characters

Driving Forces

I learn more about my characters by letting them hang out in my real life, even if it’s nothing like their own world.

Dalvin, for instance, likes to blare pop rock music and take the wheel when we’re in the car. She’s a surprisingly competent driver, for a girl from a world in which mills and magic are the height of technological advancement.

When I ask her why she likes it so much, she answers, “It’s a lot like battle, isn’t it? One wrong move and you’re dead or injured, and there’s nothing for it but to let your body outpace your mind and do what you’ve taught it to do. It’s very relaxing.”

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Relaxing? To think that you’re one wrong move away from injury or death? I certainly don’t want to think of driving in that light… How on earth do you find your looming mortality relaxing?

Rarely interested in self-reflection, she only shrugs. “Everything’s too immediate to be fussed with thinking about it. I don’t like thinking.”

Huh. That’s an odd thing to say. Why don’t you like thinking?

She gives me a dirty look. “I don’t know,” she says slowly. “Do you want me to think about it?”

Ah. Looks like I’ve used up her introspection for the day.

*****

Check out Grace the Mace

In which Dalvin is forced not only to fight for her life… but to think about it.

We’re Mostly Mad Here

I was standing at the stove with my friends lounging around me as I poured pasta into boiling water, laughing at an exchange between Will, Sy, and Gilbert, when a sudden worry flashed through my mind.

How am I going to feed so many people with just one box of mac-‘n’-cheese? I frowned.

Then sanity resurfaced, and my face went red as I realized it was just me and my best writer friend Danielle standing in the kitchen. The hilarious Will, Sy, and Gilbert were our characters and muses.

I revealed my lapse in mental acuity, and they laughed at me—three imaginary, one present on the common plane of reality, and all four mocking my madness.

That's right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

That’s right, keep laughing at the chef. That will never have any consequences.

But this madness—while entirely laughable—stems from a very important part of my writing process: taking my characters seriously.

Now, you don’t have to slip that far down the rabbit hole to be a good writer. But whether or not you consider your cast to be real, you must consider them valid.

Even if you think your characters to be players in your plot, not friends hanging out in your kitchen, their truths (not just their mutable facts) must be given due consideration. Avid readers can smell a cardboard cutout character an aisle away. Even side characters are better for having an underbelly. Even if it’s never shown in the story you’re telling, it will influence the visible surface, lending depth and truth.

Writing Grace the Mace, I considered the forces that had formed each character, and the impact each one would have on the others–in shaping, motivating, and provoking.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the title character herself. Dalvin Grace is shaped by two opposing forces—her mother, and the rest of the world. She resembles both her caring mother and her cruel environment. She resents both her “weak” mother and the buffeting world of the Great Graves mountain nations. Her feelings are spurred by—you guessed it, both her mother, and the world around them.

Had I treated Grace as simply a cog in my plot, I might have decided that she would defend her mother—another cog, a porcelain figure in maternal damsel-ish distress, serving the plot much as love interests commonly serve. That would have left me with an action-adventure novel that read much like an old, two-dimensional video game. However elaborately I plotted the “levels,” the main character would move through them, and collect the prize—mother’s safety—at the end.

But Weylah, the mother, is a valid person in her own right. Sweet, feminine, naive, and near-magically buoyant—those facts I knew from the first brush. I delved beyond the ultimate image of maternity, looking for personhood behind those soft, amber eyes. I asked a lot of questions. What were her fears? Regrets? Strengths? Worst memories? Doubts? Faiths? Worldview?

I can’t say a bell rings in my head at the precise moment a character goes from being an idea to being a person. But usually, the change is near the moment I understand their deepest, greatest why. Writing is an art, not a science, and the artistic process is never entirely predictable, but if they haven’t made that transition from pile of facts to true person, I know I’m not finished. If the people aren’t true, neither is their story.

If I didn’t understand Weylah, I wouldn’t understand the unique tensions between the flowerseller and her mercenary daughter, and how the push-and-pull of that relational tide shapes Dalvin’s very existence, for better and for worse—and for the plot.

Some authors are of the opinion that characters only serve the plot. But characters known in their own right will serve a plot far better than dress-up dolls sewn for the part ever could.

People are the heart of any story, and if you don’t write it with pumping blood, the best you’ll ever get is the interesting corpse of an idea.

You hardly need to go so far as to mistakenly make dinner for five, but a character that inhabits a writer’s head is, of course, that much more likely to stick in the head of a reader.

