Thursday, April 25, 2019

In The Beginning...

Running a bit late with this today.  Sorry.

So, I’m wading into a new book this month, and I figured... well, that’s probably a great time to talk about getting started and the draft process.

Of course, right off the bat... did I really start it this month?  I mean, sure, about two weeks ago I sat down and started actively working on an outline for it.  But the truth is, this is actually the second outline.  I first pitched it to my agent almost two years ago (and then again to my editor that summer).  They both said (and eventually, I agreed) that it needed some more work.

And, really, the bare idea came almost a year before that.  Back in early 2016, if memory serves.  I know I talked with another author, Kristi Charish, about one aspect of it back then, to get her thoughts and expertise on parts of it.

When do we “start” writing?  When does it count?  Is it when we first start thinking about a project?  When we actually make some notes or an outline?  Or is it not until I write VAMPIRE KAIJU: BOOK ONE by Peter Clines   CHAPTER ONE...?

I think that’s worth mentioning, because whenever I see someone talking about writing a book in five weeks or two months or whatever, I always wonder what they’re counting.  A finished, polished manuscript?  Just the first draft?  Are they counting the time they spent outlining, or that they started mulling it over months—maybe years—in advance?

Paradox Bound came out in 2017, but I pitched it to my editor and wrote up a first rough outline back in 2013.  And Dead Moon, my new one that just came out on Valentine’s Day?  My very first stab at that actually happened back in 2011, right after I finished writing Ex-Patriots.  Yeah, it was a different book back then, but still... when I sat down to “start” writing it in 2017, I already had about 30,000 words done.

So how long did they take to write...?

Again, just think about that the next time you see someone say they wrote something in a short amount of time.  Or in a very long amount of time.  We all have our own thoughts about what counts as starting and stopping points.

Anyway...

At the risk of sounding arrogant, let me walk you through my process.  Well, more of a quick stroll, really.  I’ve talked about a lot of this before (so I’ll add a lot of links), and I don’t want to bore you with it since... well, odds are you won’t be doing things this way.

No, seriously, you won’t.  The process I use is pretty much unique to me.  And the process you use is unique to you—even if maybe you haven’t figured it out yet.  Or you’re in the process of evolving from one process to another.  I’m just showing off mine to maybe spark some thoughts and help you think about such things.

So... let’s get started.

All of this always starts with an idea.  Maybe you’re the type who writes them down, maybe you keep it in your head for a while.  I’m 50-50 on it.  If an idea really sings in my head right at the start, in any sort of way, I always write it down.  But some I mull over for a while.  I let them ferment in my brain, see if they grow a little or get a better shape.

Eventually all these notes come together in some form of rough outline.  I think we all do some kind of outline.  Even the most random of road trips starts with, at the bare minimum, “let’s head west.”  Maybe it’s just a page or two of those rough notes.  Maybe it’s an extensive beat sheet.  It might be a huge stack of color-coded index cards.  This stage is really going to come down to “whatever works for you.”  The outline I just finished up for this project is twelve pages, with another two page document about the characters, but that’s just me.

And now, I guess, we’re ready to “start” writing.

My first drafts are big, messy things.  I write a lot, but I also skip a lot of things.  The only goal with a first draft is to get it done.  Nothing else matters.  Not punctuation, not spelling, not finding the exact right word or crafting the perfect cool line to end that chapter on.  These things’ll matter eventually, but right now... I just want to finish this draft.

NaNoWriMo is really all about this.  It’s pushing yourself to just focus on finishing a first draft, rather than slowing down to worry about individual scenes and chapters.  If you’re especially determined (or masochistic) you could try the 3 Day Novel contest.  My partner’s done it a few times now and... well, I just try to keep her supplied with coffee and stay out of her way.

Once I’ve got this done, I dive into my second draft.  This is me in clean-up mode.  All the stuff I skipped gets filled in.  Sentences I never finished, incomplete descriptions, the places where I had to look up a certain place or name and for now it’s just ######### or [ADD BIG FIGHT HERE] or [MAKE THIS NOT SUCK SO MUCH!!!]

I also take a good look at the things I skipped.  Why didn’t I write it earlier?  Could I not come up with anything to go between these two elements?  Was I just not interested in writing that bit? If I’m not interested in writing it, people probably aren’t going to be interested in reading it.  This might tighten things up right here.

