Category Archives: characters

Setups, Flawed Characters, Ginger or Maryann?

Last night I finally got my files uploaded for the print version. They’ve been reviewed, and I had a problem with my title page, so I have to get that fixed this morning, and then upload the interior file again. But it seems like that was the only issue, so I might be able to order a proof copy tonight.

This morning I’m doing some thinking about first acts, how I understand them, and how I approach them. What follows may be a lot of me talking to myself, so don’t let all the yous get to you.

For me, the first part of a book is all setup. The actual story, the thing your characters are going to have to work through—you’re not into that yet. In fact, the point where you actually get into that doesn’t even happen until the end of this section.

Now, you can’t just do nothing here. You can’t just go about describing the characters, their environs, their backstories, etc, and not having anything going on to engage the reader. That’s about as much fun as watching someone else play Barbies. There should be something going on, something the reader is going to want to know more about.

So you’ve got a character (or characters) and a something going on. And part of what the reader wants to know is: how is this something going to affect the character? When is she going to a) either become aware of what’s really going on, and/or b) have to deal with this? And then what’s going to happen? While she’s reading on, to get to that moment when things come together and you come to that point of shoving your character through the door into the story world, you’re feeding her lots of important information about the world and the people in it, you’re planting seeds, doing a little foreshadowing, but, most importantly to me, you’re setting up your character arc.

The stories I love best are those in which a character learns and grows, is changed by the events of the story. I think I probably especially love characters who seem a little hard to love when they’re first introduced.

Take Lost’s Sawyer as an example. (Oh, I’d like to.) He’s not a nice man. In fact, he’s a criminal. Not only is he nasty to everyone on the island with the name-calling and the constant lashing out, he also does things like gathering up and “claiming” as many supplies as he can so that he can profit from everyone’s plight. I think there’s a part of Sawyer that remains inherently selfish at the core, which keeps his character consistent. But in a show in which the challenges presented by the island transform many characters, helping them find the inner hero that may lie within all of us, I think Sawyer is the one whose change is the most dramatic, and therefore the most moving. (Or I could be just blinded by the dimple. It happens.)

Spike is another example of this kind of character. Someone who starts off really enjoying the killing, especially of slayers. Until he falls in love with one, and is changed by that love, and by his story into someone who ultimately—does something spoilery that’s pretty selfless. You know what I’m talking about.

So yeah, I guess I’m into that. Characters need to have a starting off point in which they are somehow less that they’re going to be at the end point. And in a series, in which they’re going to appear in more than one story, that means they’ll need even more room to grow.

They have got to be likable in some way, and often, with flawed characters, that’s a matter of empathy. When a reader talks about characters that seem real, what they’re saying is that they felt empathy, they recognized something that they’ve felt, or at least something that they understand, in something that your character feels. There has to be something they connect to. This is why they tell us to make the character care about something.

Spike had Drusilla, for example, showing that he was capable of some kind of love, even if it wasn’t the nicest relationship to watch. Later, he formed the same kind of obsessive attachment to Buffy. And we really got to see how it hurt him, to be so constantly rejected by her, to feel that she was so unattainable, because he was so unworthy. To feel the hopelessness of that obsession, even if one hasn’t been a vampire obsessed with a slayer who won’t have them–a lot of people can still relate to, and be moved by, those kinds of feelings. And that’s what keeps them tied to Spike as he waits for his moment, his opportunities for growth (internal, not always conscious), and to win the Slayer’s affections (external).

But be advised, it doesn’t work for all readers all the time. If you present flawed characters, not everyone is going to connect, empathize, or wait around for them to get better. Sometimes a reader will be so turned off by something your flawed character did or said that, not only will she give up on them, but the book, and you as an author. Our different tastes, experiences, the issues that can pull us in or make us throw the book at the wall, that’s all part of what it is to be human and sentient, and makes all these varied stories possible.

After all, it’s this variation in taste that makes possible questions like:

  • Angel or Spike?
  • Sawyer/Kate or Sawyer/Juliette?
  • Marvel or DC?
  • Ginger or Maryann?

And where would the internet be without that?

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Filed under books, characters, Hush Money, ideas, love, romance, story structure, Talent Chronicles, tips, writing

Blueprint Series Part 7: Character Work

We’re getting into Character Work on the Blueprint today. If you’re just finding this, click here for part 1.

