February 13, 2020

Picture Everyone in Their…

In the spirit of the day, here’s a quick, odd idea I bounced off someone a while back.

Underwear choices say something about us. 

I mean, think about it. Who’s going to see my underwear? Who’s going to know about it except me? Sure, a lot of us may have that special someone in our lives, and they’ll get to see it, but for the most part our underwear choice is a little, personal secret, like a password that changes every day. Hopefully.

In a way, underwear is kinda like a tattoo—it’s something we get more for us than for anyone else. Depending on what else I’m wearing some other folks may see my tattoo, and they might enjoy it or be scandalized by it. But that’s not why I got it. It’s a very personal choice.
Some folks spend the bare minimum on their undergarments. Others spend a lot. Some might want to spend more. There are people who wear incredibly sexy underwear every day and some people… okay, look, there’s only a couple holes. It’s good for at least another wash or two. Sometimes it’s a style choice, sometimes it’s about comfort, and sometimes it’s just about what’s at the top of the drawer because who the hell puts any real thought into that sort of thing.  I’ve known people who’d be horrified by the idea of going commando or braless and others who wouldn’t think twice about it. 

Goofy as it may sound, think of your latest cast of characters.  Picture them all in their underwear. What are they wearing? Why? Boxers or briefs? Thongs or bikini? Mens or womens? Cotton or silk? Fancy or bulk-pack? Would they care if someone else saw their underwear? Whether or not they were in it?

Now, just to be very clear—none of this means I need to talk about underwear choices in my story.  If I’m introducing Wakko, there’s not too many circumstances where we’d have to know what he’s wearing under his jeans.  Or not wearing. I don’t need a random scene of someone changing in a locker room or walking around their apartment without pants.

But—like a lot of character details—it still might be a good thing for me to know. It gives me a sense of what kind of person they are. How they think and how they might act and react to different situations. And that’s all good stuff to know, because it help make this person more real in my head. Which makes it easier for them to be real and distinct on the page.
No matter what they’re wearing.

And speaking of characters, next time I’m going back to the A2Q to talk about characters.

Until then… go write.

April 4, 2019

Shadow Agency

This week—requests are granted!
Also, as you may have noticed, the majority of responses I got in comments/ tweets/ DMs/ etc were in favor of the new layout, so I’m going to stick with it for now.

A few weeks back someone asked about characters.  How do I get a sense of who they are.  How do I make sure when they do something it’s what they’d do instead of just what the plot (and by extension—I ) want them to do?
Okay, these are two related-but-different questions.  Let’s look at each of them on their own, then figure out that relationship-overlap.  Which I think is what we’re aiming for with this request.

Also, because there’s a lot to unpack here, expect a lot of links to previous posts.  I don’t want to bury you in too much rehashed stuff.  You’re here for exciting hot takes on the art of writing, yes?
First off, how do I get a sense of who my characters are as individuals?  What makes them unique?  What makes them stand out?
One thing would be their general backstory and personal preferences.  If I’ve got a character—especially one of my main characters or important supporting ones—I should know a lot about them.  And I’m talking about me, the author.  For almost all of my characters, there are things I know about them that never make it into the books.  Maybe it’s about their relationship with their parents, their worst class in school, or their favorite bands.  It can be games they play, people they’ve slept with, or their first car.  A lot of this sounds like weird stuff, yeah, but all of this says a little something about who someone is, which means it’s going to affect how they react to the world around them.
There’s also their voice.  The way people phrase things and the words they choose.  Their background will have an effect on how they act, and it’s also going to effect how they talk. This is one of the easiest ways to make characters distinct on the page (or in an audiobook).
Also, I could think about how people react to this character.  Do folks wince at the sound of Dot’s voice?  Do they instinctively lean away from Wakko?  Do they lean toward Phoebe?  And are people right to react this way, or is it because they know something else that we don’t?

