June 26, 2021 • No Comments
Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. ― Voltaire
Fire is light and movement and passion. It comforts and terrifies, gives life and destroys it. To embody this element, my heroine of the fire fae had to be a creature of contrasts, so it seemed natural that she’d be a dancer. Few things demand such primal abandon and rigorous discipline at once.
Where do characters come from? It’s one thing to imagine the type of character we want—a fire fae, a spunky barista, a master thief. However, creating a protagonist who can lead a complex story goes beyond a simple archetype. We need broad strokes, but we also need emotions, contradictions, history, and a deep well of desires that are completely unique to that individual. Real people are messy and complicated. Characterization should capture some of that, even if the heroine is a paranormal being.
My characters come to me in many different ways, but in this case Leena and Smolder arrived through three inspirations. The first came from Stravinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring. At the time of its premier, both the music and choreography shocked audiences—a lusty depiction of ritual sacrifice was just too distant from the floaty tutus usually seen on the Paris stage. But if anything could summon flame from the core of the universe, it was this creation, and I loved its strangeness and power at first sight. Stravinsky also wrote The Firebird, so my subconscious clearly owes him a debt for my book about a dancer and a phoenix.
So, I had my concept of what a fire fae should be—the flavor or keynote of her nature. But Leena is a person and not a ballet, so I used a writing meditation to find the core of her psychology. It’s perfect as a second step, when an author knows the basic facts about a character and it’s time to find out more:
Imagine yourself in a character’s room. What is there? What does it tell you about the character?
Leena’s room in the poorer district of Eldaban has little in it, but I found a woolen shawl woven in a pattern that is typical of her mountain tribe. What does it say about her? A shawl is used to keep warm, but it’s also good for carrying possessions, gathering apples, making a baby sling, or as a shroud. The wool would come from the family’s sheep. The women of the tribe would spin and weave it. A mother might make a shawl as a gift for her daughter as a sign that she was ready to forge her own future. That told me a lot about Leena’s people—humble, independent, and steeped in the love of their home and family.
I did a similar exercise around Leena’s chatelaine, which she carries with her in Smolder. (For those who don’t know, chatelaines were a short of tool-holder that clipped to a belt. Here is a beautiful example of one from the nineteenth century.) At first, I didn’t know how Leena would use the chatelaine in the story, but she insisted on having it. It turned out to be essential to the plot, so sometimes the character knows best!
So now that I knew who Leena was, I had to know how she finds the courage to walk into extreme danger. My third inspiration was Fionn, her brother. She held his hand when they fled the destruction of their homeland. She raised him from the time they were orphaned children, but now he’s a grown man with ambitions of his own. When he makes a terrible choice, what’s a big sister to do? Try to save him, of course, even if it’s a task far beyond anything she’s braved before. This was the motivation that launched my story’s plot.
So, to return to the initial question of where do characters come from–mostly they walk into my head fully formed, but once in a while I get to know them in a more organized way. These three steps describe how I discovered enough about Leena to begin writing her adventure. I found the inspiration, developed her backstory, and gave her strong motivation. They helped me find her spark at the start.
As befits a fire fae, she needed no help from me to set the rest of the story ablaze.
March 9, 2020 • No Comments
Consider setting versus worldbuilding. According to Novelist and screen writer Chuck Wendig, when we say worldbuilding “We’re talking about the revelation of your story world and its details through the story itself. It’s easy to think this means “setting,” but that’s way too simple — world building covers everything and anything inside that world. Money, clothing, territorial boundaries, tribal customs, building materials, imports and exports, transportation, sex, food, the various types of monkeys people possess, whether the world does or does not contain Satanic “twerking” rites.”
That means there is work to do on your story. The basic place to start is forming a clear picture of your setting. Chances are, it is a real place or it is similar to a real place that can be investigated.
If you’re writing about a real time and place, research the history of your setting up to the time period you’re working with. Your characters will know the history–at least the recent history–of their world, so you need to as well.
- One question you might ask is who founded your location? Why?
