Killing Your Darlings: When A Character You Love No Longer Exists

I’ve had a character on my mind a lot lately. She’s this super cool, hyper-intelligent mermaid excavating ancient underwater libraries and toppling on-land monarchies. The victim of a generations long curse, she’s just become free and isn’t taking anyone’s trash one second longer. She’s fierce and clever and the undisputed leader of her shoal. She’s also like thirteen. The girl is totally boss.

She also doesn’t exist. Like, super doesn’t exist, even more than most fictional characters. This character and her entire arc were cut from a book that had too many side stories. She was on the page only long enough for me to fall in love, and then she was gone.

I tend to produce hefty drafts that are waaaay too big for their genres. Even epic fantasy (from which this particular character hailed) doesn’t usually leave enough room for me to squeeze in everything I want to. So when it comes time for editing, I have to be pretty aggressive about what gets trimmed. You can only tighten the wordcount so far by changing ‘have to’ to ‘must’ and ‘is not’ to ‘isn’t’.

When I edit, I try to use this as my rule of thumb—does it further my core story? I like a side quest as much as the next guy, but if it doesn’t tie back into the heart of the story I’m trying to tell, it stands great risk of getting axed. Especially if the word count is already nearly 40k above industry standards. *coughs*

They say no word is ever wasted, and I believe that. But cutting still hurts, especially when I have to cut something or someone that I adore. So as I’m slash-and-burning my way through a sloppy first draft, here are three tactics that I employ to help me through the carnage.

Meld your characters. Combine your favorite aspects of the character-to-be-cut into a more meh character who’s sticking around for the long haul. Or replace the meh character entirely, but keep that character’s role and scope. This can be a little dissatisfying, since you know the character has so much more in them, but sometimes it can be enough for you to just know that they are awesome and move on. (Besides, you can always dream of wild literary success and then you can create entire spin-offs of whatever the heck you want, no matter how ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Bree Tanner. *glares*)

Move the character to a different book. Set aside the character and maybe even their entire storyline to be picked up in a later book. Maybe this is a series and the arc can be used to tighten up a sagging middle on a later book. Maybe their delayed quest can even become the key arc of its own book. Or maybe this character is so boss that they can move into an entirely different world and still rock it.

Chalk it up to practice. Professional athletes don’t just show up on game day, stretch out, and play the match of their lives. They practice for hours, days, years, leading up to it, and writing is the same. Sometimes the words you write are simply to help you clarify what you actually should write, or to work on improving your language, or, heck, just to become a faster typist. Practice is what takes you from novice to grandmaster. Not all practice is pay dirt that will be cashed in some day. Sometimes it’s just dirt that you have to move out of the way to get to the gold underneath.

Right now, I think my mermaid friend is destined for Door Number Two. I tried to just cut her and forget her, but that was like eight years ago and she’s still haunting me, leaving cold puddles at my bedside and tipping over cups of water. It may be best to just indulge her. She’s the stubborn type.

How about you fine readers? Do you have any beloved characters/places/mechanics/etc. that you’ve had to cut? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

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Culture Shocking Your Characters

confusedWhen we got to Portugal, it became very clear very quickly that I was the family translator. There isn’t much to my linguistic skills to merit that position, but since nobody else had learned how to ask where the bathroom is, and I was decent in the bonus language of French, I was the best we had. And really, I did alright- a lot better than I would have guessed. If I really didn’t know how to say something, most people spoke English, and of those who didn’t, nearly all of them spoke French. I learned pretty quickly that the gender of ‘thank you’ matters, an eyes-low desculpa goes a long way when you’re an idiot, and the price was always lower if I asked in Portuguese first. I was practically a local.

Then we left the tourist towns.

We went to a tiny village called Pias where my great-grandparents emigrated from and up a windy little road to an abandoned clocktower that probably matters to nobody in the world anymore but us. As we were walking around the square in the heat of the day (when every sensible person was inside napping), trying to get every angle possible on this clocktower, we encountered a pair of elderly gentlemen sitting flat against a wall in about three inches of shade.

Confident after a week of touring around the country, I nodded politely and said in my best accent, “Boa tarde.”

They nodded back, returning the greeting.

My mother leaned close to me, clutching pages and pages of our genealogy, and whispered, “Ask them if they live around here.”

