Tag Archives: characterization

I Have Never Shot a Gun…

“Write what you know.”

Boy, that’s getting to be the old chestnut of writing advice.  It’s also hugely misleading.  The kernel of truth in it is that whatever you writing should have authenticity.  Don’t let people catch you out in ignorance.  It trips up the reader when they totally figure out that the author has no idea what they are talking about.

This advice is not about, however, only writing from personal experience.  If we all did that the fictional landscape would be one helluva a boring place.  The whole point of fiction is to take you someplace you <b>don’t</b> know.  At least it is for me and probably the majority of readers.  Very few people pick up a book to escape into a reality so like theirs it is indistinguishable.  What they want to do is be able to relate to the characters in the book, but not meet any old regular joe.  They want to go to the far reaches of the galaxy, or to ride the Pacific Union Railroad with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid waiting for them around the bend to blow up the safe.

Even if you’re reading something that is contemporary you want to peek into the mind and heart, or maybe the madness, of someone you don’t know.  You might be able to relate, but you aren’t them, and they aren’t exactly anyone you know either.

The real key to writing what you know is to research and make sure you get the details right, even if it is pure and utter fantasy, and then inject your personal experience into the story to render it authentic.  You might not have been born in the 1900s but you can relate to something so tight fitting it makes it hard to breathe, you understand what riding a train is like, and you know the fear that the threat of violence brings.

Every character should be a little bit of an autobiography because you’re reaching inside yourself to imagine something completely, but that doesn’t mean you know what’s like to be a serial killer, or vampire, or a space cowboy 400 light years from home.  Every character is also a little bit of biography because you’re grabbing stuff from people you know.  Even the most ordinary friend has a bit of the extraordinary you can pilfer to bring your characters to life.

Always authenticity is key, so really the old chestnut should read: “write from the heart, and then even what you don’t know will come to life for your readers”.


Who Cares What Color Their Eyes Are?

Really – who the hell cares what color their eyes are? Heck, most of us don’t even remember the color of our own spouse’s eyes. I think they are sort of a grey green and mostly I remember that because she told me and it’s important when picking out colors for her to wear. When I meet a person I don’t say “gee, it was nice to meet Bob, he had brown eyes.” I don’t remember people by their eye color or their hair color or their height; unless it’s unusual for some reason. So why is it so many writers write lines like this:

Darkly handsome Antonio, with bronzed biceps and chiseled jaw, gazed deeply into Allura’s violet eyes, so big and moist, fringed with thick luxuriant black lashes.

Yawn.

I’m pretty much done with a book right there, aren’t you? This kind of description tells us nothing except that the characters are artificially good-looking and probably going to be one dimensional. I bet he’s sardonic and prone to misunderstanding the heroine until he takes her roughly, and she’s rebellious and spunky, but she’ll yield in the end.

Writing the introduction for a character that starts with a physical description is, generally, a pretty good signal that whatever follows will be clichéd and hackneyed. Yet I have seen decent young writers make this mistake and follow it with a ripping yarn. They’re going to be fortunate indeed if they can get away with this and expect someone to keep reading. I don’t know about you but nothing about the color of the heroines eyes tell me much about her personality, and eyes simply are not windows on the soul. You can’t see anything in their depths. All the nuances of expression we human beings observe in each other is caused by hundreds of muscles in the face causing the skin around eyes and brows to crinkle and furrow, the turn of a mouth. Body language is a whole body affair and so the tilt of a shoulder, the jut of a hip, or a slouched back is telling us more than a study of an iris.

Here is a great quick sketch of a person:

He is not a guy who cares a lot about how he looks, unless he cares a lot about appearing not to care. He has angular eyebrows, and tousled hair. His disposition was serene, but you could sense a prickly, Jesuitical undercurrent coursing beneath it. He speaks softly with a gentle Texas twang.

No hair color there, no eye color either, but you get a real sense of a living breathing person with personality. I took this quote from a description of Whole Foods CEO John Mackey by Nick Paumgarten in the January 4, 2010, issue of The New Yorker. The writer has picked out some salient features because they stand out and they tell us more about John Mackey than a mere physical description. After reading the article I know a lot about Mackey but not a thing about the color of his eyes. Tousled hair: he’s not fastidious about his appearance. Angular eyebrows: gives him an intense look that accents what the author said about the prickly undercurrent underneath the serene casual appearance. Speaks softly? As Whole Foods CEO he’s knows people are listening. He doesn’t have to shout.

