Writing by Season

Happy winter solstice, everyone!

I was poking around through some of my older writing projects this weekend, the ones that could maybe use a bit of an edit and update. In one of them (City of the Dead), two of the characters from vastly different latitudes are getting ready for a summer solstice celebration and one comments on what a weirdly big deal solstices are here, before admitting, with a glance to the sky and the still-up sun late at night, that he supposed it made sense. It’s a bit fun and weird reading this super-super-summer scene in the absolute middle of winter. (For my friends from somewhat more equatorial climes, I live at about 65°N and, like my made-up story land, solstices are very dramatic here and are a very big deal.)

Of all my stories, City of the Dead is probably the one most closely linked with the seasons, and with the environment in general. The extremes of dark and light, of cold and warmth, effect everything that the characters do. Adventuring does not happen in the dead middle of winter (emphasis on the word ‘dead’). Travel is difficult and dangerous, and in certain places, impossible. Hunting trips still take place, but prolonged warfare is out of the question. Really, the best thing you can do for a pretty significant chunk of the year is just hunker down and hope you don’t run out of wood and food.

Unfortunately, that also makes it kind of hard for me to write this story “out of season”. The summer solstice party scene? Yeah, I gotta wait until summer to write scenes like that. I can manage for editing, but when I’m drafting and the feel of the season really has to be gotten right, I need to be in the right season. In the pitch black of winter, it’s hard to remember the shimmering green of birch leaves in the breezy sunlight. In the never ending daylight of summer, it’s hard to remember how deep the sky is on a clear, 40° below zero night is, so vast and deep you could almost drown in it. It can be hard to describe the bite of cold on your bare cheeks, or the frightening, creeping numbness that starts in your toes and doesn’t let go until you’re safe inside again. And it can be hard to remember what it feels like to lay in the green grass in a hot summer day, dozing to the whine of mosquitoes and the chatter of warblers and chickadees, your sweat-damp shirt heavy against your chest.

So while this is kind of a pain during drafting mode, it does make for really good place-based scenes. The environment in the Star Daughter series (of which City of the Dead is the first) is almost a character—a really powerful, unimpressed-by-you-and-anything-you-do character. It has its quirks and things you have to look out for when dealing with it. And it doesn’t give a used fig what you want or what you’re trying to do. (Trying to avenge your brother? Don’t care. Trying to find your lost love? Don’t care. Trying to save the world? Don’t. Care.)

Of course, climate and environment don’t have to be the only things that I immerse myself in while writing in. When I’m really stuck on a scene, it often helps to listen to “white noise” recordings of the setting I’m writing: crackling fires in a sitting room, campouts in windy nights, frog-infested lakesides, stormy nights, tide-pounded seashores. The internet is vast, my friends. Besides that, I’ve always been all about researching experiences that I’m planning to put my characters through—whether that’s sleeping out in the woods with only a cloak all night, trying to catch a piglet unaided (in a skirt, no less), or coercing my husband into waterboarding me. If we’re supposed to write what we know, it only makes sense to expand and deepen our knowledge and experiences as much as possible. And if you aren’t really feeling getting skewered through the spleen in the name of art, there’s a wealth of research materials available to let you read about it instead (or listen on podcasts, or watch videos, etc.). Makes cleanup much easier too.

How about you fine folks? What are some ways that you immerse yourself in the setting of your stories? Let me know in the comments below!

Again, happy solstice, and may you have joy and peace on any of the winter holidays you might be celebrating this month! Until next week, happy writing!

Reblog: 5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

NaNooooooo! It is upon us once again, and that means reblog time! One of the presentations at the writers conference this fall was a look at using the Enneagram personality system to understand your characters and their actions better. This blog post was mentioned as a good introductory resource to get started.

K.M. Weiland–as you probably already know–has a fantastic blog for writers, so I wasn’t surprised to see her name attached to the article. Without further ado, here is her much-greater-than-mine wisdom!

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

5 Ways to Use the Enneagram to Write Better Characters

The Enneagram. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Maybe you’ve even used the Enneagram to write better characters.

