October 11, 2012 / 2 Comments

Three About Three About Characters

            It’s not a pop culture reference, don’t worry…

            I haven’t talked about characters for a while, so I figured we were due.
            In my opinion, character can be broken down into two sets of three.  I talked about the first set a while back, and I’ve mentioned the individual elements on and off since then.  The second set is kind of a new idea here at the ranty blog, although you’ll probably see some connections with other things I’ve blathered on about.
            The first set is all about hard facts.  This is character sketch stuff that may or may not come up in my actual story, but it’s still important for me to know as a writer.  If I want Phoebe to be a good character, there are three traits she has to have.
            Firstand foremost, a character needs to be believable.  It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, lizard man, ninja, superhero, or supervillain.  If my reader can’t believe in the character within the established setting, my story’s got an uphill battle going right from the start. 
            Phoebe has to have natural dialogue.  It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like she’s just spouting out my opinions or beliefs.  The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words Phoebe would use.  I’ve seen countless stories where soldiers talk like school kids or high school jocks talk like Oxford professors.
            The same goes for Phoebe’s actions and motives.  There has to be a believable reason she does the things she does.  A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know about her, or will come to know.  If a characters motivations are just there to push the plot along, my readers are going to pick up on that really quick. 
            Also, please keep in mind that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable.  I’ve talked here many, many times about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble.  Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.
            The second trait, tied closely to the first, is that Phoebe needs to be relatable.  As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own.  We enjoy seeing similarities between characters and ourselves so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d liketo happen (or be able to happen) in our own lives.  Taken is about a father trying to reconnect with his somewhat-estranged daughter.  The Harry Potter books are about a kid whose adoptive family dislikes him for being different.  Grimm is about an up-and coming police detective whose getting ready to propose to his girlfriend.  There’s a reason so many movies, television shows, and novels are based on the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations.
            Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience’s common  knowledge.  There needs to be something they can connect with.  Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two.  Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin.  The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it.  If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they’re unrelatable.  If Phoebe is a billionaire heiress ninja who only speaks in either Cockney rhyming slang or an obscure Croatian dialect and lives by the code of ethics set down by her druidic cult… how the heck does anyone identify with that?  And if readers can’t identify with Phoebe, how are they going to be affected by what happens to her?
            That brings us to the third point, a good character needs to be likeable.  Not necessarily pleasant or decent, but as readers we must want to follow this character through the story.  Just as there needs to be some elements to Phoebe we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit.  If she’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of her exploits… or lack thereof.
            Again, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person.  Leon the Professional is a brutal hit man.  Cyrus V. Sinclairaspires to being a sociopath.  Barney Stinson is a shameless womanizer. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer with some horrific dietary preferences.  Yet in all of these cases, we’re still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.
            A good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while.  That’s what great fiction is, after all.  It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life.  So it has to be a person–and a life– we want to sink into.
            Now, I’m sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits.  It’d be silly for me to deny this.  I think you’ll find, however, the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually supporting characters.  They don’t need all three of these traits because they aren’t the focus of our attention.  If I’m a halfway decent writer, I’m not going to waste my time and word count on a minor character—I’m going to save them for Phoebe.
            So, that’s the first set of three.
            The second set of three is about putting all that information into my story.  Y’see, Timmy, it’s not enough just to have the above character elements.  They need to be established in the story in a natural, organic way.  
            Let’s talk about the three main ways of doing that.
            Firstis the easy one—characters establish themselves through their own words and actions.  I’ve mentioned before that how someone talks is very important, as well as what they talk about.  If all Phoebe talks about is work, that tells us something about her.  If every conversation she has leads to talking about sex, that gives us a different bit of insight.  If she speaks with precise grammar it implies something about her, just like it does if she talks like a stoned surfer, or if she rarely talks at all.  If I show Phoebe kicking an alley cat on her way home from work, this says a lot about her character.  On the other hand, if the reader sees her giving the raggedy cat a can of tuna and some attention, it says something else (depending on when it happens in the story). 
            Second is the way other characters talk about them and react to them.  If Phoebe is talking in a calm, measured voice but her employees are nervous—or even terrified—that’s a big clue in to what kind of person they know she is.  Likewise, if she’s trying to ream someone out over their poor job performance and they’re ignoring her, that also tells us something.  A lot of my characters are going to know each other better than the audience does, and their interactions are going to be a big hint to the reader as to what kind of person Phoebe is.
            And thirdis how their words and actions jibe with the reader’s personal experience.  Remember above how I mentioned Phoebe turning every conversation to sex?  Well if that’s the case, but we also see her go home alone every night, that’s telling us something insightful about her.  If she tells the guy at the bar that she loves animals but then throws something at that cat, it gives us a much better idea about who she is.  And if she absolutely assures somebody that she can be trusted after we’ve seen her screw three other people over, well…  As many folks have said, actions speak louder than words.  So when there’s a contrast or an open contradiction, this can be a great way to get across major character elements.
            Two sets of three.  Look over some of your characters and see where they match up, and with which sets.
            Next time, I’d like to step outside of the usual topics here and talk about why people I’ve slept with generally rate higher than other people.
            Until then, go write.
October 4, 2012 / 3 Comments