Here is how F. Scott FitzGerald describes his tragic hero Jay Gatsby for the first time:

He smiled understandingly – much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced – or seemed to face – the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished – and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression he that he was picking his words with care.

No idea what color his eyes are – well probably he’s blond and blue-eyed and that’s because he was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie, old sport. This description, that concentrates so much on the smile and how it affected our narrator, while seeming spare in physical details actually tells us a great deal about Gatsby. He’s self-made, very self-conscious, and yet he has a gift of making someone feel very special. Gatsby himself is very concerned with the external: his appearance, his speech, his house, but at the core there seems to be something empty. This image of Gatsby is then amplified and then drawn to its tragic ending throughout the rest of the book. Even more cunningly FitzGerald doesn’t even introduce Gatsby until he’s fueled our interest in through several chapters of mystery and gossip about the elusive Gatsby.

The fact that the movie version tends to stick in the mind of anyone that has seen and read the book is another good example of what it really shouldn’t matter what color your heroine’s eyes are. Casting Robert Redford as Gatsby was an admirable choice because his boyish good looks, so blond, really mirror FitzGerald’s characterization of his protagonist. Movies are a visual medium that need to make the choice about exactly what a person looks like whereas books do not. But once that choice has been made it becomes fixed in the mind. I cannot read The Great Gatsby without seeing Robert Redford but if I had read the book prior to the movie I might see a dark Gatsby, a small Gatsby, a burly Gatsby. My own mind would add details to the important clues that FitzGerald has drawn me and this internalized version of Gatsby would hold far more meaning to me than one created for me of whole cloth.

If you do end up picking an eye color or hair color for your heroine or hero it should mainly be a detail for your own imagination, and unless there is a pressing reason otherwise, probably isn’t important for your reader. How many times have you heard a person exclaim over the movie version of one of their favorite reads that the director got it all wrong? It clashes with their own internalized version of the story. What the author does is paint enough of a picture to grab their reader’s imagination and desire to know about the character, and then the reader fills in the rest, creating a truly original symbiotic relationship between writer and reader. You need to know more about your characters than you write down, and what you end up giving the reader should be revealing of their inner nature, what makes them unique, not what color their eyes are. Better you should tell us just how they organize their sock drawer.


Multidimensional Writing Experience

There is a lovely multidimensionality in starting up a new character for a collaborative writing/role play project at Pan Historia that feeds all my creative urges at once, nearly. There are two main roads into a new character: getting an idea for a character and then finding a place for them to dwell; or finding a story you really like and then finding a character to fit in. Creating a new character from scratch is the most creatively demanding because of the added dimensions of home page design. I love kitting out a new page for a new character from finding the right graphics, or creating them from scratch if one has a bit of tech savvy with a graphics program, and then designing a fun informative home page from all the different components.

Home pages are useful. I think of them as character biographies where you can get your decorating urges taken care of and impart something useful about your character in turn. My Wyatt Earp home is both western in theme and includes useful historical quotes about Wyatt from people that actually knew him. My Gabriel Oak home is less about the personality of the character but is very informative about some of my inspiration for the character. Gabriel is an interesting character inspired both from literature and from the movies. Those familiar with Thomas Hardy will recognize the source of the character’s name, and of course the face I use is from the movie version of the novel “Far From the Maddening Crowd”. I’m not a fanboy however and Gabe is his own character. In one earlier incarnation he was an artist with a supernatural angelic side living inside him. When he moved on to a different story he became a drunk, the human mask, of the Archangel Gabriel.

Of course some characters live in many different role play and collaborative stories and one home page can hardly do justice to all their diverse lives. That’s why the profile pages were originally added as a ‘room’ off the main home page. These pages include sections for each novel that a character appears in so that the owner can give a little biographical detail. The beauty of a site like Pan, though, is that with so many interactive features the creativity of the individual takes over and tools are always adapted to the needs of their owners. I don’t try and force people to use Pan the way I anticipated. Instead I’m often adapting Pan to fit in with the needs of the users.

A lot of people reserve their character biographies for the forums of the novels themselves and use the home pages as a place to show off all their awards, prizes, badges, and the little graphical gifts that people make for one another. This is probably a similar approach that many users of MySpace employ, but it’s fun nonetheless. Of course it doesn’t really help me, as a writer, when I click on their home to see more about their character, but usually I can at least some kind of sense from the avatar they have chosen to represent their character. Other people actually write out character sheets. I have never employed one of those. I like to get a general impression, and then let inspiration take its course when I’m writing. If I get too locked down on who I think a character is I find that the work become stifled and creativity shuts down.