Like Myers-Briggs, Socionics, and the Four Temperaments, the Enneagram is one of many systems within the study of personality theory. These systems are designed to identify the patterns found in the different ways we approach various aspects of life, so we might better study and understand ourselves and others.

In short, the Enneagram is not only a useful life tool, it’s also the perfect character-creation tool.

I’ve always been interested in personality theory. Let’s face it, I just like theories (come to me, story theory, my love). But I don’t see it as any kind of coincidence that my interest in characters and stories dovetailed so conveniently with the ever-deepening rabbit hole of personality theory.

I’m not alone. In fact, my introduction to the Enneagram, many years ago, was on romance author Laurie Campbell’s site, where she offered a brief description of the system’s nine types as, you guessed it, a character tool. Since then, I’ve pursued Myers-Briggs—another personality-typing system—in some depth, but only this year have I finally dived headlong into the Enneagram.

I’m not exaggerating when I say it has changed my life—and my writing.

Ready to read the full article? Get it here! And happy writing!

Box of Bones Caste System

Hi friends! So… I’m still doing Nano. Yes, I’ve been behind every single day of the month. Yes, I’ll quite possibly stay that way every single day of the month. But we’re not talking about that.

We’re talking about worldbuilding! So here’s some world building from my current work in progress, Box of Bones. The main characters in this story are from a country called the Grey Islands, a small string of islands poking off the mainland. They have a caste system that I made up mostly over the course of one morning and it is probably stupid, but I’m going with it.

So here it is in all its rambley glory: the Grey Islands caste system! (There’s actually a lot more to it, but I trimmed for brevity’s sake. This post would have been nearly thrice as long if I hadn’t!)

Nearly everybody on the Grey Islands is in some way descended from at least one of the officers or crew of the original ship of first settlers. (Those who are not are not allowed to vote, etc, even if they own a ship. They are considered guests of the Islands rather than citizens, even if they’ve lived there their entire life. The answer is usually to marry into an established line and then your children can have rights.)

People fall into three groupings: noble (veda), high (lira), and low (daru). Each of these is further divided into several classes. Class is very fluid and can even change within a single person’s lifetime. It has somewhat to do with birth, with wealth, with achievements, and with the favor of higher classes.

The three broadest class distinctions (veda, lira, daru) are called a person’s core. The distinctions within that are called scale, and are either high (alto), middle (mid), or low (bas). While it is common enough to move around within a single core, it is rarer to shift from one core to another. The fine distinctions within core and scale are called class and are numbered zero (highest) through three (lowest)- nun, ist, du, and tes. The final marking of a person’s rank is called direction, and is distinguished as rising (rin), stable (kos), stagnant (set), or falling (tol).

Class is highly linked to a person’s status and role, which are both merit based; therefore class, and particularly direction, is more an indication of how you are doing in the world; rising means that you are actively working upward in social ranking by your actions; stable means that you are comfortable moving within your current position; stagnant means that you are trying to work upward but not making any progress; falling means you are sliding backward in standing. Direction has everything to do with a person maintaining or changing class. For the higher ranks, kos is very respectable; after all the monarch (altoveda-nun) is considered kos, since there is nowhere higher to rise. Likewise, within the lowest class (basdaru-tes), there is no tol, since there is nowhere lower to fall.

Separation of classes is called degrees, each class being one degree. Below the royal class (which has its own set of rules), marriage is free within one’s own degree. It is also acceptable to marry someone one degree below or above you. Two is the maximum socially acceptable class gap.

While core is often dictated by birth, scale and especially class are more malleable based on a person’s merits (although there are undoubtedly more opportunities for advancement among the lira and veda than among the daru). Class is often determined by things such as wealth (disposable funds), income (and investments), education, occupation, reputation, etc, and can vary within a family, and even a single person at different points in their lives. Getting a better job can mark you as rin, but selling off your nicer furniture can mark you are tol. Class is highly flexible, and direction even more so, while core and scale are harder to change.

Spouses do not have to share scale, but marrying a lower class person can mark you as falling, unless that person is rising at the time of your marriage. Children inherit the core and scale of their parallel parent (matrilineal/patrilineal), and then typically don’t have a class separate of their parents until they come of age.