For me. the goal with this draft is to end up with a solid, readable manuscript.  Someone should be able to go to page one to page 500 and never hit any weird gaps or confusing typos or anything else that immediately kills the flow.

Third draft is editing.  I go through the whole manuscript line by line.  I check all my spelling.  I look for repetition and redundancy.  I cut a lot of excess words here.  Thousands of words, usually.  This involves a bunch of passes, the last one to make sure all this random cutting and tweaking hasn’t created any new hiccups.

When I’m all done with this—which can take a week or so—I try to get it in front of a few people I trust.  My partner.  Old friends who've ended up in the storytelling line of work.  People who’ve heard me talk about it and people who don’t know a thing about it.  The important thing is they’re all going to give me honest thoughts and opinions.  Which may sting sometimes, but will be much more useful.

Once I have all these notes from folks, I start my fourth draft.  Now I’m going through all these copies one line at a time, taking notes of my own and implementing changes where they’re needed.  How many people liked this bit?  How many didn’t like that one?  Whoops, guess I missed a comma there.  Now, having been away from this for a month or so while other folks were reading it, that line’s really dumb, isn’t it? Did I actually think that was deep and clever at some point?

This takes at least a week. Often more.  I’m simultaneously reading three or four copies of the book line by line, getting everyone’s thoughts and takes on it.  Weighing their thoughts against my own and each others.  Sometimes it goes fast, other times... it’s really slow.

And this eventually, finally brings us to the fifth draft.  This is me going through the whole thing again to make sure those fourth draft edits didn’t leave anything hanging or tweak a key point.  Just a nice, slow read-through.

One thing I like to do at this point is switch the whole thing into another font.  If I’ve been writing in Times New Roman, I switch it all over to Courier New.  If you’ve been doing that Comic Sans thing, hey, you needed to switch anyway.  When I do this, it makes everything sit differently on the page.  The words look different.  And suddenly passages I’ve been glossing over (after going through this a dozen times) are fresh and new.

And at this point... I wrap it up.  I think it’s important to just say “done” and move on to new projects, or else you can get stuck in an endless trap of rewriting again and again.  After all these rewrites and edits, there’s not much else I can do.

So that’s my process, beginning to end, in a nutshell.

Hey, what do you want?  I just started a new book.  I’ve got work to do.

Speaking of which... next time, I’d like to talk to you a bit about that guy across the street who just said the weirdest thing to me.  See him right over... where did he go?

Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Kondo Method

This one may ramble a bit.  Apologies in advance.

An idea struck me the other day, and I realized I haven’t talked about it here in a while so I thought I’d go over it again.  And, as usual, the best way to do that is with a story.

I talked last summer about moving and gettiing rid of a ton of old Warhammer figures.  I’d built and painted a lot of them.  Some of them were classic figs from twenty-odd years ago.  A few of them were honestly kind of beautiful, in their own way.  A couple were still sealed in the original package.

But, after a surprising amount of soul-searching, I finally just had to admit I was never going to play with these models again on the battlefield.  Or display them in any sort of cool way.  I was keeping them... just to keep them.  Because they were classics and that’s it.  Heck, I’d guess at least a third of them were for armies I didn’t even play anymore.  They were just cluttering up my shelves, and had been for years.  A couple of them for decades.

So I saved a few, maybe six or seven, that I thought I may use someday.  Or just really liked a lot.  The rest... got traded in for store credit.

But here’s the thing.  With them gone, my shelves became a lot cleaner and neater.  And I got a lot better with my hobby time.  I could find things much faster, which meant I was getting more done.   It sounds really straightforward, but getting rid of my the clutter that wasn’t doing anything made my hobby much better.

I think this holds for stories, too.  As writers, we like to think the only limit is our imaginations.  But we’re still dealing with other restrictions.  The size of my manuscript.  The size of my cast of characters.  The patience of my readers. If someone’s going to take up space in my story, there needs to be a reason for them to be there.

An example I’ve given before is Guido, the super-strong mutant from X-Factor.  Guido was a fun-loving, John Lennon-sunglasses-wearing guy who made the “gorilla body” physique popular years before Luther in The Umbrella Academy.  Also, as I understand it, now he’s dead and one of the lords of Hell or something like that, because who wants fun-loving characters around when we could have drama, right? Or maybe he’s alive again.  I lost track.