I guess I can sum up what I’m trying to say is that using the internet and a web site like Pan Historia allows me and my fellow writers to add layers and dimensions to our writing experience, like creating images and home pages to enhance the experience. The way that any particular writer or role player chooses to implement these tools is often going to be as unique and different as the perspectives we bring to our writing and characters.


Writing the Good Guys: Give Them Black Hats

A casual exchange in #writechat, Twitter’s Sunday writing discussion, led me to think a little bit more about writing the good guy in fiction. I stated that I found writing a hero more challenging than writing about the villain. Villains are fun. They are people I don’t need to make likeable, honorable, or virtuous, and yet we are all a little predisposed to get a vicarious thrill out of that bad boy doing what we wish we could. The hero might have flaws, even fatal flaws (one that leads to her demise), but we still need to be relating to her and rooting for her.

A good writer friend of mine at Pan says: “People adore Dexter. He’s a serial killer. How can you like him or hope he doesn’t get caught? Because he fights his insights and sticks to his code.” Dexter is a good example of the hero role turned upside down, or an anti-hero because even though he seems to be a prime example of a bad guy, he has an unshakeable code of conduct.

But what about a good old-fashioned hero?

Clementine Proulx (a nom de plume of one of our excellent Pan Historia writers who is also a published author in the real world) advises: “Readers have to care about your “hero.” She doesn’t have to be lovable or even likable, but she has to have something that makes them want to invest in her.”

I write the historical character of Wyatt Earp. I use the historical record to provide him with the flaws needed to make him a believable human being and not a TV show stereotype. The controversy surrounded Earp supplies me with plenty of ways to show that my hero is not just a nice guy. He was a gambler who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a fearless lawman who was prepared to crack a few heads along the way. He even arrested a judge. His brother Virgil arrested Wyatt once. That kind of single-minded adherence to duty is both honorable and a flaw. Rigidity is not a likeable character trait.

Back to Clemetine Proulx:

Almost all the best heroes are essentially not so nice people overcoming their not-so-niceness. They do it throughout the story which in Hollywood is a character arc. Really “nice” people or “good” people are rather uninteresting heroes unless thrown into a plot driven story. I think of a Stephen King—The Mist—where the decent dad faces unbelievable situations. A hero is always reluctant at first, has character flaws, but eventually makes the satisfying choice. The more flawed the hero, the more he struggles, the more we care for him…so yes, Dexter could be called an anti-hero (like Hannibal who only eats rude people), but he is still a hero because he can’t help who he is, formed by one of worst childhood experiences I can think of, but he struggles against it to do – ultimately – good. Sure we all want to kill bad guys. Actually we all want to kill people in our way. But Dexter follows a code that is essentially the code we all follow…only his is obvious and spelled out.

Clementine really knows what she’s talking about. In the collaborative fiction novel FLESH she writes a character that is notable for being everything you don’t expect in a heroine. She’s old, ugly, pudgy, a fanatic fan of Tom Jones, with few social skills who was overjoyed when her mother was consumed by flesh-eating zombies, but her wit, spunk, and ingenuity gets the reader rooting for her nonetheless. In fact it is her flaws and her history (she was picked on mercilessly in school, had a sad and lonely family life) that causes the reader to love her with a passion.

In the same novel FLESH we have started a new chapter and my personal challenge is to create a hero that is essentially pretty unlikeable and yet, in the end, it is my hope that the readers are rooting for him to succeed. Michael is proud, pompous, prejudiced, and overly rigid in his thinking and actions. He’s about to be thrown into a situation where he has to help the very people he’s been alienating for years: his neighbors. You can check out my writing for this character here on my writing blog. I would love feedback, as the story progresses, about how well I’m doing at creating a flawed hero that you might hate to love.


Everything I Learned About Realistic Characters I Learned from British Telly

I was watching Torchwood last night and thoroughly enjoying it and not for the usual sci-fi adventure reasons but for the reasons that really make Torchwood and the new Doctor Who stand out from the crowd of usual suspects in TV viewing these days. British TV is perhaps not what it used to be (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t lived there in nearly twenty years) but it still remains sharply differentiated from American TV in some very important ways.

