Are your characters motivated?

In my first college creative writing class, nearly every piece I turned in came back with the word unbelievable scribbled somewhere in the margins. It got to be so that that was the first thing I would look for when I got my papers back. It was incredibly frustrating. After all, I’m a fantasy writer. Doesn’t fantasy require some suspension of belief?

Well, yes. To a point. But here’s the thing that I didn’t entirely grasp at that point: unbelievable does not equal unrealistic. Fantasy is unrealistic by very nature. However, when you’re reading along in Harry Potter, does it ever occur to you to think it unbelievable that Hermione would conjure a swarm of golden birds to sic on Ron? No! Why? Because believability is based in world rules and character motivations, not similarity to reality.

Okay, that’s all well and good, but I was still pretty put out at my professor’s constant harping on the unbelievability of my characters. After all, I knew they had motivation to act the way they did. I knew exactly what was going on in their minds.

But he didn’t.

And there’s the problem I missed for a very long time. There are certain gaps that readers have to fill: the face of your dashing hero, the sleazy squeak of your villain’s voice, etc. But motivation should never be one of those gaps. No, you don’t have to be entirely truthful about it right away—misleading readers is part of the fun. But what your character does should always be accompanied by a why that is crystal clear to the reader.

This is definitely a point where critique groups come in handy. When your characters have been living inside your head for so long, it may seem painfully obvious to you why your characters are acting in a certain way, but your readers may be reading something completely different. You don’t want your readers to think your character is a murderous maniac when he’s really supposed to be failing miserably at being mean. (Yes, this was a recent point of confusion with one of my characters.)

Happy writing!

Critique Groups

I was a closet writer for years and years and years. In fact, it wasn’t until I was in college and taking a creative writing class that the idea occurred to me that I should ask someone else what they thought of my writing. It took another three years after that before I steeled my nerves and approached two friends about forming a critique group. Before long, we had named ourselves after the Norse goddesses of fate and were picking happily at each others’ work.

I was truly fortunate in falling into a superb writing group on my first try, and from my dear friends and fellow writers I learned a lot about what it takes to have a successful critique group:

1. Start with the good things. It gives the meeting a good feel from the start and makes the criticism go down a lot more smoothly.

2. Understand that you don’t have to take your group’s suggestions. That’s all they are: suggestions! You know your book better than they do, and there’s no way you can make everybody perfectly happy anyway. That being said, don’t be the pompous snob of the group who refuses to believe that there’s anything wrong with your work. You’ve got to strike a balance between being true to your work and learning from others’ responses.

3. On the flip side, don’t get your knickers in a twist when others don’t do as you suggest. It’s their work, and they have the right to do as they like with it. You’re there to offer feedback, not to write their books for them.

4. Don’t try to defend your work from others’ suggestions or explain why so. The beauty of a critique group is that you’re getting feedback from people who don’t have every aspect of your world living inside their head. If you explain everything you know, that spoils the untainted reader factor.

5. Have fun. Be friends. Don’t worry about wringing the greatest use out of every last second, or even every last minute. Take time to find out what’s new with your fellow writers. Get off-topic. Enjoy a rousing but ultimately useless discussion of how humans came to drink cow milk. Celebrate successes. Celebrate rejection.
Make the group as much about support as it is about criticism.

What are your experiences with writing groups? Anything you’ve learned that makes them work?