A Look Behind A Wounded Name

June 15, 2013 at 10:41 am (A Wounded Name, Writing) (, , , , )

When you tell someone about a project you’re writing or have written, one of the first questions you usually hear is “Where did it come from?” Or, as my agent puts it, “Your brain must be a terrifying place.” (Reason a billion and one that Sandy and I are a really great fit) And most of the time, someone asks me this, and I just kind of start to stammer. The truth is, I have no idea where most of my stories come from. I remember strange things, I think of strange things, and they all just sort of stew together in my brain until suddenly two or more things click together and I sit up and go OOH! THAT COULD WORK!! I can occasionally trace back influences, things that have been roiling around in my mind for weeks or months or even years, but I can only really think of two projects where I could specifically point to something and say “This, this is where it came from”.

But A Wounded Name is one of those projects.

In some ways, it starts out as a pretty broad answer: a lifelong love of Shakespeare. I was the kid who brought Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure to elementary school with me, struggling through the language, and even though I got none of the subtleties or dirty jokes, I could more or less understand what was going on. It was in eighth grade that the appreciation shifted into something deeper, and there are two reasons for that.

The first was that my friend Carl, who was in Junior Thespians with me, performed the dagger monologue from Macbeth for the Districts and State Competitions/Festivals. And did it REALLY WELL. Even the kids in the audience who’d never come up against Shakespeare before got it. Even if they didn’t know the story or the character, they knew that this guy was coming seriously unhinged- and planning something really awful.

The second was that our gifted humanities teacher, Mrs. Shaughnessy, introduced us to Shakespeare in a way that was FUN. We read through Henry IV, Part I in class, and it’s a history play, so it’s easy to get bogged down in the poetically framed politics, but she very brilliantly focused on Hal and Falstaff. Dude, Shakespeare was FUNNY! And PERVY! We were cracking up about it, and when there was a filthy joke based off of slang we didn’t understand, she explained it. This sweet, delicate-looking, soft-spoken teacher in her fifties actually stood there and explained to teenagers that this page and a half of text was actually full of jokes about whether or not a guy’s junk worked. And, to reward us for successfully getting through the play, we took an end of year field trip to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, where they were performing As You Like It, and we DIED. The performance was amazing, incredibly well done, and that’s when we finally understood that Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read.

Seriously.

Shakespeare wasn’t published within his lifetime. It was after his death that some of his friends got together and published his plays. Before that point, you experienced Shakespeare by actually experiencing it, by seeing it, hearing it, feeling it. Shakespeare is meant to be performed, and some of us took that to heart.

The next year, three of my good friends and I decided we wanted to do an ensemble acting piece for Districts. We were nervous, because we were freshmen in a program that wasn’t, at the time, freshmen friendly, but two of us had done the summer theatre program with the school and gotten to know a bunch of the older kids, and more importantly the teacher, who was also an old friend of my family, and we figured if we put together something really good, it wouldn’t matter that we were younger, maybe we could still get a spot. I honestly don’t remember how we ended up with the play we did- I remember us looking, all of us digging into any play we could get our hands on. I don’t remember who found the winner.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard, is an absolutely brilliant play that’s woven through Hamlet, but it’s pretty much based off of two lines.

TWO LINES. In all of Hamlet an entire play was able to be based off of TWO LINES.

And they’re an innocuous two line set, nothing glorious or earth-shattering.

CLAUDIUS: Thank you, Rosencrantz, and gentle Guildenstern.

GERTRUDE: Thank you, Guildenstern, and gentle Rosencrantz.

Now this is one of those places where performance is everything, because you can do a LOT of different things with those two lines. Most productions just kind of gloss over them. After all, Ros and Guil are hardly significant characters. They are so generally un-important, in fact, that Shakespeare gives us absolutely nothing to distinguish between them. They are utterly non-distinct, a pair never seen separated. So, some productions play off of that by saying that Claudius doesn’t know them that well, that he puts the adjective with the wrong name, and so Gertrude is gently correcting him with her statement.

