O is Opinionated Characters

Sometimes, in order to get know a character, I pose issue questions to them and figure out where they stand.

This sounds bizarre, asking questions of people who do not exist outside of my head. You would think I already know where they stand. I mean, I made them up, didn’t I? But mostly I don’t.

By issue questions, I mean controversial issues, topics on religion and politics and whatever else causes arguments. They will differ by time and place and setting. Because characters need opinions, right? Things they will do and the lines they will not cross.

And today – today I was reading a post by John Scalzi about what he calls The Four Levels of Discrimination. He makes a good argument about ambient discrimination. (You should read it.) I used to think of this as unconscious biases. But ambient discrimination is a good way to describe it, too.

Anyway, the question I have never asked my characters and now I realize would a good question to ask: what ambient discrimination affects them? Against the character or against others, it hardly matter which.

It’s a kind of world building, too – figuring out what will cause the natives to turn into rioting mobs. That’s fun also. (Causing riots!)

The challenge here, I think, is to keep the opinions from turning them into willful characters, who insist on doing something, when I want the plot to go in another direction. (I sometimes fail at this challenge.)

That sounds mad, I know, because I came up with the characters and I damn well ought to be able to tell what to do. But sometimes that does a disservice to the character.

What do you think? How do you go finding out who your character is?

Changing Character’s History

So I just realized the major I’d chosen for my character’s college years was entirely wrong. Oh, it never felt right in that bone deep where you just know something is correct. It was the Romance Language program at Harvard, in case anyone was wondering. But I thought it would suit.

I realize now that it really doesn’t. I know more about his life and his passions than when I decided that (a year ago). Now I know a degree in the fine arts will suit him much better. It won’t affect his job much. But I thinking it will be a much better match for the rest of his life. In fact, it might make his work easier (it involves a fair amount of art-ish stuff.)

This is the third time I changed his major on him (first was lit and than law). But it feels right now. Really it does. It feels right in a way it didn’t before.

Fortunately, I haven’t mention it too many places, so changing it will be easier. Working other mentions of it in the text should be relatively straightforward, too.

Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells: You Are A Writer

I was reading The Craft of Writing Science Fiction That Sells by Ben Bova and this quote from Ernest Hemingway jumped out at me:

All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that it all happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.

I think this is the best idea of what makes a writer that I have ever seen. That it comes from a writer whose works I don’t usually enjoy strikes me as odd.

I think this is the ideal. You want all that, you want the reader to feel the story so deeply that they don’t forgot, so deeply that they come back to the story over and over again.You want the reader to get lost in the story and never want to leave. You want the reader to care deeply about the character’s sorrow and joy.

I also think it’s incredibly rare and that stories that do this won’t be the same from everyone. It’s too subjective.

Even so. I think to feel that way, you need a character you really connect to. I mean, as a reader I know I do. If a book doesn’t have a character I like, it’s very hard for me to read it. (This is why Game of Thrones remains unread on my kindle.)

And by connecting, I don’t mean the reader has to see themselves in the character. I really, really don’t see myself in Eve Dallas, Jaenelle Angelline or Miles Vorkosigan – three characters I love most and series I reread frequently. But I still connect, I still sympathize with them and I still like spending time with them.

Rereading the WiP

So I came back to the WiP after not writing for a month. It was a good month, just not one meant for writing. Or blogging. Or reading, even. Well, I read more than I blogged or wrote, but even reading was minimal.

So I felt the urge to write again and opened up my file and I find I have forgotten details of my own story. Like, names. They include the names of various business and characters and so on.

Okay, yeah, the characters are minor and so are some of the business. But really!!! Does not remembering mean I should not have attempted to turn into something other than stock characters? I am not going to spend hours and hours on characters that only appear a handful of times, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get names and at least a few words of description. Does it?

Also, I didn’t expect to forget little details of the lives of the secondary characters. That’s even worse than forgetting the names of minor characters.

I realize now I have to reread the whole damn thing and resist the urge to edit while reading. I wasn’t expecting to have to do that. There are lots of pages. Thousands and thousands of words. It’s going to take a few days before I can actually start writing again.

Brainstorming A Short Story

On Friday I did a drabble that I fell in love with. I want to expand and I decided to brainstorm.

My brainstorming went something like this:

I considered three things: looks, plot, character.

1) Looks: I’d already given it hands, so it couldn’t be an animal. I thought maybe a being that has no set shape, but changes shapes as it chooses. Or a people-shaped creature made of mist. Or, my personal favorite, something like a Chinese dragon that lives in the clouds. Not really sure yet.

