Monday, January 27, 2014

Wordcraft -- Goals: show us those ruby slippers!

Last Monday I mentioned a not too secret tip for fleshing out characters in fiction through their relationships. Over this past weekend, suspense author Hallie Ephron taught me--okay, me and a couple hundred other people at Saturday’s meeting of the Dallas Area Romance Authors (DARA) more ways to take our characters to new heights.

The daughter of screenwriters, sister of three other writers, including the late Nora Ephron, she insists she’s a late bloomer as a writer, having had a first career as a teacher. But after co-writing a mystery series, she struck out on her own with 2009’s Never Tell A Lie. It became a finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark mystery award, and Ephron hasn’t looked back.

And to the question of which is more important in genre fiction, plot or character, her answer is, both. “You can’t have story without character and you can’t have a character who doesn’t do anything.”

High on her list of “must-haves” for page-turning novels like hers are “characters the reader cares about--a main character who is intriguing, is someone we haven’t met before, and not clichéd. . . It is critical in suspense that the reader is able to identify with the main character, but it shouldn’t be a homogenous character. He needs a past with something bad in it that he’s trying to get right, this time.”

That something he (or she) wants to get right is a goal. And like good New Year’s resolutions, that goal needs to be concrete and specific.

Enter the “ruby slippers,” Ephron’s term for tangible symbols of a character’s goal.

In our writing exercises she repeatedly batted down, the in the nicest possible way,
authors’ attempts to define character goals in abstract terms. “You don’t want a book where what the character wants is, for instance, ‘safety.’’ The goal must be personified, she insisted. And although not all stories lend themselves to the device, “it’s great to have a physical embodiment, something loaded with emotion,” to symbolize the character’s goal.

Coming from a family of screenwriters, she chose an illustration from the movie, The Wizard of Oz, the story of young girl Dorothy, swept into the land of Oz, who longs to return home. To accomplish that, she needs the pair of magical ruby slippers worn by the story’s villain, the Wicked Witch.

The ruby slippers become the tangible symbol of Dorothy’s goal of returning home. And also of the witch’s ability to thwart Dorothy by keeping control of the slippers.

Similar rules apply if the character’s goal is family, a good name, freedom, even love, all, if possible, embodied in a tangible symbol which the character longs to keep or find, and the character’s antagonist also covets and has to power to steal or destroy. The symbol can be a person, Ephron concedes, as long as it isn’t the character herself.

In her own work, Ephron cites an example from Never Tell a Lie, her breakout book. 
“My character wears around her neck a charm her grandmother gave her. That becomes the thing that the person who wants her baby takes from her.”

For more about Ephron, her books and her writing classes, see

And while you’re at it, join me in meditating on a symbol for what your characters most long for.

(Next Monday -- More about suspense writing? Or local mystery writers’ lunch with Dallas Morning News columnist, book reviewer and editor Joy Tipping? I’m still weighing the possibilities.)

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