Conference Lessons: Character Creation

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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!

Sample Settings: Historical

bents-fortGreetings, earthlings! In this post, we wrap up our month long focus on settings with this final batch of sample settings.  So let’s hop in our time machine and head back to a few historical settings.  I only have three for you this week, but I’ve got a few ideas for future ones on the back burner (including pestering my mom! just like the good ol’ days!).

Historical Settings:

Bent’s Fort Trading Post, La Junta CA, circa 1840

English Camp Formal Garden, San Juan Island WA, circa 1870

Moran Mansion Library and Music Room, Rosario, Orcas Island WA, circa 1910

PS- You may have noticed that I haven’t posted the jail setting yet.  And that is because my notes were, in fact, not in the car.  They’re… somewhere else.  This is the plight of having a zillion spiralbound notebooks.  The hunt continues!

Sample Settings: Urban

patsy-s-original-candiesHey, y’all!  Here is your second week of sample settings!

As mentioned last time, this week’s settings are urban, meaning there are tons of people and buildings about.  (Last week’s settings were rural, whereas next week’s will be historical.  And then on to this month’s stupid comic! Ho!)

Urban Settings:

Amtrack Train Car in Transit, WA USA to BC CAN

Patsy’s Candy Factory, Colorado Springs CO

BP Energy Center western door, Anchorage AK

I also really want to put up my notes on a jail admission lobby in Colorado, buuuuuut… they’re out in the car and it’s late and it’s cold and I don’t want to go outside.  *hunkers down in blanket fort* That just means that you lucky readers will get a super-exciting-special midweek update at some point!  Lucky, lucky you!

In the interest of not spamming my fantastic followers’ inboxes, I’ll just update this post instead of doing a new one.  So be sure to check back Wednesday-ish. Until then, happy writing!

Sample Settings: Rural

Hello, friends! As promised in last week’s post, Setting the Scene, I’ve posted some sample settings of places that I visited this summer and fall.  This week, I’ve put up the rural locations.  Next week, I’ll post urban ones, and the following week will showcase historical settings.  I plan to add more settings as the whimsy takes me, and am glad to add any that you fine readers are willing to send my way. (nudge, nudge)

When recording these places, I typically jotted down just a few background notes to be filled in a little more later, and then really concentrated on using all my senses to get a ‘feel’ for the location.  As I mentioned last week, the physical stimulus is only one aspect of a setting, but it is the one that we humans pick up on most easily.  Having a really solid physical setting will help to set your reader in the location right along with your characters.

And just for definition’s sake, I defined ‘rural’ as a place having more trees than humans.  (Shut up, desert and ocean. You know what I mean.)

 

Rural Settings:

Pond during storm, Elbert CO

Lakeside woods at night, Silver Lake CA

Discovery Bay beach, Port Hadlock, WA

Cranberry patch, Fairbanks AK

Setting the Scene

img_0754Where are you?  Seriously- right now, where are you?  Have you really thought about that?

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting in my boys’ dark bedroom, typing while they fall asleep (because the little devils won’t do it without supervision).  The room is near blackness except for this bright screen blasting my face.  My hands are brightly illuminated, pale against the black keyboard, and the shiny spines of scores of picture books lining my kids’ wall glint in the blue light.  The boys are quiet by now, probably asleep, and the fish tank is gurgling away- the tinkle of water from the waterfall filter, the whirrr of the air pump, the occasional blip of water as that crazy pleco tries to jump clear of the water like a miniature whale.  (Seriously, why does he do that?)  The room is cool, a little damp from the rain outside, and has that musty, dusty smell of little boys who don’t clean their room unless I’m dangling Minecraft and a candy bar over their heads.

It is a tiny space, maybe eight by twelve feet, but it is the space I exist within.  But setting is more than just a place.  It’s also my era, my culture, my upbringing.  It’s the government of my nation and the sounds my language makes and the endless minutia I take for granted.  Without my setting, with all its many facets, I have no context.  I am adrift.

As a real person, I can’t ever be really without a setting.  I will always have a location, a time, a social environment.  Yet, I often find myself (especially in short stories) writing characters who exist in a great Nothing- they are talking heads, having conversations and moving from Blank A to Blank B, which is to say, not really moving at all.  Seriously, if there’s no starting point and no ending point, it’s really hard to convey movement.

So let’s just be blunt: setting is super mega important.  Even if you try to make a story without one (although I’m not sure why you would), bits and pieces will find their way in, and your readers will either a) be frustrated and confused because they can’t figure out where the heck they are, or b) make something up and then be confused and frustrated with you when they’re wrong.  Humans don’t exist without setting.  Nothing exists without setting.  So make sure your stories don’t either.

When I’m getting set to write a new novel (like, oh, saaaaay… next month?), one of the first things I do after deciding what the story is and who the main cast is, is to work out a setting.  Like most other things in your first draft, it will evolve.  But it’s important to lay some groundwork.

The elements of setting can be roughly divided into four (or more or less, depending on specificity) categories: chronological, psychological, physical, and contextual.  Every single element of a setting falls into one or more of these categories.  Does your scene take place as night is falling?  That’s chronological.  Does it take place on a mountain?  That’s a physical element.  Also, if it’s raining, that’s another physical element, and if it’s been raining for weeks, that passage time is another chronological element.  But if that rain is flooding everything in the valley and hoards of desperate refugees are roaring up the mountainside, then you’ve also got contextual and psychological elements in there as well.

Try to have at least one element from each category in every scene of your book.  This gives your setting depth and vividness; any single element would make a very flat scene.  And while your characters might not know the history of a particular street corner, they would certainly (barring specific disabilities) know what it looks like, smells like, etc.  Never skimp on the sensory details; these more than anything else will ground your readers right there with your characters in these lovely settings you’re writing.

When writing places that already exist, do your research!  Don’t put the gas station on the wrong side of the street or make a winter in Brazil subzero (unless there’s magic at play!).  You’ll get called out on it, ya lazy loser.  Know what the world is like and let it sing its own truth.

Making a new world from scratch for your characters to live in?  Here are a few things that I like to consider:

Where is it?  Does your story take place in a particular neighborhood?  In another country?  On another planet?  In a different universe entirely?

What are the resources and the geography of the place?  What problems might this create for the people living there?  What resources would it naturally supply?  How do these things affect the cultures that grow up in these places?

When is it?  What time of day is the scene?  What season (weather) is the story?  Is this the current day?  A long long time ago?  The distant future?  Or does it exist on a different timescale altogether?

What is the history?  What was this place like a decade ago?  A century ago?  What triumphs and disasters went into shaping the current situation?  What about your character’s personal history?  Do they see the baker’s shop on the corner and think about their first kiss?  Or their first assassination?  Just as history shapes nations, personal history shapes people.

What is the culture?  What are the values of the people who live there (truth, or wealth, or safety, or having the prettiest pomsky possible)?  (Easy conflict comes from any variances in these values between groups and individuals.  Maybe your character doesn’t want to cheat to win the pomsky competition, but his family’s pressuring him.)  Once you know what people there value the most, work out from there to build a culture.  We could spend a whole blog post talking about creating cultures (and maybe we will some day!), but just for now, remember that cultures are organic things that evolve naturally from the values and the resources of a group of people.

Obviously, there is much much more to setting than we’re able to get to in one blog post, but hopefully this is enough to get you started!  As further resources, the next few weeks I’ll post sample settings that I gathered over the summer.  Until then, happy writing!