NaNoWriMo Tip #17: The emotional depth of your characters is important.

Scarlett and Rhett

Throwing words onto the page is the essence of National Novel Writing Month. But meeting a word quota isn't the most thoughtful way in which to craft a story. When you go back and read what you've written, inevitably you will re-edit each scene.

This will be the time in which you can ask yourself if your character is all he (or she) should be — and strengthen them even further.

When it comes to developing characters, most writers seem to fall into two camps. The first works from a great plot premise, allowing it to determine what characters will inhabit the story, and to drive his or her plot forward. The second starts with an idea for a unique hero, then creates plot challenges that showcase the hero's character strengths and (hopefully) flaws.

There are pitfalls to both approaches. When a story is plot-driven, sometimes the author will leave out all those things that allow readers to empathize with the hero. Remember: you want your readers to fall in love with your hero.

However, if your story is character-driven, the author may be telling us all the reasons why we should love this character, but is not giving the hero anything to do. If the hero is not challenged, he is not given a reason to grow and change.

And the reader has no reason to care for him.

As in real life, character is demonstrated through actions (plot) and words (dialogue). A strong narrative voice — not necessarily first person — allows us into the heads of the hero: not just to hear what he is thinking, but to gauge how he is feeling, too. 

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind was her debut novel. It took her nine years to write. No NaNoWriMo deadline, there!)I

t is a perfect example of a hero whose strength of character is revealed through the challenges that come with a sweeping plot.

Mitchell's heroine, Scarlett O'Hara, is a young Southern woman who is unable to let go of  her unrelenting obsession for a childhood sweetheart, Ashley Wilkes, through the course of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This obsession destroys her chance for true happiness with the man who has stood beside her from the beginning: Rhett Butler.

In her novel's nine-year journey, Mitchell edited, and re-edited and re-edited her unwieldy none-hunderd page manuscript, and still wasn't satisfied with it. Everyone in her social circle knew she was writing a novel, but she never had the courage to show it to friends.

Mitchell's break came when she met an editor from MacMillan Publishers at a local tea. He was in town looking for novel manuscripts that his company might consider. Although Mitchell kept silent about her own project, a scornful remark about Mitchell's efforts made by an acquaintance gave Mitchell the kick in the pants she needed to box up the manuscript and hand it off the the editor just as he boarded his train to New York.

The rest is publishing history. Her effort proved to be Pulitzer- and film-worthy as well.

Despite a devastating war that has turned Scarlett O'Hara's fortunes upside down, and in spite of her flaws of vanity and pettiness, for decades now readers have been drawn to Scarlett and her story, for good reason: 

We know people like her. We are her.

We are annoyed by her, we pity her. And we love her.

Even Mitchell's secondary characters — Aunty Pittypat, the Tarleton twins, Charles Hamilton, Mrs. Merriweather — are so well-written that we feel as if we know them. Even if they annoy you, they raise emotion in you. 

This says a lot about the author.

What do your characters say about you?

(c) 2011 Josie Brown. All rights reserved.

PICTURE: in the movie version of Gone with the Wind, Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara, and Clark Gable played the man she should have loved, Rhett Butler. It was casting at its best.




I've got a question for you, and be honest: Would you want to hang out with your hero/heroine? Tell me why (or why not)…

Happy National Novel Writing Month,

— Josie


How Books Make a Difference

Prod_11358 I can honestly say that the book that made the biggest difference in my life was Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind.

I was born and raised (that's how we say it where I'm from) in and around Atlanta Georgia, and Ms. Mitchell's tome was as ubiquitous as the King James Bible in most of the households there. At that time, Atlanta —and most of the Southern states—had never gotten over losing the war.

I think that has changed, for the most part.

At 733 pages, it is an intimidating read for most adults. I picked it up at thirteen, and was immediately enthralled with the story. How could you not be, what with an opening line like:

Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were…

Mitchell's epic novel is a prose tapestry of living breathing  history, entwined with plot threads of love, lust and dysfunctional heroism. (Both Scarlett and Rhett do some right things,
but for all the wrong reasons; and some wrong things, too; but then
again, that is what makes for conflict and drives the story forward…)

I loved it.

I went on to read it another fourteen times between then and the time I was twenty-six.

Unfortunately for Margaret Mitchell, she never published again. Instead, she spent the rest of her life fighting international copyright violations of her book.

What would she have said, had she lived during the Internet and its copyright free-for-all? I'm guessing she would have shouted something along the lines of "Hell's bells!" at Google and its ilk.

In a large way, I think reading Gone with the Wind is how I formed my own writer's "voice" — a term we novelists use to describe our style, in regard to cadence and use of words — is owed to Ms. Mitchell. I love using slang and colloquialisms. I am not afraid of a big, colorful cast of characters.

Above all, I love flawed heroes and heroines.

Because none of us are perfect.

Where we part: I believe in happy endings. Or, at least hopeful ones.

So pick up her book.

Oh yes: and pick up mine. It took me twenty years to write my very first novel (Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives is my third published novel).I guess I was afraid I could never live up to the scope of her masterpiece.

Instead, I've learned to settle for prosaic bon mots: tasty morsels of plot, character and conflict.

By no means do I claim to be Margaret Mitchell, but I think my latest book is a pretty good yarn for the way we live now:

Not in petticoats, but a great pair of designer jeans.


Next Book: Secret Lives of Husbands and Wives

Simon & Schuster/Downtown Press

(ISBN: 9781439173176)

In bookstores June 1, 2010. Order it

"Hollywood's got nothing on the cast of characters living in
bedroom community of Paradise Heights, who have the secrets, sex, money
and scandal of an OK! Magazine cover story. Josie Brown is a skilled
observer whose clever dialogue and feisty style make for truly
entertaining reading."

, bestselling author of Hollywood Wives and Poor Little Bitch Girl

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