Posts Tagged The Lincoln Lawyer
Unpacking the “Character-Driven” Story—How to Make Your Story Sizzle
Posted by Author Kristen Lamb in Writing Tips on January 31, 2017
Today we are going to shift gears back to craft. Last week we talked about the single largest problem with most first-time novels. There must be a singular core story problem that is resolved in Act Three.
All good stories must have an overall goal.
Now, this of course doesn’t mean there are not a lot of subgoals along the way, but all tributaries eventually deposit into the same river (core plot problem). If they are not related to this problem? Likely you have a plot bunny (or ten) in need of caging.
Yet often emerging writers will toss around this word “character-driven story” when they really don’t understand what this term means. All too often they mistakenly believe it is a pass to skip plotting. Nope. Sorry. So today we are going to discuss what a “character-driven story” really is and what it isn’t.
Now we all know there are all kinds of fiction and some genres naturally lean toward being “plot-driven”. We don’t want to read a mystery where we are never told whodunit and are instead exploring the detective’s fatal character flaw.
We want the killer uncovered and brought to justice. Thrillers? Same deal. Stop the SUPER BAD THING from happening (I.e. Militant vegans launching the super weapon that turns all bacon into tofu).
Now, this doesn’t mean these stories cannot also be character-driven. They just don’t necessarily have to be. Yet, often what will separate the forgettable detective book from, say a Harry Bosch book, is this added layer of character depth that just gives the story this delicious je ne sais quoi that leaves us wanting more.
We walk away from the story feeling as if we have bonded with living person, not just some writer’s imaginary friend. But the character-driven story must work in tandem with PLOT. Plot is the fire that heats the crucible. No fire? No test.
The World View
Whenever we begin with our protagonist, this character (like real living people) has a distinctive world view that is born of his/her backstory. This world view is created by millions of variables colliding to make one special distinct personality.
Who were the character’s parents? Was the character adopted? Abandoned? Abused? What did his parents do? What was their world view? Does the character share this view or is he opposed to it? What traumatic events forged this adult (or teen) personality?
Y’all get the gist.
A character who was born into a military family that moved every two years is likely going to hold a vastly different world view than a character born on a family farm in Iowa. Both will be different than a character raised by a grandmother in a Kentucky trailer park because dad died when his meth lab blew and mom is in prison.
Story Challenges then Smashes the World View
As Author God, we get to choose the protagonist’s world view, but THEN it is our job to then smash it. How do we smash it? We create the perfect problem (story) that is going to shatter what the character believes to be true.
For instance, let’s look at a mystery-suspense that is also a very character-driven story. In Connelly’s book The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is a rock star defense attorney. He is a product of his background with a famous lawyer father, a man so great in his field, Mickey is a mere shadow. As we can tell from this quote, Mickey is a product of his rearing…
“You know what my father said about innocent clients? … He said the scariest client a lawyer will ever have is an innocent client. Because if you fu*& up and he goes to prison, it’ll scar you for life … He said there is no in-between with an innocent client. No negotiation, no plea bargain, no middle ground. There’s only one verdict. You have to put an NG up on the scoreboard. There’s no other verdict but not guilty.”
Haller screwed up once. He defended an innocent man but the evidence to free the guy just wasn’t there and he lives with the guilt that he talked an innocent man into taking a plea bargain for life in prison because it was the only way to save him from the needle.
When the story begins? Mickey has no interest in guilt or innocence. He doesn’t want to know. And, better yet, to avoid innocent men? He actively courts the worst of the worst as clients—pimps, drug dealers, outlaw bikers, etc.
But then he takes the case for Louis Roulet and everything changes.
Roulet is not just any case. In the beginning, Mickey takes him on because he is rich. He really doesn’t care if the guy did the crime or not. That is not his purview. But then, as the plot unfolds, Mickey realizes that Roulet might be responsible for the crime his innocent client is now serving time for.
The PLOT PROBLEM challenges Mickey’s worldview. It forces him to change, to question who he is, what he stands for and what he really believes. Now, this book might have been fine as a straight up mystery suspense if we just cast a very different character and focused more on solving who really was beating and raping the victims.
