.


Dear Auntie Deborah: What should you not do when writing a character’s backstory?

— Confused Newbie

Dear Confused: Whatever you do, don’t inflict it on your reader in massive, indigestible chunks that bring the action to a screeching halt.




Auntie Deborah’s Autumn Writing Advice Column — 4 Comments

  1. Also, you should not write so much backstory that you don’t write the story itself.

    Or possibly you started too late.

  2. Mike Moscoe used to say that he’d throw rocks at his characters (plot) to drive his characters into the trees. But when the characters started throwing the rocks back at him, he knew that was where to start the story and just whom he was dealing with.

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