Pencil to Paper

The Daily Life of a Compulsive Writer

Skip a Year… or Two… or Five January 27, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 2:17 PM
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I’m going to continue my character-based woes today with an interesting little exercise. Believe it or not, I picked this up from fanfiction writers. I’ve seen it used a few times and snagged it as a character development tool.

The idea is to create the written equivalent of a scrapbook. Pick a decent time frame in your character’s life, and then chop it up into segments. The examples I saw used 5, 10, 15, and 20 year marks. Depending on how old your character is, this can be adjusted.

The gist of the exercise is this: for every ‘milestone’, write a quick little scene. Drop in on their tenth birthday party. Graduation when they were eighteen. Whatever on earth they were dealing with at twenty five. You name it. Imagine that their life is a hallway, and you’re sticking your head through various doors to take a peek. (Girl in the Fireplace, anyone?) This will help you flesh out their backstory.

Now, I get frustrated with writing that doesn’t make it into the final product. I spent time on this and now no one will read it. What a waste of time! Complaining aside, it is helpful to know more about your character than you put in. Their pasts shape their actions and reactions way down at the subconscious level. It’ s important to understand them. If you do, your readers will feel it, and your characters will seem a little more real.


Secondary, not Two-Dimensional January 19, 2013

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 4:01 PM
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Secondary characters are my fatal flaw. Or maybe not ‘fatal’ flaw. I have a whole host of flaws raring to go, jostling in line to see which one gets to trip me up next. Right now, it’s this.

See, the dilemma of secondary characters is obvious from the name. They’re secondary – out of focus, not the most important, not major. It’s easy to brush past them.

Then we hit a snag – the second word. They’re still characters. Their secondary status may mean that they’re not narrators or heroes, but they’re not filler like the minor parts either. They need to have personalities, quirks, and objectives of their own.

This is where I trip up. I’m preoccupied with the main characters. Their epic battles, quests for identity, etc. are what I’m concerned by. Who cares if the kid who runs interference has dreams too?

They need to be fleshed out though. Hollow secondary  characters are like poorly painted backdrops in a play. If you’re caught up in the story, they look ok. Once you start paying attention, though, you realize how flat and washed out the story-world is. It’s fake.

I am very guilty of this. My secondary characters only show up when the plot demands. They pretty much disappear when they’re not in my main characters’ lives. It’s annoying, it’s wrong, and it’s something I need to pay more attention to.

The best way I’ve found to address this problem is to pull secondary characters into the limelight. I’ll rewrite – or just re-imagine – a scene or a day in their shoes. While my main character is off getting herself killed, what is this secondary character doing? What do they want? How do they feel about being dragged into the thorny entanglements of my plot? It’s not their story, after all. Doing this helps me figure out how to treat these characters, and sometimes it opens up fun new plot threads.

So what’s your current pet peeve? How do you handle it?


NaNo Prep: Character Cheat Sheets October 27, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 2:41 PM
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This is the least prepared I’ve been for NaNoWriMo since eighth grade, when I read about it in the paper on November 5.

I have no plot outlined. I have no carefully drawn maps and plans. I didn’t even have characters or the inkling of an idea until a week ago.

This is going to be fun.

Anyway, this weekend I’m finally doing some very brief character cheat sheets, because I can’t bear to go in completely blind. I am not a pantser (NaNoing by the seat of my pants, if you need a translation). I need some semblance of structure.

Even if you like to go in blind, having some idea of what your characters are like is good. What’s more important than anything else, though, isn’t what they look like or how they dress or even what they lie awake thinking about at 3 am. (Although knowing all of these things will help.) The most important thing to know is this:

What do they want?

But let’s back up and go through this step by step. My super short cheat sheets are structured like this:

Name. Seems obvious, but I’m terrible at them. Names are hard. Sometimes I pick something that sounds nice or occurred to me randomly. Other times, I look up something with a little extra meaning. The site has been a lifesaver for me. You can search names by gender, first letter, meaning, ethnic origin, and more. Of course, if you need something fast, grabbing a phone book is also handy.

Age. This is generally nice to know. What can your character legally do, and what would he or she get arrested for? (Note – if it’ll get him/her arrested, I’d say go for it. Those escapades are always the most fun to read.)

