Creating a Character, pt. 2

Okay, so you’ve got a capital P Problem to stick your character in. Excellent! Now what?

Here’s another stepping stone that I’ve tripped up on before: the problem can’t create the character by itself.

It’s a trap that I fell into because, from a beginner’s point of view, it sort of makes sense. You create this amazing, complex Problem, that requires heroism and deviousness and courage and politicking and all sorts of things! Brilliant! Surely this excellent Problem will show forth the excellence of the character! And then you stick the character in the middle of the Problem and you wait to see what she does … and then you make the plot move the character around, because that’s how the Problem gets solved based on the map in your head … but the character herself isn’t really reacting to it. She’s just kind of sitting there like a lump.

Because when you put a character in the middle of a Problem, you kind of have to have an idea of how she’s going to react beyond “anger!”. In my last post I said that characters can surprise you with their reactions, and that can definitely be true. But you still have to do most of the heavy lifting. It’s your head they’re living in, after all.

So that character is angry. So what? How does she get angry? Well, she swears revenge. Okay, what kind of revenge? Political revenge! Alright, does she have the means to carry out that revenge? Who taught her how to politick? How is she going to bring other people over to her cause? Et cetera. The basic reaction is only the shallowest level. Even if a lot of the underlying reasons never make it into the final draft, you still have to unpack everything that goes into that character.

And unpacking the character — or rather, allowing the reader to see the character’s development — means then that the character is the one driving the story. Which is more interesting than parading a puppet around a stage, anyway. The best plot in the world still leaves the readers going “meh” if the characters are inert, but a mediocre plot with well developed characters can, and does, win over the readers. Take a dip in the fandom pond — any fandom will do — and you’ll see what I mean.

Creating a Character

Eating pizza at my desk during the lunch break while the telephone keeps ringing. Glamorous. Tiny parts of life that make the rest just a little bit more believable.

People — I say people, but I really mean “aspiring writers” — try to do the same thing by filling out character sheets and questionnaires. Checklists containing likes and dislikes and favorite foods/songs/crayon colors — frankly I think they are ridiculous. Mostly because they fill in the minutia of daily life, but ONLY the minutia of daily life, and not the important bits.

It’s definitely fun to take a character and say, “I bet he likes ‘Sharp Dressed Man’ by ZZ Top and sings it at the karaoke bar every Tuesday.” I get it. But while a couple bits of trivia scattered through the story help to convince us that they’re people, a load of trivia (with no backstory, but more importantly no bearing on the plot) doesn’t do diddly squat. So that character likes ZZ Top — so what? What’s the point?

Now, if another character steals his song on karaoke night and he swears bloody vengeance, then it matters.

If that song reminds him of his dad, who was his role model during the horrible zombie attack ten years ago, then it matters.

Until then it’s just a fun thing to think about.

The reason I mention this is because I used to fall prey to it. Questionnaires and charts and checklists abound on Blogs On Writing, and it’s the same kind of mindless fun to fill them out as it is to scroll through Facebook. Spends time, doesn’t accomplish much. And yet they’re touted as this excellent resource for the beginning writer. It makes your characters so realistic!

Hmmm ….. don’t think so.

Because what the reader is actually going to care about, at the end of the day, is what kind of person your character is. And favorite soda or type of pet has very little to do with that. All the trivia in the world won’t matter if they don’t know whether your hero will find someone to help or run headfirst into danger himself.

So how do you figure out what kind of character he is? The same way anyone in real life does — put him in the middle of a capital P Problem, and watch what he does.

Maybe he’ll even surprise you.

This is what I’ve got

Bouncing ideas around with other people is really fun when you have a few plot bunnies but not much actually written down. You can take a shred of an idea and then, with the help of someone else, expand it into an entire short story — a novel — maybe even a series. It’s fun to do by yourself, and with someone on the same wavelength as you, it can be even more fun.

I’m learning that it’s a bit awkward when you already have a set idea and have written more than 10,000 words about it. Not because sharing ideas is bad, not because the other person is necessarily wrong, but because at this point it’s impossible to be on the same wavelength.

By the time I’ve put more than 10,000 words into a story, I have a pretty fleshed-out idea of where, plot point by plot point, the story is going to go. It’s the fiddly bits in the actual scenes that gets me stuck — but I know what the main story is. The person I’m bouncing ideas off has no idea of the movie that’s rolling behind my eyes. And unless you make it clear that you only need help with the fiddly bits, people are going to offer their opinions on everything from the foundation up. So while you already have a set story, they’re just creating material out of thin air, with none of the constraints you’ve already made for yourself.

It’s weird to tell someone the backstory for the main plot and then have them come up with something completely different from what you were already writing. Not bad, just weird.