Stoppard took those two lines and spun out this wonderful journey of one existential crisis after another, where these two characters are totally at sea in everything that’s going on around them, and lost as they are, can’t help but cry out again and again WHO AM I AND WHAT AM I DOING HERE? Guildenstern even argues, though he thinks he’s talking about the situation, that rather than being opposite sides of the same coin, they are actually the same sides of two coins, able to be manipulated separately and yet still the same thing. This play is fiendishly intelligent, full of wordplay that would make the Bard proud, a tragic sense of inevitability, and yet an unapologetic love of the absurd. Ros and Guil are adrift, are utterly incapable of understanding everything going on around them because Hamlet is, after all, a play where everyone has secrets from each other, but they’re being manipulated by EVERYONE, everyone is trying to use them for their own ends and aims. And in Stoppard’s play, the director is the devious, somewhat implacable Player, leader of the company Hamlet hires for his trap.

We fell in love with this play, and we finally found a scene we thought would work for all four of us, where Hamlet welcomes his pair of old school friends to Elsinore and bids them be respectful to the Player. From that point on, Ros and Guil are trying to figure out what’s going on, and the Player is…well, let’s call it less than direct. There’s a lot of stumbling over words, because English is, after all, a bizarre language, imprecise at the best of times. We practiced and practiced and practiced, we watched two or three different movie versions of Hamlet, we watched the movie production with Tim Roth, Gary Oldman, and Richard Dreyfuss (which is brilliant, by the way), we argued ENDLESSLY over stupid things. Seriously, we spent probably five weeks arguing over the pronunciation of gesture until we finally asked someone. But we had a fairly solid piece when we auditioned, and so our teacher gave us a slot for Districts, and we started practicing even harder.

Our rehearsals often got sidetracked, because as much as we wanted to polish this and make it awesome, the word-play was fantastically fun. We kept looking outside of the scene, or even all the way back to Hamlet to pull in context or hints or allusions because there was just so much wealth to work it. And we asked questions. Not just what does this word mean, or what is he trying to say here, but bigger questions.

Is Hamlet actually crazy?

Does the Player know all of what’s going on?

What are the consequences of trying to understand the situation?

And we asked questions that had absolutely nothing to do with the scene, but were just such interesting questions that we couldn’t help ourselves.

Does Hamlet love Ophelia?

Why does Ophelia lose it?

How much does Gertrude know?

How much does Polonius know?

SO MANY QUESTIONS, and we could debate them endlessly. Honestly, in high school the four of us could debate almost anything endlessly, simply because the discussion itself was that much fun.

We took the piece to Districts and did REALLY well. We got straight superiors, so all three judges in the room thought that we did an amazing job. Not the absolute best job they saw in the room (Critics’ Choice) but a really solid, wonderful job. We were ecstatic. And because of those straight superiors, we automatically got one of the very few slots available for State. Which…pissed off a bunch of the upper classmen, who felt they should get preferential treatment because we had three more years ahead of us to compete. To which our teacher replied that if they wanted that badly to compete in State, they should have worked harder, done better, and ranked higher.

Our teacher didn’t really put up with anyone’s crap.

State is a lot harder than Districts- you have to get at least an excellent at Districts to be able to compete, and because of limited slots, each school tries to bring its best stuff, so the judges rank accordingly. We got an excellent at State, and were ridiculously happy about it.

Senior year, in a fit of nostalgia, we decided to do the same piece again. We hadn’t all four been in a single competition piece since freshmen year, so there was something that felt pretty right about it, and we knew even at the beginning of the year that we weren’t going to all be going to the same colleges. And this time, we had three more years of debates under our belt, three more years of independently dissecting the play we’d all fallen in love with. And someone, one of the parents, I’d suspect, decided to get a picture of us this time.

RosGuil03

Now, keeping in mind that this picture was taken TEN AND A HALF YEARS AGO, we have, starting at twelve o’clock: me, as the Player, Betty-Jane as Rosencrantz, JD as Hamlet, and Jeff as Guildenstern.