Appearance. This isn’t super important. You don’t need to tell us that he/she has ‘flowing ebony locks and eyes like limpid tears’. Still, having some clue of what they look like for reference is probably a good idea. Otherwise you might mess up and have a character refer to ‘that redhead’, leaving your readers utterly confused, since ‘that redhead’ is a brunette. I like to hint at the character’s personality with their appearance. Someone reckless might constantly be sporting bruises. A guy with big plans is constantly jiggling his leg or playing with a pencil. A girl with a secret has a posture more locked down than a quarantine.

Personality. NaNoWriMo is a rough draft, yeah, but you want it to be salvageable. (I have yet to have that happen, but I live in hope!) Characters’ personalities are not set in stone. No one acts exactly the same every day in every situation, but you should have an idea of their baselines. How does your character act around strangers? Around friends? Alone? Why do they act the way they do?

Desires. This, as I said earlier, is the most important part. What does your character want? His or her actions should be focused on this goal. Of course, the goal can change as the story progresses. The whole idea behind plot is figuring out what your character wants and throwing every obstacle you can in his or her way.

Arc. You may not know your characters’ arcs yet. I’m a little iffy on them myself. Ideally, you have at least an idea of where your character starts and where he/she ends. They should progress (or regress  throughout the story, and all of their experiences, interactions, and scenes should push them one way or another on this path.

Quirk. No, I don’t mean make them a quirky ManicPixieDreamGirl, but giving a character a distinguishing trait can make them stand out. This quirk might be verbal, behavioral, whatever. In my last project I had a guy constantly popping breath mints – he’s a reporter, don’t want to scare a source away with nasty breath – and an insecure guy constantly ending his sentences with ‘am I right’ or ‘right’.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful. It’s just a way I organize my thoughts before I start writing. Other people may do it differently. Whichever way you plan – if you plan at all – good luck and happy NaNoWriMo!


Fun With Arcs July 13, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:42 AM
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As I mentioned earlier, I like analyzing things. One aspect of stories I enjoy picking apart is the character arc. I’ll ponder what a character’s unconscious or unconscious goal and path of growth is. I’ll look at how their actions and the actions of those around them contribute and/or detract from that arc. Then I’ll use their progress to predict their eventual fate. I’ve gotten quite good at guessing the actions and demises of fictional characters, although I’m not 100% reliable.

Anyone with an eye for detail can track these arcs in contemporary fiction and utilize them in their own work.

What are character arcs?

In a nutshell, a character’s arc is his/her path through the story, typically achieving some shift in characterization. Actions done by or to them affect the way the arc progresses. The characterization shift can be positive or negative. Also, the hinted transformation may go to completion or fail to finish.

A classic example – and one that envelops almost all stories – is the hero’s journey. Someone must leave the life s/he knows behind, mature, and succeed in the face of adversity. Challenges will befall him/her, but s/he will continue.

A more specific example is Tony Stark in Iron Man. His experiences make him shift from a narcissist to (occasional) altruist. A failed example might be a boy who’s constantly encouraged to step up and take a leading role, who instead allows others to order him around and dies for it. However, these ‘failures’ are usually foreshadowed earlier and may contribute to the success of other characters’ arcs. It all becomes a tangled web of interactions.

Tracking arcs

Working out a character’s arc isn’t hard. It just requires paying attention. I look at his/her mannerisms, what s/he says and doesn’t say, back story, how s/he reacts to certain things… I guessed Harry Potter would die (albeit only temporarily) by noting his history of self-sacrifice, lack of foresight/self-preservation, and various comments made about him throughout the series. His eventual fate has a certain poetic quality and displays a character shift toward maturity and clear-headedness (relatively speaking). In previous books, he charged into danger because he wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t care. Every time, he hoped to come out alive. It’s only fitting that in the last book he knowingly walks to his death, planning not to defend himself.

Why does this matter?

After gleefully dissecting arcs from a comic (and slightly less gleefully learning most of my favorite characters will die) I realized something depressing. I might spend hours working out arcs for other stories, but I have no clue what mine are. I couldn’t summarize my MCs’ arcs if I tried. My characters don’t follow a clear shift or line of development. That’s perfectly normal in real life, but in stories you ought to put some effort into it. My next project is to start painstakingly mapping out arcs – for my main characters at least. It’s going to be great.

Why include arcs?

