Three Dirty Birds on Story Trumps Structure 21 — Character Status

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Today, the Dirty Birds will be fighting for status, because that’s what James has lined up for us today–how the character’s status affects reader perception, and how you need to manipulate that.

Kate: I liked this chapter for spelling it out. And it was the only chapter in the book where I thought he might have had a clue about romance.

Zoe: I thought he made a lot of good points…none of which I could find a way to apply to my WIP. (Ana: I’m glad I’m not the only one!) But I did come up with things I wanted to discuss!

Kate: Status is all through the Bite Me books, because Glyn’s family are such paranormal snobs.

Ana: Paranormal snobs–worse than regular snobs, because magic!

Zoe: Yes, I can definitely seeing it applying there, and not just on Glyn’s side but Levi’s as well, with him being a werewolf and all.

Kate: I use a lot of the techniques he talks about when Glyn and Levi are together. Glyn speaks in a much slower cadence (I’m not sure that’s the word I’m looking for.) He doesn’t tend to explain himself right away, unless pressed. He tends to preface his dialogue with a snarky look, or to explain something while he’s occupied doing something else. All signs of a higher status character.

Ana: While reading this chapter I thought I was doing a lot of what James advised without being aware of it, and probably other writers do too. Just by applying to our writing what we know about how people act.

Zoe: Yes, that’s what I thought too.

Kate: I think, in most writing, instinct is a good guide, but I also like to be aware of these things, because when you go back to tweak scenes, you can directly apply these techniques to raise tension, or set some series of character decisions in motion.

Ana: Being aware is always good.

Kate: Well, I think being aware as you’re writing means that the reader won’t be aware, but will still react. That’s the goal I’m always aiming for, is for all the little clues I drop into the story to build up unconsciously in the reader’s mind until whatever the final outcome of the story is becomes inevitable.

Zoe: One thing I was thinking as I read things like “In marketable fiction…heroes need high status” was, how does this relate to BDSM and D/s fiction? (I, personally, prefer a high-status sub over one who acts with low status—as low status is represented by Steven James, not as we think of a sub having low status in the scene.)

Ana: I think a sub can still have high status while submitting, depending on how he goes about it.

Zoe: (In fact, reading his Status at a Glance chart, where he gives examples of low status and high status behavior, the low status column looked like all the ingredients for a bad D/s story for both the D and the s: arrogance, loss of control, crying or weeping often, etc.)

Ana: Seeing that chart I was wondering whether he suggested all protagonists only have the high status thingies. Going by that all my protagonists would end up the same. And another problem I had with protagonists always being high status was… what if growing to be a high status character was part of their character arc?

Kate: We’re once again running up against Mr. James’s preference for and greater experience with thriller and mystery stories in this section. I liked the chart, but more as a checklist against the possibility that my protagonist is being misrepresented by something I did, than as something I would use to build my character. I can see where he’s coming from, but there are all sorts of genre books out there where the character arc is at least as much about going from low to high status as it is about whatever other dilemma the character encounters.

Zoe: I think the status is about character attitude, how they handle themselves. If the character is going to grow to high status, that potential probably has to be foreshadowed with the character carrying himself in a high status manner—at least to some degree—early in the story. For instance, Katniss in The Hunger Games always carries herself with high status, even when she’s a peon.

Ana: I guess you’re right about foreshadowing it. I’ve written a character that was pretty low status at the beginning of a novel, but I made sure to give reasons for his behavior and show that he could (and would) grow early on.

Zoe: Yes, I think it’s that there has to be something about the protagonist—no matter who he is or where he’s at at the start of the story—that makes readers get a glimpse of why he’s The One, and not some other peon.

Kate: I thought his comment about flat characters was pretty good. The whole variation of status depending on who they’re in scene with.

Zoe: Yes, because real people adjust their demeanor based on who they’re talking to. Clueless characters don’t. We don’t really want to read about clueless characters. Those are characters who aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around them; they’re just serving the plot.

Kate: And punctuation. Amazing how a change in punctuation can change the effect of a bit of dialogue.

Ana: I want certain people on certain message boards to read that section. Might get them not to end every sentence with one, or multiple, exclamation marks.

Zoe: !!!

Kate: Interrobang for the win!? (Zoe says she lowered her status by three points with her exclamation points. I think I’m doomed.)

Ana: I think interrobangs get you down to zero. You should have your wings cut for that.

Kate: Aaaargh!!!!!! *dies*

Zoe: Does anyone else really want a question mark with a comma instead of a period below the curvy bit? For dialogue that takes place in the middle of a sentence. It looks so awkward continuing a sentence after a ?”

Kate: Is that a thing?

Zoe: I saw a picture on the internet. But I think its proposed use was other than I’m suggesting.

Kate: We should write a story with all the weird punctuation.

Zoe: Mine would be full of irony marks.

Kate: And did anyone else jump for joy when he talked about how word choice affects what the sentence is telling you? How often have you read books and thought, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” ?

Ana: Quite often. What this section reminded me of was reading reviews of books on Goodreads and reviewers complaining about certain word choices in the books. Like, giggling men. Apparently they’re not sexy.

Kate: I think drunken twinks can get away with it, if they’re the love interest. (And, dear heavens, I saw a video of Ben Wishaw dancing yesterday, and nearly died. Talk about drunken twinks…)

Zoe: The Pillsbury Doughboy giggles, and…it’s not that sexy, yeah.

Kate: But, man, use your thesaurus to tweak your story this way. There’s a huge difference between stride, stomp, and skulk. It paints an entirely different picture of what’s going on. And saves you a pile of words, because using a verb that carries a whole cartload of description within itself is like using an ordinary verb and adding a half-sentence of description in adjectives and adverbs. It’s like those extra five pounds we’re always talking about dropping, but it’s way easier in your manuscript.

Ana: And we all know the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Zoe: Yes! I twisted my ankle on one the last time I headed down there.

Ana: Stupid bird, you should have flown.

Kate: Yes, it’s a very bumpy road.

Zoe: My wings were at the cleaners.

Ana: Did you get them dirty?

Kate: Ana, that’s a dangerous question. She might tell us how they got dirty.

Zoe: My beak is sealed.

Ana: 🙁

Kate: I think I know who ate all the peanut butter out of my feeder now…

Zoe: *cough*

Kate: Next chapter, we’re talking about Attitude, which you can tell from our posts, we have none of.

3 thoughts on “Three Dirty Birds on Story Trumps Structure 21 — Character Status

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