What’s weirder is going away from that idea-bouncing session feeling like you have a resolution for the problem you initially had, but that you now have a bigger problem. Gentle readers, once I wrote an entire 50k words of a story that made no sense whatsoever. (A product of NaNoWriMo, by the way.) I’m certain it was good for me to write all that crap so I could get to the good stuff later, but it still makes me a little uneasy. Frankly, I need to practice my craft all the time, but I don’t want to have to scrap — or rewrite until it looks unrecognizable — another entire book. So looking at what I’ve already written, versus the idea that just popped into someone else’s head, well, hello Doubt my old friend.

Looking at the reasons I wrote what I wrote, and then saying “this is what I’ve got, let’s keep going” — this isn’t me trying to be inflexible. Other people make suggestions, and I can take them or leave them, because I’m the one who’s writing it; I’m the one who knows why the characters do what they do, and how different actions will affect the overall plot. But at this point, with the first draft unfinished, I’m not looking for critiques. That’s what the editing stage is for. If I went and rewrote the first draft while I was still writing it, I’d never finish the darn thing. And that’s the most important bit — that it’s finished.

Sequels

Usually I read things in chronological order. It makes more immediate sense to me to do so. In certain cases this isn’t what the author intended (The Chronicles of Narnia) and in some cases it isn’t what works best (the Star Wars movies). But usually the creators of the works are on the same page, that a linear progression of time is the most logical way to tell a story.

The second installment of a story has to do two things, and this can be tricky: it has to continue the story from where it left off, and it has to catch up the new listeners just tuning in. Some books try to do this with a little author’s note at the beginning — sort of a “previously on” like in tv shows. This might work or it might not, depending on the mood of the overall story; it’ll probably work better if it’s humorous, or maybe that’s just me. Some books try to do it with carefully rationed infodumps parceled throughout the beginning chapters, little “oh by the way”s and such. And other books just allude to the the goings-on of the first part of the story, and only make them plain as they become relevant to the next part of the story. I think I like the third option best, but I’m finding it a little tricky.

There were seven Harry Potter books, and six of them had to catch up new readers at the beginning. JKR did this with neat little infodumps. There were — are? — God knows how many Artemis Fowl books, and again, most of them had some sort of exposition near the beginning, if I remember correctly. Since I’m planning on the Iron Gentry series being kind of a big sprawling series, I should probably reread those books just to study their techniques. But there are two books in particular that I’ve reread that are, I think, probably the best examples of sequel handling I’ve ever come across.

The Oracle Betrayed series by Catherine Fisher consists of three books: The Oracle (formerly The Oracle Betrayed), The Archon (formerly The Sphere of Secrets), and The Scarab (formerly The Day of the Scarab). (I don’t know why the titles changed. The covers did too, but that’s a less mysterious thing.) I first encountered these books in the children’s section of my public library, I think when I was in middle school. But I started with The Archon, instead of The Oracle.

In a nutshell, public libraries: they had a copy of the first book, but someone else was borrowing it. I was too curious to wait — I read the blurb on the back and promptly checked out books two and three. And so I was introduced to the world of the Oracle. It felt seamless. I knew I wasn’t reading the first introduction of these characters, but Fisher’s writing displayed them like old friends getting reacquainted. It helped that time had passed in-universe, so that every reader had catching up to do and not just the newcomers. (A handy trick, and one that I’m using in my own work.) But more than that, it wasn’t a whole bucket of backstory being dumped into my head. It was gradual and subtle and dang, but it made me fall in love with the characters. The Jackal is still one of my favorite antihero/badguy mashups ever. So, a rousing success, and a great example that I’m trying to learn from. I’m off to reread it again.

Blank Page

Staring at the screen and watching the cursor blink seems to be the national author’s pastime. I would say “I guess that makes me a real writer,” but by all accounts and purposes I’ve been staring at a blank screen instead of writing for most of my free time since I was twelve and first had access to a desktop computer, and I only recently started actually selling my work. (We don’t have lift-off yet, but we don’t have a sequel yet either. It’s that long game I’m playing.) In any case, despite being a newbie professionally speaking, it feels like I’ve been at my apprenticeship for a good eleven years or so, if not longer. That blank screen with a blinking cursor is kind of a doozy.

And when there’s nothing on the page to prompt you where to go next, and you have a vague idea but you don’t know where to start, it can be frustrating, especially when writer’s block kicks in and you’d rather be anywhere but sitting in front of the computer. So what do you do?

You can start in the middle of the scene. Maybe what’s been bouncing around your head doesn’t have a start or an end, but it does have a middle, and writing that middle down — hammering it in place, as it were — gives the scene a definition, and gives you pointers on how it has to have started, and where it has to go next. That’s how I’ve been starting some of my writing sessions lately, and it certainly helps me, though YMMV. Sometimes fleshing out scenes can feel weird when you’re used to creating the beginnings from nothing. But whatever works for you, stick with it.