But, what makes this book stand head and shoulders above other mysteries is we are there to witness the evolution of Mickey Haller. He begins as a man who claims justice doesn’t matter and evolves into a man willing to die to do what is right.
Connelly didn’t write a book where Haller spends 100,000 words questioning why his father never loved him, why he has a hole in his soul and feels nothing for his fellow man, why he isn’t a better man *queue violin* Why? Because that is not a story, that is self-indulgent tripe.
How a Character Can “Find Herself”
All right, but some of you might be yelling, But Kristen, this is still a mystery suspense and it partially plot-driven. What about my story? My protagonist wants to “FIND herself”.
Hold on. We are getting there.
Hate to tell you this, but this story will also have a core plot problem. There must be a challenge to the worldview that is eventually resolved. Seriously, no one wants to spend 15 hours reading navel-gazing. Even in these types of stories there is a core plot problem complete with stakes and a ticking clock.
A good example? The 1999 romantic comedy Runaway Bride.
Maggie Carpenter is a feisty, spirited woman who just cannot seem to have success in relationships. She has left three men at the altar already and had it not been for the plot problem? She very well could have left far more.
But what happens?
Columnist Homer Eisenhower Graham or “Ike” gets a scoop from a drunk at the bar about this woman who leaves all these men at the altar. Ike then writes a flaming tabloid about Maggie, but he screws up. He gets a lot of the facts wrong and is fired for not doing his research. He is given the opportunity to redeem his reputation by doing a follow-up story on Maggie.
Now, Maggie is lost, but she doesn’t realize she how lost she is until Ike, believing he yet again is missing the real story does some digging and talks to those who know her. He challenges her that she is running because she is mimicking the men she loves (as evidenced by the way she eats her eggs). She is morphing herself to be each fiancés dream girl and losing herself in the process.
Why hasn’t she pursued her dreams? Does she even know what they are? Does she even know who she is?
The story problem forces Maggie to confront the ugly truth about herself. Instead of risking failure reaching for her own dreams, she is hiding behind the men she dates. She is driven by fear.
The stakes are love. Will Maggie ever find love? When she uncovers who she really is, can she marry Ike (or anyone) as a distinctive and whole person?
But the core story question is, Will the Runaway Bride ever tie the knot? And since this is a romance, the question is (more specifically) Will the Runaway Bride tie the knot with Ike?
If our story merely ended with Maggie leaving for a yoga retreat in India on a journey of self-discovery? That is a crappy story. And again, there was a problem that forced this journey of self-discovery in the first place and this is a problem in need of a satisfying resolution.
So when you are looking at your protagonist, ask the hard questions. Who IS this character and what is his/her worldview. Then, craft a problem that will challenge and smash that view and replace it with a superior lens.
What are your thoughts? Does this help clear up the idea of “character-driven” stories?
I love hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
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5 Reasons Your Story is Stuck
Posted by Author Kristen Lamb in Writing Tips on May 2, 2016
If you’ve been writing any amount of time you have been there—THE SUCK. This is where no matter how hard you try, you just cannot seem to move your story forward.
Though “normal” people might laugh at the above meme? Writers know that quicksand is freaking everywhere. You think you’re on firm footing and then down you go and the more you struggle, the worse it gets.
From personal experience combined with my experience with hundreds of writers the process can look like this.
Shiny Idea Time—You get the coolest idea ever conceived of and cannot believe such genius has never before been put to the page. It’s as if angels have come down and handed you a golden feather that will whisk you to the realms of literary nirvana.
First 20K Words—You’re flying high. You wonder why you ever had such difficulty with word count before. You cannot stop the flow. Perhaps you forget to eat, don’t want to sleep and you even dream of the world you’re creating.
20K-30K—This is when the pace begins to slow. It’s okay though. Perhaps you’re simply tired. It’s okay. This…THIS is the story idea you’ve been waiting for.
31K—Your pace slows dramatically. If you’ve ever been driving and suddenly had a flat tire? You know the feeling only this is in the brain-fingetips connection. There is a THWUMP, THWUMP, THWUMP…and your mental steering wheel jerks wildly. You might try to ignore, but eventually? You pull over to see what’s wrong.
