Tuesday, March 17, 2015

About Character

So. We've been discussing content, world building and a whole lot of other stuff (like Do your own coverart), but still I haven't posted anything about character building. I love my characters, so I've posted a lot about them (character interviews, snippets of crudely translated text), but nothing about how I came up with them.

I figured this would have to be the next step: How to build a character that is interesting to read about. To start with, I've always said that a character that is interesting to write about usually is interesting to read about too, so if you're getting bored just writing about him or her, you should probably take another look at his och her traits.

To start with, there are a few key things to look at:

1. Characteristics. This is when you say "Well DUH! It's a character, right?"

2. History. We all have memories.

3. Ambition. As long as your character isn't staying in bed watching TV all day.

4. Faults. We all have them. Make sure your character does too.

The thing with our beloved characters is to make them real. If they are to us, it's easier to make them seem real for others. They don't have to be boring and down to earth for that, we just have to convince our readers that THIS is a living person, he or she have feelings just like you or me. They have real lives with real fears and most important of all: they don't feel like they've been dropped into the story just to push it forward. They are supposed to react to what happens around them - well, if you've fed them horse tranquilizers they might not, but if you've done that I hope there's a good reason for it.

This is a simple step by step walk-through, and at the end there's a character sheet that I've made. I had to translate it from Swedish, so hopefully it's OK. If not, here's a very detailed one I found on the internet.

1. Characteristics.
I like to begin with a sketch; this makes things easier for me. I usually have an idea about what my character is supposed to be like before I start, so it's just there before I start with the details.

For Fur, I had decided that he was going to be petite, slightly baby-faced and long-haired:

My sea captain is supposed to be determined, have dark hair that is impossible to style and a broken nose:

And from this, I've already got some characteristics. This is not the end, however; there's a long list of things to look into.

Things that are included in characteristics are:

  • physical appearance - length, weight, complection, face compared to age
  • voice - speach pattern, dialect, language, tone, gestures and bodylanguage
  • habits - economy, food, addictions if any, quirks
  • mentality - pessimist, optimist, grumpy, the joker, depressive, nervous
  • thoughts - what the character thinks about him/herself and stuff around him/her.
This is very shallow, but good enough to get one going. If you've decided to make your character really short, as I've done with Fur, you also have to think about how this character reacts to this. In Fur's case, he's very selfconcious about his appearance, wears clothes which make him appear larger than he is, uses body language to emphasize confidence.

2. History
As said before, all characters have a history - if they aren't born at the beginning of your book and you are describing their history as you get along. 

Your character's history doesn't have to be written in your story to make impact - your character reacts in a certain way to different things because of his or her history. 

What you need to think of is:
  • birthplace
  • family/loved ones/disliked ones
  • childhood memories
  • growing up
  • education (or earlier workplaces)
  • recent history
I'll use my sea captain as an example here. He's the youngest son in a high ranked aristocratic family. The fact that his family is out of money forces him to work. The navy is always looking for new recruits, and his father is a shipowner - not a very successful one, since he can't afford to keep the fleet going - so this was a natural step for him. He's advanced on his own merits.

This is hardly mentioned in my novel; my sea captain have been married for some time, have two daughters and is about to build up some wealth when he's introduced. His history is mainly to remind me about what he finds important in life and why.

3. Ambition
There are a few things that forces us forward, and one of these things I mentioned in my post about world building. It's in the human nature to advance. We always want to become better at what we do, even if it's about finding the perfect spot in the sofa before turning the TV on. We're also lazy by nature, so another question is how far we are willing to go to get what we want (just can't help it, started singing "ain't no mountain high enough...") and what we are willing to do to reach that goal (could your character REALLY kill for an ice-cream?).

There's also that little thing about determination. Our minds might be set on writing this novel, we are willing to sit inside writing all day even if the sun is shining and there is laughter from the garden because everybody else is having so much fun.
Are your character stubborn enough to stay in his/her tracks?
Determined to finish what's been started?

The important part abut ambition is to figure out what it is that forces your character to reach further. Why I picked Fur and the sea captain as examples here, is because they both have the same goal: to become wealthy. The differences between them is that Fur lost his scruples a long time ago, while the sea captain fights inner struggles every day.