Arcs are important because your characters ought to go somewhere. The story is a journey. At journey’s end they should have changed somehow. A clear arc gives readers something to invest in and root for. It gives them an idea of what to expect. (Contrarily, you can play with an expected or traditional arc. In Star Wars, everyone in-universe expects Annakin Skywalker to be the hero they need. Instead he falls to the dark side. Later, the key to his downfall – caring too much about his loved ones and family – prove an asset.)

Overall, arcs help shape the story as much as the plot does. People who don’t change are boring. Don’t be boring. Take a look at arcs in works around you, and start mapping!


Backstory Headaches July 1, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 10:32 AM
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Character back story can be a pain.

Some people chart out extensive histories and genealogies for every bit part. (Tolkien, I’m looking at you.) Others simply conjure characters out of empty air, making them up as they go along. That’s probably unwise, but I tend to operate that way.

The problem is that characters are supposed to be people. People don’t blip out of existence when we turn our backs. They have their own lives, interests, problems… their own stories. Some awareness of this gives characters a touch more realism.

I’m very bad at this. To try to fix it, I forced myself to imagine a scrapbook of sorts of characters’ lives. What moments do they cherish, blush at, move beyond? What events shaped them? Sometimes, some detail stands out and I work it in. Other times, I tweak their background to explain their behavior in-story.

Back story building can be a thankless task because most of it won’t factor in to the story. What’s the point? I’ve been frustrated many times after constructing an elaborate personal history of a character that gives great insight into their mind and actions, only to realize there’s no place to add it in. I explained why the villain did a lot of what he did… and I couldn’t fit it in! Having someone launch into a speech about their childhood traumas in the middle of a fight scene doesn’t really work. At the other end of the spectrum, minor clues and comments scattered throughout the text might be misinterpreted or glossed over entirely. I can’t write a prologue entitled The Life and Times of Every Important Character Including Important Defining Moments That Will Come Into Play Later.

This is easiest to get around in third person omniscient point of view. Then the narration can include offhand comments about so and so’s past. Otherwise, you’re pretty much stuck with soul-baring rants. If you can’t fit one of those in… you’re in trouble. Maybe you should rethink tying so many important plot points to the main character’s sixth birthday party….


Escaping the Hive May 30, 2012

Filed under: Writing — katblogger @ 11:38 AM
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A while back, I read an Onion article detailing alarming events occurring in Indiana. Every citizen had begun to work and speak in unison, declaring in a single voice, “We are Indiana. All will be Indiana.”

While the hive mind scenario works well for satirical journalism or science fiction movies, it’s not something you want creeping into your writing. Too often, I’ve read over my dialogue and realized that my characters sound exactly the same. Characters are created by the writer, after all. If we’re not careful, our personality will show through too much. Having a unique voice is one thing. But when your characters start declaring “We are the author. All is the author,” you need to give them voices of their own.

This is hard. Crafting a separate voice for each individual and making sure they stay true to it is long, exhausting, brain draining work. (I’m going through it right now and it sucks.) You’ll have to rewrite dialogue. Tweak personalities. Maybe even alter the flow of the story. If you do it right, though, it’s worth it. Your characters will sound like real, three-dimensional people, not words you’ve put down on paper.

In  the work of a true master of dialogue, you should be able to look at a line of speech and identify the speaker. Your goal in the quest to avoid the hive mind is to give each important character a unique way of speaking. This will differentiate him/her from the other characters and make him/her more memorable.

A good way to learn how to do this is to study other works. What makes characters sound like themselves? When you think of them, what phrases come to mind? After thinking about different characters and their dialogue styles, here are a few tricks I’ve picked out. Try including them in your own work to break up the hive mind and bring your characters to life.

1. Syntax

I’ve often had to deal with people who never stop talking. They’ll go on and on: repeating points, tossing in anecdotes, or overusing transitions. I’ll eventually interrupt or make my escape. I have also run into people who rarely speak. Dragging information out of them is a chore, and their answers are always brief and to the point.

The structure of characters’ speech can help define them. One might talk everyone elses’ ears off. Another remains strong and silent. A third fires off questions. Everyone’s sentence lengths vary, but different people lean in different directions. Exploit that.

Looking further into syntax, punctuation can be played with. One person might string details together with commas or jump from idea to idea with hyphens. Another might have a fondness for lists or parenthetical asides. This can be overused, but if done sparingly it can help identify a character’s text.