Few Islanders are veda, but lira and daru are about equally common. Most Islanders are kos and will remain so most of their lives. Rin, set, and tol indicate exceptional effort with varying levels of success. Rin is glamorous, set elicits gentle commiseration and maybe encouragement, and tol is not where you want to be. Most people would rather stop trying and stick with a nice respectable kos label than risk falling any farther.

About bucking the system: there is a thing called legal death, where a person abandons their caste, clan, and home to live as exiles. Despite being called ‘legal death’, it is definitely in the illegal category, so there is usually a faked death and family hushing, etc. ‘Legal’ in this case just means that the state believes them dead. Since they are dead, they don’t have any rights (even less than so-called guests of the Islands) which leads them wide open to any abuse whatsoever, so they tend to leave the Islands and never come back. This is a step beyond exiling, which itself is a step beyond disowning, both of which would leave the person’s place in the caste system intact.

So there you have it! All the exciting ways they can look down on each other! The MC is a nice respectable upper middle class, with the benefit of not having to think about this stuff a whole lot, but the secondary main is low class and it’s in his face a lot more, you know? Anyway, we’ll be back next week with another reblog and hopefully I’ll be better caught up! Tally ho! *dives at keyboard*

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!

Box of Bones Map

It is late and it is small and it is simple, but here is the promised map. It was a hard month, but I validated yesterday with 71 extra words and about a half hour to spare. If I scrounge up the time for it, I might do another map of the Grey Islands themselves, and another of the known world at large. I also wanted to do some topo lines, or maybe some olde schoole sea monsters lurking around the margins, but tonight is not that night.

Thanks for your patience!

BoB Maps

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!

Pantsing v. Planning

blueprintWhen I was first getting serious about writing, somewhere between the ages of eleven and twenty-one (who can really pin down when they became serious about writing?), I was a definite pantster. I had one project and I flung myself into it with the careless abandon of a finger painting kindergartner. I let the story take me where it would. Characters sprang up out of nowhere. Story lines I never would have imagined branched off and grew. My one book grew into two, then three, and then four, finally fleshing out into a hefty five book series, each book clocking in at between 120- and 130k.

It. Was. Glorious.

And sloppy. And exhausting. And required so many drafts that I eventually stopped counting them after eleven or so. I mean, there’s no shame in taking 10+ years to draft a single project, but it’s hard to move other projects forward as well. And as a writer, I definitely hope to be more than a one-hit wonder.

These days, now that I’m an old lady and I’ve got things like jobs and kids to suck up my time, I tend to plan things out quite a bit more. I typically don’t start writing until I know the full cast, an unholy amount of setting, and at least eighty percent of the entire outline in detail. My books and characters still surprise me sometimes, leaving the path and running whooping and laughing down a flower-bedecked hillside instead. But generally, I know where things are going before I even type Chapter One.

I have sequentially planted my butt firmly on both sides of this fence, but I still can’t tell you which is better, pantsing or planning. (Hint: The better one is whichever one works best for you just then.) But just for the fun of it, let’s break these babies down a bit more.

Pantsing is typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants free-for-all where all you start with is an interesting premise and the determination to see it through to its unknown end. Planning is more in the vein of spreadsheets, flowcharts, and index cards; however they get it down, planners like to know what beast they’re working with and how to wrangle it- all before they step in the arena.

So what are the merits and demerits of these two schools of thought? I asked a bunch of my writing buddies on Twitter and Facebook their thoughts on this, and here’s what our think-tank was able to come up with:

  Advantages Disadvantages
Pantsing Room for surprises

Get right to the fun of writing

More organic characters and relationships

Allows for more exploration of a theme or topic without plot restrictions

Requires extra time in editing and cleanup

Wonky flow, pacing, and direction

Chaotic storylines

Bloated first drafts

More prone to ‘getting stuck’ mid-draft

Planning Gives sense of the story’s direction

Enough organization to remember what I’m doing

Less prone to writers block

Cleaner first drafts

Faster first drafts

Allows higher degree of story complexity without getting messy

Requires extra time spent in prep work

Can sap some of the fun and enthusiasm from a project

Sometimes creates rigid situations that serve the plot rather than agree with the character development