4. Faults.
Nobody is perfect. More importantly, you can't give your character minor faults that is charming rather than annoying. Why? Well use yourself as an example. Of course you don't find anything irritating about your own person, you wouldn't find yourself irritating to hang out with, woud you? We are still humans, and since we're making all our choices from our own perspectives with the full trust in our own capability to make good choices. Of course we think everything we do is all in a good cause.
At the same time there is at least one person that think you have a fault or two - you might be too talkative and can't keep a secret, have a childish humour which isn't suited around dinnertables or don't show enough empathy. These are faults that can be irritating, and your character should have at least one of these. Other characters must accept your main character for what he/she is or hate these faults enough to shudder and walk away as soon as they see him/her.


Fur has so many faults they can't be counted, so I'll just give you a few. He thinks he's smarter than everybody else and treats everybody else like garbage. He takes advantage of other people's weaknesses and use it to his own gain. He has several addictions, and show little to no empathy to other living things. He's very restless and can't be still for a longer time (this is one of my own faults, you shoud see me in meetings).

Here's the promised character sheets. They are also found on the resource page; both Swedish and English.

Character sheet in English

Mall för karaktärsbeskrivning på Svenska

If there's anything you'd like to add, please comment below!

Sunday, March 15, 2015

About World building

I was thinking, since I've been talking about the practical parts of writing lately, I should dive into that some more. This time, World building is on the menu, and why I picked that is because it's fun. Well, there's a good explanation to that: I'm writing fantasy. I guess I wouldn't be as interested in it if I was writing something else.

World building is...
Everything. Litterally. The world in which your story is set might not always seem as important as your main character, but to be fair it really is. It's not just about setting, it's about how the moon turns the tides, about all the creatures that live in it. From the largest stars to the smallest microbes. Why? Well, even in your back yard there are at least seasons, a climate and weather, bugs - maybe even microbic aliens flying arond in saucers, probling the daffodils. Your world gives all your scenes that little extra and shouldn't be forgotten. And, the most important part of all: your characters interact with it, so of course you have to mention it in some way or another.

If you are writing Fantasy or Science Fiction, this is a really interesting challenge. Suddenly you have to turn your backyard into a magic forest or the engine room of an invisible space ship. The interesting part of these themes is that things can look almost however you like, but if they are too fantastic they have to be described, otherwise your vision stays where it was born: in your head. Would you want any of your main characters to stick around in your head through the entire story?

No, neither would I. 

And that's why I think it's imprtant to at least treat the world as a prominent member of the crew.

OK. Let's look at what's important when you put your world together:

1. Maps.This is not only about a map itself, it's about mapping your story too.

2. Society. This is a huge part.

3. Conflict. Yep, even your world should create conflict.

First of all: If you're writing a series and will be needing all your data in one place: Save yourself some time and make a wiki-page. I haven't and my reason is that it would take too much time now when I already have it all structured. If I ever sit down to write something this massive again I definately will though. There are loads of hosts out there, just have a look around and pick the one you prefer. Here's a bunch of them that have had some great reviews, Zim is probably the one I'd use, since it's a compact program - it's a desktop wiki - and relatively easy to use.

Let's have a look at how to do this then.

1. Maps

Maps, pictures of the area where your novel is set. Flora, fauna and other things about the nature around your characters - without it your characters will find it really difficult to interact with it.

Making maps is an artform I sadly have no skills in. I used Photoshop and made this from a hypothetic map of Mars that I found on internet to show you what I mean. Lots of copying and pasting, even more crude drawing. It doesn't have to be fantastic, it's just for you.

Not Mars

When that is done, it's time to start thinking about how big your world is. Why would this be important, you might ask. Well, it's rather disturbing, as a reader, to notice that King Midas and his umpty knights travelled from point A to point B in about forty days on their valiant steeds with hooves sparkling from the speed, while the lonesome wanderer seemed to do the same route on foot in about two hours. When that is done, the rest is simple math to make it all probable.

The best part with maps is that as you go along in your story, you can pinpoint small things as you go and reuse the same place again to make it even more realistic.

