Monday, July 26, 2010

Post 17 - Characters Need Relationships

Good morning everyone, I'm sorry for the delay in posts.

This morning I want to talk a little about relationships, specifically those that connect ALL your characters, not just the protagonists.

I think, too often, people focus on the relationships that the heroes of the story have, and overlook the possibility or presence of the same relationships that the antagonist may have. Yes, badguys need love too.

While it verges on cliche to parrot the relationship to both parties (the hero and villain both having the same middle school teacher), I think that part of what fleshes out a great character (and villains should be as well-crafted as the heroes) is that they have relationships.

The badguy can have a relationship with...his banker...that maybe doesn't make him all that evil (unless it's an evil banker). The hero can have a relationship with his landlady that doesn't paint him too favorably.

My point is this -- relationships lead to interactions (and vice versa), so their presence in the story add some often needed depth to the characters involved.

Would we care so much about Snape killing Dumbledore, if we didn't build this great relationship and reverance between Harry and Dumbledore?

Would we be in tears at the end of Field of Dreams if we didn't set up the relationship between father and son throughout the whole movie?

Would we care so much about Winnie the Pooh if we didn't see his relationships with all the other animals of the Hundred Acre Wood? (Oh yeah, I went there.)

One of the most critical elements in character building is the formation of relationships around that character. No character lives in a vacuum, and no character is truly alone.

Note: Let me dispel something that got emailed to me about this point -- The "loner" character might be isolated and by himself, but he may carry the memories, feelings or ideas of other characters with him. In a visual medium, we see these other characters through flashback and dream sequence, so while the character is physically singular, he is emotionally and mentally involved with other characters. The same is true for the widowed or orphaned character, who relates to absent characters through how he feels.

Relationships hinge on the strength of the emotions in them. It is nowhere near enough for the reader to be told "the characters are in love", we must see this love played out in actions and emotions. Demonstration of those emotions allow the reader to invest in the character either positively (wanting them to succeed) or negatively (wanting them to be stopped). The surest way to demonstrate these emotions is create them in context.

I'm not saying all heroes need a love interest, and many stories are done well without them. This goes far beyond the immediate answer of "have a character fall in love". I've identified a few more depth-granting relationships below:

  • A character and his parents
  • A character and his goals before the story, compared to the character and his goals at the start of the story
  • A character and his siblings (or lack thereof)
  • A character and the perceived competition he's in for X item or Y person (note the word: perceived)
  • A character and the actual competition for X item or Y person
  • A character and scorned love
  • A character and himself, if he is conflicted about something
  • A character and the perceived societal rules, philosophies or laws.

There are loads of others, those are just what I thought of while sitting here.

It's not enough to just list the relationship as a bullet point in your stack of notes about the character. No one sees those notes, so the detail you put in them had better translate into the text somewhere, or else you've just wasted the opportunity.

Now don't take that to the other end of the spectrum, and turn every bullet point into a massive relationship epic. Some relationships don't need to be super-detailed. The character who sells the character coffee on page 215? Yeah, the reader probably doesn't need to know that the barista's fondest desire is to play competitive tiddlywinks because his father was an abusive doubter of the power of tiddlywinks, which caused the boy to grow up stunted and ashamed of his talents....he pours the coffee, that's his job on page 215, and the relationship that matters most is his relation to the action of that service.

Don't confuse deep and rich characters with their relationships. Relationships are what characters have, and relationships are what make the characters rich and deep, not the level of detail you write when describing the textures of fabrics and facial hair.

What I encourage people to do is write out the list of connections. Sometimes a web sort of design can be employed, but sometimes (at least for me) a list can be used. It looks like this:

Character #1
- HATES Character #2
- DISCOVERS Character #3, then RESPECTS Character #3
- SON of Character #4

By emphasizing the starting point for the relationship, I know to ground the characters that way. Since no relationship is static, I know that I can push the relationship(s) forward into new territory, as would make sense for the character given the circumstances (otherwise, if I change the relationship without reason, the reader is left scratching their head).

Any character would benefit from any relationship. Try it out, see how you can connect the characters and see if those connections strengthen what you've got down on the page.

Happy writing

Friday, July 23, 2010

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Post #15 -- Emotions vs. Statuses

If you've ever played a Final Fantasy or Zelda game, then you're going understand this idea pretty quickly. However, for many people, it's been a long time since they checked out a heart container or limit break, so I won't ask you to go play those games in order to grasp this.

Over the course of writing, we're generating characters that hopefully have or express feelings. Feelings are the bridges to the audience principally because the audience is comprised of people who also have feelings. If you can imbue feelings to a fictional creation, then audience (hopefully) sees that creation as real, even if it's only in the context of the pages of the story.