These are, of course, generalities. And like most things in life, these two poles rest on either end of a continuum, rather than being either a 1 or a 0. To reflect the murky middle ground, the term “plantster” has started cropping up around the internet as well, to represent those of us who like to hang out in the mix.

continuum

I mentioned earlier that I like to start a project with a mere eighty percent of my plot planned out. Because of this, and quite a few other gaps I leave open at a project’s advent, I don’t really think of myself as a true planner. I’m more of a preparation-leaning plantster. I like to have a really strong structure in place at the start of a project, and most of the major plot points planned out. But I also like to leave myself a little wiggle room for exploration, and an unscripted ending. I like leaving the ending unplanned because it usually takes me up until that point in the story to come up with an ending that a) fits the story naturally and b) isn’t coming at the reader with all the subtle surprise of a regularly scheduled freight train. Because of this, I do tend to have to go back and rework a bit of the earlier story (adding foreshadowing, tweaking storylines that end up being important, dropping the ones that aren’t, etc), but I’m fine with an extra draft or two.

Just so long as it doesn’t end up being closer to twenty drafts.

So whether you plan, pants, or something in between, keep doing what works best for you! The best routines are the ones that work, and don’t let anyone (or any table) tell you otherwise. Happy writing!

(And a special thank you to the dozen or so folks on social media who pitched in to help me articulate all the plusses and minuses of planning and pantsing- you guys are awesome!)

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!

Creating Cultures

(Sorry I didn’t post yesterday.  I am dying of an exciting new plague [again]. Today’s CYOA was: will I spend the evening posting on the blog, or languishing in a hospital gurney?  I figured posting was cheaper.  If you don’t hear from me next week, assume I died.)

culture

Image from the Anthropology Dept of Drew University. Thanks, guys!

Toward the end of last year’s post Setting the Scene, I mentioned the importance and influence of realistic cultures in a story’s setting.  This week, we’re going to geek out on sociology to create a flexible framework for cultures.

While there’s a bit of overlap between them, there are five widely accepted aspects of culture: symbols, language, values, beliefs, and norms.  When creating your own cultures, try to incorporate something of each of these aspects to have a layered, realistic culture.  If you’re not creating your own culture, but rather writing about a premade one (maybe you’re writing historical, contemporary, fanfic, whatevs), you should also include these aspects to avoid a society that seems more like a cardboard cutout than an actual culture.

But before we get into any definitions, let’s chat for a moment about keeping things appropriate.  No, I’m not talking about your characters’ potty language or sextivities.  I’m talking about keeping your culture in sync with your setting.  It wouldn’t make sense for a language to have forty words for ice if its speakers lived in the tropics.  Or if it does, there had better be a good reason, like mass immigration or cultural appropriation or whatnot.

As we work through each of these aspects (and order really doesn’t matter), keep in mind the climate and resources this culture would develop in.  Don’t make all the houses log cabins if they live on the tundra.  Don’t develop detailed hunting ceremonies for your herbivorous aliens.  Don’t have your country’s national flower be a blossom that doesn’t grow there.  You get the idea.  (But seriously, if there are great reasons, let ‘er rip.  Weird little discrepancies are wonderful, like how California’s state animal doesn’t actually exist in California because settlers and gold panners hunted it to extinction a century ago.)

Values  Although this will vary a bit from person to person, each culture has an ‘average’ set of values that people care about.  Values help to define acceptable behaviors within the cultural group by delineating between good and bad.  Keep in mind that a single character commonly juggles the values of multiple culture groups, such as a character who holds the values of an average Australian (such as egalitarianism) in addition to the values of an Orthodox Jew (such as daily study of the Torah).   For your culture, think about the values that people hold dear, such as freedom, wealth, lineage, etc.