This time, the ensemble piece wasn’t our main focus. We all had different things we were doing that year. JD was in a duet pantomime (I’m Not as Think as You Drunk I Am, which was absolutely hysterical and won Critics’ Choice), Betty-Jane had monologues and a duet acting scene that were both absolutely brilliant (and off the top of my head I can’t remember your scores, Betty-Jane, sorry!), Jeff was doing Publicity Design (Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative), and I had a solo, a duet musical, and Playwriting (for Playwriting I received Critics’ Choice and Tech District Representative). We were mostly focused on all of that, so this piece was really just for us, something fun to do together because we’d all been so crazy busy with everything.

And it was. It was brilliant, and fun, and we did well at Districts and not quite as well at State, and that was okay. Because we loved it, and we had a blast asking all those questions again, and asking better questions, deeper questions, questions that used the play as a stepping off point and tried to apply the possible answers against the broader human condition.

Okay, we were super pretentious in high school- aren’t most high schoolers?

The next year, Jeff and I both went down to the College of Theatre and Dance at the University of South Florida, him for the technical track, me for the performance track. Our senior year, he did the theatre honors track, combining that thesis with his honors college one, and he and his honors classmates created, from the ground up, a study on Ophelia. They researched and debated and eventually wrote and designed a production called Remembrances, also known as the Ophelia project. I went to see the performance, and really, it was just brilliant. From every standpoint, honestly, the writing, the acting, the design and execution.

Its sense of time was fluid- interspersed with scenes from Hamlet were moments where the fractured pieces of Ophelia interacted, and memories of happier times with her family. It didn’t try to define Ophelia- it tried to explore her. To understand her.

During its larval stage, Jeff and I used to get together every Thursday for Wine and Laundry night. I lived in a place that didn’t have laundry facilities, and I lived in an area where you REALLY didn’t go to the all-night laundromats unless you wanted to get mugged or raped, and at that time, my weekends were dedicated to Job Number One, which was retail, Job Number Two, which was rehearsals and then performance for the Renaissance Faire, Unpaid Job Number Three, which was tech work on the shows the college put on, for which I received mandatory credits, plus working on my own honors thesis, which was a novel. The only thing that made the weekends distinct was that I didn’t have sit-down class. So, Thursday nights, where conversations would range over every possible topic, and frequently came back to Ophelia, because we both had a long-held interest in her.

Backing up slightly, at the end of my junior year, I’d proposed a thesis project that would take seven questions from/about Shakespeare’s plays and explore them as novellas. One of these seven pieces was going to be about Ophelia, a fractured time piece where her sanity has already slipped but she’s still trying to tell us the story, only she can’t piece it together in the right order. I ended up not doing that because my potential thesis advisor and I disagreed on how to approach them. I didn’t want to research other takes until after I’d written mine, so as to avoid influence, and she felt I needed to research them first so I could support my own opinion.

I love research, but an academic researcher I’ll never be.

And in a way, I was a little grateful that it fell through, because of all the questions I’d intended to face, that one TERRIFIED ME, and when it came to writing, I was only learning to be brave at that point. Back then, I thought if it scared me, that was a sign I should do something else. So, I went back and looked at the only original novel I’d ever finished, back from the beginning of freshmen year of college which desperately needed to be re-written pretty much from the ground up, and asked around for advice on who to approach as an advisor, given that the Creative Writing Dept had never waivered me in to their classes, and at the end of the year, when I met with Dr Omlor, my advisor, for my final evaluation, he told me I was an idiot if I didn’t try to get published.

Over the next few years, Ophelia kept creeping out in small ways. The next year, when I was taking a poetry class at the community college (long story), she found her way into one of the poems. The prompt was to take lines from established pieces and use them within our own poem. I borrowed from both Hamlet and T.S. Eliot (several of his poems, really), and what came out was…I loved it. And I suck at poetry, so for me to say that I love this poem is really kind of extraordinary. There was something broken about it, the way the original lines were left justified and the borrowed lines right justified, the way your eye had to travel across the page, the way the original lines could be read entirely on their own and still tell the story but the borrowed lines added something…I don’t think I’d ever loved one of my own poems before. At about the same time, I was writing a Harry Potter fanfiction called (and here I’m outing myself, oh well) “Where the Breezes Know My Name”. It’s a STRANGE little piece, but at the time it was the most poetic prose I’d ever written, and for YEARS I swore about it, because I thought it was beautiful and there was no way in hell I could unravel it from the original source enough to use it for anything original.

