Post #49 – Characters

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11/29/18

The essence of any story is characters in conflict. To increase that conflict, or at least make it more interesting, some of those characters need depth.

Most of my writing has been limited to short stories. That form doesn’t provide room to dig much into a character’s background or motivations, at most a couple hints here and there. So when it came time to work on my novel this month, I didn’t have a lot of experience with developing characters. In prior months, I’d jotted down a few notes. This character’s parents died in an accident. This character’s brother saved him when they were kids and has suffered ill effects ever since. But I never fully developed them, probably because I didn’t know how.

I’ve attempted to read up on the subject. A Writer’s Path posted an interesting exercise titled Things I ask My Characters. By way of an interview, the author can get to know his/her character’s. The same blog then posted 3 Ways to Flesh Out Your Character’s Motivations as an additional exercise guide.

For a more classical view, Andrea Lundgren analyzed Victor Hugo’s techniques in Writing Lessons from Les Mis: Characterization.

ProWritingAid has had a series of blog posts this year examining Oscar Scott Card’s Elements of Fiction Writing: Characters & Viewpoint.  The most recent is How to Nail Third-Person Narrative. I found these lessons helpful. This is a book I wanted to read last year when first starting to seriously write, but the book is out of print. Coincidence or fate?

Since I’m new to the novel writing, and thus character development, thing, what I don’t know is what works better for me. Should I develop full backstories for my characters before starting the novel? I am a plotter after all. Or should I come up with a few key points for each character and see what else the story demands these character be? That seems to be more a pantser technique, though it provides the greatest flexibility when writing.

For my current WIP, I’m following the latter course by necessity. I may wind up determining that after the first draft, I need to think through each character again and fill in their stories as I conduct an initial edit.

Let me know in the comments how your develop your characters. Do you map out their entire lives first, or do you wait and let the story dictate who your characters really are?

Photo credit: aixklusiv via Pixabay

Post #21 – Who Do I Write For?

5/17/18

Another point I’ve read is every writer has a specific reader in mind when they write. Stephen King, in On Writing, states he writes for his wife. She is his intended audience, which also happens to be true. King always has his wife read a new work first.

In one of six writing tips attributed to John Steinbeck, he confirms there is no generalized audience for a writer; so forget about it.  Instead, he found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person, real or an imagined, and write to that one.

Michael Morpurgo likes to tell a story as if he is talking to his best friend or one of his grandchildren.

King also says a writer friend of his always wrote for the same person even after that person was long dead. If you believe King and Steinbeck, the audience a writer has in mind while writing isn’t necessarily the intended audience at publication.

The audience I envision while writing varies by project.  Like King, my wife frequently is the person I have in mind. She has given me a lot of support with my writing, so I want her to be entertained with the works I ask her to read.

I also often include names of family or friends in my stories. When doing so, I find I especially want them to read that work. Though I use their names, the associated characters are not necessary my friends. Nonetheless, so far that’s gone well. No one has come back saying they hate how they’re portrayed. That’s good since the characters aren’t actually meant to portray them.

One other I can’t leave out is my sister. She has read almost everything I’ve written and is a trusted member of my critique group. I certainly have pictured her as my audience more than once. Since I often use people and places from my youth in stories, I know she will recognize them like few others would. She also has appeared as a character in a story, along with a couple of her friends, which I wrote with her in mind. She’ll be the first to tell you they are nothing like how I wrote them.

For the picture book manuscripts, I always envision my little girls. While I like the idea of bringing joy to any child who reads a book of mine, I especially want my girls to be entertained as I see they are when reading other children’s books.

Let me know in the comments who you write for.

Photo credit: EvgeniT via Pixabay

Post #20 – Finding Inspiration

5/10/18

Last week, I promised two things: details of my unusual writing circumstances on April 29 and where I intend to draw inspiration.

On April 29, I attended the National Gallery Writing Salon with my fellow Northern Virginia Writers Club member and one of my beta readers, Michelle McBeth. Indeed, she has my gratitude for registering for an extra spot, which she then graciously allowed me to use. By the time I was ready to register, the salon already was wait-listed.

The salon was at the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art – East Building, and the topic was flash fiction. The idea was to view Edward Hopper’s painting Cape Code Evening (1939), which is the featured image for this post, and work through five writing exercises involving the painting. By the end of the 2.5 hour salon, the goal was to have most of the elements of a flash fiction piece written.

When the first writing exercise ended, I had the plot of my flash fiction story.  When the third concluded, I’d written most of the story. On the subway home, I wrote the introductory sentences to each of the three sections of the story. The next day I put it all together and had the first draft of a 500 word piece.