All of this should give me a really good sense of who my character is.  Again—I probably won’t use all of it.  I may never see Yakko stumbling through a date or listening to music or reminiscing about his old VW Bug.  But these are all the little elements that help move a character from a basic stereotype and into actual, memorable person-hood.
Okay, the second part of all this is about these characters making decisions. 
There’s a term you may have heard around the interwebs called agency.  It first appeared back in the 1700s, when people were having Enlightening discussions about philosophy and sociology.  At its simplest, agency refers to free will.  Can a person make their own choices and affect the world around them?  How much does the world they exist in restrict that ability to make choices?  If I can’t travel alone, vote, or choose who to love… do I have free will, or just the appearance of free will?  Do people in prison have free will?  Free will may have gotten them there—or maybe the conditions forced on them by society did—but now they have almost no freedom to make choices at all, so…?  Is there a point where I no longer have free will?

Anyway, that’s all heavy stuff.  It’s a little different (and easier) for us when we’re talking about agency in a literary sense. Fictional entities don’t have free will because they’re… well, they don’t actually exist.  But as a writer, I need to make my readers believe these characters are real people who are having an actual affect on the world around them.  They need to do things, and these things need to matter.

If cowards are suddenly going to leap forward and be brave, there should be a clear reason.  If a cold person falls madly in love, we should understand why and how.  If someone decides to open the spooky mystery box after it’s killed half their friends… well, we should be with them on this, even if we don’t like it.

Yeah, sure, it’s possible to make inconsistent decisions or choices that move the plot forward.  We’ve all seen it happen.  The wonderful A. Lee Martinez(he of the Constance Verity books and the Save The Movies podcast) came up with plot zombie a little while ago to explain this.  It’s when characters are only acting in service of the plot, not out of any actual developed or established character traits.

This is, just to be clear, a bad thing.

Y’see, Timmy, my characters need to face challenges and need to respond to them.  They need to make choices—ones that are consistent with who they are.    And the results of these choices should have a real affect on how the story plays out. 

Because if they’re not… Well, then they’re not really doing anything. They’re just empty puppets.  Not even the good kind of puppets.  They’re just sock puppets that I’m using to try to convince my readers this is a real story. 

So make your characters do things.  In character.

Next time, I’d like to look at some things from a different angle.
Until then, go write.
December 6, 2018 / 1 Comment

A Quick Sketch

            December.  How the hell is it December already?
           Some of you may remember way back at the dawn of the ranty blog, when this site had a completely different format.  A bit more block o’text.  Then it updated and we could have fancy things like indents.  Every now and then I’ll find myself referring back to something from the before-time, and I take that as a good sign this is a topic I could revisit
            And sometimes it’s very relevant.  These past few months, I’ve seen a lot of examples of storytellers who didn’t know that much about their characters (or didn’t express it).  And some others who knew way too much about said characters and decided to communicate it all.  Every single life-experience, thought, and item of clothing.
            Character sketches are one of those things that come up a lot when people talk about storytelling.  Novelists and screenwriters talk about them, but in a variety of ways.  Sometimes very indy films are even called character sketches.  So it’s understandable the term could cause confusion, especially when some folks talk about them as if they’re some vital, necessary thing.

            In a visual-artistic sense, a sketch usually isn’t a finished work.  It’s when I use a few quick lines and textures to suggest an image rather than forming a complete image.  It’s inherently incomplete, but also implies something more than itself.