A few years later, I woke up in the middle of the night with Ophelia’s voice in my head, specifically the first few lines of the book, which have remained unchanged from that moment.

The sky is blue today.
Blue like glacier ice, like hidden springs. Blue like jays’ wings, peacock feathers. Blue like my mother’s skin.

Well. Hello, Ophelia!

But I was in the middle of another project at the moment, one that was quickly growing to the point that it needed to be split into two books (and will thankfully never, ever, EVER see the light of day), so I wrote down the lines on the notebook beside my bed and figured I’d forget about it.

But Ophelia, as a figment, is sneakily persistent. She’d pop up in my dreams, shoving these eerie and lovely and unsettling images at me, I’d hear her voice and write the lines down on napkins, scrap papers, business cards, sometimes even my arm or the back of my hand if I didn’t have anything else handy. Ophelia would not go away, and she was bound and determined that she wasn’t going to be quiet.

Having Ophelia in my head was like edging into a kind of insanity, and it didn’t really stop until I finally sat down, typed the first lines in a fresh word document, and let her take the reins.

From start to finish, the first draft took twenty-three days, and because of work and other obligations, I couldn’t write every day. Once I typed in the last line, it was like this massive weight was off me, like suddenly I could breathe again. For weeks, I’d been drowning in Ophelia, and suddenly my head was clear again.

But where she first started gaining form, where the questions first started giving her a distinct and permanent existence in some part of my brain, was 1999, when Jeff, JD, Betty-Jane, and I first sat together over a battered library copy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which an eye towards taking it to competition.

And that is the story behind the story, behind A Wounded Name.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Fudge and the Craft of Historical Fiction

October 28, 2012 at 11:00 am (Writing) (, , , , )

Historical Fiction is a strange, strange creature. It’s our world and yet, by virtue of the distinct differences in culture, clothing, food, diction, and many MANY other things, it feels simultaneously alien and familiar. We recognize names, but in other ways we feel like we’re looking at Westeros instead of England. Given some of my projects, it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about, and because of a question from a friend (thanks, Leah!) I’ve actually had to force myself to put some of it into words rather than letting it float as vague concepts.

The important thing to remember about Historical Fiction is the FICTION part of it. What we’re doing takes place within a real setting, often working around real timelines and events and people, but it is fictional. We’re telling a story that may or may not have ever happened, and if it did, we’re still projecting our theories (and our story) onto the characters and events. For example, Anne Boleyn was executed. We know this. If we’re writing a story about her thoughts as she mounts the steps to the platform with the headsman waiting for her forgiveness, we’re still speculating. Inventing. It’s the same if we create out of whole cloth a young woman that we claim served as one of her maids, someone watching from the crowd. They’re difficult and challenging in different ways, but in either respect, we’re playing directly within the historical truth. Or, we may be out in a small village, where the news of the queen’s execution is little more than a flash of news from a rider passing through, and the focus is much more narrow. Our focus, as the writer, is still the story.

So, sometimes, for the sake of the story, we look to see how and where and how much we can fudge things.

Part of what makes Historical Fiction so difficult is the necessary balance between accuracy and readability. We want to be correct in what we say- we don’t want to make glaring anachronisms, we don’t want to have a character be present at something thirty years before he was born. (Or in my case, be part of a revel nine months before he arrived in the United States…) It requires a lot of research, and not just into the straight timelines. Clothing is different, food is different, conveyance, speech, societal expectations, even things we don’t tend to think about as much, like impressions or definitions. If you called a man gay in the early 1600s, you were just saying he was happy. Little bit different now. Or, for another example, the part in Pride and Prejudice where Darcy calls 50 miles an easy distance. For someone with a private carriage, who wasn’t dependant on the vagaries of the post coaches, who wasn’t pressed into a small transport with four or five other people, that could certainly be the case, but that easy acceptance of distance as a non-obstacle was a privilege of wealth.