2. Slang/Dialect/Jargon

Different people have different vocabularies. Their careers, backgrounds, and interests can shape the words they use in conversations. Mark Twain manipulates dialect masterfully in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to give characters authentic flair. In the Beka Cooper series by Tamora Pierce, Beka’s mix of street cant and guardsman jargon speaks to her complicated background. A british character speaking in a slightly different form of English or a foreigner who throws in the occasional bilingual phrase can spice up a monotonous conversation. However, if you’re going to borrow vocabulary from a real group of people or a real language, do your research and make sure you get it right. Don’t rely on Google translate, or actual speakers will be shaking their heads. Finally, don’t use gratuitous ‘unusual’ vocabulary to look clever. Only have characters use it when it makes sense in context and make sure the reader will understand.

3. Word Choice

Less specific than dialect, this focuses on how people say everyday things. Are they formal or casual? Knowing if a person says ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ is a way to get started. ‘Would you like to go to a party with us?’ and ‘You game for a bash?’ clearly come from two very different personalities. Maybe one character uses old-fashioned expressions or clichés. Perhaps another has a catch phrase like “Excellent” or “sweetheart”. (Would Haymitch from The Hunger Games sound the same without his patronizing use of the term?) Identifying the character’s style of speech and a few key words can be really helpful.

4. Figurative Language

This one’s tricky.  I’ve seen people horribly overdo flowery language and purple prose in an effort to make the protagonist sound smart or romantic. However, figurative or playful language in small doses – and used correctly – can give a character depth. It can also be used for comedic effect if a person always comes up with terrible or simply ridiculous phrases. (Karkat’s creative insults from Homestuck are examples of the comedy angle.)

5. Personality

When assigning syntax, word choices, expressions, and anything else, make sure that the dialogue fits. Shy, insecure characters would be more likely to tack on an apologetic “that’s only my opinion”. Confident people intent on getting their way won’t make many requests. They’ll make demands. Link your characters’ personalities with their dialogue and you’re well on your way to breaking free from the hive mind’s nefarious clutches.


Fun With Characters March 12, 2012

Filed under: Books,Writing — katblogger @ 8:43 PM
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I have this thing about selfless characters.

You know the ones. The holier than thou, too good for this sinful earth kind of guys. You can tell them, “Hey, I’ve signed you up for this extremely high pressure quest that’ll probably kill you and definitely involve some maiming” and they’ll just ask, “When do I start?” They never seemed concerned with their own well-being, righteously striving for the greater good.

I read/watch these characters and call bs. I’m sure there are gloriously selfless people out there. But most humans are selfish creatures at least part of the time. We’re programmed to look out for ourselves, and it’s perfectly ok not to have suicidal grandiose impulses. For example, if I was about to turn into a vessel for some monster creature, I’d probably at least pause and consider the pros and cons before chucking myself into a volcano. But I digress.

The point is, characters are supposed to be real people. Relatable people. And that’s why most of my characters start out looking out for number one. Some of them are pretty much normal, while others are shockingly self-centered. It takes them a lot of time before they start doing things for other people, and I feel that it’s more realistic that way.

For example, a supporting MC in my newest project (tentatively titled Starborn after three changes – I seem to have a thing for S’s) starts out as a total jerk. The novel serves as a bit of a private joke about typical fantasy clichés, and I did my best to flip around a lot of the things you’d expect. This character is a subversion of the typical noble knight/warrior who lives by a code of honor and whatever whatever. Instead, he’s a thief buried waist deep in the criminal underground who isn’t averse to bending a few rules – or breaking them. He spends a good chunk of the book lying to and manipulating the main character (who’s supposed to be his best friend). Nice. Interestingly enough, he has his reasons – ones that seem ironically noble on the surface but are really motivated by self-preservation. When he finally straightens out (or becomes marginally less crooked, at least), it’s after a lot of time and development. People don’t change right away, even if they seem to. (Yep. He’s going to be a lot of fun to write.)

Maybe other people like the heroic archetype, and I’m just a curmudgeon with jade colored glasses. Either way, you’re unlikely to find any perfect self-sacrificing hero types around me. Just a lot of complaining, selfish real people who finally get up the guts to do what they have to do before it’s too late. Having that development and making that decision to completely change their character, to me, makes them even more heroic.