Now, again, this is a subject where there’s just so much you can talk about, and many, many people have. Tons of approaches, infinite personalization. This is stuff that I like to put in. You feel free to put in the stuff that’s important to you, and to your particular story and style.

Step 7: Character Work

Character Work- Individuals

For each character, fill in any information you know/believe to be relevant.

  1. Name, including any titles or nicknames
  2. Age
  3. Basic physical description (size, build, eyes, hair, marks)
  4. Family situation (any living or deceased relatives, relationship with family, does the character live with family or have any particularly close or estranged family ties?)
  5. Occupation, including any specifics of the job, work environment, co-workers that you know or believe may be relevant
  6. Living arrangements
  7. Interests
  8. Special traits or abilities
  9. Strengths, weaknesses, fears
  10. Personal History, childhood, adolescence, adulthood. Highlight any life-changing events and their effects on the character.
  11. Positive and negative aspects of personality
  12. How will your character be different at the end of the story than s/he was in the beginning? Jot down some details that may be highlighted in Part 1 of the story that will change by the end.

Copy and paste these questions for as many characters as you choose to detail.

If you read and recall my post on the Story World section, this is like that in that I like to think relevancy when I do this. Some stuff I’ll just throw in because it occurs to me, but generally I like to think about what it means to the character or the story. Be as detailed here as you want, or as sketchy. Leave blanks and fill them in later–even after you’ve started writing your draft. There are always things that get discovered along the way. After all, if you really had everything figured out here, how boring would that be?

Most of these are self-explanatory, but there are a few things I’d like to touch on.

Personal History…I’m not asking you for a life story here, or to come up with a childhood for the sake of exercising your keyboard. This comes from a notion I have that the purpose of backstory is to explain why a person is the way she is. (Characters are always motivated, right?) If your heroine is a big man-hater, there’s probably a reason for that. So what happened? You’ve got some ideas about that, but can you also make them relevant to the story?

How are you going to bring us that information in a way that’s not a dream, flashback, mirror-gazing thoughtologue, or As you know, Bob info-dump? Maybe you can tweak this backstory to make it easier to work into the story you’re about to write. Maybe you can tweak the story or the characters. Make the confidante co-worker into someone who’s known the heroine for years. This is a nice time to be thinking about the hows as well as the whys and whats.

Now moving on to the last question, about the change in your character…you may recognize this as a redundancy. Hey, this is Character Arc. Yep. Will it kill you to write it again? No. And now that you know that much more about your story and have had that much more time to develop your ideas, who knows what you might come up with when you do. Jotting down some ideas of how to show the difference from beginning to end just gives you that much help getting started on what to include in Part 1, which is coming up before you know it.

But not tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll still be on Characters and discussing relationships.

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Filed under Blueprint, characters, links, tips, writing

No Admittance Without Plot

It’ s been awhile.

I’m trying.  Maybe not very hard, maybe not in the most consistent way, but I am.  And the why of it is simply that my head is full of brain dolls, and more show up all the time.

A brain doll is sort of like a character.  But a character is someone whom I work, whom I form and mold and tweak.  A character fits into a story and the story fits around the character.  They are the ones who make it to the keyboard and are not generally allowed to run amock.  A brain doll works me.  Brain dolls are creatures that live in my head.  They’re made up of bits of backstory and internal conflict with a dash of physical characteristics, and they often show up in pairs.  They tend to come with very few accessories like, say, plot points, and most of them are lazy and don’t build on their own.  They just wait around for me to do it.

Some of my brain dolls, the ones that have been with me a long time, make their own spaces in the corners of my world.  They build sets and create stories, and they live lives within the borders of their regions.  Their stories tend to be soap-opera quality messes that I could never untangle enough to put to paper, even if I wanted to.  Some of them are former characters, retired with their abandoned plots to enact and embellish on their favorite scenes for, it would seem, all eternity. 

Matt and Alex still live in the WOTM region, waiting for that last 20K or so of grey area to get colored in.  They’re still characters, and thus far, they continue to wait silently for my return, should you wonder what became of them.