As we’re doing research, we tend to split into two camps. On the one side, there’s the camp that says “I want to do just enough to give the impression and then be done with it”. The stories that result from this tend to sketch the setting more than actively engage it. If they don’t give enough flat out “here is where we are” drops in the text, people may or may not tie the story to a specific time. Then there’s the camp that throws itself into research and damn it, we need to know everything, right down to how to how the iron buckle on the third gentleman’s left shoe is made. The stories that result from this tend to drown in detail. We get so caught up in getting everything right, we completely fail to make it engaging, we don’t notice that it bogs the story down considerably.

Obviously the easy answer is to find the happy medium, but easy answers rarely have easy applications.

It’s a very thin range of true compromise, where you can balance the accuracy with the story. There are some details you have to drop in order to keep the pace going, but there are some details necessary in order to place the story within the setting.

And that’s also where fudging comes in. In case it’s a regionalism, fudging is the act of deliberately blurring the edges of a fact in order to make it fit within the story. It’s an act with a very broad application. It can, for example, fill in what Darcy is doing over Christmas, when the original story follows Elizabeth. It’s very good for filling in gaps, as long as there are only theories and no proof for where they actually were or what was actually happening. Fudging can help you get around anachronisms in order to keep your readers. Recently someone (I think it was Rae Carson, I apologize if not) said there was a specific kind of ship in the book that didn’t match the overall technological level of the setting, but that the number of people in her audience who would know that and be up in arms about it was significantly smaller than the number who would be thrown out of the story by the intricacies necessary to convey what was needed to steer the ship of appropriate technological level. It was a fudge, but not one that most people will notice.

Fudging is a large part of the fiction part of Historical Fiction. When we create characters and put them into extant circumstances, we’re fudging what actually happened. If I put someone on a general’s staff, in a king’s court, in a highly regarded exploration expedition, I’m fudging. What I’m counting on is partly a suspension of disbelief and a general sort of ignorance on specifics, on the part of my readership. Ignorance, not stupidity. The idea is to weave the story so well within the setting that it seems completely plausible, that no one will know- or feel the need to prove- that Anne Boleyn didn’t have a maid named Bessie Cooper.

When Robin LaFevers was writing Grave Mercy, she fudged. Ismae was not a part of the Breton court. BUT- LaFevers fudged so well and so seamlessly that the true details of the court made it all wrap around Ismae, almost absorb her, and thereby lend her some of their truth. Did I go out and do some basic research into the court of Brittany afterwards? Yes, because I’m a history nerd and it got me really excited to know more, and then, because the book was crafted so well, I was blown away even more by how well the threads of history and fiction were spun together.

We want our historically-based characters to be accessible to a modern audience, and that can be incredibly difficult. Societal norms have shifted so much over time that a woman in the 1400s concerned mostly with getting a husband who isn’t TOO much older and doesn’t beat her TOO much seems absurd to many. She should be marrying for love! She shouldn’t settle for anyone who would raise a hand to her! Except…that’s our society talking, not hers. In her society, a woman of rank married whoever her parents or male guardians picked out for her, she married for money, land, a/o social gain, for power, and age, beauty, and personal compatibility had little if anything to do with it. These arrangements weren’t based off of emotions, they were political and business transactions with women as part of the currency. It’s a FACT, and if you’re setting a story within the 1400s, you have to allow for that being the prevailing sentiment. Courtly Love still had a strong grip even after a couple of centuries, but one of the basic tenents of Courty Love was that the woman the perfect knight was supposed to be wildly in love with? WASN’T SUPPOSED TO BE HIS WIFE. The whole concept was that true love was untouchable, and therefore pure in a way that love within a marriage couldn’t be (I’m not making this up, I swear). Sure, young maidens probably sighed and swooned over handsome young men, who may or may not have been titled, wealthy, or powerful but whatever fuss they might kick up, the options were marriage or convent. And that was it. If you’re writing a story set within this society, you can’t have an entire cast of characters all obsessed with true love and defying their parents at every turn seemingly without consequence. You can make someone rebellious, but you have to acknowledge and work within what they’re rebelling against.