Different from feelings are things called statuses (or sometimes status conditions, but that's a little redundant). They also play a role in characters, but they're not feelings.

Wait, I'll explain each and this gets clearer.

An emotion is felt by the character in response to something. Emotions are REACTIVE, meaning that they require something to trigger them. X happens, it generates an emotion. This cause-effect relationship is key to crafting strong emotions, even if the emotion you want isn't "appropriate" at the moment it's being experienced.

(Note: "Appropriate" is a relative label that often gets abused or misplaced. "Appropriate" chiefly concerns itself with the ideas that an action (which in this case is an emotion) must fit in with the surrounding context so as not to appear abnormal or unique among a group. "Appropriate" often counter-balances the outliers on the bell-curve, meaning it breeds a level of conformity and solidarity. "Appropriate" is some external judgment placed on the the specific situation, and sometimes, for true potency, "appropriate" can be tossed out the window.)

Emotions are how the character feels (about something/someone). To describe these we use words like angry, sad, aroused, challenged, bitter....a whole host of adjectives designed specifically to evoke an image in the reader's mind. (If I say, "I'm sad." that creates a particular mental picture for the reader. If I go on further and say "I'm sad, can't you see the tears in my eye?" I've further developed that picture but not actually increased the emotion at hand.)

Emotions add depth, and they do not do a great job of advancing plot...emotions EXPLAIN things. (Note that they both start with "E".) They are qualifiers, and they relate best to questions of why and how. (Why do they feel that way? How do they feel now? etc) I try not to say that feelings act best with the verb "feel" in mind, because I think it's rather poor writing to use the word to describe itself.

It's hard to say that "sadness" or "anger" by itself would advance a plot. But that does not mean an emotion cannot inspire or lead to an action. Emotions are like fuses for actions. Having a clear fuse makes the bomb bigger.

Remember: Emotions help create images, they can precede actions, they add depth to whatever is "current moment." Emotions also require something to trigger them. That "something" can be an action, another emotion....but it's some event that can best be described NOT IN DIALOGUE (think exposition or narrative, mostly).

But, characters can feel more than emotions. The responses to the environment are also felt, but they're not emotions. They are called "statuses".

Consider this: Billy fell down and skinned his knee. Tears poured down his face as he sat on the curb.

When we examine what Billy felt, we have to remember that there are two parts with combine to composite the "feelings." We may identify the tears and label them as sadness or pain. But Billy felt more than that. Look at the action taken - he fell and skinned his knee. He felt, in a physical sense, the rough texture of the ground against his skin.

Status is not just what the character is doing, but it is also the condition that impacts the character at the time of observation (I can see the physics people looking to me to point out the Literary Observer Effect, but I'll save that for later).

Another way of describing his "status" is to consider his "state" (short for 'state of being'). Billy's status? Bleeding, crying, sitting, hurt. He feels this things, but they are not feelings.

Status is used more as a location and descriptor. It tells us about where the character is in relative space and experience. A character may be conscious, unconscious, bleeding, drunk, falling, speaking, praying.....and a lot of other gerunds and nouns.

I have tried, while writing this, to find a single line I can create for this, but I find the items in question to be too closely related.

Emotions are felt in reaction to experience.
Statuses are felt or occur in response to action.

A status can lead to an emotion (I am single now, so I cry a lot). And emotions can lead to statuses. (I am scared, so I act timidly) Knowing that the two are related, but individually different helps you shape characters both as single-standing creations and also within the context of your writing.

I hope this helps. Keep writing, we'll talk soon.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Post #14 - Tools for creating your masterpiece

At Ken's suggestion (you're checking out his blog right? Go visit him after you're done reading this post.) I've got a list of some software that can help you write your great work. It doesn't matter what you're writing or how good you are it, these tools can help you.

Before I start, I do want to draw your attention here. This is a chart detailing the expenses of some of the leading writing software available. I want you to specifically look at 2 parts: The cost and the features.

Yes, $269 dollars for software. And if you note the features, that $269 doesn't include spellcheck. So you might be able to crank out an entire series of books filled with typos.

So I looked at all these pieces of software...and then looked at my wallet. And then I looked at the material I teach monthly at meetings, where it doesn't cost anyone $269 to get help.

Now I'm not saying that the people who made software shouldn't be paid for their work, and I'm not saying that some of that software is really exceptional for some people, but there has to be a set of tools that I can get TODAY so that I can start writing, TODAY, right?