The First Thing That Comes to Mind

            I just wanted to do something quick this week, but hopefully you’ll all be impressed by the clever way I make this particular point.

            Grab a piece of paper and write these things down real quick.  Don’t think, don’t second-guess yourself, just scribble down the first things that come to mind, okay?  I want you to write down a television show about an island, a number from one to four, a Disney princess, and a vegetable.
            We’ll get back to that in a bit.
            Every now and then you’ll hear some guru talk about Jung or the zeitgeist or collective subconscious.  They’re pretty terms, but I’d guess four out of five times the people slinging them don’t really know what they mean.
            I think it’s much simpler than that.  Nowadays we’re all watching the same shows and movies and listening to the same music.  A lot of us are reading the same highly-recommended books.  Through the wonders of the internet, we can spend an hour each morning getting news updates from around the country and around the world.  Plus, all of us can discover the same Korean rap star within a week of each other.
            I’d guess at least ninety percent of you reading this had a basic Western education.  Most of us probably went to college for a few years, too.  We’ve compared banks and apartment-shopped and made budgets for either work or the home.  Maybe both. 
            We all share a lot of the same experiences, and we draw on those experiences to make the same decisions.  Because of this, we tend to be drawn to the same things—especially when you start dividing folks into fans of different genres and styles. 
            This is why you should never, ever go with the first idea you think of.  Because the odds are very good that at least a thousand other people just thought of it, too.  And half of those people are going to attempt something with that idea.
            I’ve talked about screenplay contests and some of the recurring concepts that made me and other readers cringe.  One of those was the Current Events script.  It’s a screenplay based off a recent, high-profile story that got a fair amount of news coverage.  They’re almost always rushed and, more to the point, there’s usually at least half-a-dozen of them about the same event.  And that’s just what one individual reader sees, so odds are there are a few hundred  of these scripts floating around each contest, all based off the same event. 
            A few months back I started toying with the idea of a new book, one that could possibly be the start of a new series.  Almost immediately, I came up with something that I thought was fairly clever and very open-ended.  I mentioned it to a friend over Labor Day weekend, though, and she said it sounded familiar.  She whipped out her Kindle, browsed Amazon for a minute, and came up with a name and title for me.
            Well, I got home and started checking it out.  It turns out the other author and I had both come up with the exact same premise.  Our main characters had the same background, the same life-changing event with the same results (and requiring the same medical breakthrough), and the same changes in their life because of it.  Different plots, but the story of our main character was almost identical.  The other author had just come up with it eighteen months earlier than me.
            We all get exposed to the same input and process it in similar ways.  That’s why the first thing that comes to mind is usually the thing that everyone else thought of, too.  Even if I think I’m a clever and exceedingly smart writer, I’m going to make the same first choices as everyone else.
            Don’t believe me?  Remember those things I asked you about up above?  I’m willing to bet that most of you wrote down LOST, three, Cinderella, and carrots. 
            What did I get?  Three out of four right?  I bet I got four out of four for some of you.
            When it comes to plot, try to avoid going with the first thing that comes to mind.  If you’re feeling gutsy, avoid the second and third, too.  That’s what makes a good writer—going beyond the obvious.
            Next time, unless I get another really cool request, I’m thinking I might talk a little bit about characters.
            Until then, go write.
September 27, 2012

Fleshing Things Out

            That’s right.  Taking requests and playing the hits you ask for.