I think of fiction as a happily catching madness.

*****

If you’d like a disgruntled, paranoid mercenary rattling around in your head,

Check out Grace the Mace, available on Kindle in paperback.

 

 

 

That’s Just Typical

Someone recently made the statement that if a female character was created for the purpose of being a male character’s love interest, they were, by default, two-dimensional.

Now, on the surface, this may sound like a legitimate strike against sexism and/or shallowness in general. But let’s substitute a few ideas, and see if the concept holds up. What if we said, for instance, that:

Any female character created for the purpose of being a male character’s mother is two-dimensional.

Any female character created for the purpose of being a male character’s mentor is two-dimensional.

Any male character created for the purpose of being another male character’s rival in love is two-dimensional.

What’s being said here is that any character created for the purpose of being a device for another character’s plot arc is two-dimensional. The original sentiment may think it’s feminist, but if (if) it’s being fair and including the equivalents listed above, it’s actually anti-archetypal.

This position says that living, breathing, three-dimensional characters don’t come as the fulfillment of an author’s plot-related needs or desires. They come as people, and they move the plot by their own motivations and actions.

There’s something to be said for that; there really is. Ever the Actor began with a person—with a sparkle of eyes, a full sense of personhood, and a whisper in the dark that said, “Tell my story; I promise you’ll love it.” But it couldn’t end there.

There had to be other people in his story, and not all of them sprang up and seized my mind as he did.

Some of them (in fact, most of them,) I brought in to serve a purpose. *Le gasp*

That’s right. I needed an inciting incident, so I gave him a distant nemesis in the form of a king with some interesting ideas about tax reform.
I needed a captain to take him aboard a ship, and then make some particular (and peculiar) decisions thereafter, so I made one.
I needed a prophet to foretell of his coming, so I made one.
I needed someone scary to pose a threat to his companion, so I made one.

And if that’s where I’d stopped, I’d have been very wrong indeed. But I didn’t.

Next, I looked for a person.

They had a job to do, sure, but I still wanted a person. So I looked at the resume—a king, you say? Good, that’s just what we’re looking for,—but once I had the qualified character in my office, I started asking more questions.

“So, how do you feel about your rule? Any powers-behind-the-throne I should know about? Family life? Motivations? Oh, you want to conquer the Kapatak Union? Good to know, let me note that down. That will certainly change some things…”

It turned out the captain was down on his luck, desperate, with the strong affections of his crew, but a mind on the verge of cracking under the fear of losing what he loved most—ship and sea.

The prophet was a four-year-old child, blasé and powerful, disturbingly cheerful, and in possession of an ability shared by no one else on her planet.

Further inspection found that the “someone scary” wasn’t just a giant angry blacksmith, he was a giant angry blacksmith who smuggled supplies to his oppressed homeland in support of an uprising that, together with my king’s ambitions, form the political backbone of my sequel.

And yes, as it happens, I did think Syawn should have a girlfriend, and created a character purely to fill that role, and to make sense within the scheme of his life. And closer examination proved that she was just the sort of woman who would—ah, but that’s a spoiler.

My point? You can start with a person, sure, and go from there. If you don’t have a plot, finding a person and their motivations is a good place to start.

But it’s just as legitimate to start with a need, and create a figure to fill it. Yes: even if that “need” is for a love interest, any gender.

Just—so long as you find out who they are.

Take them out for coffee, sit down, and find out that there’s more to them than what they have to offer you, your plot, your other character. See, really see, the face behind the archetype.

And always leave them room to surprise you.

100-word wonders: Agency

Hey. Syawn here.

We've decided a picture of me should be posted at the top of the post whenever I'm the one writing it, apparently to make sure everyone understands who's talking. Fair enough, as some newcomers might  otherwise assume that the so-called Inkcaster was capable of writing her own bloody blog posts.

We’ve decided a picture of me should be posted at the top of the post whenever I’m the one writing it, apparently to make sure everyone understands who’s talking. Fair enough, as some newcomers might otherwise assume that the so-called Inkcaster was capable of writing her own bloody blog posts.

I’ve started a weekly challenge for my author. It’s a good way to keep her on track. This challenge will be to write exactly 100 words on whatever subject I’m wondering about at the time, every Tuesday.

Why Tuesday? she asks. Because today is Tuesday, and I’ll not let her put it off for one more day.

