Saturday, November 15, 2008

Character vs. Plot

A recent posting on a blog that I read regularly prompted me to examine how I create characters, and how I relate to them after I've created them and am actually working with them, i.e., writing them and watching them come to life. I thought I should post on this since it's worth thinking about and I don't recall posting anything on this topic per se, although I've blogged about strengths and weaknesses, which are critically important aspects to consider in character development.

Without further ado, this is more or less how I create characters, and how I relate to them....

First, I don't always think of my characters as "people", fictional or otherwise. I do try to see them that way as I'm writing them, but before I write them I try to understand them in story terms. To put it another way, I develop my characters first, then I write them. I ask myself what function does this character serve, what is this character's relationship to the main character and the main storyline, etc., what strengths and weaknesses should this character exhibit. I develop at least a vague, general sense of the character's background, a way for me to intuit where the character is coming from, how the character will interact with others, a sense of the character's personal style, image, way of projecting him-/herself, etc. I let the larger need of the story drive the development of the character, at least in the major ideas I associate with the character. Then, as I work on the details, and especially when writing the character, I try to flesh this out a little more, or a lot more, depending on how vital the character is to the story and how much "screen time" he/she gets. I take the purely functional role and transform it into a "real" person (ie, a fictional person who seems real). In summary, my character-creation process has two basic steps: develop the character abstractly in story terms, then flesh out the character as a "real" (i.e., real-seeming but fictional) person.

Second, I consciously avoid creating any characters that remind me of any real persons, including myself. I don't spend much time thinking about this. As soon as I realize a character is reminding me of anyone who actually exists, I ask myself in what way specifically the fictional character is like someone I know, and then I immediately change the fictional character. I reassess the need for the character, the way I see the character in relation to the story (see above paragraph).

Third, I do occasionally draw inspiration from real people, but not in terms of representing them in my story, even in altered form. I take only a specific attribute, not the whole person, and work that attribute into the story. If I need to depict a character who lies well, I try to think of someone I know who lies frequently. I try to understand how I know when this person is lying, what the difference is between a convincing lie and one that is easy to spot, etc. I glean some insight about lying from someone I know and use that insight to help me shape the way a fictional character might lie in a given scene. I never depict the actual real person, or anything unique to that individual. I look for insights, generalities, and apply that understanding to the shaping of an original, fictional character.

Fourth, I intentionally do not write autobiographical or semi-autobiographical stories. Sometimes there are parallels between events in my stories and events in my life, but I separate these quite clearly in my mind. I am not writing about what I have experienced. I am not depicting those specific events. Rather, as with real people, I glean insights and general ideas about my real-life experiences, using those experiences as a source for information about the nature of such experiences.

Ultimately, characters are defined not by what they think or feel, but by what they do. Character is action. Actions are events.

I create events the same way I create characters. I see the fictional events that I write about as based on dramatic need. I shape the events around the main character's main goal and main weakness, and also any additional goals or weaknesses. If I have a character who likes to swim and who wants to become certified as a lifeguard, then I'll put obstacles in the way of that goal. Those obstacles could include having someone close to the character almost drown while attempting to save someone else, and having an unrelated stranger drown while the main character is present, although not primarily responsible for saving him/her. These events would show the danger of trying to save lives, and the cost of not saving them. They would make the importance of this work and its risks very clear to the main character, who must grapple with how he/she relates to the risks and the sense of purpose that drives him/her forward to achieving the goal of becoming a lifeguard. Other obstacles and the characters who introduce them into the main character's life could focus around logistical matters such as having the time to train, having the money to pay for certification, receiving an injury while helping a friend who goofs off, creating an unnecessary emergency for which the main character pays with an injury that threatens completion of training or ability to pass the certification requirements, etc. As you see, the kind of thinking involved here has nothing to do with me; it has everything to do with developing a story that will create a meaningful set of challenges to a main character who has a certain main goal.

