Writing Them to Life (or: The Complexity of Character)

You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are.

~Joss Whedon

Artist: johnhain (Pixabay)

It all begins with the faint early tingles of a story idea creeping through my brain.

When that “spark” turns out to be a fantasy/speculative fiction idea that requires extensive world-building, the work begins. Through that planning and building process, as mentioned in my previous post, I learn the context for how my characters are going to live, interact with each other, and move their way through the world.

But without the characters, you have an empty landscape.

It’s as if they are reading over my shoulder, as I fill pages and pages of Google Docs with the geography and culture and systems of government within their world. They frown and shake their heads when I sketch costumes that are impractical for their trade or daily lives. I feel them rolling their eyes behind me when I write conversations on their behalf: words and statements that ring false, dialogue you’d never ever hear uttered from their mouths.

And suddenly, here we all are. Me, and the fictional people in my head.

I’m sure other writers relate to this, to some extent, although I can’t be sure to what extremes they take it. On the surface, at best it seems a little eccentric. Prior to writing the fundamental bones of the story, I spend quite a bit of time thinking about the people in it, as if they are living, breathing people who live actual lives when I’m not writing about them.

There are many different schools of thought, regarding Character Development; the art of creating characters people empathize with and whose journeys they want to follow. I, for one, start with one general rule, once I have the idea for the story roughly sketched out in the world I’ve painted. I get to know my protagonist first. There are many tools one can use to accomplish this; my favorite is the official National Novel Writing Month Character Questionnaire. Completing this exercise gets you thinking about how your protagonist grew up within the world you’ve created, prior to the events of the story you’re writing. It gets you thinking about what formative events shaped the personality traits you envision for them, and clues you in on what they might say or do in future situations (i.e. plot twists and obstacles). It helps you understand what they want, what their future aspirations are, which also shape their behavior.

My next step is to get to know my primary antagonist. The villain. The bad guy. The person (if it is a person) that adversely and actively acts as a foil to your protagonist, yet needs to be a fully realized and complex person/nonperson in his/her/its own right (this last point is extreeeemely important. Important enough to warrant a separate blog post). If there is no conflict in the story, it is difficult for that story to go anywhere or for your protagonist to experience personal growth, and for me it is more interesting to have that conflict stem from another vibrantly real and complex individual (although it is possible to create conflict without a villain… yet another blog topic for another day).

Next, I think about secondary characters. These are the supportive characters who know, are related to, are subservient to, have power over, are in love with, and/or despise the protagonist and/or the antagonist. They, too, need to have well-rounded backstories and motivations, even if not everything is alluded to in detail as the story is being written. Using character development tools for even minor characters will prevent them from reading one-dimensional on the page. Readers can absolutely pick up on characters who are plot devices, who exist merely to propel the plot forward. They receive a couple of pages (or even paragraphs) of exposition or action, their literary “15 minutes in the spotlight” and then they disappear into the depths of the plot and are not heard from again. Give these folks more credit, if you can. Especially if they create what I call “relevant complexity” within the narrative by bringing their own influence, advice, experience, hubris, perspectives, prejudices, and motives to light.

As with world-building, your readers might never see the full Character Development profiles you’ve so painstakingly crafted for your characters. They might never know the full background and exploits of Character A’s history as a notorious pirate, but they will know enough to understand why Character A has acquired so much wealth, and why the authorities are after him, why he hates storms, and why he avoids a certain port on a certain island. The more time we spend with our characters, the more details we flesh out… and the more details we know, the more we treat them as real people. Real people, with real motivations, with whom readers can empathize. Real people to admire or detest, but always to learn from, and – on some level – understand.

And when I do reach the point of understanding them, the people in my story, they become anchors. If delving into their world is my entry-point into the story, the characters I meet along the way keep me grounded there.

And along the way, I start to understand that the story is no longer, and probably was never, mine.

It is theirs.

 


Become a Patron, and unlock additional content! View the Character Profile for one of the main Stormriders protagonists… meet Ben Corley.