            Probably one of the most common thing writers hear is people asking about turning ideas into stories.  “Oh, I’ve got a really great idea, I just need someone to help me turn it into a book.”  I get messages like this four or five times a year.  When it’s from friends, I try to be really polite and explain why it doesn’t make much sense for me to help with their idea when I’ve already got far too many of my own to work on.  When it’s someone I don’t even know…
          I usually just ignore those messages. 
          Still, the unspoken question there is a valid one.  How do you go from clever idea to full-fledged book or screenplay?  How does a writer go from “bugs in amber have dinosaur DNA in their bellies” to Jurassic Park?
            Let’s talk about that.
            Now, as usual, nothing I’m about to say is a hard-fast rule.  A lot of it comes from a talk I had a few Christmases back with writer/director Shane Black (best known for Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the upcoming Iron Man 3, and a string of really awful dirty jokes in the movie Predator).  He had a few thoughts on how to assemble a story that I thought were very insightful, and I’m going to use his general framework to address this week’s topic.
            Having said that, just to make things less confusing, from here on in I’ll be referring to our collection of words as “a novel.”  It’ll be clear why as we move on.  Depending on what you want to write, feel free to swap “novel” out for screenplay, short story, epic poem, or whatever. 
            If I’ve got an idea for a novel, I want to look at it in terms of plot and story.  Can it expand into a full plot?  Does it lend itself to a strong story?
            Let’s go over each of these terms.
            Okay, first we need to understand what the plot is.  If I’m writing a book, the plot is what’s going to be on the back cover.  If I’m writing a screenplay, it’s going to be what they put on the back of the DVD.  Simply put, the plot is the chain of events that make up the novel.  It’s what makes readers need to turn the page so they can find out what happens next.
            It’s important to remember that one idea does not make a plot.  “There’s a haunted castle,” is not a plot.  “My partner is a robot,” is not a plot.  “I want to go to the prom with a cheerleader/ quarterback,” is not a plot.  A lone idea is just a plot point, and basic geometry tells us we need multiple points to make something worth looking at.  That something being a novel (or screenplay, epic poem, etc.).
            If I’m describing a plot, I’m going to use a lot of conjunctions.  I’ll be using and, but, and orto string all those plot points together.  Take a look at this example…
            Indiana Jones is an adventurer who finds ancient treasures and he’s a professor of archaeology at a university.  The government hires him to find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis, butthe Nazis have a head start.  Indy goes to find his old mentor, but finds out that Abner has died and his daughter has a grudge against Indy.  The Nazis show up and Indy and Marion fight them off.  They travel to Cairo and meet Indy’s old partner, Sallah, but learn the Nazis already have their excavation well under way.  The Nazis try to have Indy killed in the marketplace and he fights them off again, butMarion is killed when the getaway truck explodes.  Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered butit turns out there are two parts to the inscription and the Nazis only have half of it.
            See what I mean?  Lots of points, and I’ve barely written out half the movie.   It’s also worth re-noting then none of those ideas on its own is a novel.  It’s when they start joining up that we get something that interests us. 
            This is where a lot of people mess up the whole idea of “expanding an idea into a novel.”  Y’see, Timmy, an idea doesn’texpand.  The plot expands as more ideas are added into it.  It’s impossible to expand “Indy and Sallah get the medallion deciphered” without adding a new element to the mix.  Seriously, try it.  Any attempt is just going to be some artificial wordplay and padding until I bring “it turns out there are two parts to the inscription” into it.
            It’s also worth noting another key thing.   For most good novels, the plot is the attempt to do something.  Not necessarily succeeding at something, mind you, but attempting to do it.  Beat the Nazis, save the girl, beat the system, save the clock tower, and so on.  Plot is active.  In that little summary up above, ten of the eighteen points are characters physically doing things. 
            Listing these points out can also be a hint that my story is getting a little thin on plot.  If I’m really stretching to come up with individual points, or falling back on a lot of inactive, internal points, that could mean my novel is veering into more of an artsy-character range.  If a lot of my points don’t really tie back to the main thrust of the novel, that’s another good sign.  There’s nothing wrong with that, provided I knock the character stuff out of the park.  Which brings us to our next point.
            Now, if plot is what goes on around the characters, the story is what goes on inside the characters.  Plot is big and external.  Story is small and intimate and internal.  It’s the personal stuff that explains why the characters are interested in the plot.  And if it’s why the characters are interested, it’s also why the reader is interested.  Plot makes us need to turn the page, but story makes us want to turn the page because we’ve come to like these characters. 
            A great example of plot vs. story is Silence of the Lambs.  The plot is the search for a missing girl, and some of the desperate decisions and deals the FBI will make to find her.  The story is about Clarice Starling trying to make up for what she sees as an awful failure in her childhood, and how much of her life is shaped by the need to balance that failure.
            I’ve said a few times here that characters are key to a successful novel, and that’s because without good characters you can’t have a lot of story.  I can have a ton of plot, but not much else.
            Now, because of this, developing an idea into a novel is a little tougher from the story side, because it involves developing characters.  How the characters react to the idea depends on who they are and how this idea interacts with their personality and history.  Which means they need to have personalities and histories.  And a lot of this can just come down to asking and answering questions that relate back to that original idea.
            Let’s go with the one I mentioned up at the top—my partner is a robot.  Let’s say my character is Bob.  Did Bob know this partnership was coming or did it get sprung on him?  Does he like being partnered with a robot?  Does he like robots in general?  What kind of partnership do they have?  Is Bob the junior or senior partner?  Why?  Do they work well together?  Does Bob have weaknesses the robot will compensate for (or vice versa)?    
            The answers to all of these questions expand the story.  Odds are that some of the answers will lead to more questions, too.  And more questions means the plot is expanding.
            As above, this can also be a hint that my novel is a little weak on the story side of things.  If I just give quick, inconsistent answers to these sort of questions, my characters are going to end up pretty flat.  Character arcs are a big part of the story, so if my character never changes in any noticeable way, it probably means my novel is emphasizing plot over everything else.  There’s nothing wrong with that—there are plenty of fantastic plot-driven  books and movies—but it does mean I need to have a really solid, engaging plot.
            It’s important to notice that story is why so many novels can use the same plot but still be very different.  Alan Moore’s Watchmenhas the exact same plot as the classic Outer Limits episode “The Architects of Fear,” but they have different stories.  The same with Never Let Me Go and The Island.  While the basic idea is the same, the character tweaks make each of these into unique stories.
            Consider this—how much does the story of Raiders of the Lost Ark change if I just do a gender swap on Indy?  Start way back with her relationship with Ravenwood’s underage son.  Would this still cause a falling out between the two professors?  How would the son view this past relationship?  And in the late 1930s, what would it be like for a female professor?  The male students hitting on her in class is a very different image, and would the government men be as enthusiastic when they learn Dr. Jones is a woman?  Our basic plot wouldn’t need to change too much, but all these story elements become very different.
            So when you’re looking to take an idea all the way to a full blown novel—or screenplay, epic poem, opera, or whatever it is you write—start with the basics.  Consider your idea as part of a larger plot.  Think of how it could fit into a character’s story.
            This week was kind of long and rambling, so next week I might just do something quick.  Whatever pops into my head.
            Until then, go write.
September 21, 2012