Anyway...

When Guido made his debut with X-Factor at a press conference, one of the reporters called out “He must be the strong guy!  Every group’s got a strong guy!”  Which led Guido to start calling himself Strong Guy from that point on, but also drew attention to the point that... well, yeah.  Every group does have a strong guy.  Because in the stories most superhero comics lean towards, a strong guy is very handy to have around.  There’s a reason to have them on the team and in the story.

In stories, we sometimes end up with characters that don’t serve a purpose.  Perhaps they’ve got a fantastic voice or a really clever description.  Maybe they’re a kind of character that doesn’t get seen a lot.  Maybe I came up with the idea for them in the shower and just really like how they turned out.

But if they’re not really doing anything to advance the plot or the story... I should probably get rid of them.

Before anyone goes nuts, I admit this is a bit of a broad statement.  There are going to be lots of characters in any story, and some of them are going to have a minimal-at-best effect on the outcome.  The guy serving our food.  That woman guarding the armory.  The fourth person to die in the battle.

Thing is, though, I shouldn’t be putting a lot of effort into someone who isn’t actually going to be doing anything.  All my characters should be propelling the plot and/ or story forward.  If they’re just standing around not really doing much... well, why would I spend a lot of effort on them?  Why give them a name and a backstory and a detailed physical description if all they’re going to do is walk up to the table and drop off three drinks?

This brings me nicely to a potential exception to this statement.  Sometimes we just run into someone interesting.  That one person who stands out because of their wild wardrobe or random pearls of wisdom or... heck, I don’t know, maybe they’re just funny and flirting a lot.  It’s not that uncommon to have this sort of chance, memorable encounter.  Think of the bit player in a movie who stands out in a scene just as much as the main character. Sure they exist, and we all love to encounter them in a story.  Sometimes the reason to be there can just be “this is really cool.”

However...

If I’ve got three or four or more characters like this, that’s starting to really cut into my page count.  At just three or four pages per encounter, that’s twelve or sixteen pages of my manuscript that have nothing to do with my story.  It adds up quick.  This is me deciding I’ll keep a few of those little toy soldiers, but just the special ones, and the ones that look good, and the ones that have fond memories, and the rare ones,  and suddenly I’ve put a hundred of them back on the shelf.

If I’m one of those writers who tries to make every single character special... well, there’s a good chance people are going to start getting frustrated with my lack of focus.

Y’see, Timmy, it keeps coming back to that idea of clutter.  Things getting in the way and slowing us down.  It’s okay to a small extent, but once it hits a certain point... we just have to stop everything.  And the people we’re trying to impress with it...  they’ll probably get annoyed with me.  Or flee in terror and call one of those hoarders shows.  Or the literary equivalent of one, I guess.

I may have some of the coolest, rarest, most beautiful characters out there.  But if they’re not really doing anything, I should maybe at least consider getting rid of them.

Speaking of which, next time...

Well, I’m starting a new book, and we haven’t talked about that whole process in a while.  So maybe I’ll talk a bit about drafts.  Unless one of you has something else you’d rather hear about?

Until then... go write.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

POV

Well, it was fun taking March off, but now I’m back to work on a new project.  Working on a new outline.  And buffing a few rough edges off the thing I turned in back in February.

Of course, I’m still making time for the ranty blog.  And for drunken movie critiques on Saturdays.  It’s all an important part of the process.  Trust me.

Speaking of seeing things my way, I realized I haven’t talked about points of view in a while.  I’ve mentioned it here and there, but I don’t think I’ve focused on it in... a couple of years?  It’s about time to bring it up again.

Point of view is one of those things we all learned about in seventh or eighth grade and kind of memory-dumped once we passed that test.  It’s really important if you’re a writer (or a high school English teacher), but for everyone else it’s...

Well, it’s kinda irrelevant, to be honest.  I think most non-writer/schoolteacher folks have only the barest idea of how point of view works.  And there’s a pile of evidence that says they don’t really care if it doesn’t.  Yeah, sad but true.  All too many people won’t notice if my book has some major POV issues.

BUT...

That doesn’t mean we, as professional and aspiring writers, shouldn’t care about getting it right.  I mean, most people can’t tell you the difference between an alligator and a crocodile.  Doesn’t mean the difference isn’t there.  And if I want to be taken seriously as a herpetologist—especially in the overall herpetology industry and community—I should probably learn what that difference is.  And what using them means for my story.

