Getting it Right: Character Counts

Six months ago I started a novel, and in that time I’ve written enough words for most books–somewhere in the realm of 185k though 23k now lives in a deleted scenes file–but I’m only just beginning to know my characters. I mean really know them. This might be due in part to my penchant to discovery-write the majority of my story rather than meticulously plan every scene out in advance. I’m a Gardener, not an Architect, and that means I’ll be prone to much more rewriting.

Oh, I know the ending and several key events, who dies, who lives, and a few other elements of the story, but for me, I enjoy the process of discovering the nuances of my characters as I write. As a result, I’ve recently decided to start over. That is to say, I’ve decided to begin my second draft before finishing the first.

It’s not unheard of; David Farland–bestselling author of the Runelords series–has said he writes through the first half of a book then does a rewrite before tackling the second half. Granted, he’s a self-proclaimed Architect, but the practice seems sound in my opinion, especially since I’m doing it for the sake of character. I finally know much more about the motivations of my characters, their voices, how they would actually handle certain situations–which, in some cases, is different from what I wrote originally.

Many authors talk about how it takes them a few thousand words to truly get into the head of their characters–longer for those like myself writing Epic Fantasy since we’re often dealing with multiple POV characters and, depending on needs of the story,significantly larger casts. But it’s extremely important to know your characters. A good plot is important, key scenes that might be depicted in cover art are important, but, when you think about it, what you remember most about every book you’ve ever read or every movie you’ve ever seen are the characters. You remember the Vaders, the Gollums, the Tyrions, the Moiraines.

Every character should be the hero in their own story. Their motivations should make sense even if we as impartial–or even biased–readers disagree with them on a moral level. This is especially true of antagonists who can become flat and one dimensional if they are not at least some variant of gray. My primary antagonist just happens to be one of my favorite POV characters. He also happens to have the most complex motives, and is the main impetus for my decision to rewrite what I’ve already written before pushing on to the end. In many ways, he’s more a protagonist than antagonist in the true sense of the word, though he does work against the main protagonists’ goals.

So how does one accomplish the task of creating memorable characters? It starts with knowing them yourself, as their creator, the writer who gives flesh and blood to the ink of their existence. Learn their habits, their quirks, their wants and desires. This, I’ve come to discover, can only be achieved by writing in their heads for long enough to begin thinking as they think, acting as they act, loving or hating as they do. You must know them as well as you know yourself for ultimately, they are a part of you.

Another way to breathe life into a character is through physical description. I love to people watch, everywhere I go, looking for the tiny idiosyncrasies that make us all unique and which I might be able to apply to my own characters. It might be something simple: a limp, an incessant cough, the way a woman tilts her head when confused or a man clenches his fists when challenged. It could be something more subtle like speech patterns, grammar–or lack thereof–the amount of eye contact one person chooses to give versus another. We are all of us different, and so too should your characters be different from one another.

Perhaps the most important thing is to like your characters, even the antagonists. Robert Jordan used to say his favorite character was whichever one he was writing at any particular moment, something I took to heart. After all, if you don’t care about your characters–even the baddies–no one else will either. Give them something to strive for, something to long for, something that, if they don’t get it, will bring their world crashing down around them.

These are the things I’ve only now, after 180k+ words, discovered about some of my characters, and why I’ve decided to begin draft two of my novel. I was always going to do another draft anyway–perhaps many more since I’m more Gardener than Architect–so I do not feel like I’m going backwards by starting it now. I’ll be building stronger, more memorable characters, and that will go a long way toward getting this novel published. And who knows, maybe somewhere down the line, some other aspiring writer like me will mention Bos Illur in the same sentence as Vader, Gollum, Tyrion and Moiraine. One can only hope!

 

The Empty Nest

For most of my life, I have been striving to become a writer. One day, I thought, I will be a writer. Of course, I know this was wrong thinking. I have constantly been told, “Writers write.” Writers don’t simply begin writing one day when they finally hit the big leagues; they have to put pen to paper for years before anything comes of it.

Armed with this common knowledge, I did just that. Ten years ago, I began developing a science fiction epic. I finished my first draft, entitled Colony, last December. Five years ago, I began a second story. I finished my second draft just this past week.

I thought I was getting busy. I thought I was being preemptive, practicing my craft and preparing for the day when my career would begin.

I was wrong.

As a creative type, I’m not so good at math, but let’s add up my progress so far. In the ten years that I’ve been “committed” to being a writer, I have written two novels. On average, that’s one novel per five years – and 90% of those words were written in the last twelve months. This means I’ve been pretty unproductive for someone who intends to somehow make a living at this.

Well, my two novels are done now. They’re fully birthed. I would like to pat myself on the back for having churned through so many words this year, but the reality is that I have to get much faster at this process.

Ideally, I need to be writing two books per year, and I can’t take five to ten years to conceive of them, which means it’s time to get going on something new. I need to get going yesterday, to be honest!

But there’s something stopping me.

I’ve got a bad case of “Empty Nest Syndrome.” You know what I’m talking about, right? After parents finish raising a family, their children go off into the world, leaving them alone for the first time in twenty years or more. What are these parents supposed to do with themselves? They clutch to their children as long as possible, fearing the separation anxiety they know is just around the corner.