Did I find the salon useful? Yes and no. First, I’ve never liked group discusses where people talk about how they feel or what they think this or that means. That went double here where most of the writers attending do not write speculative fiction and were focusing on things irrelevant to my writing. Luckily, when we broke off into groups of two, I, at different times, teamed up with Michelle, who writes speculative fiction, and a gentleman, who also happened to write speculative fiction. That made at least pairing up bearable because we were all on similar wavelengths.  For example: “The darkness of the woods does not represent the sadness felt by the woman in the painting. The darkness is a non-corporeal being coming to eat them.” That’s my type of analysis! At the same time, I will give credit where credit is due. The painting and the salon did give me an idea for a piece that I enjoyed writing and one I hope gets published.

My other source of inspiration lately, like many sci-fi writers, is science. I may be one of the few people who still receive a physical paper every morning, the Washington Post. One of my favorite sections comes on Tuesdays, Health & Science. The health stories usually are interesting, especially the medical mysteries, but they haven’t inspired any story ideas yet.

The science stories, on the other hand, are great sources of information. Orson Scott Card, in Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction: How to Create Out-of-This-World Novels and Short Stories, says he usually does not rely on one idea for a novel, instead he likes to have two and weave them together into a single story. When I read that, I asked myself how does that work? Then I read a science article in the WashPo and thought that would make a good idea for a story. Later I read a second science article, thinking that too could be the basis for a good story. Both stories involve very unusual reproduction outcomes from two different animals. I plan to use both but in a single story. Like Card, I will mesh the two ideas into one story, hopefully making it better.

I envision the story will involve two alien races, each exhibiting one of these reproduction outcomes, meeting and cohabiting. I think it was David Gerrold, in Worlds of Wonder: How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, who mentioned a certain scientist’s opinion on how to make an alien race believable. (I need to dig this guy’s name out.) He advocated the unusual characteristics of the alien race should exist somewhere in the animal kingdom on Earth. Earth’s fauna are so varied they essentially encompass every characteristic possible in life anywhere in the universe. I’m not sure I agree with that, and what fun is it to create an alien race that exhibits elements we’re already familiar with? And what if the element present in an Earth animal is so obscure, like discussed in the two articles I’m drawing from, the average reader has no idea such elements appear on Earth? I understand the desire to ground a new race in what is known, but is it practical?

For me, at least this time, it doesn’t matter. My two alien races will have a solid grounding in obscure Earth fauna reproductive outcomes. Maybe I should include a bibliography with the story to prove the bona fides of my two alien races.

Photo credit: Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art

Post #18 – How Do I Treat My Characters?

4/26/18

The title of this post could be: Who Controls the Characters? Do writers always know what their characters will say and how they will act? Or do writers let the characters dictate their dialog and actions?

This may be a debate between plotters and pantsers (for the uninitiated, authors who write by the seat of their pants). Are plotters more likely to keep their characters on tight leashes, not letting them stray too far from the outline? Are pantsers more likely to let their characters run free to see where they take the story?

Sci-fi author Mike Resnick, in The Science Fiction Professional, is adamant he is the writer, they’re his characters, so he controls them. He also generally puts together a 5000 word outline for a novel and works from that. I consider that a detailed outline, so let’s call him a plotter.

On the other hand, Stephen King, in On Writing, says he likes to see where his characters take him. He never mentions outlining his novels before writing, so let’s call him a pantser.

I fall more on the plotter side of the spectrum. I like to work out the major plot points in my head before starting on a story. This means I mostly control my characters because they need to get me to each of the plot points. I don’t necessarily know exactly what they will say, unless a good piece of dialog comes to mind that I’m able to write down in advance.

Rarely will I start writing and see where my characters take me. Sometimes I’ll work up to as far in a story as I’ve plotted and then stop until I figure out what happens next. More often than not, writing up to that point helps me figure that out, which could be considered letting the characters control the story.

Recently, I was working on a sequel to my first story. The file contained detailed notes on the plot points I’d jotted down over several months as I developed the story in my head. However, while putting the story on the screen, I realized one of the characters would never let the story end how I plotted it. This character altered my story’s ending and in a very dramatic way. Is that me losing control of one of my characters? Maybe, but I liked where this character took the story. And, once again, it reinforced my intrigue about the writing process. It also reconfirmed how fun the writing process can be. Even as a plotter, my own story still can surprise me.

Let me know in the comments how you treat your characters or how they treat you.