- Does that matter to your story (for instance, what would the old prime-time soap opera Dallas be without the oil industry)?
- Think about taking your story and putting it someplace really different. How much of it would work? What would you have to change? What does that say about your choice of time and place?
Writers with a contemporary setting need to do as much or even more research. People live in the city you’re writing about, and they’re not a homogeneous group.
- Different parts of an existing town have different characteristics.
- Different groups of people have different hangouts, different language, different food, dress, etc.
PRO TIP: Climate is important and often a defining characteristic of a region. However, don’t assume. Most of the world thinks of Canada as snow country. Victoria, where I live, has palm trees and rarely more than a few days of snow a year.
You might want to make a story bible, which is a collection of facts, documents, ideas, and everything else about your story world. This is a lifesaver if you’re doing a series.
Here are some tools:
An article on How to use Scrivener for Worldbuilding
An amazing customizable template from Sarah Perlmutter
The type of information you collect and how you collect it will depend entirely on your story and working methods. The only important thing is that you keep the relevant information in a way you can access quickly. Start collecting information before it becomes unwieldy. The time when I normally decide I want a story bible is long past the time when it would be convenient to start one.
Other, more entertaining ways to deal with research:
- Youtube videos about places
- Blogs about visiting places
- Pinterest for pictures of places
Of course, the very best option is to visit a location. Taste the food. Smell the air. Feel the dryness or humidity, and whether the atmosphere is high and clear or soft and sea level. Look at the flowers. Fall in the mud (speaking personally). Find out what is the same and different from the place you live.
March 2, 2020 • No Comments
Why care about a story’s setting?
A lot of people think of setting description as the specific surroundings where the action occurs. “There was a red camel in the corner.” “The curtains were blue lace with tiny hearts woven into the fabric.”
This is true. Most of us learn to write this stuff when we’re in grade school. We learn to use our specific and colorful words and our imaginations and once we’ve mastered that, every writing book ever tells us these passages of prose are wrong and bad. This is also true.
Setting is way more than a blob of description.
It’s also the “big picture” where the story was set: the Wild West, the Weird West, Las Vegas in the 1930s, the Antebellum South. With that comes history, culture, and the way that society works. This is why, in my opinion, some theatre directors take a huge risk when they move Shakespeare or other stories from one time period to another. If a story is integrated into its setting, it relies on the dynamics of that world. It needs the power structure, the cultural norms, and the societal context of that world to inform it.
One reason West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet) worked as a story was because Arthur Laurents transplanted a story about an Italian gang culture in the renaissance (seriously, what were the big families in the Quattrocento but gangs?) to a modern American gang culture. There are enough common elements in terms of social mores, power structure, and all the things that make action and consequence function that the rewritten story still makes sense. In this way, it’s the setting and all that goes with it that provides an important mechanism for story tension.
Think on a small, specific level (the curtains) and a global one (the Renaissance)
Setting can indicate past, present, or future on both a literal level (story time line) and an emotional one. The book Snow Falling on Cedars (David Guterson) very successfully uses contrasting settings to keep the past and present storylines separate and he makes the tension dance between them. It’s a courtroom drama about the fallout from a Japanese-American internment camp. The way he uses setting to convey mood is brilliant.
Setting is the difference between a script and a movie. It’s all the information—the colour, the history, and the context—that exists around your dialogue and your plot. It’s your costume and stage sets. It often overlaps with character and motivation. It reveals theme, point of view, culture, power dynamics, and emotion.
Setting grounds the story in a time and place and can convey mind set, culture, mood, and personality. Whether your protagonist hangs out in a historic English pub or a moonshine still in the Kentucky woods says a lot about him. For this reason it can be used for situational irony. Most common are fish out of water stories like the shows Hart of Dixie or Northern Exposure. It is a useful shorthand for establishing character.
Setting is context. Consider that readers may not understand the setting of your story, even if they know the city. Think of the difference between The Gangs of New York and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. With a global market for readers, you especially have to explain it to them because other people from other backgrounds or cultures may have no understanding of your story world, even if it is set in modern times.