I found them. Here are 3:

yWriter5 (Cost: FREE) -- I love this program (it's on the laptop). It was not hard to install or figure out, there's an awesome video explaining everything on the website, and it works in much the same way I do - by scenes and in long strings of work. This is definitely a writer's tool developed by someone who writes...there's not a lot of marketing and flash and bells and whistles. This program will get you on the ground floor of your work easily and keep you focused. You'll want to check this out.

Storybook (Cost: FREE) -- Similar to yWriter, this program really focuses on good organizational elements to make the act of writing incredibly creatively and targeted. No more meandering through thoughts, forgetting your notes or skating by when you're not sure. This is a complex story's best friend, thanks to its Plot Strands features (keep track of all your bits, twists and turns). This is the program on one of the writing computers I use.

Pen and Paper
(Cost: Nominal) -- Okay, so my third choice isn't software. But, it is a great tool for your masterpiece. Let's face it: I don't always want to lug around a laptop and the power cord and the cumbersome case. I have things to do, places to go and I think a lot faster (and easier) when I'm not looking for an outlet "just in case". To use this tool:

  • Get a box of pens.
  • Get a few legal pads, steno pads or pieces of paper.
  • Start writing.
I've always got a few pens in my pocket and paper at hand. Far less need for an outlet this way, and it's just faster for to scribble a note like, "Adjust August meetup RSVPs" than get the laptop, dig it out, clear space on the table, plug it in, login to the wi-fi, get on the site, and then start adjusting the things I need. Simple is often better, especially when I need to write.

So that's the sort of stuff I use, but I'm always on the lookout for more or different ideas. Let me know what you're using. If you've got other stuff (free is always a good thing) tell me.

Post #13 - Plot and Characters working together

I think I was unclear at some point, or I was not sufficiently explanatory because I'm getting the impression from people that you either write plot or you write characters, placing one ahead of the other in terms of importance.

It's not a matter of importance, it's a matter of definition and quantity of description. Both are important -- you cannot find story without plot or without characters. (If by some stroke of genius you know a story where there no characters and/or no plot, please email me...I'm curious about this.)

You need to have characters AND you need to have a plot. At the most simple level, if you have characters and no plot, they just exist on the page without a reason to do anything. If you have pages where characters are created, but they're not doing anything, that's a character study or a nice biography you've written, but that's not a story. If you have a plot, but no characters, then you've created a problem and have no one to solve it or grow because of it.

Both these components of writing are critical, but my point has been, and remains that there are different schools of thought and different talents that distinguish one from the other. There are some people who promote plot over character, just as there are some people who make more complex characters over simpler plots. It is not a mark of competition or superiority, just difference. I think for some people this is a particular sticking point that one has to be subordinate to the other, but both must be masterfully written...which explains why they spend a lot of time worrying about writing, don't you think?

Relax. Both have to be done, and you may end up doing one better than the other. It's totally okay. We all still love you.

In the great big scheme of your book, whatever it is you're writing, to have the characters and plot work together, and often off each other. It's a great dependence that cycles like this:

* Either the plot or the character exist first (chicken/egg argument)
* If the plot came first (meaning the author developed the problem first), then the character is created to solve the problem.
* If the character came first (meaning that the author had someone in mind, but not what they'd do), then the plot comes along to challenge the character.

An average plot is rescued by brilliant characters (we can point to various TV shows having weak episodes made tolerable by great acting, and by various books in an author's library being better than others).

An average character is made magnificent by a challenging plot (Frodo is an ordinary hobbit who saves Middle Earth, Batman was just a guy until his parents were killed).

Let's get more into this:

We'll start with look at the situation plot-centrically:

What's your plot? If you can't immediately spit it out in a few sentences, then you need to write that out somewhere, and keep it in mind. Now gauge that problem, that conflict, that opportunity and consider the character(s) required to really make that problem not only resolved by truly epic in its scope. (You have hundreds of pages to explore the sure it's got some weight to it).

Write out your plot, not in a long-winded clunky way, but in a pretty open and direct way. Make a whole sentence out of it. I'll make an example:

A man must overcome his issues. No! This needs more. Remember, this is your story we're discussing. This is how you're going to encourage the world to see it? This is the best you, the creator of the work, has to say about it? Break a mental sweat, let's see what you can do.

A man must overcome his emotional and mental fragility to find his sense of meaning and love of life after losing it to failed relationships, failed opportunities and fear. Yes! Brilliant! See the depth here, see the craggy nature, where we have so many elements we can expand on? For people who don't see all the richness of this plot, I'll extract them:

  1. The man must overcome the issues, which immediately says that he believes them to be greater than he is, or that they will be a difficulty.
  2. The man gets his first layer of depth here, listed as emotionally and mentally fragile. This makes the character compelling. How is the fragile guy ("fragile" is left for the audience to define) going to overcome the issues?
  3. We start to see the issues outlined. He's lost his sense of meaning, his love for life, and he's been in some failed relationships and failed opportunities. Now this fragile guy has context.
  4. And just to ice this cake, we end the sentence with a raw emotion, to really grab the audience - fear. There isn't a specification to the fear, so people are left to guess what the fear is. We have clues in the prior words, but we're uncertain...and intrigued.

