It was writing advice I got at a conference once. People are selfish. It's true. Even the most seemingly selfless people are receiving a personal reward for their selfless deeds. People donate money for a tax break, or to make-up for some bad karma, or because they like the feeling they get when they help people less fortunate. No one does something for nothing, which is something you need to fulfill in your characters if you want to keep them out of the "Mary Sue" trap.
Motivation is what makes a story. Let's look at Hunger Games. There are a multitude of reasons why Katniss could volunteer to compete. She could have been a thrill-seeker, or could have volunteered so she could get into the Capitol and enact her own plot for revenge, or she could have been in it for the money. I doubt any of these reasons would make us like Katniss the way we do, but even volunteering for her sister is because of her personal wants. She can't sit back and watch her sister die. She would rather sacrifice herself than lose another beloved family member.
From there on out, the reasons for her actions are very clear. She wants to ensure her survival so she can go back to her sister. Even partnering with Rue serves a purpose to Katniss. She needs help to destroy the others' food supplies, and Rue reminds her of her little sister, Prim. She offers Katniss comfort in an unfamiliar place.
The major plot of the novel isn't getting revenge against the Capitol. It's Katniss struggling with her own wants. She wants to survive, to get back to her family. But she doesn't want to sacrifice all of her morals to do it. Two selfish wants butting heads gives us the drama that made this a best-seller.
In your own writing, stop at pivotal points and ask yourself, "Why is my character doing this?" If the answer is that you're forcing him to do it, or you need him to do it for the sake of the plot, you have to do much, much better than that. Even with your secondary characters. Why does Peeta join forces with the Ones and Twos? Because he wants to protect Katniss. Because he loves her.
Need help? Try writing a scene from one of your secondary character's point of view? How different would the Hunger Games be if Peeta had told the story? Or Prim? Or Gale?
Sometimes I forget how much of a sci-fi nerd I am until I start talking to other people about my writing projects. My latest features a cyborg. I was explaining this to a group of writers, and one of them asked, "So it's part human?"
I looked at her like she'd just asked me if I had two eyes.
Of course a cyborg is part human. That's what a cyborg is! But at that point I realized not everyone is as nerdy as I am, and also, general media uses these terms interchangeably and often, incorrectly, so here are the very basic breakdowns.
Cyborg: a being that is both manufactured and organic. One of my favorite examples...Darth Vader. He is a cyborg. Part man. Part machine. Technically, so is an old guy with a pacemaker. Think about that for a second.
Android: an android is a completely mechanical being made to look and act like a human. Because I am such a dork, and I use Star Wars repeatedly for my examples, think C-3PO.
Robot: a completely mechanical entity that may or may not look human. Ie, an android is a robot, but a robot is not always an android. For my last Star Wars example, our little R2D2 is a robot, but not an android, so calling it a droid is technically incorrect assuming that's short for android. (But we'll forgive George Lucas for his genius.)
I apologize for the radio silence. I haven't had much to say because I've actually been fulfilling my resolutions. Yes, I am as surprised as anyone, and also not surprised. I'm good at buckling down and getting things done. My problem is getting started. But once I am started, I'm able to keep up the momentum. I've lost 7 pounds AND I'm 50,000 words into the rewrite of the %&*$*@#! manuscript that isn't as ^&*(!@*#! as it was in the first version. I'm actually coming up with some decent stuff.
I'm sure when I get into the editing phase, I'll have lots of fun stuff to post about editing because I usually pull those posts from my own, horrible mistakes. But just going through a few pages I noticed one blatant error that keeps coming up.
It's everywhere. In places where a comma should never be. Where there shouldn't even be a pause. My little ring finger just keeps tap-tap-tapping away at it so my manuscript looks like it has a million little tails. And I can't seem to make myself stop. In my editing phase, I'll go through and delete a hundred of them, and in the second pass, a hundred more. I know when and where commas should be, but when I'm pumping out words, I seem to forget.
That's my worst habit, and I don't see stopping any time soon.
But what's yours? Are you a comma-fiend like me or do you have some other twisted addiction?
At the start of every year I always say, "This is going to be the year I sell a book." Except this year, I'm not saying it. Sadly, I've found the journey to publication is not something I can plan, (which upsets me more than you can imagine because I plan EVERYTHING.) But perhaps this is a good exercise in learning some things are not in my control. It will happen when it happens. Maybe not this year, not the next year...hopefully some time before I die. My writing goal for this year instead is to finish the %&^(*#&! book I've been working on since April (I had to put it on hold to do some edits), and write another thriller brainstormed by my new agent. Those are things I CAN control.
There is something else I can control....my weight. Sort of. I haven't been doing a very good job of it in the past couple of years unless you consider seeing how fat I can get and still cram into my jeans a method of "control." But I've reached the point where there is more hanging out of my jeans than actually going in.
I used my two weeks off for the holidays to eat and drink as much as possible, a last "hurrah," so-to-speak. The goal was to become so sick and disgusted with myself that I would actually eat better and exercise in the New Year. It appears to be working. I ate a celery stick yesterday (and enjoyed it) and got up before sunrise to go to the gym today.
I know. I know. Everyone is all motivated in January and then by February they're in sweatpants, shoving their face full of Cheetos while they watch a Biggest Loser marathon. I'm not saying I won't be that person, but I'm trying to stay positive. I managed to lose 40 pounds the year of my wedding. (That I put back on with a steady diet of junk food and beer.) But now, I'm older and more concerned with my health and energy. I'm hoping it will stick. My goal is to be back in my sexy, black, backless bathing suit by summer. Wish me luck!
There is an emotional upheaval that happens when you receive a list of edits from your Beta Reader/Agent/Editor.
First Reaction: No, no way. What is she thinking? I can't make these changes. That will alter the ENTIRE story. Does she even get me and my work? No, just no.
Then you walk away.
And you do something else for a few days. Bake cookies, ride a bike, watch a movie, have game night with friends...anything but writing. And while you're playing Scrabble, those editorial suggestions are brewing in your head. You're pulling apart the pieces of your story, updating names, changing settings and you're seeing how you CAN turn your contemporary romance into an historical romance and write it from your secondary character's POV. Because making edits is problem solving. And my favorite part about writing is solving problems.
So I end up making the changes, and for the most part, when I'm done, I love my manuscript 100 times more. I know this for a fact. So I'd like to say I've found a way to eliminate the grumbling, complaining, swearing phase out of the editing process, but I haven't. I still need that. But what I have done is left myself open to, "yes."
You want me to take the sci-fi element out of my thriller? Sure! I should cut the love triangle? Why not? You want me to write this in third person? You know, I was thinking about doing that myself.
No matter what the change is I say, "Yes." Because at least then I'll try it. Sometimes I'll rewrite a few pages in third person and see right away that it isn't working. But I wouldn't have known that if I'd said, "No," right away. I can always go back to the original if I don't like something. That's why everyone uses that annoying track changes feature.
For a writing exercise, give it a shot. Take the most eye-roll inducing, annoying suggestion you've ever gotten on a manuscript and make it. Even if it turns out terribly, it could be good for a laugh.