Well, the metaphor only goes so far. I’m not worried about separation anxiety. I am worried, however, that I won’t be able to have any more kids. Do I have another two books in me somewhere? How about four or five? Ten?

A lot of writers have great ideas coming out the yin-yang, but I’m not sure I’m one of them. Most of my writing time has been so obsessed with nursing the babies I have that I haven’t spent much time grooming new prospects for the future.

Well, the future has officially arrived.

I have become a little spoiled. Writing a first draft is fairly easy when you have ten years of background research in hand. However, my new babies are barely embryonic. If I’m going to meet my two-books-per-year goal, I don’t have time to spin my wheels in development.

The question is this: how does one write from a blank slate? How does one develop a workable outline from an idea that’s only partially formulated?

At this point, you might be waiting for me to offer up a sage piece of writing wisdom, some neat and tidy advice to get you on your way if you’re in a similar position.

But that’s not the kind of post this is today. Rather, today’s post is a call to action.

Starting today, I’m going to ignore the blindfold over my eyes that represents my creative uncertainty about the vast terrain of untold and unconceived story laid out before me. Starting today, I plunge forward into the unknown, step by step, word by word.

It’s hard to believe that, in six months’ time, this baby is going to be headed off to college.

Monday Bonus: Scrivener for PC

I contemplated merely commenting on Matt’s 4/18/11 post regarding the Writer’s Software Arsenal, but thought this info might have been lost or overlooked as a comment. And, since Colette already posted a wonderful article today on learning from our mistakes, consider this Bonus Monday Content!

Many Mac users might already be familiar with Scrivener, but as a PC user, I had never heard of it. Most likely because, until now, it hadn’t been available for the PC. Scrivener is currently conducting a public beta test of the PC version which you can download here. I decided to give it a try and have been extremely impressed despite the bugs I’ve come across.

“Scrivener is a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.”

The program has built in templates for Fiction Novels, Novels with Parts, Short Stories, Non-fiction, Poetry & Lyrics, and Screenplays. You can also create your own template to suit your personal needs.

What is so great about Scrivener, at least from the perspective of a speculative fiction novelist, is that it allows you to have everything you need to write your story–outline, character bios, research, glossary, etc.–all in a single “project.” You can even add images and video which can be viewed while you’re writing, easily rearrange scenes/chapters, and then compile everything into a single document for exporting or printing. As someone who has multiple Word docs (glossary, book guide, etc.) and an outline in Excel open at any given time–I worked in cubicle for 10 years and have yet to spend the time to learn wikidpad, what can I say?–having everything centralized in a single location seems like a dream.

The current Beta test runs through May 30th, 2011, and the full program will be available sometime in June. The PC version will cost $40, which is a steal considering how robust the software is. Additionally, if you participated in November’s NaNoWriMo contest and verified your 50k word count, you get 50% off the PC purchase price. You can’t beat that with a stick!

Scrivener for Mac: (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php)
Scrivener PC Public Beta: (http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivenerforwindows/)

Mistake Learning

Mistake learning can be interpreted a few ways: to mistake learning for something else, learning about mistakes, learning from mistakes, and I’m sure we could come up with others. I named my post ambiguously in honor of my most recent BIG foul-up. I’m a big believer in learning from other’s mistakes in order to diminish my own, so I’ll offer up my new number one writing rule for your evaluation; Never, EVER, submit a document within twelve hours after making ANY changes without carefully reviewing those changes.

Case in point; I thought my second sentence in my manuscript might sound better if I added in a short action phrase. So, “Greg stopped pacing across the living room carpet and threw up his hands.” Um…yeah. Initially, some people might think this sounds fine, like I did. I have to really watch myself, because I tend toward these types of phrases. Unfortunately, if you approach the words in the same way you can approach this blog title, you might imagine some kid barfing up appendage bits onto the living room carpet. My story just went from an urban fantasy to a fairly twisted and bizarre horror. And yes, I sent that to two prospective agents. No surprise-the rejections showed up in my email within days.

Other potential mistakes to watch for:

*Don’t take too seriously a review of your manuscript from someone who doesn’t read any of the same books as you-Take criticism, but use discernment.

*Be nice to everyone everywhere you go. I once met one of Baen’s acquiring editors in an elevator, but even when he told me he was an editor I didn’t realize he had so much clout. Thankfully, when I met him through an introduction the next day, I could mention having met in the elevator without embarrassment. I’d been nice, polite, and hadn’t tried to shove a manuscript into his hand.

*Don’t get drunk at a convention, at least not when you have a book to pitch. I watched a man trying to apologize the next day after his over-zealous, drunken pitch to an agent at the party the night before. She was gracious in accepting his apology, but I guarantee you his book didn’t stand much of a chance unless it was incredibly brilliant. He’d already left a bad first impression.

Of course, there are many more. Feel free to post comments and add to the list.

 

UBI’s: Current Reading: Paper- City of Bones by Cassandra Clare; Ipad- Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson; Educational-Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King

Upcoming events: LepreCon May 6-8 in Tempe, AZ http://leprecon.org/lep37/, WorldCon Aug. 17-21 in Reno, Nevada http://www.renovationsf.org/

www.colettevernon.com