It makes no difference whether any of these events occurred or did not occur in my own life -- I'm not writing about my own life. If I have known someone who drowned, or who almost drowned, then I could draw from that experience, but only in broad terms. Any insights I might glean would likely apply in general to anyone in similar circumstances

Characters and events serve a purpose in my stories, and that purpose is defined by the main goal of the main character, which can be expressed in one sentence: "Joe wishes to become a lifeguard like his big brother." I can draw from real life to inform and advise me in how I depict fictional persons and events, but I never cross the line and base my characters on real persons or events. Ever.

Plot is character, and character is plot. They are so intertwined they cannot be separated. A character is defined by what he/she wants to do. What happens is defined by what a character seeks to do. Character drives plot, plot is the expression of character. Too much focus on the quirkiness of an individual character results in a character-driven story that may lack a meaningful plot; too much emphasis on plot may results in an action-thriller which is too shallow and underdeveloped, because the characters don't seem real or organically connected to the line of action.

There is a lot of information in a novel, in the sense of details the writer has to manage while writing the story. They can become confusing, contradictory, confusing, and did I mention confusing? The way to keep it all together and ensure that things fit properly is to identify priorities. Make decisions and stick with them. Decide your basic concept (that one-sentence description I mentioned above). Decide your basic intent for the story (style, genre, tone, theme). Decide the important attributes of your main character: strengths and weaknesses, what he/she has to learn, his/her motivation, the consequences of success or failure. Establish meaningful major complications, decide which few of them absolutely must appear in the story. Brainstorm ideas, other events, other characters, but keep it loose until you have enough information to work with. Start sifting through and pin things down. Prioritize the decisions. Once something is set, keep it set firmly in your mind. Let later decisions hinge on previous decisions. There is a hierarchy to the information, a sense of perspective about it. By keeping things structured in this way, you can build and maintain a clear sense of who your characters are, why they are, how, what, and where they are, etc. Make characters and events count.

Finally, even though I am not my characters and my characters are not me, my characters are ultimately an expression of me. Not in simplistic terms, but in a roundabout way. I am a gay American male. When I create characters, I do so based on my way of looking at the world. They are my characters, engaged in my events, meaning the events which I have created, in stories that I create. My characters and events, and therefore my stories, serve a greater purpose, which is that they collectively communicate something that I wish to express in writing to potential readers. Writers build a body of work over time. That work is unique to each writer. That work is the writer, but not in simplistic terms. Without the writer, the work is nothing. I don't own my characters, any more than parents own their children. We bring them into the world, we give them life, we raise them up, and we send them on their way, hoping the world will be kind to them. If they deserve it. Those that don't should get what's coming to them. Sadly, there are no protagonists without antagonists. Such is the nature of fiction: conflict, through and through.

Of all things, stories are about people. Our characters must ultimately become people to the people who read about them.

Happy character-creating,


Planning Still, & Congratulations!

First, the congratulations -- to Sherry Thomas, whose blog, Plotters & Manipulators United, is one I read from time to time. Sherry spends her time writing historical romance and doesn't blog that often, but some months ago she had some very interesting posts that I enjoyed. The congratulations are due because one of her novels, Private Arrangements, was named one of the best books of the year by Publisher's Weekly! It was one of five mass-market paperbacks to make the list. That's worth some celebrating! Congratulations on such a wonderful achievement!

[By the way, I read about writers and writing techniques from various genres, even though my focus is on fantasy, because I believe we each have a piece of a larger puzzle, and I can learn from a romance writer, a mystery writer, a horror writer, etc., and not only fantasy writers. A fantasy is that much more interesting if it has an element of romance, of mystery, etc. Historical fiction is of particular interest to me because it parallels in less fantastic terms the sort of stuff that my fantasy stories are made of.]

Now, to the Planning . . . .