It can be really hard to separate out what we’ve grown up with, what we expect, from what our characters’ realities would have been. Similarly, language itself can be a tricky bastard. Language changes with leaps and bounds, constantly evolving. You can’t have someone walk up to Queen Elizabeth I and say “Yo, dude, sup?” Doesn’t quite work that way. But, what we have of the time period’s modes of speech (usually written and therefore somewhat more formal) can be inaccessible or at the least uninteresting to large portions of a modern audience. There are compromises to be made, delicate negotiations that, if all goes as well as it can, come off on the page without any red flags or raised eyebrows. Something I use a lot when I’m trying to decide what is or is not acceptable is to compare the language in Hamlet or King Lear with the language in Much Ado About Nothing. The formal settings are very different, the concepts being addressed are very different, so where the language in the tragedies often comes off as high and poetic, the comedy is much more give and take, much more conversational. Even in Henry IV, Part I, look at the difference between the nobles and the commoners, how different the language and the apparent levels of education and class are. It gives you the range within a given society (though it is Shakespeare, so you know, expand the lower end of the range quite a bit). If at all possible, read documents from that time period, again and again and enough of them that the language in which they’re written becomes something familiar to you. (Kind of like teaching yourself not to swear in front of your parents when you’re in high school).

And good luck.

What do you look for in historical fiction? Are there things you find complete turn offs, or things you can forgive for story? Share below!

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Alone But Not Lonely

September 2, 2012 at 6:27 pm (Writing) (, , , )

All moved into the new place, I’ve spent most of today trying to set up the library in my office. It’s not much yet. Most of the books are still in boxes, waiting to go to their homes on the empty shelves, while others are stacked in piles on the floor in groups of letters so I can alphabetize them. There are a couple separated from their fellows- a copy of Hamlet sitting by my chair, an architecture/religion book by the bed- but most of them are in view of the empty cases with the shelves stacked against their sides. All of the office supplies are in a similar state of transition, packed away with only a few pieces free to be used. The walls are bare, the cork and white boards leaning against the wall, and the desk is littered with the odds and ends that come of trying to unpack. A screwdriver, a hammer, a pair of scissors, packing tape, small things that never properly fit into boxes.

It isn’t an office yet, but it’s on its way.

It has potential.

Most importantly, it has a door that closes, and only one chair.

Writers are a strange breed, largely because what we do is simultaneously isolated and crowded. We sit for hours in a room, on a bench, at a table in Panera, staring at notebooks or computers, often with headphones in to filter away the outside world. We’re in our heads far more than we are in the space around us. We go for hours at a time without talking to other living human beings. We hole ourselves away, to plan, to draft, to revise, and our family and friends roll their eyes and let us be because they know our habits. We have bursts of connection- collaboration with partners or sounding boards, critique partners, conversations with agents and editors and bloggers- but most of the time, it’s a writer and a Thing.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that writing has a reputation as being a very lonely sort of profession.

It isn’t, though. Even when we emerge from the office craving simple human contact with ANYONE, even the rowdy pot-smokers on the stairway, it’s not because we’ve been alone or lonely. It’s because we’ve spent hours surrounded by people we can’t reach out and touch.

Far more than I think we ever successfully translate onto the page, our characters are real people in our heads. One of the joys of having my own apartment means I don’t need to worry about weirding out a roommate when I have conversations with my characters.

No, seriously, conversations. I talk with them, testing out their voices, listening to the patterns of their speech. My background is in music and theatre, so the sound of a thing is very important to me. When we read, even if we’re not consciously dissecting the language, we notice when sentences are ungainly or dialogue seems awkward. I like to read my stuff out loud- not just the dialogue, but the narration as well- to hear how it reads, to make sure it’s smooth. One of the things I look for is speech patterns.