Beliefs  Belief systems are the convictions and understandings that people hold as truth, and are structured upon values.  These beliefs often mirror those of a religion, but can also be purely secular.  Think about people’s beliefs concerning the dangers of GMOs (value of health and safety) or the glory of communism (value of cooperation and group-before-self) or the messianic Coming of Trump (value of success and independence); no matter where you stand on these issues, there are little culture pockets at the fringes of the spectrum with irrational beliefs about whether these things will save or destroy the world, and there is no convincing them otherwise.  Whether your culture has strong ties to religion, or strives to keep itself separate from such things, make sure to have a set of beliefs that factor into the decision-making process of your characters.

Norms  The rules and traditions of a culture make up its social norms.  Norms run the gamut from the practice of ‘folkways’, or things that are expected but not insisted upon (American examples: handshake at first meeting, eye contact during conversation), to the observance of taboos (no pedophilia, no cannibalism, nooo).  Breaking of norms can result in mild censure (an annoyed parent sighing “Kids these days”) to severe societal punishment (imprisonment, exile, execution) depending on the values and beliefs that they violate.  The more precious the value, the more harsh the punishment.  When creating your culture, think of the traditions and social rules that would arise surrounding a high value on knowing one’s lineage, or maintaining a prescribed diet, or raising children to be successful hunters, or whatever values your culture holds, and weave that into the norms.

Symbols  You know how Americans can look at a picture of a flying eagle and immediately start shooting off fireworks and chanting, “USA! USA!”?  That’s because this bird, who doesn’t give a flying poop about nationality, is a culture symbol (as are the fireworks and the USA chanting).  Symbols can be a physical object, such as the cross of Christianity, or a nonphysical act, such as a formal bow typifying Japanese politeness.  So think about what kind of symbols you can work into your culture.  What styles of art, music, architecture do your characters employ?  What significance do certain colors carry/shapes/etc carry?  What goes on the banner snapping in the wind over the troops?

Language  You don’t really have to go out and make up a whole language from scratch- although it is way fun- but have an understanding of how your characters speak.  What words and ideas come up frequently?  What kinds of phrases and idioms arise that wouldn’t necessarily find use in whatever language your book is written in?  Make sure that these language quirks shine through in your characters’ voices.  (If you do want to make a language from scratch, check out Language Building Basics to get started.)

Once you have considered each of these cultural aspects, go back and make sure that they make sense as a whole.  Do the different aspects all support one another?  Are these social norms something a person would actually be willing to live?  Does the culture make sense within the region that gave birth to it (allowing for the natural evolution of human societies)?  And as always, give yourself lots of room to tweak and adjust, since it probably won’t all come together on the first go.

A final note on creating cultures: as with all worldbuilding, not everything you come up with will make its way into the story (hopefully).  But understanding it as the author will lend more depth to your work, allowing for deeper immersion and a richer backdrop.  Plus, I am a nerd and this stuff is more fun than dishes.

Until next week, happy writing!

Weathering the Weather

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A little good luck rain for my brother’s wedding 🙂

I know I just spent all of October talking about setting, but with the solstice coming up this week, the weather is heavy on my mind.  Struggling as I do with SAD, I’m acutely aware of how dark it is and how cold it is and how maddeningly close we are to inching our way back to the light.  (For context, daylight for today in Fairbanks Alaska is 3.6 hours total, and still shrinking.  An emphatic boo to that.)

When I wrote in October, I mostly concentrated on the physical setting, and weather definitely falls within that realm.  But today I’d like to elaborate more about the psychological and contextual aspects that they impart.  (You may recall from October’s Setting the Scene that there are four primary aspects of setting: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.)

So first off, what is weather?  Weather is the ever-changing state of the atmosphere that surrounds our fair planet.  Humidity, daylight, temperature, cloud coverage, pollution levels, wind speed, moon phase, and a host of other qualities are all aspects of weather.  As writers, we’ve got a lot of room to play here.

Books often start with a mention of the weather (the pollution in Sanderson’s Mistborn; the sunlight and temperature in Orwell’s 1984; the humidity in Plath’s The Bell Jar).  (I’m not saying to do this; weather as an opener can get you an autoreject from agents, editors, and readers alike.  That said, some writers do it very well.)  Weather immediately tells us something about the world these characters live in and the kind of story this might be.  Weather has long been known to play a role symbolically and foreshadowingly.  (Yes, that’s a word, sh.)  This affects the context of your story.  So if a story starts with a dark and stormy night, expectations are already being set in place.  Likewise, mentions of pollution, strong winds, extreme heat, etc, can all be used to symbolize larger and/or parallel problems within the story.