Yes, a week after my last post, I'm still planning my new novel! I started writing it the last week of October. I worked on it slowly but steadily for that first week, then stopped writing in the 2rd week (early November) to do some more planning, after having written about 7k words. I was then supposed to restart the writing this past week (week 3) and carry on, which I did, starting again with a new first scene and a fresh start, but once again I wrote only so much (this time, about 9k words) then ran into issues that just begged me to stop and plan some more. It's like deja-vu, except this time I know I've been here before! Tally: three weeks, two false starts, and a lot of extra notes from planning!

What's good:
  • I enjoy planning -- I really do!
  • The results I'm getting are fantabulous!
  • I've now got a usable MAP for the first time!
  • I've even got a "character map" (more below)!
  • The story just keeps getting better!
  • I'm so excited about all this!
What's not-so-good:
  • I'm still planning!
  • Gee, shouldn't I be writing?
  • I'm not writing!
  • My engines are revved but I haven't released the clutch!
  • "Fantabulous" is not a real word!
Okay, so the good is really good, and the "bad" is not really so bad, it's just not so good. All in all, that weights pretty favorably.

Now, what's a "character map"? Well, I don't know what that means to you, but here's what it means to me: I used a generic drawing program (this could also be done with a text editor) and I mapped out character names on a sheet of paper. Characters who are in the same group are listed line by line without skipping any lines, usually just a few names at a time. If there is another, related group, I skip a line and then list them (for example, two opposing sides or differences in rank or other associations). I then placed these groupings of names around the page (text fields dropped onto a blank page in a drawing program). I situated the names geographically in a way that corresponds to my map of this fictional world. So, the kingdom that is in the southeast is represented by a short list of names of key characters from that kingdom, located in the bottom right area of the paper.

What good is a character map? It looks like a page with names written all over it, in bunches, and they don't even line up with proper margins!

Yes, it looks odd, but it's useful to me. I can look at my map, which I printed out in a larger size than it would appear in the book, and I can look at my character map, which shows the same geographical relations but lists the actual characters, and I can mentally work my way through the story, or sequences of the story, specific scenes, etc., and see visually who people are, where people are, who comes and goes to and from where, etc. These tools, together, help me visualize when I'm doing all this extra planning work.

I already have over 50 names on the character map. These are characters who will be named in the story. Many of them are minor characters who will appear in only a scene or two, but they interact, so these are "speaking roles" and not just "voiceless extras". There are at least a dozen "major" characters, meaning they play a significant role in a chapter or sequence of chapters, and their input into the story has an important impact on the main character and the small group of truly major characters he associates with. For me, 50+ is a lot of named characters, more than I usually work with. What's really cool: I can look at the paper and name off instantly who these characters are, and what role they play throughout the story from start to finish! All of them! So yes, I do know the story well, as well I should.

Now, as to the exact nature of the planning . . . what is it that I'm coming up with these days, and do I really need it? Is it truly so important that it justifies stalling, restarting, then stalling again the writing of this story?

As mentioned before, I already have all the major events in each of the three acts, and the major plot pillars, and many minor events along the way, and all the characters I can foresee needing, certainly all the major players. However, I still get a little fuzzy about the back-story, the history, the mythology, and the ending, as well as making sure I have the right motivations that are reasonable and true to character. In other words, I have "everything", yet everything is suspect, and I know there are some holes here or there in spite of having filled every hole I can find. As I beat my head against the wall, I find incredible new ideas dislodging from the recesses of my mind and adding themselves to the mix. The added insights and improved decisions (where I have choices) are definitely worth the extra effort. Definitely.