This is the third post in a 4-part series about The Big Magical Process of Making Words Happen (According to This Author).

Part 4: Our Journey Begins Now, But How? (or: To Plot or Not to Plot)


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Patreon (Digital) Rewards are ready! (and more)

From the Stormriders Patreon Page:

PATRONS, CHECK YOUR INBOXES! The Stormriders digital previews are polished and ready to distribute! Just a reminder, if you’re donating $1 per month (Steward tier), you will receive a PDF of the first 5 chapters. If you’re donating $5 per month (First Mate tier), you’ll receive the first 5 chapters AND a Stormriders digital short story. …

Read more at Patreon: STORMRIDERS

 

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2017 Updates, and Looking Ahead to 2018

Wait, what, it’s almost 2018 already? Hold the freaking phone…

It has been nearly a solid six months since I’ve posted something – anything – on this blog, about writing, or even not writing. For that obscene lapse in communication, readers, I profusely apologize. But a lot has happened. Allow me to share…

In which the author finds herself gainfully employed once more.

I accepted a position in county government, smack dab in the middle of my degree field, so that is the good news! (MANDATORY DISCLAIMER: All thoughts, opinions, etc. I post on this blog are mine and in no way represent my employer, whose name I am intentionally neglecting to reveal. Must keep day job and dream job separate, people! SECONDARY DISCLAIMER: And no, I’m not a spy or anything. County government administration doesn’t really require a new employee to bring with them a spy’s skill set, anyway.)

However, the inevitable trade-off with gainful employment is, of course, fewer hours in my day/week to devote to my first love and ever-aspiring career accomplishment: publishing a book people want to read. This acknowledgement has been a devastating one, friends. But by acknowledging this new yet necessary obstacle, I have been afforded the opportunity to actually expand my creative leanings into the realm of time management. I’ve discovered there is joy in rising before the sun, brewing coffee, and diving into the world of Stormriders for an hour or so, before most of the rest of the world has any idea a new day has begun. And this is speaking as a human being who keeps a List of Top Five Activities Of Which To Glean the Greatest Sheer Delight, and includes the art of sleeping near the top of that list.

In which the author recommits herself to the completion of the book of her heart.

The Red Earth Sings Beneath Our Feet a memoir by Jen Lynn Anderson

Once upon a time, a girl visited a land far, far away. It was many years ago, but the colors and voices and sounds and tastes of that land have stayed with her, vibrant and strong. Throughout that visit, she kept a journal. From that journal, came a story. A true story, according to the girl, but what she didn’t realize was her truth didn’t necessarily align with the truths of others. And so the girl soon realized she was left with a hopelessly personal and biased story, from the perspective of an optimistic and idealistic Western white mind. It was a story that did not tell the entire truth of the land wherein the girl worked and played and explored and rested her head for a month of her life. And the girl’s heart broke as she began to understand how close she came to harming the people and places she has come to care about the most, by making the story hers instead of theirs.

The world does not need another story of a privileged girl learning from people who look and speak differently than she does. The world DOES need to hear those people’s stories, from their perspectives. And so, the book that began as the personal tale of a voluntourist has become a journalistic voyage into the villages and neighborhoods around Moshi, Tanzania, to bring to Western attention the efforts of local nonprofits and non-governmental organizations, run by people who grew up within those same neighborhoods, visionaries working tirelessly to improve the lives of their neighbors and communities.

The Red Earth Sings Beneath Our Feet was going to be released late this year. For obvious reasons, that has been pushed back indefinitely while I rework the structure of the book and conduct interviews. But I am excited and grateful and privileged to tell this story the way it needs to be told, the way it should have been told from the beginning.

In which the author resigns herself to yet another headlong foray onto the literary roller coaster that is National Novel Writing Month.

Like my fancy NaNo mug? Get it here.

Thirty days. 50,000 words. Fifty. Thousand. I do sometimes feel a bit repetitious this time of year. You’ve heard it before. The problem is, I’ve gotten close but never actually have won NaNoWriMo. Every October, I prep and plan and post words of inspiration and encouragement. “THIS IS MY YEAR,” I say. Only, it never is.