October 7, 2019 • No Comments
Editing advice is depressingly easy to come by, especially when our work in progress is circling the drain. That’s when the armchair editors come out to play, usually with a sympathetic shrug and sad eyes. Then they gingerly toe our story as if it were a roadkill raccoon.
Once we get past the impulse to bash those know-it-alls over the head, we are at the point of autopsy. That’s when we survey the wreckage with an ache in our chests, wondering whether to draw the sheet over our darling, or make one last heroic attempt at rescue.
I’ve had my fair share of emergency room moments. Deciding whether or not a book is salvageable is tough, but I’ve come up with a diagnostic test I use when I get to about the five-chapter mark, then half way, and then again at the end. This doesn’t cover every possible scenario (I’m always finding new ways to make a mess) but it does hit the probable pitfalls.
Consider these issues before you pronounce time of deletion. Everything here can be fixed in a thorough edit.
One: Are your characters acting like real people?
I’ve read books where characters seem to experience a story in isolated episodes, as if they’ve had a brain wipe between page turns. It’s hard for the reader to engage with a protagonist in this detached state. Characters should come across as individuals with complete interior lives.
Take a moment and think about what it would be like to be your protagonist, an ordinary person, shoved into an exciting adventure. Imagine going through events as the chapter progresses as if it were happening to you. What does your character feel? Where in your body does that emotion show up? A clenched jaw? An aching stomach? How does your protagonist continue to function despite those emotions? Now put those feelings on top of the feelings from the last chapter, and the one before that. A writer needs the cumulative impact of all those layers to make character change realistic. It’s okay (and probably useful) for your protagonist to cope badly from time to time.
This is one of many reasons that it’s useful to construct a plot timeline. If your character’s parent is hit by a truck on Monday, they will still be reacting to the incident on Tuesday. It doesn’t hurt, when starting a fresh chapter, to make a few notes about the character’s state of mind going in. This is especially helpful if there are breaks between writing sessions and the material isn’t fresh in your mind.
Two: Are you keeping secrets?
This is related to the point above. I have occasionally questioned one writer or another about why a character does XYZ and been given a long monologue about the character’s thoughts, feelings, family dynamics, ambitions, grade school experience, etc. Note to author: it doesn’t count if I can’t read it on the page.
Check when you are revealing information, especially where it reinforces motivation. I know we’re all afraid of the infodump, but being coy is just as harmful. It annoys and confuses readers and frequently makes the characters appear to require strong psychiatric medication.
Three: Do you have the right amount of story for the length of your work?
A well-written story can come in any length, but sometimes that short story we think we’re writing turns out to be a surprise novel. That’s okay, as long as we don’t try to squish it back into a short story-sized container.
To figure out if your story is too short or too long for your chosen format, here are some questions to ask:
- Does every section (chapter, scene, or whatever unit you’re using) relate to the main conflict in terms of action, character, or theme?
- Does every section contain enough of its own conflict to be interesting?
- If you left the section out, would it matter to the overall story?
- Are any important events happening off stage? Does the event take more than two sentences to explain? If so, cut it out or …
- Would it raise the tension in the story to show those events on stage in real time?
- Can any other exposition be turned into action or at least a conversation?
- Is there enough rising action and setbacks to make us doubt the outcome of the story?
- Are all important character traits/relationships demonstrated on screen?
Four: Is your climax in the right place? Are the right people participating in it?
Go ahead, think about the sexual double entendre. It fits.
We all know the big finale should happen close to the end of the book. Romance has a climax for the exterior action (the villain is stopped) and then one for the interior conflict
(the romance receives its final test). I would argue that most character-driven work has this double climax in which the action resolves and then the protagonist(s) gain final insight. It’s the best way to iron in a satisfying character arc. Although there are always exceptions, to put these peaks too soon or in the wrong order can make for a less than satisfying end.