Why whatever subject you’re wondering about? What about subjects I’m wondering about? the author asks, affronted. Because if I let her pick, she would be all day dithering between one musing and another.

Why 100 words precisely? she asks. Because I said so.

Why agency? Because Tirzah has been thinking about it, and sometimes I’m kind enough to defer the choosing to her.

Why, I’ll even let her go first in the lineup. Have at ye, author, for no more nor fewer than a hundred words of wondering, then I air my thoughts, then she’ll wrap it up.

*****

I was actually wondering how much characters need to have to be good characters.

By agency, I mean a person’s capacity to direct themselves and effect their world, rather than all the direction and effect coming from the outside in.

Can a character be forever pushed about and tossed by the winds of circumstance, and the story still be a good story?

Hmmn, not in my book. The circumstantial winds may blow, but the character needs to effect the story, or else they seem pointless as a character—a simple viewing window into a plot, when I’m wanting a person.

*****

In Ever the Actor, I actually sacrificed a considerable amount of agency, allowing myself to be pushed about by “the winds of circumstance” in the form of a nine year old mage. (Now there was a little girl with a ridiculous amount of agency.)

 However, the agency I sacrificed was for the cause of gaining greater agency, and I still left my mark on the world along the way. I wasn’t so much wind-tossed as… self-directed into being directed by someone else.

By the end of the tale, though… any agency I’d felt I had was thrown to the winds.

*****

Yes, you do start out drifting rather aimlessly in your sequel  (as the title “Scriptless” suggests) but you get the hang of improv fairly quickly, and boom, you’re advising revolutionaries.

 You just can’t help taking ahold of yourself and the world again, even if you don’t know what to do with either. You have more inborn agency than nearly anyone else on your planet.

I don’t think that degree of world-shaking agency is required in a story, but it must be there. The MC, antagonist, bit-parters… A story needs to be moved by its people—or else it’s not theirs.

*****

100 Word Wonder: Failure

Hey. Syawn here.

I’ve started a weekly challenge for my author. It’s a good way to keep her on track. This challenge will be to write exactly 100 words on whatever subject I’m wondering about at the time, every Tuesday.

Why Tuesday? she asks. Because today is Tuesday, and I’ll not let her put it off for one more day.

Why whatever subject you’re wondering about? What about subjects I’m wondering about? the author asks, affronted. Because if I let her pick, she would be all day dithering between one musing and another.

Why 100 words precisely? she asks. Because I said so.

Why “failure”? I don’t know, author, why did you wait until 11 pm to begin our agreed-upon weekly assignment?

Without further ado, the 100-word wonders of myself, her, and us together.

*****

So do you see what I have to put up with? An author who agrees to be coerced into writing 300 measly words every Tuesday, and what does she do, but put it off until it’s barely even legally Tuesday anymore? There are moments a person feels that they shall certainly never be written. This is what comes of nesting in a head prone to failure—saved by the bell? Reminded by the midnight tolling just how altogether lost is our cause, more like. I don’t know what to do with this girl. Would that I could scribe without her.

 *****

I was entirely planning on writing this post in the afternoon, you know that. Then out of the blue, it turns out that I have work in the afternoon, not the evening, and I’m already late, so I rush to do that, and once I return I have well forgotten—this excuse begins to sound less like an explanation and more like a further unfolding of exactly how much I have failed at this day, I wince to note. Remembering tasks to do and agreements made is not my strong point, and my grief therewith fails to mend the ill.

 *****

“S’truth. Tears turn not back the hands of the clock.” Sy nods.

 “Surely you can have some compassion?” Tirzah asks, exasperated with herself, but hopeful of mercy. “Have you not had some pet failure your efforts could not overcome?”

 Sy sits a moment, silent. “Never anything to do with discipline,” he says. “Which is why I so boggle at your incapacity to force your own hand. If I have struggled and failed, it is against external forces. That is, until…” he swallows. “Magic,” he confesses. “Never have I so failed as at magic. Inside me, and at once the enemy…”

*****

Tirzah is displeased at the lack of resolution, the lack of a decent arc. That’s what happens when you started minutes before the deadline, dearest–poor quality. Just suck it up, vow to do better, and post before midnight. You’ve got two minutes.

Sittin’ Pretty

Syawn here.

We've decided a picture of me should be posted at the top of the post whenever I'm the one writing it, apparently to make sure everyone understands who's talking. Fair enough, as some newcomers might  otherwise assume that the so-called Inkcaster was capable of writing her own bloody blog posts.

