Posts Tagged ‘character’

There’s a reason why one of the first lessons in the art/business of fiction writing is to read, read, read. Long or short, in or out of your preferred genre, good or terrible. Reading the works of others, even if the story is not to your taste, can give you new ideas, show you what to avoid in your own stories (*cough* the orgy scene in It *cough*), and sometimes how to write something you didn’t know how to write before.

Let me tell you a story right now: as many of you know, I’ve become a big ballet fan since last year. Consequently, a lot of ballerinas and dancers have been showing up in my story ideas lately. It wouldn’t be too crazy if I had to write a dance scene or dancing someday in the future. I figured it would be a good idea to find other stories where dance features prominently, in the hope that from reading about dance there, I might pick something up. I asked one of my writers groups on Facebook if they had any suggestions, and one woman recommended a book to me that sounded good, so I downloaded the audio book onto my phone and started listening this week.

The book, Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson, follows a young ballerina’s trip into the world of professional dance, while at the same time she encounters a particular aspect of that world’s dark side that changes things for her forever. It’s not horror, but it’s decent so far. And I have gleaned a bit about describing dance steps in prose, while at the same time learning a bit more about ballet culture (I had no idea ballerinas were called “bunheads.” Seems obvious now, but I didn’t know it until this week). And while I expected those, one thing I didn’t expect to find is a lesson in a type of character:

The story’s protagonist, Mira, seems on the outside to have it all. Her family doesn’t abuse her, she’s talented at ballet and has an upward-moving career. She even has a sort of mentor/sponsor in the form of Maurice, an older balletomane. She also seems to be mentally and emotionally all there. However, ballet and Maurice are really an escape for her. Her parents divorced rather suddenly; her airhead mother is a mess who can’t pay bills and takes in a creepy boarder; her dad is in a relationship with another woman who’s also in a divorce, and it’s moving a little too fast; and all this occurs after seeing her parents’ marriage erode for who knows how long. All that can really mess a kid up.

I’m sure even more will mess her up as the story goes on.

Mira’s a type of character I don’t see very often: one whom no one, not even themselves, would see as troubled, but is deeply troubled nonetheless. She’s a perfect example of this character type, the “seemingly untroubled troubled person.” I don’t know if there’s a proper name for this type of character like there is for others, but that’s the one I’m going to go with. And she’s teaching me quite a bit about writing this sort of character.

So like I said, reading a diverse amount of work can teach you all sorts of things that you can apply to your own writing. Sometimes you even learn things you weren’t expecting to learn, like how to write a certain type of character, or writing about a complex war in another world, or even just some random facts about Spanish history, religion, evolution, art, and technology (looking at you, Dan Brown). Sure, you might find some stories you’ll hate or that will teach you absolutely nothing, but then there’s a lesson to derive from those stories as well: what not to do when you’re writing your own work. I’m certainly learning a lot from Girl Through Glass and the other stories I’ve been reading lately. And I can’t wait to learn more.

Have you ever gotten an unexpected lesson from a story you read/are reading? What was it?

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Whenever I write through the perspective of a particular character in a story, it’s never simply just using my good-ol’-Rami-Ungar-style of narration and pretending to see things through the eyes of said character. I wish it were that simple. Characters, despite being the product of an author’s imagination, tend to feel like independent entities who are telling me their stories (if any psychologists or philosophers can explain that to me, I’d love to hear your two cents). Still, transmitting the story from my head, where the story’s presented as a movie with narration mixed in, to the page requires me to figure out how that voice manifests on the page.

Sometimes that’s easy to figure out. Sometimes it’s not.

The past couple of stories I’ve worked on–Mother of the King, The Night Hitler Came to London, and this novelette I’m working on currently–have been challenging when it comes to figuring out the narrators’ voices. This probably has something to do with the fact that the POV characters in these stories have lives that are very different from mine. For the first two, the POV characters have both been British, which I am not. I’ve been relying on all the British novels, TV shows and movies I’ve consumed over the years, trying to make them seem British, rather than Americans throwing around British colloquialisms like “bloody hell” or “tosser.” And in the case of The Night Hitler Came to London, the two main characters are growing up during the London Blitz, so trying to tap into the mindset living during that particular moment of history isn’t the easiest.

