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Marginal Notes

Resolve to be Mean

It's resolution time. 2013 will be the year when you get up early, write three thousand words a day, and finally finish your novel. But if that's what you said last year, and the year before that, maybe you're trying to bully yourself into writing when what you need is to understand why you're not.

A lot of my clients come to me frustrated, confused, and generally stuck because something's wrong with their manuscript, but they can't see what it is. Nothing makes it harder to dive into the WIP than a vague sense that it's not going anywhere. Willpower just won't work.

The most common reason my clients get stuck is that they are too nice to their main characters. It's a natural mistake, but it's nearly impossible to spot unless you're looking for it. Even if you know that a good story needs conflict and think you've given your hero or heroine challenges to overcome, your love for your characters may still be their downfall (and yours).

I've seen a lot of manuscripts where the conflicts were all on the surface. The hero or heroine had to choose between two possible soul-mates who were both attractive in their own way. Major financial worries disappeared after a sudden inheritance. Misunderstandings cleared up after coincidentally overheard conversations.

Even if your characters genuinely suffer, does it leave marks? The woman who was abandoned as a child shouldn't find it easy to form loving, trusting relationships. The man who saw the horrors of war can't settle down happily in suburbia. Lasting psychological damage does make characters less likable - irrationally angry or distrustful. But an active subconscious gives your characters depth that in the end makes them even more sympathetic.

Make sure your hero or heroine didn't win because the villain pulled some boneheaded move - imagining your story, beginning to end, from the antagonist's point of view is a good way to avoid this. One of the joys of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe stories is that everyone around Wolfe is smart, not just the criminals but the other detectives -- Inspector Cramer and Dol Bonner both had books of their own. So it's that much more remarkable when Wolfe turns out to be even smarter.

In the end, you've got to be tough. Stephen King routinely does things to his characters that, in real life, would get him hauled before a war crimes tribunal. But after more than four decades, he's still writing books that are hard to put down. If you can learn to be just as rough on your characters, you may find that you have to keep writing just to see if they survive, no resolutions needed.