You can pick something else to write. No, seriously. Writing on something is better than writing on nothing, even if this project needs to be finished next week and the other project can wait a month. Any writing is another few hundred words of practice, and we all need practice. And when you’ve finished writing that other thing, then maybe the ideas (or motivation) for the first project will be back.

Last resort, when you can’t even bring yourself to do that, and you’re down to the dregs of your hot cocoa and any music you listen to is distracting and you could swear you’ve typed the word “the” three hundred times but nothing has followed? Get up. Move around. Look at NOT an empty screen. Talk to somebody, in person for preference, but hopping on Skype works too. Grab some more cocoa. Do some jumping jacks. Distract yourself a little, and then whe you come back, maybe that blank page won’t be so much of an enemy as an invitation.

Internal Programming

Human bodies are weird, and human brains are even weirder. Today’s party trick trivia of the day is that the human eyes see the world upside down — something to do with the ocular lenses — and that it’s the brain that flips these images right side up. It kind of makes you wonder how that kind of stuff came into being, evolution wise, I mean. Was there a period where whatever ancestral monkey was walking around seeing the whole world the wrong way up?

So brains are elastic, sure, but they’re also infinitely programmable. As people inhabiting these sponges driving around meatsuits, that can be a blessing or a curse. I can train myself to be able to play a song on the piano without even thinking about it. Or, I can accidentally train myself to not wake up when my alarm goes off in the morning, and allow my brain to go on its own internal clock.There are infinite possibilities, especially if you use that idea about how humans only use 10% of their brains. (It isn’t true, but think about all the B movies it’s spawned.)

As people writing stories, these weird sponges sloshing around in our skulls can count as antagonists, helpers to the protagonist, or anything in between. Take it literally like in It’s Kind of a Funny Story where the main character has depression. Take it metaphorically like in any Sherlock Holmes adaptation. Make it interesting, above all.

Myself, I’ve got half a mind to write a short story about how somebody sleeps in too late because they’re not as young as they used to beĀ and they wake up in the wrong world. (I told you, the plot bunnies strike from anywhere.) (Also, I’m only twenty three, how is my sleep cycle so much less elastic than it was just two years ago?) (See, there’s your verisimilitude. Some things you write because you think they’re interesting, and some things you write because you know them inside out and you want to know you’re not the only person who does.)

Whatever way you play with the concept, it’s always more interesting to see what happens when it goes wrong. The pianist who has played his favorite song “Moonlight Sonata” so many times that he accidentally starts playing it instead of the wedding march for a friend’s marriage ceremony. The famous detective who relies on his brain to solve his mysteries for him, who makes a fatal mistake by assuming something that’s been right a thousand times before but that isn’t right now. Et cetera, et cetera — go nuts.

Inspiration (1/?)

I’ve mentioned before about how inspiration can come, lo, in a burst of light, with much singing of angelic choirs, etc etc, but that it comes inconsistently and that you can’t rely on it. That’s still very much true. If you sit around and wait for it, then the world will go past without you having written more than a few hundred words. (Trust me, I tried writing that way for a while. It really doesn’t work.)

So inspiration, or the muse, or whatever, it’s a fickle thing. Long dry spells are par for the course, and you have to sit down and write no matter what. But sometimes inspiration decides to go nuts and see new story ideas in everything. Including car commercials.

In fandom space, this concept is called a “plot bunny.” Some idea tugs at your brain and you have to write it down, follow it, see which Wonderland it leads you to. Maybe the Cheshire cat has needle-sharp teeth this time, or maybe he’s a goofy thing that sounds like Winnie the Pooh. It’s a toss-up! But it’s just the bare bones of an idea, an inkling that has potential but that needs to be properly fleshed out. And the problem is that it won’t leave you alone until you do.

On the one hand, if you’re hurting for ideas, plot bunnies are really, really nice. For example, the project I’m working on now: I had ideas for the beginning and the end, but nothing for the middle bits. And then here came plot bunny #8465, with a fun little mental image of somebody with a frying pan walking through the forest. Oh Yes. And suddenly I knew how the middle would work out.

On the other hand, if you already have a fleshed-out project you’re working on, getting ideas from new landscapes or car commercials or Hulu commercials or whatever … yeah, it’s a little silly, but inspiration comes from anywhere, right? Still. Getting a lot of ideas when I’m already working on a project is a little overwhelming. I’m kind of a one-person-dog when it comes to stories. I can’t work on four different things at once, or I’ll lose my mind.

