Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Building Characters

Do your characters come to you fully formed? Or do you create them from the ground up? No matter which way they arrive at your door, you can use character building tricks to add quirks, foibles and realistic human traits to create depth to your characters which in turn will take your plots to greater heights.
So where do you start? Start with the very basics--goals, motivation and conflict. Seems simple, right? And yet time after time I have seen writers have to rewrite entire chapters because they are wondering about. Their characters have no purpose-no goal in the scene. If they have a goal such as attending the school of their choice then you need to motivate the reason why. It needs to be a strong motivation to vigorously move the story forward and keep the reader from thinking your characters are too stupid to live. Once you have them with a goal-in each scene-and strongly motivated you need to build internal conflicts that drive them to change. Here's an example of an internal conflict: as a small child the protag watched her mother struggle raising babies. She internalized that babies are bad. Therefore she has made the internal decision to never have children. Now-she finds herself either a) pregnant or b) in love with a man who has or loves children or c) must rescue a baby and bring it on her journey. This means that the character has to change her fear or dislike of babies to move forward. GMC is the basic building blocks of creating a character-even an evil villain.
Now- let's flesh your character out a bit. Some people do a family study. What I mean is that they assign the character a place in a family-oldest, middle, youngest or only child and use psychological profiles of these child placements to add depth to characters.
Another method is to do an astrology chart on your character- are they a Pisces? A Leo or a creative Aquarius? How does this help or hurt them? What descriptors can you take from horoscopes to add to your character. Remember people/characters are a million pieces of the world around them.
I sat through a wonderful workshop on Personality theory. The speaker gave us Freudian Hang ups, Archetypes and Trait Perspectives based on what he knew as a psychologist. People in all fields categorize other people-socially and by personality. Do a little research and you can use these categories and descriptors to flesh out your characters to create 3 dimensional beings in your story.
I have mentioned self help books in past blogs. Some of these can help you to create characters that real life readers can identify with. For instance someone overcoming bad relationships, someone overcoming childhood trauma or even weight issues, health issues, disability issues-all can be heroes or villains. I have this great book called Personology--the precision approach to charting your life, career and relationships. It gives who you are and your traits based on your year of birth, your astrological sign, your Chinese zodiac, etc. No- you don't have to believe in these things to write strong characters, but you can use the information offered to add details to your characters.
Think of the Goal, Motivation and Conflict as the skeleton for your character. The flesh and details come from their experiences, zodiac sign, family traits and personality traits. Finally you add in eye color, skin color and hair. Some people will do a search of photos and print them out or cut them out to pin up so that they always have a visual of their character. Think of a photo in the opening of a police file on someone. It's all there--anything and everything you want to know about your character. Now that you know them inside and out you understand how they will act and react in any situation and you set them free inside the world you built last week and see what happens.
What is your favorite method for character building? Have I left anything out? Is there anything you would like to blog about in detail? Let me know. Cheers~

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Self Care for Writers

It's been a long busy summer filled with the demands of family and friends. Today the local school children go off to school. College starts this week. It is time to take a good hard look at ourselves and our personal goals.
Most writers (men and women) are highly sensitive to their environments. It's how we "come up with those ideas." We see things in different ways and open ourselves to experiences. In other words, many writers have very few personal boundaries. We see it. We absorb it. We let it get in our face. We let it take over our lives. (Whatever it is that currently fascinates us.) We get caught up in story or article or marketing or puzzle or plot and completely forget about the fact that we are in there somewhere.
Writers in sandwich generations find themselves caring for both children and parents. They find themselves writing at 2 am because that's the only free time they have. Sleep is not as important as deadline. Food is not as important as deadline-or worse, we write with a bowl of chips or candies beside us, talking with our hands but chewing with our mouths. We forgo exercise in order to get in one more page or plot point.
If you don't work outside the home office, then you may forgo haircuts, and shopping for anything but necessities-unless you are shopping for kids or parents. Because you are not even aware of yourself as a person. It's a great trick for story telling without author intrusion, but it is not a great way to live.
If you are not healthy, your stories suffer. I'm talking about mental health and physical health. Stop for a moment and step away from the big fat pile of stress in your life. View it as an uninvolved observer. Amazing isn't it?
Fall is a good time to look in the mirror and smile at the person you see there. Think about them as your best friend and the most important person in your life. Because -guess what-they are. All those people who depend on you -children, parents, editors, agents, readers-are shortchanged if you don't find the time to take care of yourself. Trust me, no one else is going to do it for you.
Make a plan to help yourself out. Think of a ten minute walk as important as picking the kids up from school-as important as revising that last page another time. If you get a rejection-stop telling yourself you're a loser who will never make it. Stop being embarrassed that you are somehow inferior. Neither of these things is true and you certainly wouldn't tell a friend that. Instead celebrate the fact that someone read your work. That you did the work and got it out there. Know that you will learn. You can't help but learn. Take breaks from writing if you need to. Take care of your health in small ways- switch from coffee and soda to ice or hot water with lemon. Make a rule that there is no food near your computer. Save that as celebration for finishing a page. Get up, walk away from your desk before you eat. My office is upstairs. All the food is downstairs. So I have to do at least two sets of stairs-down then up to eat anything. It pulls me out of the book, makes me aware of what I'm doing, and I like to think the exercise somehow takes a handful of calories off whatever I eat. Not into eating? (Well, some people aren't. I don't know them, but I hear that writers can forget to eat.) Set a timer in another room for 60 minutes. Yes, it pulls you out of your work, but it also means you have to get up and walk over and turn it off. It sets a limit which allows you to see what you can do in 60 minutes as well as making you move and stretch. A simple stretch can bring a new and brilliant thought into your head.
Now is the time, before Fall deadlines and queries and holidays, to notice the person in the mirror and take small steps to make them the most important person in your life. Your writing will be better for it. Hey, go out and buy yourself flowers-yes, even you guys. They will sit on your desk and remind you that you are more than what you do. Cheers~