Points of view.  Not crocodiles.  Using crocodiles in my story... well, okay, it really depends on the context and the genre.

Anyway...

If I’m going to take this whole being-a-writer thing seriously, I need to understand how the different points of view work so I can use them without confusing (or frustrating) my readers.  A lot of otherwise good stories I see get derailed by an irregular point of view... or by a complete lack of one.  They’ll just jump from character X to character Y to an omniscient point of view to Z’s journal.  Which means, as a reader, I’m constantly getting knocked out of the story as I try to figure out what angle I’m seeing things from.

So let’s talk about these a bit...

First person is when the narrator is a character in the story.  Usually (but not always) they’re the main character.  Everything I see or read in the story is filtered through this character.  I see what she sees, hear what she hears, feel what she feels, know what she knows.

On the plus side, first person can feel very easy and freeing to write.  I just get myself in character and go.  It’s great for lots of little train-of-thought sidebars and segues.  It’s also easier to build a connection with the reader, because I’m speaking directly to them with/through this character. 

On the downside... well, it’s all filtered through my character.  I don’t know what’s going on in that other room or Meanwhile, back in Washington or any of that.  Everything rests on this one character.  They’re our window into the story, and if they’re not a very clear or open window... well...

That makes me think of another point that’s probably worth mentioning.  In a first person story I’m getting access to all the narrator’s thoughts.  I know what they know, realize what they realize, and so on.  I mention it because this means I have to be very careful with any sort of reveal or twist.  About how I structure a lot of stuff in my story, really.  If I’m going to bring readers inside my character’s head, my character can’t suddenly decide not to think about something just because it makes things more dramatic.  Sure, if you ask me a question I can give you a vague answer out loud, but I guarantee you that in my head I’m thinking of the exact, precise answer.  When I see a giant crocodile in a clown suit, I don’t think “but then I saw something far beyond my wildest nightmares, which I will detail after the chapter break.”   I just think “oh holy $@#% crocodile clown!!  RUN!!” 

First person’s become fairly popular over the past decade or so, especially in YA fiction.  I’m just pulling numbers out of the air here, but I’d guess anywhere from a third to maybe even half of the books you’ll stumble across these days use a first person POV.

Second person is very rarely used, but I’ve seen it done once or thrice so I think it’s  worth touching on.  This point of view makes you, the reader, the main character and the writer projects all the action and emotion onto you.  “You walk across the parking lot and a feeling of unease begins to creep up your spine.  You hear a sudden noise and bolt for the shop door!” 

Plus side, second person is immediately personal for the reader.  I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  These things are happening to you, which makes it a bit easier to get invested.

Down side is that I’ve dragged the reader into the story and made them part of it.  I’m taking control of them, which means I’ve robbed my protagonist of their agency.  You’re going to do these things and feel like this and react like this.  If you’ve ever played D&D (or any RPG) where the dungeon master just takes control of the whole game, it’s a lot like that.

Second person requires an incredible level of empathy.  I need to know exactly how my readers are going to react as the story progresses so it will feel natural for them.  If I can pull it off, though, it can make for a truly amazing experience.  I highly recommend the Welcome to Night Vale episode “A Story About You” if you want a great example.

And this brings us to third person. It’s an independent, non-involved telling of the events of the story.  In a third person story, the reader (and the narrator) are just spectators.  Think of a television show or movie—we’re “there” but we’re also outside of the events, looking in at them.

Now, third person breaks down a couple different ways.  You may have heard of third person omniscient.  This is when I, as the writer, give the readers access to everything.  We see everyone’s actions.  We hear everyone’s thoughts.  We get everyone’s reactions, even the hidden, internal ones.  We can start here in the diner booth, going back and forth between the young couple on their first date, then leap into the server’s head to see his horrified reaction to their awkward displays of affection, and then drift over to the short order cook who’s secretly a serial killer and is debating which one of them he’s going to murder first.

Hey, these things happen.

Third person omniscient is great because it lets me dump everything.  I get to show every action, reaction, motivation, reflective character moment, all of it.  It lets me cover every base and round out every character.