            In a similar sense, a character sketch shouldn’t be an exhaustive list that covers every possible detail of this person’s existence.  It’s supposed to give me, the writer, a sense of the character I can refer back to as a guideline.  It’s notes about how they talk, how they move, what they like, and what they hate. 
            Like a fair number of the things I ramble on about her, a character sketch is going to be something that’s unique to each author.  Probably to each character, as well.  Some characters may need pages of exhaustive notes.  Others may only need a line or two.  And with a few, I may never need to write a single note because I have them perfectly in my mind.
            For example
            In the book I’m working on right now, I sketched out a short paragraph about most of the characters.  I knew Chase was still struggling in the year since he’d lost his family and just not sure what to do with his life—he’d lost his purpose.  I knew Murdoch’s trying to figure out if he could leave his family.  One of the key things I knew about Katangais that his real name’s Leslie, but he knew how much passengers got a kick out of calling him Katangabecause of the Indiana Jones reference.  And Anne…
            Well, Anne’s been in my head for almost seven years, itching to tell her story.  I didn’t need to write down a single word for her. 
            So, what is a character sketch?  It’s whatever works for you.  I’ve found one of the easiest ways to create one, though, is just to ask questions.  Not only does this help me get various answers about someone, it also generally leads to other questions about them that develop the character more.
            For example… let’s talk about Phoebe.
            Also, weird as it may sound after all the times I’ve used it here, this new book is the first time I’ve ever had a character named Phoebe.  And she isn’t remotely what you’d think of when you hear the name Phoebe.  She is… very different.
            So let’s talk about our characters.  I’m going to be answering for Phoebe, but you should pick one from something you’re working on right now.  I’m going to throw out a list of questions.  Answer as you see fit… 
Where did they grow up?
Do they get along with their family?
What was their first job?
Did they go to college? 
Did they live at college?
Did they finish college?
Republican or Democrat?
How many languages do they speak?
What languages?
What do they do for a living?
What do they want to be doing for a living?
Do they brush and floss regularly?
Do they have any hobbies or collections?
Are they religious?
Do they go to church?
Where do they live?
Where do they want to live?
How do they swear? Like a prude?  Like a sailor? 
How old were they when they had their first drink?
When they first had sex?
Do they smoke?
Have they ever done drugs?
Do they work out?
What kind of car do they drive?
What kind of car do they want to drive?
Do they have pets?
What did they name their pets?
            If I can answer even half of those questions, that’s a ton of useful information about this character and their background.  Plus, as you probably noticed, each answer implies other facets of their personality.  Knowing all of this is going to give me a much better insight into how they talk and react to the people and world around them and also how they’ll probably react when things change abruptly for them.
            Now, let me jump back to that analogy of artistic sketches and touch on another point.  There’s another art term you may have heard called negative space.  It’s when I define shapes by the areas around them rather than by the shapes themselves.  Think of the hole in a wall when a cartoon character runs through it.
            Sometimes that’s how some writers try to define their characters.  They’ll explain this character’s not like those foolish civilians or those dumb idiots or those freakin’ Hollywoodelites.  Thing is… this doesn’t actually tell me who anyone is.
            Y’see, Timmy, the problem with defining by negatives is that it isn’t actually defining something, it’s just eliminating one option.  If I tell you the shirt I’m wearing right now doesn’t have a Star Wars logo on it…  I mean, that’s accurate, yeah, but does it really tell you anything useful?  If I’m asking you to picture “a shirt without a Star Wars logo,” I’m pretty sure I could get a hundred different responses in the comments and almost guarantee none of them will be what I’m actually wearing.
            Okay, yeah, no way I’ll ever get a hundred responses here.
            I need to actually define my characters.  Who they are. What they think.  Vagueness can be used to great effect, but more often than not it just shows that I don’t know this stuff.  Phoebe (to fall back on my latest creation) is just going to be a formless, unrelatable thing that does whatever the plot needs at the given moment
            And one last point, an idea I’ve mentioned once or thrice before.  Just because I come up with stuff for a character sketch doesn’t mean I need to use it in my work.  Oh, I’ll use all of it to help round out the characters and their history in my head, but just because I came up with a background element doesn’t mean I need to use it. 

            Y’see, Timmy (yep, a double Y’see Timmy—it’s Timmception), an all-too-common mistake is when people come up with all these elaborate backstories and then feel the need to squeeze every single detail of them into the actual manuscript.  A character sketch is for the writer, not the reader.  I know a ton of details about Murdoch and Anne’s past together, and a huge amount about Chase’s screw-ups… but a lot of this isn’t going to be relevant to my book.  And if it isn’t relevant in any way… well, I might want to  think thrice about making space for it.

            Maybe keep that in mind.
           Next time, I’d like to talk a bit about holiday movies and triangles.  And it might be a little early cause I’ve got a thing.
            Oh, and please don’t forget—if you’d like an autographed book, there’s one more week to order them through Dark Delicacies.  All details in that earlier holiday post.
            Until then, go write.