A Writing Journey

Posts tagged ‘characters’

Beginning Worldbuilding in 3 Steps

A friend of mine recently said “I hate worldbuilding, that’s why I only write fanfiction these days.” I’ve heard the sentiment before, and it shocks me every time. Worldbuilding is my favorite part of writing. I love diving into something that isn’t even real yet and figuring it out, deciding how the people live, how things are done. There is a lot that goes into worldbuilding, and all at various stages of how much you want to accomplish, or how much you need for the story (trust me, it’s always more than you think, but if you have the basics, the rest will come while you write).

So what does one need, to start worldbuilding? I have A NUMBER OF TIPS for you in this post. I will say, before we get too far, that not every story needs tons of worldbuilding. If you are writing a fiction or fantasy that takes place in this world, you may have a specific place in mind so you don’t have to build one. But you may have to take more time developing the magic system or history of were-creatures. As with all writing tips, use them or don’t at your own discretion.

Tip #1: Make maps.

If you’ve been following me for a while, you may know about my obsession with maps. I draw maps for all of my stories (heck – I draw maps for my ideas and the ideas that haven’t even become ideas yet). This is one of the most important parts of worldbuilding, so you can get oriented and know what’s where. Think about it: have you ever read a book and come across a passage that jars you directionally? For instance, if I’m reading a book and it says they are going east, but then says the rising sun is behind them? Or even not having a discrepancy like that, and just assuming the layout of the world is one way, but in the author’s mind it is the complete opposite? Maps help with this. Maps will help you, the writer, avoid mistakes like the one illustrated above, and they will help readers have a clear vision of your world.

So make maps. Not just of countries and continents, but cities and buildings and important places in your story. You don’t have to include everything in the end, but if you know it, you’ll be able to write more clearly about it.

Tip #2: Think about religion.

Okay, I know a lot of people aren’t religious. I’m not very religious. But we can’t deny that religion plays a huge roll in our world. If you are creating a world from scratch, there are going to be creation myths, legends, and maybe even texts that someone decides is the key for how to live life. Some of these are going to evolve into religions. Because people want something to believe in, whether they are characters in a book, or real people. If you don’t want to have any religions in your book, there should be a good reason for their absence. Not one that you necessarily have to share, but it will inform your writing if it is there. And if there are religions, but you don’t want to make it a focus, maybe your main character is not religious. Or maybe it becomes a source of conflict between the hero and their travelling companion. One suggestion: don’t be preachy. It’s okay for one character to preach at another, but don’t preach to your reader. They won’t thank you for it.

Tip #3: Decide how the people look.

I’m not just talking physical features, though that’s important too. I’m talking about how they dress, how they move. The climate will play a part in this – people in colder regions are typically shorter and stouter while people in warmer areas are thinner and taller. (This is about heat conservation in northern regions, or keeping cool in warmer regions. It’s biological. If you have someone move from a warm region to a cool region, their kids are still going be taller, typically.) Not only height and girth, but in cold places people are more bundled, making for less graceful movements. Clothes are very important to worldbuilding – and not for description purposes (let’s face it, it sucks to spend paragraphs upon paragraphs trying to memorize details of someone’s attire). But if you think about why they wear certain things, you’ve hit a gold mine. If most people in a country wear leather armor, you can assume they are warlike. If they wear fine silks and flowing robes, maybe it is because they are excellent traders and have become very wealthy. Of course, in every culture and country there is wide variation depending on class, occupation, and even religious beliefs.

Okay. So these three steps are going to get you started. Of course there is so much more to think about, but if, like my friend, worldbuilding is not your forte, or is simply new to you, these steps will get you started in the write direction. (I know, written puns never do so well.)

What is your favorite worldbuilding tip?

Take care,

Emily

Intent vs. Action – Is it really the thought that counts?

It’s your birthday. You’ve suffered through a long day of work or school, and finally you’re home. And you’re excited because – presents. So you start tearing into the brightly wrapped packages – only to find a new sweater or package of socks from that one elderly relative (and let’s say it’s a terrible sweater, you hate sweaters, and it’s 100 degrees outside). You’re disappointed. And your mom leans over and whispers, “It’s the thought that counts, sweetie.”

Another story. You just get home from an exhausting day, your significant other is asleep. It’s only 5:00. There is no dinner, the garbage hasn’t been taken out, the pets haven’t been fed. You try to tell yourself that they’ve had a long day too, but you’re angry anyway. And beneath all the anger, you feel hurt. Because if they can’t even try to help out around the house, they can’t possibly love you. When they wake up, you confront them, you tell them how you feel, and they say, “I didn’t mean to hurt you.” And you say, “But you did.”

So is it the thought that counts or isn’t it? The first story, the one we’ve all experienced, in one form or another, tells us that yes, the intention is more important than the result. But the second story, which I’m sure just as many of us have experienced somehow, says that the action itself is the more important than the intention. But these are contextual situations. If we take the context away, does intent matter more than action – or the other way around?