We’ve decided a picture of me should be posted at the top of the post whenever I’m the one writing it, apparently to make sure everyone understands who’s talking. Fair enough, as some newcomers might otherwise assume that the so-called Ink Caster was capable of writing her own bloody blog posts.

I observe an exceptional percentage of very attractive people in the world of fictional Main Characters. I claim to be no exception to this exceptional rule; that would be a lie. (Not that I never lie, but I’m hardly going to lie about this.) But the numbers are, quite frankly, unlikely–and it’s an unlikelihood that troubles some people.

It does trouble me when a writer expressly tells the reader that their character is attractive. Attractiveness, after all, is usually less of a fact than it is an opinion. Writer, tell us your MC’s features, that we may judge of them. Tell us that other characters find your MC attractive. We may or may not agree, but if you tell us directly that they’re super hot, all we will know is that you find them to be super hot.

Consider: Earlier, I implied my own attractiveness. What does that tell you? That I’m attractive? No–it tells you my opinion, it tells you that I’m fairly confident that many people will find me attractive. It is an opinion I have formed and based largely on my observation of others’ opinions.

When you read Ever the Actor, you might observe the same, through the eyes or actions of others. But you? You might not be into ginger curls and green eyes, for some mad reason. I might be bigger and bulkier and bolder than you find attractive. Snark or lawlessness might actually be off-putting to you. My face might be too round and ruddy for your taste (a bit of an insecurity, I confess, that still buries itself under my most-probably-alluring confidence.) Or you may just find it difficult to consider a male to be hot at all.

I have found such persons in my own world; I’m sure they exist in yours. While almost everyone is at least startled by my size, (and you can take that any way you like,) there are those I encounter that don’t seem the least affected by my looks, or even by my personality–for all that I try to mold the latter to the situation and individual.

So writers, please, tell us why you or anyone in your MC’s world might find them worth looking at. But unless there’s a supernatural force working on the other character’s perceptions to force them to find your MC attractive, there are going to be those that don’t. And even if supernatural superattractiveness is the case (and it’s a case that grows more strained and weary with every paranormal pretty-boy that goes by, so be very, very careful,) then whatever you do, by Lord Chance and his Daughters, don’t tell your readers how to feel about it!

But why does it continue? Why does this trope of good looks and sexual appeal live on, this habit that began with the writers of the epics of old, and remains even when most of that ancient idealization is falling away from our tale telling?

It might be wish-fulfillment, or to turn themselves on, or as a cheap-and-easy trick they hope will cheaply and easily make their character more likeable.

But beyond that, there may be a reason, an innocent and even sweet reason that writers keep telling us how damn hot, cute, sexy, beautiful, and handsome their Main Characters are.

To be continued.

Sometimes, Nine > Fourteen

Mysst is my oldest character, for all she’s the youngest of my cast. She got her start when I was twelve, as my alter-ego unwritten-fanfic persona. She/I was a sword swingin’ Redwall otter. Yeah. You read that right.

When I first heard of National Novel Writing Month at fourteen, I decided to build her a story world, turn her human, and make her — surprise! — fourteen.

I failed at 30,000 words of dull traveling scenes and a combination of cliché and totally ridiculous drama. Still, it was a victory for my writing career; for one, it started me noveling. For another, there were a few gold nuggets in my pile of words.

Mysst, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.

Failing to see that she’d devolved into  a whiney, wishey-washey bore, I started in on her tale again the next year. Thank heavens Syawn hijacked that one early.

A year and another NaNoWriMo later, I’d finished the story. And boy, was Mysst still lame. Not to mention a little daft. Her main quest, which was intrinsic to the plot, was incredibly simple-minded.

Then inspiration, that fickle, occasionally abusive friend of writers, struck.

I rolled back the years, turning her into a nine-year-old, and with it, making an entirely different person of her. Without my trying to make her anything but five years younger, she overhauled her own character (I can only imagine she had been waiting for just such an opportunity), turning into a tough, disciplined little firebrand, a bossyboots with a wide stubborn streak and surprising adaptability.

She was exactly the kind of girl who would dream up a madcap plan and fly after it on the triple-wings of determination, guilt, and fool’s hope.

So there’s a trick to remember when your character isn’t shaping up: screw around with the numbers. It can turn out that, against all mathematical wisdom, nine is greater than fourteen.