Like when Galad the Brave lost his left glove just outside the tavern in Blahblah Village. Not that important for the readers, but it could get useful for you. Maybe not now, but in your next book in the series.
And then, SMACK!
When you describe how Angus the Angry finds this glove when he's taking the dog for a walk before rampaging the countryside (as he's muttering about how much he hates Galad the Brave for interupting the last raid), you not only describe your world, you're nailing even the most minute pieces of it to the inside of your readers brain. And this is, at least for me, what makes George R. R. Martin so extremely clever. On the other hand, I've heard somewhere that he uses miniatures of armies and characters in pretty much the same way. I for one don't have space enough for that, so I'll have to settle with loads of red dots and some small scribbles on the side (as you see in the above picture).

OK, now we have a map. What's next? Oh yeah. I almost forgot. This map, is it from a planet similar to ours or is it completely different? Like, can you breathe the air, is the water drinkable, do the planet have multiple moons, what effect does these moons have on the planet? Suddenly there's a whole lot of things to figure out.

When we've decided to make the ground of our planet into acidic slime and water is the only thing you can walk on; our planet have three suns and loads of dangerous vulcanoes; rains are heavy because of gravity (and that's also why everything is very flat) we can begin to look at population.

Before that, just for the fun of it, check out Nasa's Design a Planet. Maybe it'll be enough for you to start thinking that maybe your world is at least a bit similar to our own ;)
Here you can find some other worldbuilding tools, I haven't used any of them. Through NaNoWriMo I've come across this Magical Worldbuilder though. It's a good resource if you're not quite sure where to start. SFWA also have a nice set of questions to make world building easier.

This is when we decide to build up what would live on this planet, and this is the crucial part. To decide what would live in the world you are writing about, you first have to decide what climate we're working with. Is it colder in some places than in others? What are the seasons like?

When that's done it's time for plants and animals! Yay! Yet again, all about being convincing.
For example: if you plan to write your story in a desert setting, a polarbear shouldn't be your main character's biggest fear. If you're not viewing this polarbear as comic relief or a piece of conflict, of course. If the polarbear was out of its natural habitat, I'd be confused.

Same goes with plants. If Honeysuckle was described as flowering in November I would stop and reread that sentence, maybe think that "Honeysuckle could probably grow in Australia", nod my head and go back to the story. It would make me raise my eyebrows though, and it would take some time to get back to that flow I had before. If a reader does that, he or she has tumbled out of your story and has to be dragged back in, that's not a good thing. Yet again, if this honeysuckle is like the polarbear; a part of a conflict, there's a completely different story.

And to be fair: this is just how I react. Other people may not.

If you are making up plants of your own, try to figure out what makes a cactus survive in a desert and then copy these traits to your own desert-plants. The same goes for animals.

Photographs or illustrations linked to the different areas in your map is a good start, but then you have to study these plants and animals through a magnifying glass. Every little bit of information about all the things that you would menton to make your world more convincing.

2. Society

If you have people in your world, you have to know how they live their daily lives. You have to figure out what society is like where your story is set. Since your character - probably - is part of this society, you also have to be sure about his or her part in it. That is also why you need to know this about your world:
  • History 
  • Cultures (as in religion, philosophy and traditions)
  • Races
  • Heirarchy systems (let's face it - it's everywhere)
  • Economy
  • Politics
  • Technology (and if you're writing fantasy, here's where you add magic system)
And, a thing that I think is really important: Your characters will sometimes have leisure; time to follow their interests. What's available? If you're writing fantasy, you have to come up with books they might read, plays that are famous and so on. Even though your main character might be that orphaned stableboy with no education, the world surrounding him is full of culture. In the village he lives: fairy tales that coloured his childhood, songs, games. This culture is different from village to village, and it will be something completely different when he reaches the city. This is also all about the unwritten rules like manners and fashion.

And please do not forget about food culture. Food is something that everyone can talk and write about; it's such an inspiring subject that I've used it several times as things to write about in classes. Even the students that don't enjoy writing can go on for pages about food. It's more important than you might think.