One of the things I was particularly enjoying last night was that everyone was just a bit pudgy. No one was spending regular time at the gym, and it looked like the entire cast had been spending too much time in the pub between series. There were no defined abs and impossible bulging calves. I know this because, of course, there was plenty of semi-nudity because the British, in general, are way more casual about the human body in general. Even our most attractive lead characters were only as attractive as people you might meet at work or at the pub, and the rest of the cast were just as ordinary as you or I.

Stereotypes were played with so each character is believable: Gwen, the attractive spunky ex-police officer, has an adorable chunky boyfriend who spends time cooking beans for the team while they’re hiding from the law; Jack the virile action hero with the mysterious past is gay (and wow, not interested in Gwen). This same attention to the human in characters can be seen in the powerfully funny Shaun of the Dead where ordinary blokes and birds combat the horror of the living dead.

I remember when I was first exposed to British television and I commented on the strange almost washed out quality of the lighting in their shows. I was told that this was because they used natural lighting for many of their comedies and dramas. At first I was put off by the coolness of the tones, but over time I have come to see that it is part of the national aesthetic which seems to favor a naturalness over extreme artifice in contrast to American movies and TV shows. In America’s CSI: Miami everyone is glamorous and too cool for their own skin. Even in shows that I enjoy, like Bones, everyone is gorgeous. In Doctor Who the hero is a skinny charming but flawed buffoon, and his female sidekicks run the spectrum from annoying to adorable.

In Torchwood last night Ianto when to the shops to stock up on supplies. He didn’t forget the TP. In the heyday (sadly past now) of HBO the same attention to detail and naturalness was applied to The Sopranos with its bulky, sometime endearing, but threatening hero, and all the ugly duckling henchmen, and of course the realism of Janice. A character dies on the crapper. Life is what happens to ordinary people every day, and even sci-fi fiction can remember that in the details of toilet paper and chunky cuddly teddy boyfriends who like baked beans.


Other People’s Characters and the Voices in Your Head

As those of you that read my blog regularly know by now I write collaborative serial fiction. I got to thinking, recently, that writing with other author’s characters is not so different than writing solo. It’s certainly not what I would consider the main difference between writing a novel or short story and what I do. One of the most common experiences I have noticed with all fiction writers is that they talk about their characters coming to ‘life’ and having a voice of their own. Often writers will claim that they cannot force their characters to behave in a certain way – that each character has a will of their own.

This is totally true for me whether I write the character or someone else does. The only difference between my characters and the characters of my co-writers is that I don’t hear the voices in my head. I have to have conversations. Since I do all of my collaborative fiction interaction online that comes in the form of e-mails, message-boards, and instant messages so it’s damn near to voices in my head or my general writing experience. Just like when I’m creating my own characters it has its ups and downs. I have to work to be fluid enough to accommodate a writer being true to their character’s personality, and keep us on plot, as well as not make my character the ‘star’ all the time. Just like with any successful living character I can find that they can bring something new to the story that I hadn’t imagined but is better than before, and since this is collaboration their character has equal billing.

It’s the same whether you are writing by yourself, maybe trying to stick to a plot and a synopsis, or whether you are in discussion with another person – sometimes a better idea comes along and you need to be flexible. In the case of a novelist it might be your own inner critic but it could equally be an objective reader, an editor, or an agent. You also have to know when to stick to your guns. Sometimes characters are wrong – what they think is good for them is not good for the overall storyline. It really doesn’t matter who the author of that character is at this point.

My biggest problem with characters written by someone other than myself is not them being true to themselves but when they are out of sync with how my characters are. This doesn’t usually come up with people I write with regularly, but with newer collaborators. When I first started out on this path and style of writing it used to happen far more regularly particularly because my main character was an historical person Wyatt Earp. People had very set preconceived notions of Wyatt based on their previous knowledge of the character whether from fictional accounts like the movie Tombstone or from skewed historical perspectives. More than once I had to ‘buffalo’ a few tough skulls to get it through to them that they needed to be reacting to my version of the character, not one previously written and engraved in their head.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a disparity in the way that one character views another. I think that can be very convincingly done in collaborative writing as long as each writer remembers that they might be omniscient but their characters are not. I still write fiction set around Wyatt Earp and I encourage those that write Cowboy characters to view Wyatt as a bully and a pimp, even if Wyatt sees himself as a righteous upright citizen. There is a huge difference in perceiving an event or set of behaviors through your character’s spectacles and another between having characters act out of character.