Let’s take a look at U.S law. There are different charges for killing based on intent. In fact, if you accidentally hit someone with a car and kill them, they don’t even call it murder. They call it manslaughter. (There’s a whole complicated chain of different charges with killing, this only scratches the surface. So if you are interested, go look it up.) They say the action gets you punished, but the intent determines the punishment.

There are whole other discussions to be had here as well (did someone intend a comment to sexist, or are they just completely unaware? did someone really mean for their terrible driving to make us mad, or are they just oblivious?) but I think you get the point, so I want to get to mine.

When we’re writing, this is something to remember. Sometimes our characters are going to be so hurt and confused by what someone did, they won’t see the good intentions behind it (a betrayal by a friend to keep the character safe, for instance). Other times they are going to forgive based on that same intention. Did their friend really mean to betray them, or were they just trying to help out?

Whether you choose for actions or intentions to be more significant to your character will depend, almost entirely, on the character. And maybe they will fall in the gray zone where some intentions are more important and some actions are more important.

What do you think? Are actions or intentions more important?

NaNo Prep: Choose a Protagonist

Today and tomorrow (plot) are interchangeable, depending on your writing style. For me, who my main character is significant in shaping the plot, but I know other writers who let the plot shape the character.

Anyway. We’ve been ruminating. And so now we should have a good stock of ideas and thoughts to get us started. Maybe you even know who your main character is already. If you do, get started fleshing her (him) out. What are their hobbies, their flaws, their dreams? Do they believe what their elders tell them? Do they long to travel? Are they afraid of the dark? There are so many ways to craft your character. Start writing down all the little things about them, their history, so on and so forth. We should all know how to do this, or at least be able to find the resources to help, so have at it and come back tomorrow!

Next time: Choose your plot

It’s for Something

Thank you, those who commented on my post yesterday about my writing wall. Your encouragement means the world to me.

This morning I pushed on ahead. I think a lot of my frustration at this moment is with my tinkering, it basically takes QFS back to the status (and quality) of a first draft. In addition, I’m trying to figure out how to make my characters better, and figure out how to properly structure/plot a novel. Which I’ve never really done. It’s hard and frustrating and tear-inducing.

But I will get there.

Anyway, thanks much and I’m keeping at it.

Write on,

Emily

Two-Faced: Characters with flaws, motives, desires and more

People are complicated. Even when we try to be whole-heartedly one thing (compassionate, hard-working, friendly, cool) other things get in the way. And not necessarily outside things. I’m talking about the things inside, the are counter to what we want and who we want to be. For instance: if you are or want to be cool, maybe you have an “uncool” hobby that you feel you have to keep secret, and then end up snapping at people when they pry. Or you simply have two conflicting desires: stay in town and keep your secure job, friends, and romantic relationship, or travel to a new city, start all over, and remake yourself. That might be an extreme example, but it’s out there.

So if people are this complicated, our characters should be too. Let me take a moment and say: complicated should not mean confusing, not in fiction at least. The character can be confused, but the reader should not be. There should always be a solid reason for what the character decides or does, even if it is only clear in retrospect (using foreshadowing is a big part of this).

Character flaws are a huge part of making a character complex and complicated. A lot of what I read (and am frustrated with) has one of two types of flaws: 1. something superficial that gets lost when the story really heats up. This is annoying because underneath the superficial “flaw” (and it’s usually not even something the character does, but part of the character’s appearance) that character is still the most normal, perfect guy or gal. Nothing conflicting inside them. 2. Anger/temper/quick to make assumptions. This bothers me because, although it is a legitimate flaw, it is overused and oversimplified.

(A quick aside on anger and the characters who, in what I read, most often get this “flaw”: Anger is a secondary emotion. I know, it DOES NOT feel like it. But anger is what happens when we don’t want to feel hurt. Example: you get criticized by someone for a little thing (say, not vaccuming) and you are hurt that they criticized you for it but don’t want them to know you are hurt because that makes you vulnerable and they just “attacked”, so instead you get angry and a fight starts. All of this happens really fast (most of the time) and we don’t even recognize it as happening. And, obviously, there are many different ways that it happens. Okay, so who most often gets saddled with anger? Two character types: big brooding guy and “strong female.” Big brooding guy is probably closer to the anger as secondary sort of effect. He usually has a troubling past which has caused him to shut down and get angry (because he jumps to conclusions about people). “Strong female” is usually an outcast of some sort and has to use her anger to get by in a guy’s world, or to get through to big brooding guy (who is all too often a romantic interest). Anger is important in stories, don’t let it go. But think about how you use it.)