Also, please ensure the main character is a participant in the climax. Not an observer. Not hearing about it from a friend. Not using a peephole. They need to personally impact the outcome of events or the reader feels cheated for spending so much time with someone who clearly doesn’t matter.
Five: Do you have too much beginning?
This tends to be an issue with bigger books or series, but it can happen with short ones as well. This is a good moment to consider whether the overall work is the right size (see above) because the beginning sets the expectation of how the whole story will be paced. If you whitter on at a leisurely trot and then sprint through the last half, the book feels lopsided.
If you’re already at novel length but need five chapters of exposition to get out of the gate, the best advice I can give is to start with a corner of your universe and build out as you go. Give us ONLY what we need to make it through the first scene. Show us the mud, the castle, the village cow. We don’t actually need the name of the town to know what kind of place we’re in. If you need to add a little something for scene number two, then dribble it in when we get there, and so on. Consider that your character doesn’t think about his or her environment all at once. They’re dealing with what’s in front of them, just like we do when we walk out the front door.
Think about the reader experience like vacation travel. Once we’ve checked our luggage, seen the hotel room, and had something to eat, we’re ready to see the sights. That’s when it’s okay to start giving more detail, because the reader has some way to relate it to what they already know.
September 30, 2019 • No Comments
A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox. They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.
As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.
How Do We Create a Character?
There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.
Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.
Character is conflict
What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.
Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.
Let’s build on this idea some more:
One arc or two or three?
How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.
Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:
- There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
- Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
- In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.
The Third Arc
I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.
Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.
While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.
Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.
To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.
June 6, 2019 • No Comments
So far, at least, there is no online reservation system for me to book a B&B in my story world. This makes literal boots-on-the-ground research impossible. So—now what? For anyone writing outside their own experience, this is a genuine problem. How do you get real intel on places you can’t go or don’t even exist?
Advice on world-building abounds. Maps, naming conventions, operating codes, and heraldry are all legitimate reference points. My only quibble is that, while they provide valuable detail, they don’t necessarily grab a reader’s heart and soul. Despite the excruciating care writers take with constructing the subjunctive in their new Elvish dialect, most readers skate by that stuff until they reach Rabid Fan territory. What they do remember is the character’s joys and sorrows, because that’s something they can participate in right away. When a character is tossed in a dungeon, their despair, their horror of rats, and the dank stink are more memorable than the name of the prison and where it is located, although that info has its role, too. In other words, worry more about creating an emotional and sensory response and sprinkle in fine detail once you’ve nailed the drama.
This approach makes research somewhat easier because equivalent experience might be available. Got a desert planet? Go find a desert. Need alternate Victorian England? Well, there are bits of the original left, if you squint past the traffic. Castles? Yup, and a person can even sleep in one. Travel is best. Museums can help. Anything that duplicates aspects of your story location will do. The object of the game is to find your imaginary world in the one already around you and to answer the question, “What would my character actually experience if…”
While you’re making the rounds, keep a journal and pay attention to everything. High mountain air feels different than sea level. Dirt isn’t all black. Water tastes different from one city to the next. The sound in an ancient stone building carries differently than in a modern house. Observe and select the most telling details about a place, and this will create an experience that is concrete to your reader. That’s when they say, “I feel like I’ve been there.” Best of all, that’s when they wish to go back.
The same goes for the character’s emotional response to the world around them. Once upon a time, I took a gondola up to a mountain top and discovered to my horror that it was a literal mountaintop with no handrails, no fences, nothing. As I’m terrified of heights, my emotional response was—um—acute, especially when another tourist missed his footing and suddenly slid down the mountainside (he was okay). But the mountain scene I wrote afterward was razor sharp because my emotions were so strong at that moment. How does a character feel about their surroundings? Chances are, those same emotions are somewhere inside the writer. Take the narrative out of the head and put it in the gut.