What I think I enjoy the most about working with other author’s characters is that they often have backgrounds and sets of experiences that my characters have no inkling of. Much as I might be able to imagine a full pantheon of unique characters with interesting backgrounds they all still share one common denominator: me. Other authors bring in their own unique life situations and that gives them a range of choices that can often be surprising to me. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, but after the taste is acquired, collaboration can be a beautiful and inspirational exercise.


The Evolution of a Collaborative Role-Play Character

I recently posted another installment of fiction from my character Red King on my fiction blog and it occurred to me to explain why the character was named the way he was named in a short introductory note, but when I reflected upon the answer it occurred to me that there was a more there than a short sentence could reveal.

My character ‘Red King‘ is quite old. I have been writing him in various collaborative fiction pieces for almost nine years now. He has had various incarnations. The story of his development is a good example of the creativity and fluidity of collaborative fiction characters as well as the various inspirations that lend a hand.

Starting with his name: I always thought the name ‘Red Adair‘ was rather dashing. For those of you that don’t remember Red was a famous firefighter dealing with highly dangerous oil rig fires. Not only was he a real life hero but he had a great name. Naturally I couldn’t just lift it from him since he was a living person at the time that I was inspired so I started looking for a last name that would fit ‘Red’ as well as Adair did. ‘King’ came to mind easily as I am a poker player. At first I resisted the poker/chess connection but it presented such great visuals to my mind it was irresistible.

First Red King avatar

First Red King avatar

At Pan Historia we use ‘avatars’ to visually represent our characters. The sources for these avatars can come from movies, art, advertising, or television, as well as original artwork by those that are graphically talented. I favor movie actors for the diversity of images available. It gives me the pleasure of feeling like I am casting a movie. I have always used Sean Connery for Red. When Red was first created he was a detective for a fun little collaborative game we used to write at Pan Historia called The Marlowe Detective Agency (the less details the better, I always want to revive this one).

After that collaborative novel expired he went on to appear in various other novels that required a detective or cop character with varying degrees of success. He started aging quite naturally and over time the avatars reflected an older Connery. When I had the idea for story behind The Midnight People it wasn’t obvious which characters would fit for it, but I still wanted to use my regular stable. I have a tendency to keep a good character and use him over and over. Other writers at Pan often opt for creating a new distinct character for each novel or story they participate in. I like recycling because I like working on a character over the long term. By placing them in new settings I can explore other aspects of their personality that might not be revealed in one set of circumstances over another. Putting a detective into a fantasy novel was something new and challenging for me.

Current Red King avatar

Current Red King avatar

The premise of The Midnight People is that faeries and the stories about them are real. They exist in a dimension just outside of our own. Their world is fading and dying because of the lack of belief by humans and our negative impact on the environment as the faery kind are closed linked to nature. To solve their dilemma they create themselves as changelings in the human world, and once ‘awakened’ to their true selves they begin a great war against humanity. The Midnight People takes place in two intertwined storylines both before the faery invasion and after it: the waking and the dreaming. The Waking is in the past and the Dreaming (that the wakers dream about) is their future.

In the past, the Waking, my character Red King is Red King a retired detective with tragedy in his past. In the Dreaming he is King Nuada, the Red King of the Tuatha de Danann, once known as The Silver Hand.

For inspiration for his ‘faery’ persona I grabbed some Celtic myths. King Nuada was the first king of the Tuatha de Danann who lost his kingship when he lost his arm. He was able to regain it when a new arm was fashioned from silver for him. I presumed that much of the history from mythology was my character’s back-story, but I then I added a great deal more as there were several thousand years in between until we arrive in our own century where the Waking and Dreaming storylines take place. Thus he has a new younger Queen, Aisling, when the story of The Midnight People takes place, as well as relatively young daughters in faery years. It turned out equally well, for my choice of Connery as avatar, that Connery has frequently appeared in movies with an Arthurian theme.

For the same novel I recycled my Ancient Egyptian villain Itet. Itet was an odd name for twenty-first century character in the Waking half of the story and so it became Ian Itet, but some of the Egyptian influence remained in the Dreaming when I assumed that if faeries were real they existed back in Ancient Egypt too, albeit with different names and beliefs around them. In my mind there needed to be an explanation for Itet’s odd sounding name that didn’t match any known faery belief system. It seems, then, that recycling characters can actually help me find solutions to creative fiction problems that bring new ideas and new concepts to the stories adding a little more originality.

For those of you experienced in collaborative role-play fiction writing I hope I have shed some light on my ideas and inspiration. For those of you new to the genre I hope you will be curious enough to explore it more.