“Uh…” I racked my brain, trying to remember how to say it. “Com licença,” I started slowly. Normally a hand talker, I knew it was a little rude to point and wave, so my fingers twisted nervously together instead. “Você… um… vive aqui?”

They answered in rapid Portuguese and nodded down a certain street, and my mom pounced with her papers. She had been dreaming of making this trip for most of her life and we were all a little crazy with excitement at the thought of maybe finding relatives while we were here.

And that’s when the little old lady showed up. She came up behind us, a short wiry thing in a black dress and headscarf, mumbling earnestly about something that sounded really important. She came right up to my mother and put her hand on her arm, still talking without pausing to breathe.

My mom looked at me questioningly and I said to the lady, “Uh… boa tarde. Minha…” I trailed off before I could so much as start into introductions or my family spiel. The lady was still talking. And she kept talking. And I had no idea what she was saying. Next thing I knew, she had taken my mother and I both by our arms and was gently dragging us away from the men, and then pushing us back toward our car, still shaking her head and mumbling.

She did not speak English. She did not speak French. I wasn’t even totally sure she was speaking Portuguese. I was in a place I’d never been, being I think thrown out by a possibly angry old woman, and I couldn’t understand a single word she was saying. I was utterly, completely lost and a tiny panicked voice in my head squeaked, “What am I doing here??” I climbed into the car with a sick knot in my stomach that stuck around for hours.

Culture shock happens. Sometimes it’s months into a trip. Sometimes, like me, it only takes a few days before you get that panicky sense that you have no idea what is going on or what to do about it. (Don’t worry, it faded fast and my best Portugal memories all happened in those tiny towns where hardly anybody spoke English.) If you write a story where a character finds themselves in a new culture, adding moments (or prolonged episodes) of culture shock can deepen and enrich the character and the setting both.

The word I most associate with culture shock is disorientation. Culture shock is that feeling of not knowing what to do or say in a cultural context that is outside of one’s norm. It can be experienced in any transition between one social environment to another (such as starting a job at a new place, visiting a significantly poorer or wealthier part of town, etc), but we most frequently associate it with traveling or moving to a foreign country. And although we usually think of culture shock as happening very soon after entering the new culture (which it certainly can!), it more commonly takes place over several weeks or even months.

Culture shock typically has four stages for your character to adjust through, and how quickly they move through those stages varies person by person. In the honeymoon phase (before the shock sets in), the new culture is seen in a rosy light, and the character communicates mostly with people who speak their language and are friendly to foreigners. In the negotiation phase, that rosiness starts to wear off as the character deals with a wider array of people, and the character may experience anxiety as they start to feel frustrated by the more difficult aspects of cultural transition- differences in food access and quality, differences in hygiene standards, language barrier, commission of cultural faux pas, etc. In the adjustment stage, the character gets more used to the new language, customs, and routines, and things start to make sense. Finally, in the adaptation stage, the character is fully comfortable in the new culture.

What most people think of as ‘culture shock’ is specific to the negotiation phase. Some of the signs we most associate with culture shock include homesickness, communication difficulties, embarrassment, information overload, and nervousness. In more severe cases, the character may withdraw from the new culture, leading to a growing sense of disconnection from the world around them.

People who cannot overcome their culture shock reject the new culture and often leave to try to return to familiar ground. At the opposite extreme, some people become so well adapted as to fully accept all aspects of the new culture and lose all connection to their old culture. But in most cases, people fall somewhere in between, accepting and integrating many aspects of the new culture but also maintaining aspects of the old culture, creating their own blend of the two.

Transitioning between cultures is difficult and can be an interesting element of a character’s arc. Writing culture shock into your stories can not only add a new level of realism to your writing, but can give you more opportunity to show readers what your characters are made of, and the struggles they must overcome.

Happy writing!

Writing Distinct Characters

paperpeople I didn’t get as much editing in last year as I would have liked, and I hope to remedy that this year. To that end, I started working on edits for a book I drafted a couple years ago and, after plopping myself down in the middle of an early chapter conversation, I realized something horrible- I couldn’t tell who was talking. I’m notorious among my beta readers for sparse, vague, or no attribution tags and I like to think that normally I can kind of get away with it because the characters have distinct enough voices that you can mostly tell who is speaking anyway.