One Step Ahead

            First off, if you want it, there’s kind of a bonus post this week.  Go check out Ebon Shores, a great little horror site from down under, where I was asked to prattle on for their “Wednesday Writer” column.  Actually, page through some of the past ones, too.  There’s a lot of really good stuff there.

            Speaking of horror…
            By nature of my chosen career, I tend to read and see a lot of horror stuff.  Specifically, post-apocalyptic stuff, usually with some form of zombie in it.  And there’s a certain recurring flaw that always gnaws at me. 
            It’s when characters do or say things that experience says they shouldn’t.  The kind of things that common sense tells you they should’ve figured out not to do or say ages ago.  How often do you see zombie hunters in t-shirts, even when they know one scratch could mean death?  Or that one guy who sets his gun down and walks a few yards away from it?  Or, knowing there could be zombies in the area, they reach into the dark room and start feeling around for a light switch with their one, ungloved hand…
            Or sometimes it’s what characters don’t do.  They’ll find a door and talk about how it might be locked, how it could be dead bolted, or how there may have been a cave in that’s blocking it from the other side.  The one thing none of them will do is actually attempt to open the door.  And if they did and it didn’t open, it’d never occur to them to try that key they found on the floor down the hallway.  Even though they know there’s a zombie apocalypse going on, they’ll forget to barricade windows.
            Simply put, it’s when the readers can see one step ahead and the characters can’t.  It’s when the audience can foresee the consequences of an action (or inaction), but the people in the story don’t.  And if the reader stops to think about that sort of thing, then I’m doing something wrong as a writer.  It means my characters’ choices or actions are breaking the flow of the story.
            There’s a very, very bad sequel to a very, very good classic World War Two movie.  Early in the film, our heroes arrive in Germany in a stolen plane.  The plan is to pose as German soldiers and officers, sneak away, and then begin their mission behind enemy lines.  It’s only after the four hour flight, as the plane is taxiing to a stop at the end of the landing strip, that the mission commander realize the one flaw in their plan.  One of the team members is a black man!  How will they pass him off as a Nazi?
            The resolution was kind of clever in that quick-fix sort of way, but it didn’t change the fact that the whole situation was stupid as hell.  The one question everyone asks at this point is “Why the hell did no one think of this before?”
           Y’see, like most readers and movie watchers, I have a tendency to think about what I’d do in a given situation.  I’d punch that guy.  I’d lean in and kiss the girl.  I’d make sure my shotgun was loaded beforeI stepped out into the zombie-filled hallway.  And nothing frustrates me more as a reader than when I see an immediate, obvious flaw in a character’s motivations or actions.