The downside to third person omniscient is... well, I’m showing everything to my readers.  And one of the major aspects of storytelling is concealing things from them.  Deciding exactly when this gets revealed, that gets seen, this gets realized.  If I’m inherently showing everything, then it’s going to be clear—maybe awkwardly clear—when I’m deciding not to show something. It’s like trying to do a striptease when you’re already naked.  It can still be fun and sexy, but it’s also going to be painfully apparent what your hands are blocking.

Now, there’s also third person limited.   This is when my story keeps the reader as a spectator but I’m much more selective about what they see.  I may decide we’re only going to focus on Yakko and his thoughts.  Think of it as seeing over his shoulder.  Or perhaps I’ll only let the reader see actions but not get access to what any of the characters are thinking.

Third person limited can strike a nice balance between getting my readers invested, because I can get very close to a character, but still restricting what I’m showing them.  It works well for almost any kind of story or genre.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s still the most common point of view for fiction, even with the rise of first person stories that I mentioned up above.

The trick with third person limited is I can see these certain things very clearly, but not other things.  It’s a little bit like first person in that sense.  I’ve chosen to limit things to this one character, whether I’m inside their head or outside of it.  So my story needs to depend a lot on what they experience, not what’s happening to other people in other places.

Hopefully it’s clear that point of view is a big part of storytelling.  It’s going to affect how my narrative unfolds.  It’ll also determine which things I can tell you or explain during the course of the story.  If I have an inconsistent point of view, it’s going to be jarring and break the flow of my story.  If I’ve chosen the wrong point of view, things may come crashing down around me right from the start.

Whoa, whoa, WHOA!  The wrong point of view, you say.  How can there be a wrong point of view?  Sure, it may change the story a bit one way or another, but how can the point of view be wrong?  It’s just an arbitrary decision I make about how I’m going to tell my story, right?

Well... consider this.

Let’s say I’ve decided to write a mystery novel in third person omniscient. In fact, let’s say it’s that little diner scene I mentioned up above.  So here’s our first chapter with Dot and Phoebe out on their date.  Dot’s thinking about first kisses, Phoebe’s thinking of morning-afters.  Here’s their server who was raised a bit too conservative and can’t stop himself from inwardly cringing at two women clearly out on a date, even though he’s trying to be more open and accepting.  And over there, looking out from the kitchen, is Wakko the short order cook, who’s thinking about Phoebe and Dot and—

No, wait.  Hang on.  We can’t see what he’s thinking.  That’ll kinda kill the mystery aspect of this, won’t it?

Okay, so we’ll just never peek inside Wakko’s head.  Of course, any mystery fan is going to wonder why we’re seeing inside everyone’s head except his, and they’re probably going to assume (pretty quickly) it’s because he’s the killer.  And they’ll be right.  In which case my mystery has faceplanted pretty early on.

Of course, I could just decide to see inside Wakko’s head from the start, but now this isn’t a mystery.  If we know he’s the killer from the start, this is more of a thriller.  And it’s a tricky one, because now the investigators searching for Dot’s killer (yeah, sorry, he went after Dot) are going to be playing catch-up with the readers for the whole book.  We’ve know it’s Wakko since chapter one, after all.

So, choosing the right point of view is important in a story.  At best, the wrong one can mean a lot of extra work.  At worst... it means I might do a lot of work and then discover I’ve written myself into a corner.

Another important thing to remember is that my point of view needs to be consistent.  If ninety-five percent of my book is focused on Phoebe and her thoughts and her actions and what she sees, it’s going to be very jarring on page 324 when the narrative suddenly jumps into Wakko’s head for a few paragraphs.  If I switch viewpoints five or six times in the same chapter, it can get confusing real fast. Likewise, we can’t start over Wakko’s shoulder and then driiiiiiiiiiiiiift over so we’re suddenly looking over Dot’s.

Now, this isn’t to say we can’t change point of view in a story.   It’s cool to switch POV and there’s nothing wrong with it.  My Ex-Heroes series regularly switches between third person points of view in the present, and goes into first person for flashback chapters.  But I’m also very, very clear when I’m doing this. 