Speech patterns change from person to person, taking into account personality, vocal habits, regionality, education, hell, even what they like to read or watch on TV. (For instance, you can always tell when I’ve been watching BBC.) What we say, and how we say it (where we put pauses or emphasis, even the order in which we string the words together) is distinctive, so one of the best ways I learn my new characters is to simply talk to them. I play with the sounds, and in so doing, I usually learn a great deal.

The more real the characters become, the more they’re able to stand on their own feet as people, the less lonely we as writers become even sitting alone in our workspaces. They talk to us, they share their backgrounds and their personalities, they tell us where they’re going and how they’re getting there, and eventually they reach a point where they just don’t shut up. We come to know these people better than we know most of our friends (that’s not a bad thing- everyone deserves their privacy, and characters rarely have any from the writer once they breach the levee). We’re the only person sitting in the room- we’re surrounded by people no one else can see.

We may be socially isolated while we’re writing, but we’re far from lonely.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Vice and Virtue Challenge

February 12, 2012 at 11:00 am (Writing) (, , , )

A few days ago I was talking with my friend Casey and the topic of character traits came up, specifically vices and virtues, and she pointed me to the Tumblr she does with some fellow writers.

Give yourself time to go through this one- it is work intensive, but totally worth it.

Because what it comes down to (short version) is that characters are constructs of various vices and virtues that work both in tandem and in opposition. By understanding these trait sets, you come to understand your character a lot better.

The easiest way to approach it is to copy the lists over into a word file and just delete each trait that doesn’t fit until you have a finished list. Then find the dominant traits and find the pieces that naturally pair together. For example, someone who has honesty as a dominant trait may also have tactlessness as a dominant vice (or perhaps simply as a negative trait rather than a vice). (All of this is explained in the tumblr post, I promise)

It gives you interesting insight into your characters, but I challenge you to take it a step further.

Ready? Got pen and paper (or word file) handy?

Do it THREE TIMES.

Seriously.

The first time through, do it as the writer, as the omniscient creator of worlds and the inventor of all the little humans (or otherwise) populating said world. You know these characters better than they will ever know themselves and each other, so be thorough in documenting their separate parts.

Then put the list aside and do it again.

This time, do it as your character. When he or she does a self-evaluation, what does he or she see? What does he or she genuinely believe about his or herself? Because as people, we tend to delude ourselves. We think of ourselves as better or worse, or maybe just different. Kind of like how every housecat secretly thinks it’s a panther. So find out how your character sees his or herself.

Then put the list aside- it’s not time yet to compare them- and do it again.

The third time, pick a general consensus among your other characters and delete the traits based on how others see your character. If you wanted to- if you really just have that much free time- you could theoretically do this for every character’s perspective, but people generally fall into groups of ideologies or opinions, so you could pick one or a couple and still come out ahead.

Done with that one?

Good. Take 2 and 3 and set them side by side.

What’s the same? More tellingly, what’s different? Does your character think he’s outrageously generous but other characters think he’s more tight-fisted than Scrooge? Does your character think she’s perspicacious but others think her patently self-delusional? But again, where are they the same? Does your character think of himself as compassionate and others agree?

Now bring list 1 back around, and do the same thing. Compare them side by side and find all the similarities and differences.

Your character, as he or she steps out onto the page, is mostly likely somewhere between the three. Think of it like a really fancy Venn diagram. How your character behaves is based on a mix of how they (sorry, I’m taking the grammatically incorrect shortcut from here on out) see themselves and how you as the God Of Your Universe sees them. BUT, mixed into that is also how other people perceive them and treat them, and your character’s reaction to that.

You might be surprised at what comes out of the process. And feel free to share below any revelations or tips! Any patterns you see, etc.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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Hello: My Name Is…

April 28, 2011 at 9:00 am (Writing) (, , )

The way my writing brain works, I don’t know a story until I know the characters involved, because the decisions they make and the way they do things will determine how that story unfolds. Characters should never lose their ability to surprise us, but we should know them so well that we can fully articulate them onto a page and still have them be real. Ask a handful of writers how they approach this and you’ll get a handful of different responses, something as personal (and personalized) as all the rest of the process.