But not this conversation. Both characters sounded exactly the same- they both sighed, rolled their eyes, raised their voices, used the same diction. They were indecipherable. And that is a huge problem.

Now, I was incredibly relieved to find that they grew their own voices after another chapter or two, but it got me thinking- what are some of the key elements of crafting a cast of distinct characters? How can you make sure that each of yours is clear and unique enough that, even without attribution tags, readers can still tell who is who?

Before you can even get into the nitty gritty of how to set your characters apart, it’s important to know the background and personality of the characters. Without a solid knowledge of these attributes, it will be hard to write believable differences into your cast. So the more a character talks, the more detail you’ll want in your character bio. Know where they grew up, their social class, their outlooks on life, their history, their first language, etc. All these things will inform the ways that you make your characters unique on the page.

So what can a writer focus on to make it easy for readers to tell who’s who? Let’s look at a few ideas!

Attribution Tags Those things before or after quotes of text- he said, she said, they said, Sally shouted, Bob asked, etc. They’re helpful in long conversations, dialog with lots of participants, and lots of other situations, but ideally, your characters’ voices are so distinct that these can be removed, and readers will still know who’s talking. (But you wouldn’t want to actually remove them all from your text- while readers could still figure out who’s talking, it takes a lot more thought to do so, making for a slower- and therefore less engaging- read. Put in just enough to keep everything clear and moving forward.)

Speech Patterns This one is also pretty commonly talked about, but it’s worth a bit more detail. Is your character’s tongue a slang-studded slathering of pop culture? Do they use way more words than necessary? Do they like really long words? Do they mispronounce? Does their language lilt? Each of your characters should tell different styles of jokes, make differing comparisons, etc. A character from Dublin will obviously use very different speech patterns than a character from Taipei, but even two New Yorkers will each use a distinct idiolect all their own, based on the people they grew up around, where they went to school, what they do for a living, etc.

Tics and Physical Cues Do you have a character who laughs out loud, and then quickly claps her hands over her mouth? Do you have another character who sucks on the hem of his tee shirt when he’s nervous? Congratulations, these characters have different physical cues for readers! Does every character in your cast frequently sigh and/or roll their eyes? Maybe work on that! *coughs* Physical cues can be anything from a mention of a particular hair color to the use of a particular tic. (For an example of a tic, when I’m nervous or embarrassed, I widen my eyes and duck my chin, but maintain strict eye contact. If my hands are free, I squeeze my left fingers in my right ones, with my arms pressed tight against my sides. Even knowing I do this, I cannot stop, which usually makes me blush as well. When my husband is nervous, he nods a lot, repeats himself in a soft voice, and doesn’t maintain eye contact very well, frequently glancing away. These are our different tics, even though we’re both white 32-year-old middle class Americans.)

Attitude Are your characters chatty? Do they use slang? Are they rude to servants? Do they talk with their hands?  Are they moody, or hopeful, or angry? Are they focused on the pudding their mom just brought in, or are they wondering where their wife got those new diamond earrings, or are they hoping their husband doesn’t notice that their hands are shaking? Even if you have two characters from the same town, same class, same race, even the same household, they should still be distinct in their attitudes and expectations. So who in your cast is an incorrigible pessimist? Which one is certain love will conquer all? Who’s sure their boss is out to get them? These attitudes will factor into the things the character notices and talks about, and inform their distinct personality.

These are just a few broad ideas to keep in mind, and there’s often bleed-over between them. Every person in the world is mommy’s special snowflake, and while story characters could never attain the same level of complexity as a real person, we are authors do our best to present the illusion of that same level of complexity and believability. That illusion is shattered when characters don’t sound and look and feel unique on the page. (Unless you’re writing about the Borg. I guess if you’re writing about the Borg, good work, carry on?)

Until next week, happy writing!

Jill’s Planning Process

© Flickr | nist6dh

Howdy, friends! A few weeks ago, someone asked me about my planning process. The question corresponds perfectly with an upcoming NaNoWriMo session, and my current blundering toward it without a plan.