Conflicting desires within one character are a way to bring out their flaws. They want two things (that they can’t have at the same time) and one of them might be something they really shouldn’t want, but do anyway and go for that, even though maybe the other one is helping someone in need. They choose to fulfill a selfish desire. You can, of course, use conflicting desires in many different ways to create, you got it: conflict. And if different characters have conflicting desires but have to work together, that’s pretty great too.

Conflicting motives is a big one too. Maybe our character decides to help that person in need after all, but only because the guy she likes is with her and she wants to impress him with her selflessness. If she does this enough, he will believe that she is selfless and be shocked when she does something selfish.

Internal battles can be difficult to get across in writing, but people always question themselves and who they are and if they are doing the right thing. I’ll use myself as an example here: I know I am a compassionate person, but I also know that I do mean things sometimes. I try not to, but it happens. And so I, like the characters in books, have to balance these conflicting roles that I see myself in. This is called cognitive dissonance and is an awesome tool for writers.

Write on,

Emily

Every Character is Their Own Hero

Writing fantasy (or any genre, but it seems especially true for fantasy) takes a lot of characters. Because I write fantasy, I’ll be talking about that and largely ignoring other genres. Sorry!

I saw a chart recently that listed the characters introduced in the first chapters of some popular books. They were all upwards of 20 characters. In fairness: that does not necessarily mean 20 named characters make an actual appearance. Some of them are mentioned by other characters, some of them are unnamed. When it comes to fantasy, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and remember. In chapter one of QFS I have 10 named characters, one unnamed character, and 3 groups of characters (“others,” “diggers,” and “healers”). I don’t think info dumping 20 characters is a necessarily good idea, but it depends on how long the chapter is. If I doubled my chapter length, 20 would, I think, be a good fit.

BUT. I’m not about to spend a whole post talking about how many characters appear when. I bring it up only to make a point about how many characters we writers must take into consideration.

In fantasy we usually have a core group surrounding our main character. Sometimes they are a single unit and any division is a big deal, as in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. In others, the MC has a group, but flits in and around them more (as in the Farseer Trilogy). And all around the MC and their core group are the Other Characters.

Those others may get a few speaking lines, a brief appearance to illustrate a point, move the plot forward, or to contribute to realism. Our MC only sees one aspect of these others – a one-dimensional snapshot that is, often, of little importance. What if we flip our point of view? What if that other character looks at our MC and sees an irritable, crabby, person, intent only on their goal with no interest in the lives of those around them?

Every character, named or not, recurrent or not, is their own hero. We hear this all this all the time. There is difficulty in accepting it our writing it out because we ourselves are limited to our own viewpoint. We can’t hop into another person’s shoes and know their lives (even though we can empathize, it is NOT the same as understanding who that person is on the inside of their mind). We are all different “I”s. When we don’t accept this “everyone’s a hero*” mentality, our supporting characters are flat. And flat is boring.

How, then, do we combat this? Back story. When we create our MC’s and secondary characters, we give them elaborate histories that elucidate their motives and actions.

Okay, step back a minute. I know I have a complex history that informs my behavior. In my life, I am the MC (we’re all the MCs of our own lives). Around me are my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my co-workers. The people I have direct contact with everyday. I know that they, too, have complex histories, even if I don’t know every aspect. There are also people I interact with at my work place that I see once or maybe a few times – but I know nothing about them. There are people on the street that I pass everyday but never speak to. All the people at the grocery store – I may recognize the cashier but I don’t know her name, even though it’s on a name tag. They all have stories too. They are all a MC. They, each and everyone, have a complex history that started before they were even born. (Yes, our ancestors’ stories directly inform our own.)

Let’s jump back in to novel-land. Every character that our MC encounters has a rich background, just like every person that we encounter does. Does that mean we have to right an in-depth back story for every single character we write? No. It does mean we should give it thought. It means that if we have a character that has more than a few lines, more than a scene, we should really think more about who they are. Because everyone really is a hero in their own eyes.

Write on,

Emily

*in their own way! Thanks, Captain Hammer

I know I said…

It just so happens that I am really terrible at following my own rules. For instance: I said I wasn’t going to start working on book 3 for a while. I said I was going to at LEAST finish transcribing SOTD onto the computer. Well I just couldn’t resist. I’ve got about a third/half of the outline for 3 done, as well as the first ten pages. To be honest, I was going to write just the first scene tonight but it turned into most of the first chapter. I would keep going but between writing and crochet my hand needs a break!

I’m fairly excited for book three – I’m excited that it’s finally coming to a close (even as I say that I laugh at myself. It will be at LEAST a year of writing the first draft, and many more months editing and reworking. Besides, I haven’t even gotten past the first draft of book 2!). So even as I laugh, I am excited. I’ve known how this story will end for about three years now. Yes, some things have tweaked and changed in that, but the ultimate ending will still be the same and I CAN’T WAIT!