2) Plot: In the drabble, the dijnn (that’s what I’m calling the creature) escapes the wizard, so obviously, the wizard has to capture the dijnn first. Maybe a trap, maybe for a rescue. The wizard needs a reasons to try and capture the dijnn and I’ve some ideas on what that might be.  Nothing solid yet though.

3) Character: I wrote something down about this, but I don’t really have any idea what the character will be like. I don’t know if the character will actually have those traits. Maybe, maybe not. I figure it’s best if I let the character develop organically.

None of this even considers the dijnn’s society, how they live in the clouds, what they might fight about, and that’s what I’m really, really curious about. Maybe my dijnn has an enemy who helps the wizard. Who knows? Not me! Which is damn sad, because this is my story. But I want to find out.

So now I got to ask . . . how do you brainstorm? Do you think about these same things?

The Anatomy of a Story: I want, therefore I am

Last week, I found a fantastic book on writing: The Anatomy of a Story by John Truby. It’s a keeper (much like King’s On Writing.) I think I first heard about it from an author chat on twitter. It has some of the best analysis of what a story is that I’ve ever read. And I’ve read a lot of books on writing.

The first lines that jump out at me are:

The “story world” doesn’t boil down to “I think, therefore I am” but rather “I want, therefore I am.” Desire in all of its facets is what makes the world go around. It is what propels all conscious, living things and gives them direction. A story tracks what a person wants, what he’ll do to get it and what costs he’ll have to pay along the way.

I’m always ecstatic when a character comes to life in my head. Writing is easy and it feels like I am not writing, just describing the pictures in my head.

I am theorizing that happens because I connect with the character’s desire. In the moment it is real to me, that feeling will come a lot easier.

It makes sense. I mean, a lot of stories are about what character is trying to do, isn’t? Whether that’s to solve a murder or find someone to share their life with. Or, in the case of my MC, find the drug source and keep all hisloved ones safe at the same time.

I am thinking, I need to know my character’s desires, both short-term and long-term. His professional goals (easy! ha! this is the whole story), and a more personal, more emotional desire. To an extent, this is the same (backstory! such bloody, fantastic drama!).

I am not sure if I need other layers. Emotional and/or spiritual desires? I am thinking not. He thinks doesn’t think a love life is possible for him anymore and he’s not really open to it. Family? Hmm. Maybe.

Thing is, I knew almost none of this when I first started writing the novel in progress. I had to backtrack, go forward and back a few times before I figured it out.

How many others know the all the different desires of the character before they start writing?

On Gender Confusion and POV

I am reading Death Most Definite by Trent Jamieson. I have no idea if this is his firstbook, but it is pretty good. Right off the bat there are flying bullets, ghosts, trouble with coworkers and a female ex. It is also urban fantasy, and like many other urban fantasies, it is written in the 1st person POV.

That was the problem right there. In the 1st person, the main character is not “he” or “she”; the main character is always “I”. “I” does not give you an clues into the gender of a character. I thought the main character of this book was a woman! Can you blame me? Most urban fantasies have women main characters. Yes, there was a female ex, but I thought that just meant the main character was gay or bi. Most stories these days have gay secondary characters and a few even have gay or bi main characters. So it is not such a stretch. Well, I don’t think it is.

Imagine my shock when I discovered the main character is a man. Probably, I would have been less shocked if I had bothered to read the back blurb, but this book was recommended to me by someone I trust (someone who didn’t mention the maleness of the main character!!!). The cover should have been a clue as well.  But it shouldn’t depend on the cover and back cover blurb.

As a reader, the gender of the main character should be obvious to me from the beginning, regardless of POV (unless the writer is playing games and the main character is androgynous on purpose).

As a writer, I always know the gender of my characters. Expressing that in the 1st POV, in a way that is smooth and not obvious, is more difficult. Trent Jamieson probably knew the gender of his main character before he started writing. I don’t know why I concluded that the main character is female, except to say that I was expecting a female main character. Maybe that’s enough, but it is not really satisfactory. I wish I could point to one thing in the first few pages that could make me believe the MC was female.


Picturing a Character

So. Characters. You have to know what they look like before you describe them, right? You have to be able to see them in your head. Well, I have to be able to see my characters in my head before I can begin to describe them. Other people may not. So, in my short sea story, I need to describe this guy. I know he is fae and connected to the ocean. But I know very little else and I certainly can’t picture him. I don’ t know what he looks like!!

I  decided to go to deviantart. I did searches for fae, sidhe and nymph for inspiration. Nothing inspired me. For one thing, most of the pictures were of women and I wanted a picture of a man. And the few pictures of men I turned up, well, they weren’t what I though he should look like.

So I gave up and decided to go back to the story. I struggled my way past his description and you know what? I got a picture in my head of what he looks like. It seems my main character knew all along. I think she might even have a teeny tiny crush on him.