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Rule of Threes

Years ago I attended a workshop by author Alfie Thompson on using movies to guide and plot your fiction. It was while sitting in her workshop that I learned about the rule of threes in writing. Alfie contends that no matter how improbable something is, if your reader sees it three times they tend to buy into the idea. Thus the writer's rule of threes. Alfie's example was the movie "While You Were Sleeping." She asked us to note in the opening "ordinary world" how the screenwriter and director showed two random people slipping on sidewalk ice. The one I remember most is the paperboy who was on a bike, threw the paper and slipped in a safe yet comical way. The audience laughed. It seemed to set the tone that this movie was going to be funny and charming. Alfie told us that the reason for showing these two people-who have nothing to do with the story- slipping on ice in the opening was to set up for a later scene. The only other time in the entire movie anyone slips on the ice is when the hero and heroine are crossing the sidewalk and the heroine slips. The hero helps her up establishing a socially forbidden closeness and then slips himself, taking her back down with him and ripping his pants. Then, after much pawing and sliding, when they both safely slide off the ice the hero asks the heroine if he can borrow her pants since his pair is ripped. The heroine disclaims in horror that she would rather kill herself then fit into his pants.
This was a charming way of allowing the characters to touch each other intimately at a time when they would not usually pass that boundary and also brings the focus to both the heroine's slenderness and the hero's manly physic. It is a scene that gets them thinking about each other in a more intimate way- it is also the only time there is a patch if ice on the sidewalk. No one thinks of the ice as a plot device because the opening established in two small isolated incidences that the sidewalks are slippery.
Storytellers use the rule of threes to bring believability to a story. This is why, in my previous blogs on The Hero's Journey and World Building, I mention to have incidents or trials come in threes. Thus allowing the reader to believe that something can happen readily in your story and is never pulled out of the story or surprised when purple bats attack.
Next time you are watching a movie or a television show pay attention to the small details and see if you can spot the rule of three slipped into the story. For more interesting ways to use movies in your fiction, check out Alfie's book, "Lights, Camera, Fiction."
What ways do you use the rule of three in your work?

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

World Building for non scifi/fantasy writers

A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the wonderful World Building for YA seminar given by the amazing Shelley Bates that I attended as part of my MFA residency program. Many of you have asked for more information about world building as we all sort of assumed that was a term for science fiction or fantasy writers. Let's face it there are a lot of witches, vampires, werewolves and zombies out there right now, but what if you were writing a contemporary story set in small town Kansas. Do you need world building? The answer to that is yes.
Here's why:
Many readers, lets face it most of your readers including your agent and editor, have never lived in a small town in Kansas. They have no clue what people dress like, talk like (Trust me, I've gotten more question marks from my editor on common Midwest sayings in my writing then I ever imagined.) and how their values and points of view are different than say someone from New York City. I imagine the same thing is true if you are writing a book set in Los Angeles or New York or Seattle. You have to understand that more than half your readers may have never been there and so you need to build a world around your characters that gives the reader a solid sense of time, place and rules of action and behavior.
Where do you start? In the ordinary world-what is their life like? The protag has learned to navigate their world and as a writer you should think about what this reveals about the character-what strengths and what weaknesses. Establish a social order- things are very different on a working ranch versus a highrise office job. A trip to work might entail a beat up Chevy truck or a commuter train; endless expanse of rolling plains or elbowed standing room only space on a bus.
Shelley taught us to create the world by working down, working out and working in. Ask yourself what is the dominate element in the setting? Let's say the windswept prairie to show vast expanse, the smallness of humans, the struggle between nature and man-as you write, you narrow your focus from the prairie to the protag. This is working down. Then you show the story from the character's point of view-let's say your character lives on an old ranch and works in a donut shop in a small town. She drives to work at 4 a.m. in her beat up Chevy. The road is bumpy and rugged and dark. There might be cracks in the dash from years of hot sun coming in the window. The material on the roof might sag. There could be an old empty gun rack in the back. The radio plays the stock report or weather forecast or country songs. It goes in and out as she drives through small valleys. A coyote crosses her path, she swerves and ends up in the ditch. Now she's late, maybe it's her last chance to keep her job. It's a half mile hike to the closest house and a five mile hike into town. She gets out, kicks the car in frustration, and heads out thankful that she's wearing white nurses shoes that are made for standing for long periods and walking for hours. It smells of night and dew and rain coming. Robins sing cheerfully worsening her mood because the next house over belongs to old man Simmons and he has no patience for stupid drivers and more importantly white trash Paisely women. Sue Paisely knows that her family has never been good enough, not since her great great grandpa refused to be run off when the oil and cattle barons were buying up or stealing all the land they could get their hands on.
Finally, Shelley said that your character's knowledge-such as Sue's knowledge about her family and how the town thinks of her is building the world from within. Her actions and reactions help to build and change the world she's in. Will she knock on the old man's door or walk the five miles into town?
World building is done with details great and small, but most importantly not all at once. If you add them all at once you are what we call, data dumping, or showing the reader how much research you did. World building is an art form of its own. I hope these small tips can get you started. Most importantly stick to the rules of your world. If the town sees her one way not much will change that-what will change is how the character feels about it. Remember Harry Potter didn't return to his Aunt's house a hero, but he returned with internal knowledge that there was more to life then his Aunt's small minded views.
Questions? Please let me know and I'll be happy to explain. Cheers~