So we've created a plot, and along the way created the mold of the character best suited for that plot. There is a natural symmetry to this creation, we have in one sentence created a problem and the being attempting the problem. Both work together, because both are integral to the other's existence. Would the man be fragile if he had not suffered? Would the issues be there if there was no one to experience them? (Please don't get philosophical, we're speaking strictly literary, to see the constructive potential of the symbiosis.)

In the course of 3 days, since teaching about Plot, I got two emails asking me how people can figure out their plots. Here is the quick-and-dirty way:

1. Think about what problem there exists in your world. (There's an evil wizard!)
2. Give the problem more depth by attaching it to consequences. (The evil wizard wants to rule the world and enslave people!!)
3. Give the problem a sense of urgency (Only one man or one way exists to stop the wizard, and time's running out!!!)

That's plot generation in 3 steps.

But, wait. What if you have a great character and no idea what to do with him? Time to consider this issue from the character side:

Who's the hero? Who is this fantastic character that mirrors and connects to the audience (so that they can relate to him) but may possess abilities the audience craves (so that they can project themselves into his role)? Go write it down. I have an example here:

He's a guy who realizes that he can communicate with animals. Okay...that's a great ability for the audience to crave, but what does he do with it? How does that power (which the audience doesn't normally have) allow him to connect to the audience? Try again.

He's a guy who realizes he can communicate with animals when he gets struck by lightning. This is the common misstep people take. They expand the character with another detail, rather than taking the existing details and pushing DEEPER. This is often the problem with most current comedies, where a character is introduced and given a power or skill, but the plot-conditions to test that skill are incredibly shallow or transparent. We want to go deeper. This is the guy the audience is going to stick with and root for in your entire book. And the best you've got for me is lightning? Think deep, think about what an audience experiences.

A guy realizes he can communicate with animals, and decides to use this power to finally fulfill his dream of fighting crime. THIS is the depth of character we wanted. If you're not immediately seeing the depth, here it is.

  1. A guy (who may just like us) gains an extraordinary power, one that many people may be interested in.
  2. This power allows him to do something he's always wanted to do, which is fight crime. This is also the audience may have wished for or desired.
  3. We know that because he's chosen to fight crime, either he believes crime to be a problem or crime ACTUALLY is a problem wherever this guy lives.
  4. We know this guy has dreamt about fighting crime, so we may extrapolate that dream into his own feelings of inadequacy or longing for purpose. Those feelings are felt by the audience.
Now I'm not always sure if I can boil down character generation into 3 steps the same way I did with plot, but if I had to, I'd say the parts are these

  • Pick two emotions, feelings or ideas. One must be greater than the other, but both do have to be somewhat complimentary. (You can't pick "Always helps the elderly" and "fears lemons"...they just don't go together in this exercise). It doesn't matter which of the two is the greater, as long as you can keep the two straight.
  • Give those emotions a body, either capable or desiring to be capable, male or female, young or old...but think about the sort of person that would have those two emotions you picked.
  • Describe the character in short list form (see below). Physical traits, elements of voice, personal history...all of these things come into play here. Names are optional but eventually the character needs one.
I've written it out here.

I've picked my 2 ideas/feelings/emotions to be "Loyalty" and "Tenacity"

My character will be named "Gary".

The embodiment of "Loyalty" and "Tenacity" looks like this:
  • short, stocky body
  • played some nose tackle in college
  • worked as a cab driver
  • muscled arms
  • scar over his right eye
  • drinks whiskey
  • calls women "dames"
  • always willing to fight
  • won't back down
Notice that in my description of Gary, I've created some springboards for writing. Why does he have a scar over his right eye? How good a nose tackle was he? Where did he play? How long did he drive a cab? Why is he always willing to fight?

Here's my rule of thumb: A character will rise or sink to meet the plot.

If the plot is too soft, too short, too elementary or too fluffy, then not even the greatest character can ultimately elevate it, and they will mute themselves in order to satisfy plot conditions.

If the character needs to be pushed, propelled and defined, then it is up to the plot to make this maturation possible.

All the pieces here must compose themselves into the particular engine of your story. So take the time to build your pieces carefully. You'll appreciate the hard work.