Once a story world is full of vivid detail, other things to consider include demographics, the economy, transportation, and sanitation. There are too many books where no one seems to have a job, and yet they all have money and nice houses (where do I sign up)? It’s as if the story action occurs on a floating platform very separate from the everyday. Any location seems far more real if there is industry, immigrants and visitors from other lands, and the usual mix of old, young, rich, poor, and in-between. The research lab for the way a city works (or occasionally fails to do so) is all around us. Most historically-based industries and transportation systems have museums, books, and documentaries. Futuristic infrastructure might be based on similar principles. Throughout history, nations rise and fall because of trade profits and how they can take them away from someone else.
How does any of this impact day-to-day living for your characters? It’s the world they move through. It might be their means of survival. It might be motivation. Everyone has an opinion about their Internet provider, the bus/underground system, the price of electricity, rents, the price of groceries, and so on—not to mention industrial pollution and the environment. Providing an awareness of the everyday that is appropriate to your character makes it seem as if the world extends beyond what we see on the page. That makes readers curious, and they come back for more. In addition, because some problems are universal (the price of groceries), that makes characters relatable.
That’s not to say a fairy-tale fantasy filled with prom dresses and glass slippers isn’t okay. Gritty, bloody, darkness isn’t for everyone and despite what nitpickers say, no author’s world is wrong because it’s theirs to make and love. Medieval castles might be damp and uncomfortable in our history, but they can be sparkling and filled with unicorns someplace else—as long as I can hear the unicorns clip-clopping across the marble floors. At the same time, an understanding of the castle’s workings gives it depth. A bit of “how did they live” research will point out obvious factual pitfalls. If the medieval princess puts on her lace gown and looks in the perfectly clear looking-glass before attending a ball with a violin orchestra, I’ll buy that if I am told why and how that world has industries out of step with our own historical timelines. Do what you like but make it so real to the reader that it doesn’t pull them out of the story. Fill their senses and stir their emotions until their brains stop caring about the improbability of it all.
As a reader, we all want to believe. As an author, it’s our job to make it easy. Put down good roots as you let your imagination explore the stars.
January 16, 2019 • No Comments
How to begin a book? Book beginnings tend to go two ways with me: either out of the gate like a shot or in a dithery fashion that means I begin chapter one about twenty times, erase it, make it chapter three, erase it, then go back to whatever it was I wrote the first time.
Some people would say that the latter method results from a failure to plot and/or I didn’t understand the story well enough. This might be true. Most of storytelling is a mysterious process and though people throw theories at it, I doubt it will ever become an exact science. The story might be stalled because my tea was the wrong temperature and/or one sock was inside out. More likely is that I used up my allotted number of story beginnings early on in my writing career, since I started ten stories for every one that I finished.
Half the theorists say the story should begin in the regular, everyday world of the protagonist. The other half advocate for a major explosion. One wonders about the protagonist’s propensity for bomb-making.
The best way to connect these dots (at least some of the time) is to consider that there is exterior action (incendiary vampires, or whatever action you are proposing) and interior action (whatever character growth the protagonist will undergo). What we’re looking for to launch the story is conflict. It could be the start of the action plot (kaboom!) or it could be a high point of conflict for the interior plot (or both, if you can make them realistically coincide).
I’ll throw my advice into the mix: If in doubt, start with the interior plot, but make it a big moment. Show the character sweating so we like that person but understand how he or she desperately needs to change.
Examples of a high-conflict interior plot opening could be a fight, the character getting fired, or the character doing something else high-risk. Whatever flaw they have, demonstrate it to the max. This makes a nice bookend with the end of the novel, where you can show them reacting a different way to the same situation. That’s a straightforward demonstration that they aren’t the same person they were at the start.
Chapter one: Billy gets in a bar fight
Chapter thirty-one: Having developed people skills, Billy de-escalates a similar situation.
This is a stupid-simple example, but you get the point. There is a difference between flashy and important. Billy might win NASCAR and that might make up the bulk of the exterior plot, but it’s important on a personal level that he is a functional human being so that he stays out of jail and weds Mary-Lou.
Put another way, remember that HIGH STAKES are important to open the story, but the HIGHEST stakes are those the protagonist carries inside them. If in doubt, start your story there.