I knew I was going to like Bob Mayer from the moment he opened his mouth at the 2020 Writers' Workshop. I really enjoyed all four workshops I attended, but I could have just skipped the other three and listened to Mr. Mayer all day long!
I suspect he's as much a character himself as any character he's ever conjured up in one of the over 80 books he's written. Born in the Bronx, a West Point graduate, former Green Beret, a New York Times best-selling author covering subjects like Area 51 and Atlantis, the Green Berets, military science fiction, and the civil war. If you're an author feeling the need for some instruction and guidance in your craft, check out Mr. Mayer's books on writing. If he writes like he talks, you're in for a fun read that will be packed with useful information. He even has a freebie on his website, the Writers Conference Guide, in which he advises you on how to prepare for and get the most out of these writing workshops. So check him out.
Mr. Mayer's talk, entitled Character: The People of Your Story, started off with a bang. Before he started talking to us about our story characters, he talked to us about us! Right off the bat he dissolved any tension in this room full of strangers by announcing that he knew full well we were all a bunch of introverts. And he also knew – because he apparently teaches at lots of these workshops and keeps seeing the same faces over and over – that if we wanted to make it as writers we just needed to get good at writing! And the only way to do that is to simply write! Everyday! And, YES, you can make a living with your writing, because he was doing that and if he could, then we could, too! And somebody sitting in that room that day was the next New York Times best-selling author! So no whining! Get to work!
And with that he launched into his lecture about developing the characters in a story:
What are their traits, needs and flaws?
And not just your protagonist, but your antagonist as well. What are their habits? What are their behavior patterns? He even suggested that we should learn the Myers-Brigs personality types, and recommended reading John Douglas' Mindhunter, a book about tracking serial killers! In a room full of fiction novelists that was probably pretty good advice. But I'm not so sure that would be good resource material for a picture book creator ... though it did sound interesting!
But his point was well taken: your characters need to be as believable as you can make them. And they need to be consistent throughout. If you portray them as one way at the beginning of the story, they will be that way throughout, unless something happens to them or within them to change them in some way and thus producing a character arc ... and there was that term again!
He stated it plainly: change produces character arc. And when you tell the story, it's best if you can show the change instead of merely telling the change. Let's use Han Solo again for an example.
When we meet him we get the impression that he's a bit of a scoundrel and an opportunist and pretty much just lives for himself. He hangs out with really shady types. He owes money to mobsters that he can't – or won't – pay back. And he's not above killing somebody else to save his own neck. The only reason he agrees to help Luke rescue Leia is because she's a Princess and he knows he'll get a reward. But he does help rescue her, so we find ourselves hoping that maybe ... just maybe ... he's changed ...
But, nope ... he gets his reward money and he's out of there! He's only interested in saving his own skin! And we sadly realize that our first impression of him was correct ... he's just a scoundrel and a low-life, only interested in saving his own hide. George Lucas did a great job of keeping this character consistent ... Han Solo is acting just like he should be acting. We're disappointed, because he was actually getting to be a little likeable. But, the truth is, he's still the scoundrel we first met.
A few scenes later the rebel forces are getting beaten badly. Just when it looks like there's going to be a very sad ending, guess who shows up ... our scoundrel! It's a big surprise to see him again ... and because of what Han does, the real hero, Luke Skywalker, now has an opportunity to fulfill his destiny ... to destroy the Death Star and win the day!
I know this is a movie and not a book, but it's a perfect example of what Mr. Mayden was discussing ... he said emotion is more important than logic. And to show the changes a character goes through, and don't just tell the changes.
George Lucas wrote the character, Han, perfectly ...
- We meet Han, and he truly is just a scoundrel. We don't think very highly of him.
- But, he does help Luke and Leia ... maybe he's not so bad after all. Our emotions toward him soften a bit. We let down our guard and get a bit hopeful about him.
- Then when he's needed most, he disappoints us. We were right all along! He's NO GOOD!! This time we just try to forget about him and turn our sympathies back to Luke, Leia and the overwhelmed rebel forces. How are they ever going to save the day?
- Then BOOM! Just in the nick of time, our scoundrel, Han, shows up and redeems himself! And in such an unexpected and surprising way!
And that's how you make a story great ... take your reader on an emotional roller coaster ride ... disgust, hope, disappointment, despair, surprise and then redemption! The character arc is when a character has either internal flaws or external obstacles he needs to overcome. For Han, the other characters supplied what he needed – friendship and connection – to help him realize his problem and this gave him the motivation to overcome his problem. At the end he's a changed man ... his character arc is complete!
Mr. Lucas brilliantly shows this to his viewers rather than telling them. No one has to explain that Han has changed ... Han shows us! And it's such a satisfying arc, because we were hoping all along that Han wasn't really such a self absorbed scoundrel who would desert his friends ... we wanted him to turn out to be a good guy. And when he completes that arc, it's so satisfying!
Even when writing stories for children we want to do the same things ... pull our readers into the story, create an emotional connection between them and the characters. Doesn't really matter how simple or how complex the story is ... either for very young children or for older children ... make them feel something. Make the reader cheer for that character who is facing seemingly insurmountable odds ... then surmount those odds and give the characters and the readers a terrific and satisfying ending ... and close that arc up all nice and neat!
Those are the books that become favorites ... and a favorite children's book is the one that will get read over and over and over ... and perhaps become a classic!