So this year, I’m going into it a little differently. I’m taking my newfound love of early morning candle-lit writing sessions and will commit to put as many words as I possibly can into that hour before dawn. I am going to ignore the daily word-count.

I’m going to remember, each and every single time I sit down in front of my computer, that I am continuing a journey with the characters I love and whom I miss when I’m away from my keyboard. I’m going to surround myself with music and images that inspire me and remind me of those characters and places I am trying to get out of my head and into the book. And what the result will be? I won’t know until I’m there. But whether it’s fifty or fifteen thousand words, my goal is to have a completed first draft of Stormriders in my possession by the end of November. “Winning” be damned.

In which the author signal-boosts a wonderful little group of fellow writers and dreamers.

I’m a big believer in sharing. But as a writer, sharing your work is often incredibly difficult to do. Sometimes it is flat-out painful. Criticism hurts, and even constructive criticism can sting. But critique is a vital component of any writer’s growth in their craft. So what better cure for the sting than finding others who are on the same growth journey as yourself?

Writers groups are an invaluable resource for any seasoned or aspiring author. They prevent you from writing in a vacuum. Whether you have a story you already know you absolutely must tell, or are still searching for your story, a writers group gives you a place to start. To sit down and talk about your ideas, to navigate the tricky twists and turns of the imagination only writers know about. To commiserate about the numbing void of writer’s block, and tap for feedback on the books of our hearts (yes, even when that feedback hurts).

Fortunately, the Twin Cities, with its many celebrated arts communities, boasts dozens upon dozens of well-established writers groups. In any city or town around the TC metro, you can most certainly find a group of your fellow writer people who meet in a somewhat organized fashion at least once a month. Just in Carver County, we have juggernauts such as the Arts Consortium and the Chanhassen Authors Collective, for starters. For my part, I love the small but meaningful meetings of the Waconia Writers Group, where anywhere from four to a dozen or more writers of all ages and experience levels meet twice a month.

Writing can be a lonely experience. It’s easy sometimes to forget that we’re NOT alone. Writers groups help us remember that fact. So don’t be afraid! Find your people, find your story, and grow your writing.

 

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I Made a Book Trailer!

Today I discovered a magical little app called Adobe Spark.

I stayed there awhile, in the depths of Adobe Creative Cloud. At first I stayed on a whim, to learn, and then to play, and minutes turned to hours. At the end of it all, I came away with this:

Not bad for an amateur, hmmm?

I think book trailers are awesome, and let me explain why. Most of my followers who are also writers probably already know what a book trailer is… but for the folks who’d like that information, a book trailer is a simple way to bring your story (or even a mere snapshot of your story) to life, to have it jump off the page and delight the eyes of your audience through the use of a different medium.

Why make a book trailer, you ask? As a whole, in this Digital Age, we are more attracted to video and visual cues than ever before, as we are constantly bombarded by visual information whenever we hop on Google. As a marketer in this Digital Age, you cater to the needs of an increasingly visual audience; you gravitate toward bright and interesting photography and snappy video as effective means to market your product, because those media have higher consumption rates among audiences (compared to a page-long summary or written advertisement).

This concept very much applies to book marketing. Authors increasingly are relying on visual messaging to boost their work, and news of their work, to their readers. Many folks in all niches of the book community… authors, reviewers, publishers, etc. … have turned to vlogs (the video blog). It makes sense. If I, a reader, can click on links and see videos of my favorite authors talking about their upcoming projects, I get a sense of immediacy from seeing their faces and a greater connection to their words by hearing them spoken.

My Stormriders book trailer is really a teaser trailer, very much a snapshot. It’s a little rough (hey, I’m new at this!) but I’m excited to bring my heroine’s voice to you. My primary motivation for creating the trailer is because I haven’t yet given her voice a chance to be heard… she does not speak at all in the the first four chapters that are currently available to the public. Since Stormriders is quintessentially her story, I wanted to create something that hinted at the events to come, through her eyes.

Enjoy!

 

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