New projects usually start life on a document called Master Story Idea List. There are currently a dozen or so on there, ranging from picture books to thrillers to contemporary YA, although most of the ideas hover somewhere around speculative fiction. Whenever I get a new idea, I jot it down on the master list and there it sits until I get around to it. Some have been there for years. Some only live there for a couple months, or even weeks. When my docket opens up for a new project, this is where I first look.

Choosing which project I want to do mostly comes down to interest; if I’m not that interested in the idea, it usually translates into a super boring draft that I abandon midway and stuff in a dark corner of my closet. But if I have more than one project that interests me, I consider other factors. How much research does the story require, and do I currently have time for it? Is the idea robust enough to make a whole book, or is it so robust it’ll need to be broken into a series? It may take me a few weeks, but I eventually narrow it down to one project.

Once I have a project selected, I open up a blank document, copy over everything from the idea list, and start typing. Most often, I end up with a basic storyline, interspersed with character or setting notes. This is usually created in a single brainstorming session, and these are always so laughably awful that it’s painful to read years later.

After I have this basic information down, I typically start to dial in either the plot or the characters; for some reason, I can’t do both at the same time. Usually, I work out the characters first. I’ve found that when I work out the plot first and then shoehorn character profiles into it, the cast tends to feels more cardboard. (But that’s just me! Different authors write differently.) When I’m fleshing out a character, I start with their background, then move on to their personality, and then fill in gaps from there. When I have a really firm grasp on the people I’m dealing with in the story, I have an easier time seeing where the story will go when I boot them out the door with inciting action.

At this point, I proceed to one of two methods: fill in the blank, or lazy bum’s snowflake.

Fill in the blank works best on projects that are already about sixty percent of the way there outline-wise. If I have a really good idea of all the things that need to happen throughout most of the book, I can just inject bits here and there. The things I’m filling in most often have to do with why-because gaps- I know where the character will be, I just need a good reason why. It’s important that a character’s goals and motivations shine throughout the entire story. (They can’t just end up somewhere because the plot needs them to.) Fill in the blank allows me to make sure that, not only are there no giant plot holes sulking about, but the character’s inner workings are driving them just as much, if not more, than the outer conflicts.

Snowflake is my go-to method on projects that have a super interesting premise and maybe a few vivid scenes, but not a whole lot more. (For those of you not familiar with the snowflake method, check it out here. What follows is the so-lazy-it-hardly-counts version.)  I take what I have and I see if I can mold it into three sentences, one for the beginning of each of the three acts of the book. Then I balloon each of those sentences out to a paragraph. That point is usually good enough for me to move on to fill in the blank method.

I always intentionally leave a lot out of the outline. Side stories are more or less left to evolve as they will. The conclusion is always undecided. I leave these gaps for two reasons. First is my own short attention span. If I have a story worked out from start to finish before I sit down and write the thing, all the fun of discovery is over and I find myself at least twice as likely to get bored with the project and drop it before it’s completed. The second reason is that if I don’t let any parts of the story happen “naturally”, I sometimes have a hard time getting any of the story to feel natural. This isn’t always true, but it’s true often enough to be a factor. (Another reason is just that I know things are going to deviate wildly from the plan before this is all over, and I hate wasted effort, haha. Again, that laziness issue.)

So once I get past the fill in the blanks stage, I usually let it all rest for a week or two and then I’m ready to write.

None of this should be taken as meaning that I just decide to sit down and smoothly work out a story without any hitches. This process usually takes weeks of picking at it and thinking about it and starts and stops and erasures and you name it. (And the ‘weeks’ assessment is assuming we don’t count the time before the idea gets plucked off the master list.)  But once I get into planning mode, I can usually work it all out in a couple weeks, sometimes less.

That makes this the perfect time for me to start working on the outline for my NaNo project this November. A few weeks to plan it, a few weeks to rest it, and then I’ll be ready to roll. Time to go check out that idea list!

Happy writing!

Rivals, Villains, and Nemeses

VillainFond Husband and I were talking the other night about antagonists. We’re both way into speculative fiction, but our tastes can vary pretty widely on what we like and don’t like. Therefore, I wasn’t too shocked when I learned that he doesn’t like a sympathetic villain. Personally, I love it when I feel like I can understand the bad guy, when I know exactly why they are the way they are and feel like maybe, just maybe, I could have walked that same path in those same shoes. (Note: I am not a sociopath. Honest.)