What I have pinned down, without giving the story away:
  • What happened years ago between a man and a woman that explains why they hate each other still to this day, enough to try to destroy each other.
  • The exact sequence of events that start the present circumstances -- they were always there, I just finally drew them all out in a cause-and-effect series that makes very good sense.
  • Who that strange race of beings is that lives far to the north -- I always knew the simple answer, but how they are tied to the history and mythology, and the epic proportions of the story was hard to pin down among several choices (not anymore!).
  • What's located inside that large body of water and why it matters, and matters, and matters.
  • What's permanent, what's changeable, and why the difference.
  • How the two major threads come back together -- still working on the exact details, but at least I now have a clear sense of the way this needs to unfold -- my previous version did not rise to the dramatic potential I had created, this new version certainly does.
  • What's up, what's down, and why it matters.
That's really an enormous amount of progress achieved by joining together the various plot details and seeing how they relate on a closer level than I had achieved earlier. Now, what I'm still working on, which is why the planning will continue a little while yet:
  • Details of the second and third acts that are too fine to have been explored fully yet. I want to explore as much as I can before writing, though I know I will discover more when I actually write.
  • As always, the critically-important issue of the main character's strengths and weaknesses, lessons to be learned, and how this ties in to the final confrontation and resolution.
I've accomplished a lot of work recently, but there is still a lot to consider before I regard this initial planning as "done". I know the story will grow as I write it, in terms of fleshing out the details, but not in terms of adding significant new plot twists. I just want to take as much into account as I can before writing because I hate to write knowing that I have to rewrite it even as I write it. I can write effective scenes, and when I know what they need to consist of before writing them, I can get them on track right from the start. I don't want to write a loose, choppy, rough draft. I want to write a first draft that is usable, that requires editing, not rewriting. As much planning as possible does help (obviously, within reason).

So, I'm still planning. At least I'm enjoying it!

Best wishes to everyone else with their ongoing efforts, whatever they may be,


Thursday, November 06, 2008

New Novel Up & Running!

My new novel, CHASM (still want to find a better working title!), is up and running. I mentioned having written the first 2 chapters last week, about 7k words. Well, over the weekend, while editing those 2 chapters and reflecting more on how the story was going, I felt I had a new set of questions that needed answering. In spite of all the planning over the summer -- I filled an entire composition notebook with notes -- I realized there were still a number of angles that I hadn't addressed. So, I spent the weekend and early into this week going back over my notes and reflecting in greater depth on certain key issues. The result is the story has advanced very nicely, with a much richer plot and set of relationships and interrelationships between characters, events and places. It's the same story, just more evolved. I also added some entirely new elements, which are useful in drawing out the ideas I already had established, but in a way that helps me dramatize things better. I did nothing that changes the original intent or basic story line. Those were already well-planned. I'm really happy with the new material, and it has that feel to it that tells me it's "right on" -- you know something is working when the pieces fit seamlessly together and everything just feels right.

However, with the new ideas, I felt I needed to go back to the beginning and make a fresh start again. I wanted to allow the new ideas to percolate and affect how I was beginning the story, and the exact way I was going to introduce the characters and circumstances. I'm glad I did. One important new change is, for the first time since I started working (again) in earnest a few years ago, I'm going to use multiple points of view. I have kept my last four novels strictly focused on one main character who is the protagonist and hero. Every scene of every chapter featured the MC, and was from that one character's POV. In earlier years I did write with multiple POV's, but when I started writing again in 2005 I decided to restrict myself to just one POV (the MC's) and keep it to that until I had mastered a number of other aspects of the novel-writing process. I wouldn't say I've mastered anything, of course, but I'm certainly doing much, much better on a number of fronts and have clearly learned a lot in these past few years. I feel comfortable branching out now, with a sense that I have enough of the key elements of good storytelling under control now that it is time to grow again. It's very exciting to work with multiple POV's after my self-imposed exile from them.

So far this week I've written only two scenes, going slowly and carefully, making sure I get it right. I believe the beginning of a story is very important as it establishes the foundation that you write from as you proceed through the rest of the story. However, I'll try to avoid the meticulous editing I normally do to the first three or four chapters. The first two scenes run a little over 3k, and I'll add another scene before closing Chapter 1. This fresh-start manuscript is up and running, and as I get past the first couple of chapters I expect the pace to pick up and the editing to fall by the way side. I don't want to rush too quickly through it, as time allows reflection, which in turn creates better scenes, but I want to set a good pace and keep it moving. I have no idea the length of this novel, but will set it at 80k to 100k.