The solution is one that I read about in a Book On Writing – Managing Your Inner Artist/Writer: Strategies for Success by M.L. Buchman(s). You give the plot bunny a few pages, and then you stick it in a folder, so that the next time you’re hurting for ideas you can find one that has already occurred to you and that you know you like.

Oh yeah, as for that car commercial plot bunny … I’ve got four words for you: Sentient crash-test robots.

Have fun.

First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.

Keep Making Progress

The number one best marketing tool for new writers is to write the next book. Every single Book or Article On Writing (for indies, that is) stresses that quantity is nearly as important as quality: the more books you have out, the more opportunities there are for people to discover your work, and the more likely you are to actually be successful in the business. You still have to be good — or at least, good enough to sell — but the backlist sells the frontlist sells the backlist, and it accumulates sales like a snowball.

It’s something of a science by now. I’ve heard varying accounts, but the big break for indies seems to be somewhere around the tenth book. I look at that figure, and I look at the publishing schedule I have worked out, and that’s not going to be for another two years. I can only imagine how much my writing techniques, and the length of my books, will improve during that time. Ten books. Yes, I’m a novice in this business; I have so long to go before I even reach journeyman status. It’s a little daunting.

But as they say, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which is why this evening when I come home from the day job I’m going to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up the first draft of book two. And which is why I have a publishing schedule worked out of ideas to turn into books. I’ve got a whole series or two basically mapped out. Nothing that emerges in the skull actually turns out exactly the same way on the page; that doesn’t make the end product bad, it just makes it different. So probably things will end up differently than I anticipate. But having a map for those ten books, and beyond, helps that ten-book-goal seem a little less daunting.

I don’t know for sure that I’m going to take off as an indie writer. The week between publishing the last one and starting the next one has thoughts (mostly worries) rattling around in my head. If I sell x number of copies in a month then I’ll be making y in royalties and that means z after taxes, etc etc etc … Shh, self, stop. Of course if I only have one book out it’s not going to sell that well. Who are we, some kind of one-hit-wonder? That might have worked for the childhood daydream, but not for real life. Just focus on the next book, and stop worrying. Well, all that means is that I need to make the gap between finishing and starting smaller next time!

Made progress — good. Now continue making progress.

The Long Game

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a writer!”

The term “writer” signified to me, at the age of six or seven, being able to live in a big white house with a huge backyard and wear a nice bathrobe while you worked, possibly sipping from a mug of cocoa and looking out at the wide forest just beyond the edge of your property. There would be dogs of course, and at least one cat, and a parrot who could talk, and a snake in a big terrarium. In short, it was more about being filthy stinking rich than actually doing the work of writing. I wanted to be a writer the way some kids want to be astronauts.

Now I am slightly older and slightly wiser in the ways of the business, and I still want to be filthy stinking rich, but I want writing to be the thing that gets me there, and for specific reasons, not just because it’s a way to wiggle out of doing an honest day’s work.

In short, even when I said to myself, “self, we are going to be a psychologist” or “self, we are going to be a French translator” or whatever else I decided I wanted to do, I was still writing as a hobby. Not finishing a lot of drafts, mind you, and a lot of it derivative (that’s the fancy word for fan fiction, folks), but still I was writing. I liked doing it. Tapping on a keyboard isn’t just a way for me to yell into the void, it’s a way to share experiences and memories and ideas, to convey what’s rattling around in my head and make it rattle around in someone else’s, too. That’s a really cool thing.

It is work. Seven year old me just thought that inspiration came like a divine stroke of lightning and created the characters fresh on the page. Well, sometimes inspiration comes and punches me in the face, but that isn’t reliable and it can’t be relied upon if you’re going to make writing into a business. You have to sit down, get the fingers on the keyboard, and write whether inspiration comes that day or not.

And the other thing is that it is a business, which means you have to treat it like a business. Tax forms and IDs and bank accounts and paperwork, so much paperwork, dear God save me from the paperwork. But it’s all stuff that has to get done before you can start reaping even the smallest of rewards.

That sounds horribly unglamorous, I know. But the cool thing is that, at the end of it, you’ve made something that is uniquely yours, and not the gift of some weird bolt from the blue. You made those characters, you made an entire world for people to play in and visit over and over again. And you get the satisfaction that comes from knowing you worked to create something — it might not be physical, but it’s still affecting the world we live in just a little. Which is way better than just lounging around in a bathrobe drinking coffee all day.

I’ve just started out in this game. I am a complete novice out in the wide world. Watching the royalties trickle in makes me fidgety, to be honest. I want to be where the big guys are. But just because this is where I am now doesn’t mean that this is where I’ll be in five years — or that that’s where I’ll be in ten years, or twenty. I’m young and I’ve got a long ways to go, and all the time in the world.