But then? Nothing seems wrong. That’s weird. Mental tires all look properly aired. Maybe more caffeine is in order.
Perhaps you make it to 40K but by then? All the glitter is gone and you wonder what the hell happened. At this point, you likely will be visited by other story ideas. They see you on the side of the creative highway bewildered and seeming to need a ride. Though you don’t yet have your thumb out, these other newer and shinier ideas are quick to pull over and chirp, “Hop in!”
Just abandon that old clunker and GO!
It’s all so tempting. Especially since the longer you stay trying to fix your broken down WIP, the more shiny ideas come passing by. When you started your journey, the road was free and clear for you to floor your brain and write like the wind! Now? You can barely concentrate on where you placed your mental jack because temptation whizzes by every other minute.
I think this is a fairly accurate prediction regarding word count. If it weren’t then NaNoWriMo would be a cinch. But, alas, there is something about making it to 50K. It’s a number that leaves most who attempt such a feat broken down wondering what went wrong.
Before you call a tow truck for the WIP and sell it for parts, I’d like to offer you some insight and maybe even some solutions to get you speeding down the Imagination Express once more.
Problem #1—The Antagonist is Weak or Nonexistent
This is one of the reasons I love teaching my Bullies and Baddies class (and yes we have one coming up SOON). After years of working with writers, it became clear to me that many didn’t understand—truly understand—the antagonist. It doesn’t help that a lot of the teaching on the subject can be terribly confusing.
I’ve heard classes where instructors used the term “antagonist” and “villain” interchangeably, but that is grossly inaccurate.
A villain is only ONE TYPE of antagonist.
All stories must have a strong core antagonist, because the antagonist is responsible for the story problem.
No antagonist, no story problem in need of solving. Too often, new writers spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the hero and don’t give near enough thought to the opposition.
Problem #2—Plot Weak or Nonexistent
If a writer has failed to understand the antagonist (opposition) and truly know what this opposing force wants then the plot will simply disintegrate. When we’re crafting any work, we have to create a problem that is strong enough to bear the weight of the word count.
For instance, I’ve consulted many writers who had an excellent idea…for a short story. The problem was inherently too weak to sustain the bulk of a full-length novel.
Instead of plowing forward, often we can make some really simple adjustments to buttress that core idea. But if we don’t? It’s like trying to drive 90 pulling a crappy trailer. The wheels eventually WILL go flying off.
Often when we’re stuck, it’s the subconscious mind hitting the breaks. It’s trying to tell us our plot needs to be more robust or even clarified, which dovetails into my next point…
Problem #3—Too Many Ideas Crammed into One Book
Some writers might not have enough heft to the plot and others? Perhaps you’re loading on far too much. It’s not uncommon for me to talk to writers who are jammed up in a bad way only to find out they are trying to develop five ideas in one book.
Since the author failed to articulate what the book was about in ONE sentence (truly understand the antagonist’s agenda), then the author was at liberty to explore whatever cool rabbit trail presented itself.
This isn’t particularly bad, but it does require we STOP, get focused and maybe tease out those other ideas for subsequent books. You might think you only have one book, when you have two others freeloading and bogging down your momentum.
Problem #4—Wrong Protagonist
Casting the wrong protagonist is really easy to do, especially if we failed to properly develop the antagonist. Remember at the core of most great stories is an antagonist who’s essentially the shadow self of the protagonist.
For instance, in The Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller is a sleaze bag defense attorney. He represents drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, and gang members. He has grown jaded with the justice system and prides himself on his ability to manipulate.
His greatest fear is representing a truly innocent man. What is the perfect story problem for such a character? Present him with an irresistible case that tosses him into what he fears the most.
Representing a truly innocent man.
This means that Connelly had to create a crime (case) where the client would undoubtedly look guilty and who would have enough cash to make Haller question any misgivings about taking on the case. Without a case where an innocent man is involved? The Lincoln Lawyer falls apart at the seams.
If Connelly had cast a lawyer who was all about truth, justice and the American Way? The plot would have been meh.
An attorney who works pro bono searching for truth is expected to risk everything to save the life of an innocent man. This would have been the wrong protagonist to cast for such a plot.