3. Conflict

Even your world can create conflict, and if it does, your world is even more a part of the story than before. When you've built your world, added everything to it, conflict is what makes it alive. Different religious groups, cultures that interact with eachother, You would probably see predators going after herbivores too, or at least showing trace of a hunt if your story is set in the countryside. Something as simple as a slippery stair could be a conflict.

An example for conflict could be that squeaky floorboard that your character has been thinking of doing something about since the dawn of time, and how annoying this becomes that day when he tries to sneak through the house because he's heard a weird sound from the kitchen. Let's build this up even more: when your character finally gets his crowbar to do something about the floorboard, he finds a treasure map... But now we're running too fast. Your scene isn't only going to be part of conflict, it's also the fitting surrounding to it. You don't have to go all epic "It was a dark and stormy night", but that sentence certainly gives the scene a certain feeling, doesn't it?

I guess you enjoy studying the world around you - at least I do. Here are a few examples of conflict from every day human life that I'd like to point out:

  • Men vs. women; we are seldom as equal as we'd like to be
  • There are always more people that are poor than people that are rich and there are forces keeping it like this for several reasons
  • Minorites are usually louder than majorities
  • Human needs will always come first; after dinner we can talk about morals - when in need we drop all our ideals
  • We are always trying to advance and sometimes scruples come in our way
  • Humans are lazy by nature - the easiest way may not always be the best way though
  • We can put up with a lot of stuff. When we think we can't deal with it anymore, we still strive for yet a while. Our minds are always stronger than our bodies...
  • ...But there is a point when we can't go on anymore. What is important here is the reason and the reaction, but that is very individual. Which is why this is almost part of character building rather than world building.

There are loads of things you can use if you're just looking at the world around you, these are just the things I wrote down from the top of my mind.

If there's anything you'd like to add, please post it below!

Monday, March 2, 2015

About content

Writing - a time warp?
It certainly feels like it anyway. I mean, I love to get to that state when I've been writing for hours and I'm so lightheaded that I could go on for yet another day and night without noticing the sun setting. It's empowering and almost meditative. The brain turns into a total blank and you fill page after page with scribbles, and the next time you look up it's dark outside.

Yeah, I know. Hard to read, even for me.

So, if you started to write in reverse...? *scratches of ballpoint pen towards paper*

And then, when you've filled journal after journal with this and start to revise, you realize that there's just a nugget of it that is really good. You start to work with a first draft based on that nugget, and work even more nuggets into it where it might fit. Suddenly you have a story.

That's the best part about writing - you see a whole world taking shape, tie the logic solutions to the story, build the characters to a point where they could be real actual people. COULD be, by the way; I know my characters better than I know my family. I love their quirks, their weaknesses and their strengths.

And then comes the rough part. When you revise that second draft and notice that the CONTENT is not at all as good as you thought. The next step is horrible. Tossing away chapters that don't lead anywhere, remove things that are very well written, but really uninteresting to read. Like a chapter I wrote during NaNoWriMo about shaving with a straight razor. It was more a study in how to work a straight razor rather than a thrilling episode that could move the story forward.

BUT. There's a benefit with this. All these chapters are discarted and the story is shorter, BUT I know my characters even better now. Know without reading the character sheets when Fur should be getting nervous, Know exactly how long Nefret can restrain her anger before she explodes. Am absolutely certain how to discribe Achillea's expressions and bodylanguage when she's being manipulative in her own very discrete way.

The problem is the content, and that's why I wanted to write about this.

I love reading, read something every day, reread books I love. Right now I'm rereading the Harry Potter series, introducing my six year old daughter to her favourite character in written word. She LOVES Harry Potter, but has only seen the movies - together with me, of course, and with a warning before the scary parts (she's learned from this that the menacing music in the movies are a good cue to look away).

I tried to figure out what it is I like about certain books, what it is that makes me read them over and over again. To do this I had to start by looking at what books I revisited and why. This is rather embarassing to admit, but I keep journals over books I've read, even marked how many times. Here follow some examples of books I've read several times and why I've returned to them:

Emma by Jane Austen
This book is one of my favourites, and according to my journals I've read it three times since I started to write notes of all the books I read. So, what is it that I return to in this book?
Milieu, Dialogue, Characters, Romance. You know what will happen, but the characters are so well written it really doesn't matter.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
Three times in Swedish, once in English. What is there not to love? Yeah, I know. I have to be objective. Why did I return?
Milieu, Magic, Adventure. The dialogues aren't really my favourite here, and I feel like I really don't get to know the characters really well, but is there any other place that is as captivating as Middle Earth?