Do you have endings that you just can’t wait to write?

You know, I think part of my excitement is that I have been working on this story, in it’s many forms, since 2010. I wrote the first short story that inspired it all back when I was finishing my freshman year of college. It seems like so long ago now, and a lot of the story and world has changed since then. But some things have not. The main cities bear the same names as first I gave them, there are still mountains that house ancient ruins, the character in that short story has played a minor role in the first two books and will blossom in book 3. (Seriously, I am excited that his story still plays a part in the over all tale.) There is a deep sense of contentment that comes with knowing that I’m almost there. And it’s contentment with energy. I am energized by being so close to the end.

I think, after I finish 3, I will take a break in another world for a while. It’s a little early to say that for sure, but I think I need to let it all rest, to go and explore another strange land – to be an adventurer again rather than a native.

Of course, thinking about the end of this trilogy has also got me a little bittersweet. Again, I know it is premature, but I really am almost there. I’ve been through so much with these characters, this world. I can’t imagine what life will be like when I pack them all up in boxes and move on. When their stories are finished, will I keep thinking about other parts of their lives? Will I want to write them again? I wonder how I will be able to leave them. They are like my friends, and I will miss them.

But not yet! Because I still have plenty of time with them. 🙂 So for now I will be content with that.

Write on, my friends.

-Emily

A Character’s Character

Quick! What is the first thing you think of when I say “character”? Perhaps you think of a fully-formed, though fictional person. Or perhaps you think “a real character” – like a class clown. Or, if you are like me, maybe you think of the six pillars of character* – those moral qualities that make up a person. And that is what this post will be discussing: a character’s morals.

I tend to start by building the superficial bits of a character – how they look, what their name is, and what they do for a living. But as I write, I always find the characters lacking. They aren’t real with just those few bits. They need something to believe in, to stand up for, to drive them through any situation that they might encounter. They need morals.

When I started writing QFS and created the protagonist, Lacey, I started by deciding what she stands for. I gave her a strict belief in the religion of her nation (though she does struggle with it sometimes) and a longing to help others. I developed her character first.

When thinking about a character’s character, there are some important things to keep in mind. What drives them might conflict with their morals. Maybe their morals are skewed, or maybe they simply are lacking in some areas. Look at the 12 archetypes (The Innocent, The Orphan, The Hero, The Caregiver, The Explorer, The Rebel, The Lover, The Creator, The Jester, The Sage, The Magician, and the Ruler) and see if your character could  fit any of them. Try to combine two or even three of the archetypes. Use the six pillars of character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship) to create even more interesting characters. Experiment!

Take care, fellow travelers.

*I work in a school, and have been helping our students learn about the six pillars of character for the past couple of weeks.

Characters – A Series

Without characters, what would a story be? Characters give stories life, but they also have the power to drag your story down. One of the keys to writing a good story is to write characters well. As such, I will be starting a series on characters and how to craft them, or rather the things one can do to make compelling characters.

In this series, I will be discussing personality types, quirks, flaws, strengths, passions, goals, desires, histories, and much more. If you have any suggestions for things to discuss, or have questions during the series, PLEASE suggest/ask.

Take care, fellow travelers.

Children as Characters

In the sequel to QFS, I have several children characters. I have always avoided using children in my writing. Why? Because I have never seen children done well in books (no – not even in children’s fiction).

You might be protesting this – what about Harry Potter, or The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe? These are wonderful stories and I will not try to argue otherwise. But when you look at the children in them, and then look at real-life kids, there is something distinctly different. Children in real life are quirky, unpredictable, and full of nuance. Children in stories are well-rounded, use language well (or at least consistently) and are, on the whole, adult.

There was a book I read part of several years ago (and that it has stuck in my memory shows how much it bothered me) in which a five-year-old boy spoke with perfect grammar, perfect understanding of complex words, and insight that children of that age, quite frankly, don’t have. My nephew is this age, and even when he wasn’t I knew that children didn’t talk or act the way the character did.

So why is it so difficult to write child characters? I have a theory. It goes back to the unpredictability of real children. In books, we like a certain amount of unpredictability, but in the end we like to know how a character will react in certain situations. Children may scream for two hours at the mere mention of a nap one day, and the next go down without a fuss. So when we write, we give them one (maybe two) reactions to a situation and leave it at that. In addition, it is difficult to capture the silly little grins, the words that don’t flow quite right, and all the little things that make children so real.

And what do we do to make up for the fact that we struggle? We write them as mini-adults, perhaps a little flatter than our older characters, and say that they are mature for their age, or reserved, or had to grow up fast. I’m not saying that these things can’t happen, but when all child characters are like this I’d say there is a problem.

What do you think? Have you read any books where the children were especially well-written (if so, please share – I really want to see that!)? Do you struggle with writing child characters?

Take-care, fellow travelers.

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