Fiction is the path of greatest resistance and Connelly, being a master, cast the one guy who probably would have run screaming from this case had he know was he was in for.
If your story seems to be sagging, check and make sure you’ve slated the right person for the job. Sometimes some quick fixes to who this character is or even giving that character some additional baggage might be enough to get you unstuck.
Problem #5—You Are Just Over Thinking
STOP IT! This is the one I am most guilty of. It’s why I am a HUGE fan of fast-drafting because then we simply don’t have time to over think every step we’ve made.
All writers have two different phases:
Oh, wow! I wrote that!
Oh. Wow…I wrote that.
We all think we are geniuses…only to later read the exact same section and become convinced we are little more than brain-damaged chimpanzees banging away on a keyboard. It happens, especially when we are in the thick of the story. It is tempting to go back and perfect, but resist the urge to go BACK. Feel free to correct typos or make notes (in a different color) but do not change your writing.
Your subconscious could be planting seeds and what looks like a weed might just be the greatest plot-twist EVER germinating. Just leave it alone and stop being so hard on yourself.
Remember, no unfinished-but-perfect book has ever hit the New York Times best-seller list, but a lot of crappy finished ones have 😉 .
Truthfully, if you finish and just cut yourself a break you will likely go back to those parts you were going to chop and see they aren’t nearly as bad as you’d imagined. Remember that while your subconscious is there to help you? Your ego is a selfish passive-aggressive diva who can’t stand that something might be prettier than she is.
You really want to be hard on yourself? Fine, just do it in the correct places. Instead of nitpicking the life out of your prose? Get your @$$ in the seat and keep pressing. And just so y’all know? While I have one finger pointed at you, three are pointing back at me.
Before we go…
I have three classes to help you out with all of this. W.A.N.A. classes are all easy to use from home. All you need is an internet connection and pants are totally optional. Recordings are included in case you miss or you just want to refresh the information.
If your antagonist is weak and you need help learning to plot? Bullies and Baddies. If your story idea is jumbled, confusing or unformed? Your Story in a Sentence. I’ve been doing this a long time and I can almost always tell what is wrong (or right) with a plot by the log-line. The first ten signups are guaranteed to have their log-line shredded and fixed in class and for FREE.
Worried about the strength of your actual writing? Are you starting your story in the correct place? Take my First Five Pages class. Right now I am offering double pages for all Gold and Platinum signups (and I have only done this once before and that was almost a year ago). Friends, family and critique groups can only offer so much. So if you want a set of ruthless eyes on your work? I am here to help!
What are your thoughts? Do you nitpick your work to death? Is your computer filled with stories that started out golden then fell flat? Do you struggle with being able to just FINISH? Have you thought you might have cast the wrong protagonist? Are you stuck?
I love hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of MAY, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel.
April’s WINNER of my pages contest is:
C.E. Robinson! Please send your 5000 word WORD document (double-spaced, New Times Roman, one-inch margins) to kristen at wanaintl dot com and CONGRATULATIONS! *throws confetti*
ONE MORE CLASS!!!
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Also, for more help with branding and social media, if you don’t yet have a copy… make sure to pick up Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
The Stuff of Legends—Creating a Character Apocalypse
Posted by Author Kristen Lamb in Antagonist on July 22, 2013
My friend Piper Bayard is away for a few days and she asked me to pick up the Apocalypse Torch for the week. It is so tempting to write more about zombies and Kardashebola or Sharknado and maybe we will. But, today, we are going to talk about the apocalypse—what it is and what it means for really great writing.
When we hear the word “apocalypse” we think of doomsday prophesies, Mayan predictions, global catastrophes, and Mad Max movies. It conjures images of the end of the world. Yet, if we look to the original Greek word, an apocalypse, ἀποκάλυψις apocálypsis, from ἀπό and καλύπτω meaning ‘un-covering’, translated literally from Greek, is a disclosure of knowledge, i.e., a lifting of the veil or revelation (via Wikipedia).
When it comes to writing a great novel, the apocalypse must be present externally (plot) as well as internally (character growth). The story problem, created by the antagonist, is what provides the crucible that leads to change. There is an unveiling on two levels. First, the solution to the story problem (unveiled over time) and secondly, the protagonist has an opportunity to grow from regular person to hero.