            That’s not to say every character should react like me (or you, or that guy).  If the writer’s got any sense of empathy, though, I should at least be able to see why characters make the choices they do.  I might’ve punched that guy, but Jack Reacher might be biding his time or just trying to keep a low profile and not to stir up too much trouble.  Many of us might’ve leaned in to kiss Elizabeth Swann, but we all understand why Will Turner feels bound by duty, honor, and social mores to let that opportune moment slip by. 

            Y’see, Timmy, one of the best things I can do as a storyteller is think one step ahead.  For the most part, the audience shouldn’t be able to think of something I didn’t already think of.  Oh, there’s always going to be that five or six percent who shriek about “totally obvious” things, but forget them.  I don’t need to cover everything, I just need to answer the immediate questions.
            “Hanging a lantern on it” is a great example of being one step ahead.  I know this odd coincidence is going to bother the reader, so I’ll have one of my characters point out how odd and coincidental it is
            LOSTdid this a lot to help take the edge off some of the oddities of the island and the plot devices they needed to further the story.  Hurley questions why there’s a brand new washer and dryer set in the otherwise very retro underground station called The Swan.  Kate and Sun wonder what kind of person travels with a pregnancy test.  Ben questions the odds of a spinal surgeon literally dropping out of the sky just a few weeks after he learns he’s got a tumor on his spine.
            Looking ahead can also be a good gauge for exposition and figuring out how much is too much.  In a couple of my books and novellas I have scenes of scientific jargon and techno-speak.  But I don’t need to explain things out in full and exacting detail.  I just need to be one step ahead and address enough points that my story doesn’t get hung up on my lack of explanation. 
            In Ex-Patriots I explain that the military’s been “training” zombies to follow simple orders.  But I don’t leave it at that.  In the same chapter I introduce the idea of the Nest—a NEural STimulator—which sends electricity to parts of a zombie’s brain in order to reactivate it.  I don’t need to explain what parts of the brain, how much voltage or amperage, or how they first tested it.
            A famous example of this is in Back to the Future, when Doctor Emmet Brown tells us he’s made a time machine out of a DeLorean.  Even as we’re processing this, though, part of us wondering… well, how?  How does someone turn a sports car into a time machine?  It’s kind of goofy and ludicrous all at the same time.  And then Doc shows us the flux capacitor and tells Marty (and the audience), “this is what makes time travel possible.”  And it’s glowy and it buzzes and, well… yeah, okay, that makes sense. A DeLorean on its own couldn’t travel through time, but a DeLorean with a flux capacitor channeling 1.21 gigawatts of electricity…
             Doc’s addressed our question before we even got to ask it out loud. So the story never pauses and we get carried along into the next bit.  And the DeLorean goes down in history (no pun intended) as probably one of the top three fictional time machines.
            Sometimes all staying ahead takes is being aware of where the characters are in the story.  If I’m confusing the first time I’m showing something to the reader with the first time the characters have seen it, that’s going to lead to problems.  There are mistakes and screw ups that we’ll accept from amateurs in any field, but not from people who’ve supposedly been doing this for a while (whatever this is).  If my plot point depends on a Master Sergeant in the Army not knowing how to load a pistol or the head chef at a restaurant not being able to tell salt from sugar… well, there better be a damned good reason for it.
            Stay one step ahead of the reader.  Know where they’re going to go, be there waiting for them, and guide them back to the path you want them on.  Not the path where they growl in frustration and shout “Why the heck did they…?”  And then toss your manuscript in that big pile on the left
            Next time, by request, I wanted to talk about how you can use plot and story to develop an idea.
            Until then, go write.