 But it’s the huge brain world playset of Supertown that’s out of control.  That’s the world where Mac and Colby live, though they, too, linger as characters trapped in the brain doll world.  Rand and Marissa want their story told, but not enough to give me enough hints on plot points to keep the action going.  Marissa brought in this ex-boyfriend named Joel, and next thing you know, Tina showed up with a criminal past and said she wanted to, after much angst and denial, be hooked up with Joel please.  Well ok, Tina, but what else ya got?  Give me more to work with or get in line.  One young woman showed up a month or so ago, and she felt promising.  She brought a hero, a father, a sister.  And then she turned around and informed me that no, she had 2 sisters, and they had beaus, but please excuse their complete fuzziness.  Great.  Thanks.  Take your trilogy and wait over there.  Patiently, Carolyn waits, reminding me that she’s important and she has a love interest, and please don’t forget to introduce him at some point.  But while she’s told me what she can about him, he has yet to show up and introduce himself properly.  Which might be why we refer to him as Stasis Guy.    Today, as I stare at the last line I wrote for Rand and Marissa, wondering about their motivations, I realize that someone needs to die.  Not right now, just, you know, sometime.  And the man she leaves behind waves to me from a dark corner.  I didn’t even know he was there, but he’ll be ready to play the Grieving Widower type who finds true love a second time later on down the road.  He introduces me to his Best Friend, who pulls him away from the body of his lover.  Best Friend says hey, how’s it goin’?  Just wanted to let you know that that experience will make me realize what a jerk I’ve been to my COMPLETELY FUZZY love interest here, and I’ll be having one of those Don’t Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone moments (yeah, coincidentally Cinderella is playing right now, neat).  Oh, how will that come about?  Well I don’t know, that’s your job, isn’t it?

Hey, I love hangin’ out in Supertown.  I love you guys.  Really.  But I’m constantly distracted by all these new arrivals.  You guys are never going to reach your character potential if I don’t get some work done.  Help me.  Help me help you.  Give me some stories to go along with these setups, or your world is never going to be anything but a some assembly required brain doll playset. 

Rand, you’ve got that anti-gravity thing going for you.  Get up there and pull down the Welcome to Supertown sign with the everchanging digital population indicator.  Bryan, get off your not coming up with my YA subplot butt and help him out, because I suspect you’ve got a bit of telekinesis going, don’t you?  The new sign is right over there.  It reads:

No Admittance Without Plot.

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Filed under characters, COD, ideas, progress update, rant, romance, wotm, writing

Made In My Image

I know, Wow! a post from me.  Ugh.  It’s just been exotic varieties of awful this fall.  And I’m going to spare you the details of my neuroses and angst over the past few months. 

 You’re welcome.

Anyway, today Kettle gently says: I think that’s why blogging was so good for you.  But then you sort of dropped that too.

I talk to Kettle about all kinds of things, and still, though I’m not writing, we talk of many writerly things.  So it occurs to me that just because I’m not writing doesn’t mean I can’t talk about them at you.

Last night I emailed her the following:

…I think what’s holding me back right now is that I don’t have a single character on the board with whom a feel a real connection.  There are a bunch of them who are fleshed out, whose backstories I’ve come up with and whose motivations I feel I understand, but it’s sort of like reading their dossier rather than having any intimate understanding of them.  Matt, Alex, Jack, Siobhan…  I felt them.  These guys, every time I try to slip into them, it’s like wearing rented underwear or something.  Not. Right.

How to explain what we talked about this morning…  I think the general idea was that they hadn’t incubated long enough.  They were people I made up, rather than people who sort of showed up.  They have a lot of characteristics that I gave them because it was what the story needed, not because character or writer actually owned them.  I theorize that it’s because, while I like to plan, I’m not usually planning and then jumping into actual, you know, writing.  Not like I have been this year.  And although Matt and Alex were largely created in this way, for some reason it worked for me.

Much as I like to create a hero or heroine and then create the mate from that character’s rib, think through that character initially in terms of a compliment, perhaps my characters are created from something of mine.  And lately, I’m just not seeing the resemblance.  I’m not able to relate to them; understanding and empathizing can be quite different things.

So I’m not sure what I’m saying here, but I thought perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I just came by to talk about my random thoughts now and again.

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Filed under characters, ideas, insecurities, me me me, writing