Think of it this way.  Whatever POV I choose, it’s kinda like looking through a pair of binoculars.  I can see this.  But if I suddenly whip the binoculars over to look at that... well, it takes a couple of minutes.  I need to find that, focus on it.  And if I didn’t know that shift was coming—or that it even happened—imagine how disorienting it would be.  What am I looking at now?  Am I seeing it from a different angle?  Is this even the same pair of binoculars?  I need to make it clear to my readers this shift has happened. If they abruptly start seeing things from new angles or hearing new pronouns, they’re going to go back to figure out when things changed.  Which means they’re not moving forward with the story anymore. 

And that’s never a good thing.

And this concludes my  not-so-quick overview of different viewpoints.
 
Next time, I’d like to talk about Guido a bit.  No, not downtown Guido.  The guy from X-Factor.

Until then, go write.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Shadow Agency

This week—requests are granted!

Also, as you may have noticed, the majority of responses I got in comments/ tweets/ DMs/ etc were in favor of the new layout, so I’m going to stick with it for now.

A few weeks back someone asked about characters.  How do I get a sense of who they are.  How do I make sure when they do something it’s what they’d do instead of just what the plot (and by extension—I ) want them to do?

Okay, these are two related-but-different questions.  Let’s look at each of them on their own, then figure out that relationship-overlap.  Which I think is what we’re aiming for with this request.

Also, because there’s a lot to unpack here, expect a lot of links to previous posts.  I don’t want to bury you in too much rehashed stuff.  You’re here for exciting hot takes on the art of writing, yes?

First off, how do I get a sense of who my characters are as individuals?  What makes them unique?  What makes them stand out?

One thing would be their general backstory and personal preferences.  If I’ve got a character—especially one of my main characters or important supporting ones—I should know a lot about them.  And I’m talking about me, the author.  For almost all of my characters, there are things I know about them that never make it into the books.  Maybe it’s about their relationship with their parents, their worst class in school, or their favorite bands.  It can be games they play, people they’ve slept with, or their first car.  A lot of this sounds like weird stuff, yeah, but all of this says a little something about who someone is, which means it’s going to affect how they react to the world around them.

There’s also their voice.  The way people phrase things and the words they choose.  Their background will have an effect on how they act, and it’s also going to effect how they talk. This is one of the easiest ways to make characters distinct on the page (or in an audiobook).

Also, I could think about how people react to this character.  Do folks wince at the sound of Dot’s voice?  Do they instinctively lean away from Wakko?  Do they lean toward Phoebe?  And are people right to react this way, or is it because they know something else that we don’t?

All of this should give me a really good sense of who my character is.  Again—I probably won’t use all of it.  I may never see Yakko stumbling through a date or listening to music or reminiscing about his old VW Bug.  But these are all the little elements that help move a character from a basic stereotype and into actual, memorable person-hood.

Okay, the second part of all this is about these characters making decisions. 

There’s a term you may have heard around the interwebs called agency.  It first appeared back in the 1700s, when people were having Enlightening discussions about philosophy and sociology.  At its simplest, agency refers to free will.  Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world they exist in restrict that ability to make choices?  If I can’t travel alone, vote, or choose who to love... do I have free will, or just the appearance of free will?  Do people in prison have free will?  Free will may have gotten them there—or maybe the conditions forced on them by society did—but now they have almost no freedom to make choices at all, so...?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?

Anyway, that’s all heavy stuff.  It’s a little different (and easier) for us when we’re talking about agency in a literary sense. Fictional entities don’t have free will because they’re... well, they don’t actually exist.  But as a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are real people who are having an actual affect on the world around them.  They need to do things, and these things need to matter.

If cowards are suddenly going to leap forward and be brave, there should be a clear reason.  If a cold person falls madly in love, we should understand why and how.  If someone decides to open the spooky mystery box after it’s killed half their friends... well, we should be with them on this, even if we don’t like it.

Yeah, sure, it’s possible to make inconsistent decisions or choices that move the plot forward.  We’ve all seen it happen.  The wonderful A. Lee Martinez (he of the Constance Verity books and the Save The Movies podcast) came up with plot zombie a little while ago to explain this.  It’s when characters are only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed or established character traits.
           
This is, just to be clear, a bad thing.

Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They need to make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.    And the results of these choices should have a real affect on how the story plays out. 

Because if they’re not... Well, then they’re not really doing anything. They’re just empty puppets.  Not even the good kind of puppets.  They’re just sock puppets that I’m using to try to convince my readers this is a real story. 

So make your characters do things.  In character.

Next time, I’d like to look at some things from a different angle.

Until then, go write.