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
This is a book that I've read at least five times. I even bought an early print (in Swedish) of it by an antiquarian. And why?
Adventure, Characters, Feelings, Intrigue. The main character is driven by revenge, and everything he does is really clever.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Read it two times, and the reason for this is:
Characters, Intrigue, Dialogue. My favourite chracter would be Uriah Heep, who is such a disturbing character you just can't get rid of the oily feeling you get after reading about him.

So, according to this, there are a few traits I look for in a story, and I guess that most people do the same. That's why this list could help me find out what CONTENT I need to finish this story. Ever.

  • Milieu. I enjoy reading about beautiful landscapes, but most of all I enjoy the feeling I get from how the characters interpret their surroundings. I really enjoy that open air countryside from Emma, the same about the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
  • Dialogue. A clever dialogue could make or break a book in my point of view. If the dialogue is uninteresting or straight out stupid, I will hate the characters. Passionately. Which could be a good thing if it was done on purpose.
  • Characters. This is very well linked to the point above: a character have a dialogue that fits his/her personality (most of the time). I like characters that I can get to know bit by bit, as if they were real people. See how these "real" people react to actions. A good character is one that you root for or dislike, someone that freely share his/her weaknesses with you to make you understand how difficult the easiest task could be.
  • Feelings. I love when you can feel what a character feels and see how their actions follow their reactions based on feelings. Which leads me to...
  • Romance. Or, in reality, all pieces of human nature. Romance is a strong subject and a great way to build suspense.
  • Intrigue. All about suspense. What I like most about this is the possibility to give the story lots of unexpected twists.
  • Adventure. There's a bit of adventure in everyday life, but there's nothing like an epic fast paced story, forcing your heart to beat faster as your new favourite friends are about to do the impossible. Or fail.
  • Magic. There's a bit of magic in everything, it's just about giving the ordinary things a scent of mystique. Not knowing if it's good or bad, and again: impossible things. That's the charm with books.

So, according to what books I return to, I should write these things myself, right? That's why my third draft seems further away from being finished than ever, even though I'm now confident enough to let people read snippets of it. Hardly ever did that before.

The next problem is how to work this into a story.
I've been teaching for about ten years now, all ages from six to sixteen, and I've always said that the only way there is to learn grammatics and spelling properly is by reading and writing. The children I teach now are eight years old. They read books, at least 15 minutes a day and write stories which I help them to correct afterwards. Since they hate to rewrite things, they have become very good at spelling. To make it easier for them to build a story, I've made a seven point list for them, based on Dan Wells' story structure (If you want to read more about this, you can find some here).

  1. "THE HOOK"          - Something that makes the reader curious. THE BEGINNING.
  2. "THE #1 TURN"       - Something goes wrong...
  3. "THE #1 PINCH"     - Which forces your character to take action against his/her will.
  4. "THE MIDPOINT"  - Things go very wrong, your character DECIDES to take action.
  5. "THE #2 PINCH"     - Your character takes action.
  6. "THE #2 TURN"      - These actions don't go as planned.
  7. "THE END"             - Solve all the problems now.

Since my story is devided by several character's POVs, I had five parallel stories to work with.

Anyway, let's return to CONTENT again. When I had worked out what it is I like in certain stories, I had to figure out how to make my story interesting to read - and of course to write. I already had an idea of what to write, but this strucure made it easier to make it interesting.

For example, the first set of scenes weren't that captivating before I realized that I had to lure people into reading further into the story to get more. I decided to leave things unsaid (things that had been told in a narrative voice earlier non the less) to reveal it little by little like bread crumbs on a path. My betas liked it a lot better, I might add. It was well worth the try, and now I just have to figure out how to fit romance into this story, because that's the only thing - in my point of view anyway - from my list that I haven't managed to work out yet.

Please, if you have any traits you'd like to point out as important in your favourite books, let me know!