Then again, my country has been at war in some way or another since 2001. So perhaps it’s a bit easier than I give it credit.

And this current story I’m working on…whoo boy! I’m back to working on a novelette I started between two previous drafts of Rose, and the main character is a young housewife from the American South during the 1960s. That’s already pretty alien to my own experience, so it’s a challenge to make her sound like a real person without resorting to a stereotypical Southern accent. I’ve made some progress on that in this latest attempt on the story and I think I’ve figured it out, but I’m sure there will be challenges in the future, I may have to work on her a bit more before I try to publish this story anywhere.

And I’m probably not the only author who struggles with this. Because of how different their lives are from ours, or just how differently their minds work, there will be characters whose heads we struggle to get into and whose voices we struggle to translate to the page. With that in mind, I have a few tips on how an author can figure this out:

  • Look at their background. While every individual is different and background doesn’t determine everything, it can have a huge influence on how a person–and a character–turns out. How they were raised, socioeconomic status, education, religion, nationality, ethnicity, language, who they hung out with, how they were treated by teachers, how they did in sports, what they saw on the Internet. All this makes us. If we can figure all out of this, it can help us get in our characters’ heads and figure out their voices.
  • How do you want them to come off? How do you want your audience to perceive your character? If funny, make sure their observations are full of jokes and witticisms. Narcissistic? Everything comes back to them and makes them look good. Do they feel persecuted? Everything and everyone they come into contact with should reinforce that belief, even if to us we see innocence in these interactions. If you know how your character should come off to readers, you’ll have an easier time writing them.
  • Have an inner dialogue. This is something I did for my character in my current WIP. I go into this in more detail in my article on Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors, The Inner Dialogue: A Method For Figuring Out Your Stories, so I highly recommend you check it out. If you don’t have time to read it, this is just having a conversation with your inner writer. You can also do this with your character. After all, characters are independent entities after a sort, so you can learn a lot by “hearing” them “speak.”

Some characters are easier than others to understand and translate to the page. But when they are, you shouldn’t give up. There are plenty of ways to figure them out. And when you do, that’ll make all the hard work all the more gratifying.

Have you worked with characters whose voices were hard to find? What did you do figure out their voices?

I’ve just released my latest article on Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. This time around, it’s What is a Mary Sue, and When Can You Actually Apply the Term to a Character (damn, that’s a mouthful). It’s an essay on the Mary Sue character trope, which is honestly one you want to avoid at all costs if you can help it. And in discussing the character, I hope I teach people to do just that. If you’re an author and you get a chance, take a look and see if you’ve ever written a Mary Sue character. Even if you haven’t or don’t write fiction at all, you may find the article illuminating.

And if you like what you see, consider reading the rest of the blog. Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors is a great site for all authors, no matter their background or experience, to learn tips on writing, editing, publishing, and marketing on their own. Written by myself and other dedicated contributors, you’ll surely find it helpful for all sorts of projects. Believe me, I know from personal experience.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I hope to have another article or two out this week, so keep an eye out for them. Until next time, pleasant nightmares.

I’ve just published my first article of the year on the site Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. This time, it’s Backstory isn’t Character, and is in response to some things I’ve seen recently in various works of fiction. That problem, as you can tell from the title, is writers thinking a backstory is the same as having a character with a fully-rounded personality. Um, no it isn’t. And in this article, I discuss why that is and how to avoid it in fiction you write, so make sure to check it out if you’re interested.

In addition, I highly encourage you to check out Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors in full. It is a great website to get advice on writing, editing, publishing and marketing effectively as an independent writer, and it is absolutely free. It’s from authors, by authors, and for authors. Check it out and see for yourself what an excellent resource it is.