Most of the time, when I first meet a character, it’s like I’m in a room full of people at an orientation or workshop or something of that nature where the organizers pile a bunch of strangers into a room and tell them to mingle, like that’s not awkward at all. Now me? I’m a bit of a wallflower. I’m incredibly self-conscious in social situations, so it usually takes a push to get me to talk to anyone I don’t know. Even when they’re made up people inside my head. But then, something about a person catches my attention. Maybe it’s a striking physical feature or the way he’s dressed. Maybe it’s the sound of her laughter, or he’s just told a really bad joke that has an entire knot groaning. Maybe he’s standing off by himself, watching the interactions with hungry eyes. Maybe she’s the life of the party, the one everyone else gravitates towards without thinking about it. There’s just something about the person that makes you want to know more.

So you drift over casually, and you get the chance to notice what they look like and how they’re dressed, whether or not they seem comfortable. You see how they interact (or don’t) with other people. And finally, you’re right in front of or beside the person, and your eyes flick to the sticker, half-peeling away from the fabric, that says Hello My Name Is”.

You’ve just met your character, or one of your characters, anyway.

Of course, on this first meeting, you’re not likely to get to know them very well. The information wills tay on the surface, the easy traits, the kind that anyone can notice by paying even half-attention. But there’s a connection now- you meet again. And again. And again. And each time you learn more, you go deeper. Some will spill their guts over a cup of coffee on a second date. Some you can dance with someone for years before finally admitting that there’s something utterly unfathomable about them. And some you’ll think you know pretty well until you see them with someone else, someone who brings out a very different side to them.

That first meeting is frequently a matter of luck. You just happen to be in the room with him or her. You’re daydreaming at work and suddenly something pops into your head, someone stands up in that mental green room and catches your attention and you want to know more.

I think we learn about our characters in much the same way our readers do. We get a first impression and we slowly learn more. Our readers, of course, are guided by the way we’ve chosen to represent those characters, the same way reality the TV shows carefully edit down hours of video to make you see things a certain way. We never see everything, and everything has a spin. As writers, we’re the ones deciding how we want certain people and events to be interpreted.

Unlike reality TV though, we court the element of surprise, not just our readers but for ourselves. No matter how well we think we know our characters, we still seek to be surprised by them. We want to see the bad boy reveal a soft spot. We want to see the judgy person realize she’s wrong. We want the surprises that give us a deeper understanding of them- that make them real.

Because that’s always our goal, isn’t it? We don’t want to create portraits. We want living, breathing creatures, as real on the page as off. People with secrets and goals, people who aren’t always perfect, whose actions can’t always be guessed. Sometimes the people we’re closest to surprise us the most.

Some characters can be very hard to know. They don’t reveal very much about themselves, and maybe the other characters don’t know them that well. It isn’t that they’re intentionally keeping secrets, they’re just very private. Then, something happens to crack that open and the most amazing things spill out. These characters are often the most fascinating, and frequently pivotal either to the story or the other characters. They’re there all along, usually in the background, sometimes even as a perceived obstacle, but there’s a moment when they become something extraordinary.

Characters are, or at least should be, as real and varied as the people we meet every day. They have histories and dreams and goals, they have sets of behaviors that may change depending on who they’re with, they have friends and family or reasons for not having them, but most of all, they’re dynamic. They change and grow in response to what’s happening to and around them. They can’t stand still because no one exists in a vaccuum- and anyone who actually did woulld be terribly boring to read about.

My characters like to converse with me when I’m lying in bed half-asleep. This might say more about me than it should but they’re actual conversations with statements and questions and arguments and responses. What they tell me in those almost dreaming moments is a lot more than a few words; they teach me their voice, about their families and their expectations. They teach me how they look at the world and other people. They tell me about love and all the different ways they define it.

And it all starts with that mental room, with something that catches your ear or your eye, and the courage to walk up and read the peeling sticker barely clinging to the shirt or jacket. No matter how forward your character might be, you’re the one who has to start the conversation.

So be brave.

Be surprised.

And say hello.

Until next time~
Cheers!

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