Once I get a few chapters in, and have edited the first chapter enough times that it seems pretty well set, then I'll share the first chapter on my secure blog, ADRIAN'S ARCHIVE. By the way, thanks to Scotty for his feedback already in the comments on that blog, and, Debra, I've sent the password email but I'm not posting your comment requesting it so that I don't divulge your email address publicly.

One really cool thing about the new CHASM novel is that I feel like I'm writing a real fantasy novel for the first time. It's actually my fifth fantasy novel, but with all the growth over the past four I feel I'm finally able to write the kind of prose I was hoping to write with the first one, THE REFLECTING STONE. That was a fine story in terms of plotting and characters and the struggle the MC faces, but my prose was not then what it is now. It's nice to see progress.

I'll keep working on CHASM, enjoying the ride, not in a hurry, but feeling excitement about this story and anticipation. I can't wait to see what the finished story looks like.

Best wishes to others with their WIP's,


Saturday, November 01, 2008

Feedback Anyone?

Breaking News:

I've been wanting to share excerpts of my fiction so other writers can see what I'm working on and provide feedback. I have a publicly-available blog for that already, ADRIAN'S FIX, but I can only share brief excerpts there. To help me share more substantial excerpts, I've created a new secure blog. It's called ADRIAN'S ARCHIVE. I've already put sample chapters on there from three of my WIP's:

  • The First Novel in the JASPER Series

I'll post more content there on a regular basis (I have it readily available).

Why a secure blog?

If you put anything more than a brief excerpt on the internet for everybody to see, it immediately loses any potential commercial value for publication. A publicly-available blog like ADRIAN'S FIX is fine for sharing bits and pieces, or for sharing stuff that I do not plan to market one day, but it is not suitable for longer excerpts or whole works. I need a password-protected blog to share more substantial excerpts, and I'll only share this content with a handful of writers for feedback.

How do I visit a secure blog?

In case you're not familiar with secure blogs at Blogger, I'll explain briefly....

You visit the secure blog the same way you visit this one -- by going to the URL (internet address) for the blog. However, since it is a secure blog, you will first get a screen that asks you to enter a password. This way, only those who have been invited, and given the password, can enter the blog to view its contents.

Once you've entered the password, you can have your browser save the password (via a cookie), and then when you come back to the site, you can view it instantly without having to re-enter the password each time. Or, you can decline the cookie, but then you have to re-enter the password each time you visit.

How do I get the password?

In order to send you a password, I need your email address. I have to enter it into a form in my Dashboard (control panel at Blogger that I use to manage my blogs). Once I enter your email address in the form, authorizing you to view the site, Blogger will send you an automatically-generated invitation email that invites you to view the blog. The invitation email gives you the URL, and a password.

Therefore, if you would like to visit my new secure blog, please send me an email. Identify yourself and let me know you want a password, and I'll have Blogger send you an invitation!

Send requests to:

a m e r i c a n a u t h o r [ a t ] y a h o o [ d o t ] c o m
(minus the extra spaces, of course -- it all just runs together).

In conclusion....

I hope my fellow aspiring writers will request the password and visit the new blog to see what my stories look like, and to offer feedback. You can share general reactions, as well as more detailed feedback, by posting comments on the secure blog.

Additionally, if you would like to receive a longer excerpt or entire work, when available, let me know and I can send you a Mobipocket eBook version, which is also secure. You can download the Mobipocket eBook Reader and Creator programs for FREE from the Mobipocket site. It's a great tool, allowing you to read your own stories in eBook format, share them with others (with or without password encryption), and add comments directly to the text. Their site also offers 10,000 free eBooks for immediate download, and of course you can purchase eBooks as well. Check it out, if you haven't already.

Thanks for your support, and feel free to ask me to critique your own work as well. I'm more than happy to reciprocate.