Protagonists Need Baggage to Become Heroes
Most of us have done this. We begin with the uber-perfect protagonist. She is beautiful, speaks twenty languages and saves kittens in her spare time…and she’s utterly boring. Why? First, we can’t relate since most of us are far from perfect.
But why the uber-perfect character is dull is there is no room for an apocalypse. There is nothing to shake her out of the stupor of existing and introduce her to living. There is nothing personally at stake because there are no fears to face. A fully-evolved character has no room to GROW.
An apocalypse is most interesting when there is massive change we witness. For instance, if a tornado hits a junkyard, it just rearranges the existing mess. But when it wipes out half of Joplin, Missouri? We are moved and emotional because change is on such a large scale.
Now reverse this. If our character is too perfect to begin with, when the apocalypse happens….eh *shrugs*.
In Normal World our characters flaws are working for him, or so he believes. It’s the story problem that reveals the error of his thinking, that there is more inside him than he believes. The more baggage a character is carrying, the more interesting the transformation.
One of my favorite examples of this is Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer. Mickey Haller is a sleaze bag defense attorney who operates out of the back of a Lincoln Continental. He defends the worst of the worst because nothing frightens him as much as representing a truly innocent man. The guy is a total bottom-feeder who knows how to manipulate the justice system. But what happens when he comes face-to-face with real evil? Can he live with who he is?
Now, if Mickey Haller was a crusader who’d been fighting for justice since he was a small boy playing Superman in between earning badges as a Boy Scout? Boring. But a guy who defends drug dealers, murderers and pimps and can still sleep at night? The guy with no apparent conscience? THAT is an interesting character and one ripe for an apocalypse.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, not only does the story unveil an evil unimaginable, but it also unveils the most unlikely of heroes. The person who’s always been perfect to defend the bad guy now is the only one who can take him out.
Picking the Perfect Story Problem
This is one of the reasons we discussed beginning with the antagonist first this past Friday. If we begin with the antagonist and then create the story problem, it becomes far easier to envision the flawed protagonist who is the perfect guy or gal to solve the problem (and know precisely how this character must grow along the way).
When it comes to The Lincoln Lawyer, who better to destroy true evil than the guy whose been making a fortune defending evil? What is the threshold that causes someone as low as Mickey Haller to change? And since he believes he’s a slime ball, what can happen to change this internal belief so that, in the end, Mickey rises to be a hero?
Another great example is Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone. Ree lives in the trailer park and has no interest in her future. She’s too locked in the hell that is her present. Unlike Mickey Haller, Ree is a good person. She takes care of a mentally ill mother and two much younger siblings, living hand-to-mouth while her father is in and out of prison for cooking meth.
What is her flaw? She keeps her head down and doesn’t make waves.
There is an unspoken rule in hillbilly culture. Family is everything. Never turn on family. But what happens when family turns out to be the enemy? When Ree’s father doesn’t show up for court, Ree finds out he put up their home and the land it sits on as part of his bond. She must find her father—dead or alive—to save her mom and siblings from losing everything. Yet, to find her father she’ll have to take on the most terrifying adversary of all…her own family.
She can no longer keep her head down and get by. She has to make waves. For Ree, this is a personal apocalypse.
But again, notice how creating the antagonist/story problem reveals who the protagonist is and the precise way to create a hero. We begin with a hillbilly culture, steeped in secrets, and pit one of their own against them. The conflict is deep, intimate, ugly, personal and all the right ingredients for an award-winning story.
I am running an on-line class this Friday about antagonists. Use the WANA15 code for 15% off and the class is recorded if the time doesn’t work for you.
If your story isn’t moving, you’re stuck, plotting is making you want to OD on brownies, it might just be you need to alter or strengthen your antagonist. We will also talk about scene antagonists to keep the momentum increasing in your novel.
What are your thoughts? Questions? What are your favorite character apocalypses from books or movies? Why did they inspire you? Do you use these to inspire your writing?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of July, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
NOTE: My prior two books are no longer for sale, but I am updating them and will re-release. My new book, Rise of the Machines–Human Authors in a Digital World is NOW AVAILABLE.