It doesn’t just have to be opening lines, though.  Weather can, and ought to, be sprinkled throughout an entire story, because our atmosphere is ever present.  Even its absence can be telling, or its artificial masking.  Who doesn’t recognize the antiseptic smell of a hospital hall, the strangely perfumed stink of a public restroom?  Use weather in your stories to help readers understand where they are and what’s going on, and to foreshadow where things might be going.

Similarly, weather can be notched up another power rung and take on the role of abstract antagonist, either as a secondary antagonist along with some other opponent, or directly, as is common in man v. nature stories.  In books such as The Perfect Storm, 81 Days below Zero, and Endurance, each story pits its characters against merciless weather.  As humans with thoughts and emotions and motives, we often anthropomorphize these features onto entities that don’t.  When faced with the raw power of nature, it can be terrifying to realize that we are mere specks on the face of this earth, and the tornado picking up our car or the storm flooding the baby’s nursery or the cold slowly stealing the movement from our limbs doesn’t give a used fig about us.  There’s no bargaining, no begging, no convincing.  It simply is.

Weather can be akin to a character, so large and powerful that it shapes lives and landscapes.  But consider also the many small ways in which weather affects our daily lives, even in temperate climates.  It affects our health, our mood, and what sounds good to eat.  Sure, we can become hypothermic in a spring rain or suffocate for want of oxygen in a closed room, but mostly we just want an ice cream when it’s hot, or steal an older sibling’s sweater when the house is cold, or become embarrassed when the wind messes up our hair on the way to the party, or when a storm kicks up and we’re the only dork who forgot an umbrella.  Weather can be huge and scary, but it can also be small and annoying, perfect and inspiring, cozy and comforting.  No matter where you are, weather is there, and it’s shaping your day.

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Hmmm… Yep, it’s still dark.

Which brings me back to my original impetus for this post.  I live in a nicely warmed box all winter, and day to day life is usually pretty tame.  I have to bundle up to go outside, but mostly I stay in and bake and do laundry and other adult things.  But I long for the kiss of dawn, for sun I can feel like baby’s breath warm on my skin.  I daydream about putting in more windows.  I scroll through pictures of blindingly green-and-gold summer.  And in the middle of a cloudless day, those scant hours when the sun hangs low in the sky, I pause at the windows to stare through the skeletal boughs of aspen toward that southern horizon, forgetting my chores for just a little while.  I ache for sunlight, and more than metaphorically.  I have to take vitamin D tablets so that my bones and muscles don’t turn to jelly.  I have to spend time in front of my happy light each day or I’m weepy and tired before the kids even get home from school.  And this is just short-term stuff.  A whole slew of physical and mental ailments can creep in over time, courtesy of the endless night.

You have these bits of weather that you live with, too, whether it’s staying parked in front of the AC from May through August, or constantly fighting black mold off your windowsills and out of your carpets, or wearing a mask at work to keep particulates out of your lungs, or never forgetting a rain jacket when you go out, because if you do you will always, always regret it.  Weather is more than what it feels like or what it smells like.  Weather changes our thoughts, changes our actions.  Weather changes the game.

Think about where your story takes place.  What’s the weather like?  How will this affect the character’s wardrobe?  The activities for the day?  How do they live with their weather?  What problems can the weather cause for your character?  What havoc can the heavens rain down on your MC’s plans?  What difficulties can arise in the plot?

Set fog around your fleet of warships.  Let an arctic vortex freeze your plucky heroine in her tracks.  Dawn the day of the funeral bright and glorious.  Hail on weddings.

Weather is magnificent, merciless, and inescapable.  Weather determines what we wear, how we travel, even the foods we eat and the pastimes we engage in.  Making sure that it affects your characters in these ways too will add an immersive new layer of reality to your work.

Happy writing!