One thing we did agree on, though? Neither of us likes it when the antagonist is just contrary to be contrary. The mustache twirling villain tossing hapless maidens onto train tracks for the heck of it isn’t really our thing. Evil for evil’s sake is kind of lame. (And just to be clear, we’re talking about physical antagonists, not abstract ones. None of this really applies as well for a storm, or racism, or whatever.)

So I sat down after our chat and wrote up a list of the things that I feel like every believable antagonist needs, regardless of whether or not we can sympathize.

Background A protagonist can’t exist in a vacuum; neither can the antagonist. What made them this way? How did they get where they are? Just as a protagonist’s background sets the stage for them, so does an antagonist’s.

Personality Every character in a story should have a unique voice, little ticks and quirks and patterns that make them their own person, rather than just another place holder. I feel like this is especially important in the main characters, which I would definitely count the antagonist as.

Motivation This is huge huge huge for me. The antagonist must have an understandable goal. Even if it’s just to stay in power, despite the efforts of this punk protagonist, I have to know why the villain does what they do for me to feel like this is a real character. Cardboard does not have motives. Characters do. I feel like this is especially important in cases where the antagonist isn’t necessarily evil, like when the Lawful Good cop is trying to arrest the sketchy-but-heart-of-gold protagonist or whatever.

Menace This probably doesn’t really need to be said, but let’s say it anyway. An antagonist should be menacing. Readers should harbor some serious fear that the antagonist is going to really mess things up for our beloved protagonist, whether that’s ruining prom or enslaving humanity. Within the context of the story, stakes need to be high, and it needs to look like the antagonist just may tip them in their favor.

Power A power imbalance must exist between the antagonist and the protagonist in order for the protagonist to go through the kind of struggle that makes a good story. The story’s bad guy should stand on a higher power rung in some way (wealth, an army, powerful connections, whatevs), but on the other hand, they don’t need to be some über-powered demigod. Therefore, they also need…

Weaknesses Sauron’s tether to the Ring. Swarm’s entirely understandable difficulty with insecticides. The Emperor’s acceptance of a Death Star that has a design flaw you could fly an X-Wing through. If a powerful antagonist doesn’t have a weakness, it can make any ending where they lose feel implausible, and therefore a cheap plot push on the author’s part. So give your antagonist a weakness that is believable given their background, not so outrageous that they wouldn’t have taken care of it, and just enough of an edge that your protagonist can use it.

In closing, do you notice anything about this list? It’s pretty similar to the sorts of things that go into making a protagonist. In a lot of ways, the villain of the story is a lot like the hero; the two can be the flipsides of the same coin, even at times sharing remarkably similar features, but having simply made different choices. Because, after all, the antagonist is the hero in their own story.

Of course, there’s a lot more that can go into the crafting of a believable antagonist, but this is hopefully enough to get you started on a shiver-worthy baddie.  Happy writing!

 

Wanna dive deeper? Here are a few links to other articles about antagonists! Enjoy!

Ken Miyamoto’s 15 Types of Villains Screenwriters Need to Know– all about the different tropes that most evil-doers fall under

Literary Device’s Antagonist– terms and definitions within the broad umbrella of, you guessed it, antagonists

Chuck Wendig’s 25 Things You Should Know about Antagonists– it’s, uh, what the title says it is

Conference Lessons: Character Creation

character

Sketch by Diane Wu

One of the last sessions I attended at last year’s conference was taught by author Robert Dugoni.  He taught us about crafting characters in his presentation, Playing God: Creating Memorable Characters.

He opened with this idea: “Whatever your character is, make them like everyone else, but a little bit better.”  So characters should be real (and relatable), but also larger than life.  We must believe them and believe in them.  If readers don’t believe the character is able to do the extraordinary things they must do, they won’t care whether your character makes it or not, or just won’t believe it when they do.

While building up an interesting character, think about their strengths, inner conflicts, and weaknesses.

A character’s strengths can be physical (muscles, speed, laser eyes, etc), mental (humor, a knack for lateral thinking, mind reading, etc), or moral (loyalty, a sense of justice, compassion, etc).  As with all  things, there’s room for overlap, so don’t stress categories. (Is resilience mental or moral? Is the ability to perform magic a physical trait or a mental one?  Who cares?)  Whatever you choose, make your characters’ strengths just a little bit stronger than average.  And be sure that these strengths come up throughout the difficulties that your characters encounter.

Consider as well the inner conflicts that plague your character.  These are different from the conflicts that the antagonist or the plot inflict on them, and from the internal conflicts that arise throughout the story.  (This caused a bit of confusion for me during the presentation at first.  I kind of wish he’d used a more dissimilar term, but I figured out what he was talking about eventually.)  Inner conflicts are things like anxiety, addiction, insecurity, low self esteem, a huge ego, phobias, or guilt.

By Mr. Dugoni’s definition, an inner conflict is not the same thing as a weakness.  A weakness is something you can fix, but for whatever reason, you don’t.  Inner conflicts are a part of who you are.  For example, your character may learn some better coping mechanisms for dealing with their depression, without ever being ‘cured’.  Mental illness is an inner conflict.  A refusal to wash the laundry until you’re out of underwear is a weakness.  (I am weak.)

Also, characters must have what Mr. Dugoni called ‘self regard’.  Self regard is recognition of one’s own shortcomings.  Plus, it makes their development more plausible.  A character who doesn’t realize they’re a misogynist isn’t going to change.  If you don’t realize there’s a problem, you can’t fix it.

So now that you have this cool character, how to you show all these traits to the reader without telling?  Mr. Dugoni specified these five ways:

Physical Appearance  A character’s physical appearance changes how they interact with the world.  When learning about this aspect of character, I immediately thought of CM Schofield’s character Tony (who is a tiny fairy in a human world) and Madison Dusome’s character Adrien (who is a skinny, scrappy one-armed orphan).  Both these authors are fantastic at showing their characters’ personalities and strengths through the lens of their physical differences.

How They Dress  People wear what they wear for a reason, and these sorts of details tell us something about them.  So think about how your character might express themselves through dress.  I also like to consider makeup, piercings, tattoos, anything unnatural that a person chooses to add to their body.  Do they wear their uniform even on their days off?  Do they favor Gothic Lolita?  Leather and spikes all week, and an airy dress for church on Sundays?  Think about what they wear, understanding that your readers will be forming ideas about why they wear it.

Physical Behavior  Think also about the way your character carries themselves.  How do they sit, stand, walk, or run?  Stance and cadence can tell us a lot about a character, like the difference between James Bonds’ cool, one-hand-in-pocket smirk and Steve Urkels’ bespectacled, face-scrunching squint.  Whenever your character guffaws, slouches, sneers, or pops a knuckle, it tells readers something.

Dialog  How does your character speak?  What does their diction say about their past and experiences?  Consider word choice, phrases, accent.  Even topic choices can tell us something about characters- for example, think about the Lego Movie and the differences in voice between Batman (gravelly, growly tone and an insistence on trumpeting his own awesomeness) and Unikitty (high, cheerful tone and a refusal to hold an unhappy thought).

Character Insight  Each of us sees the world through a different lens, a lens which is carved and polished by our past experiences.  How does your character view the world?  Who do they vote for?  What do they believe in?  What do they argue about?  What’s worth fighting for?

Use all of these cues to show readers your character, and what’s going on in their head.

So!  Once you have a realistic, believable, and interesting character, toss them into the shark tank of your story.  How does the character change over the course of the events?  Mr. Dugoni talked about change as the different levels a character starts at and finishes at.  I pictured it like this:

CaringLevels

The important thing is that the level your character is on changes over the course of the book.  If your character starts out only caring about themselves, they’d better open up a bit more by the end of the book.  Characters that don’t change levels probably aren’t changing much elsewhere either, and that’s boring and unrealistic.

Of course, characters can change in both directions.  Just as a character can start out only caring about their mom and their cat, and eventually become the hometown hero, a person can also move in a more selfish direction.  But Mr. Dugoni warns that that’s a hard sell.  Most people don’t want to read a story about a caring, generous person who becomes a self-absorbed miser.

Whoever your character may be- a priest, a mobster, the baker from Belle’s hometown- create them in a way that makes them leap off the page (or pounce, or trip, or however they move).  Make them interesting, make them realistic, and make them powerful and flawed and changing.  Your story (and your readers) will thank you.

Happy writing!