Conjuring Up Characters

Buckle up, folks. This post got a little long on me!

But a fellow student at How to Think Sideways had a question about how writers might understand their characters better, and as I explored my answer, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I was searching for a way to explain how my characters turned from nothing more than thought experiments into the companions, conspirators, and co-pilots of my novel-writing adventures.

Is there some sorcery involving a playlist, a handful of feathers, and a thousand words written under the light of the full moon that brings them to life? 

Probably not.

However, I think a part of me believes there’s sorcery involved. I call that part the Muse, and therein lies the key. My logical, rational self insists that I can’t possibly know what it is really like to be someone else, whether it’s a man or a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. (And I will leave it to my gentle readers to speculate upon the similarities between these two species!)

Unless we develop the means to read minds, I am stuck inside this head of mine forever. One brain, one human experience, one shot at this life.

I can hear the Muse already: “Boring!!”

(And, “What? I’m going to DIE?!)

In order to tap the well of experience, whether it’s my own forgotten memories, or some kind of conduit to a common human (or, heck, sentient) experience, the logical self, limited by my own perceptions, needs to let go of what is real, and allow me to believe these constructs actually exist. For them to be real, I can’t force the story on them. They must tell me the story, and I need to suspend my disbelief, on some level, for that to happen.

All of my writing exercises are predicated on that premise. Especially in the beginning stages, characters are fragile as soap bubbles to me. If I try to look too closely I will shatter the illusion and they might start to do things that don’t make sense.

Hauling them in for questioning under an unflattering fluorescent bulb is unlikely to uncover much that is interesting. How would you react if some stranger walked up to you and asked what is missing in your life?                  

You’d probably say, “Whoa—do I know you?”

I suppose I could search through my character’s imaginary rap sheet, and look up where she was born, where she lives and what kind of grades she got in school. But I have a better idea.

After all, I’m a writer. I have wings!

In free write mode, I can watch my characters from afar. A few hundred words a day will do it. I like to do this in my morning words which comes to 750 words, but the most important thing to me is that there’s no pressure. I just let the Muse ‘tell’ me what’s going on with this person. What does she do when no one is watching? What makes this character worth writing? Who are the people she cares about?

If I’m starting with an artifact or a world I ask, “Who would be worthy of such an artifact? Who would bestow it upon him?” Or: “Who is the most interesting person in this world? Why is he important?”

I note down basic things. Is he neat and orderly? Well-dressed? Slovenly? Boisterous? Withdrawn?  Timid? Arrogant? Does she smile a lot? Is she graceful? Awkward? Forthcoming?

Whether I’m starting with my gifted but world-weary guitarist, my cynical warrior, a disenchanted dragon-builder, or the flower child’s ghost, all of them have a story to show me if I just let the Muse out of his cage to lead me to it.

After a while, when I have an idea of where the character likes to hang out, I put on my reporter hat and pay them an imaginary visit, in free writing mode again. I’ll catch up with them in the woods, in a noisy bar, a parking lot, or a coffee shop, but usually it’s somewhere ‘public’. Again, it keeps up the illusion that I’m dealing with a real person, since in real life I wouldn’t meet someone in a private place like a bedroom or their home if I hardly knew them. At least, not at first!

At this stage yes/no questions work just fine for me. Even something easy like: “Are you cold?” works. Sounds simple, right? But if I get inside someone’s head, by asking, “Why?” I can find all kinds of interesting stuff that leads up to my character’s answer.

For instance, if you were in my head today, you’d know that I shivered all day at work. But if you went deeper, you’d find more. I was cold because my boss likes to crank down the air conditioning, since he thinks it will make the employees more productive, and I don’t turn the thermostat up because the more things I ask him for the less likely it will be that I get a raise.

That’s a lot of stuff going on my head for a simple question. I’ll bet a character can give a long answer like that too.

Your character might be cold because it’s dawn and all he’s had to sleep under last night is a thin blanket. He gave the thick blanket to his little sister, in exchange for an extra potato in his soup.

Or take my marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being. Absolute zero is really cold, and if only it could find a way to gather enough supernovas, it could build a cozy nebula and finally settle down and start a family!

If I let the Muse field these kinds of questions, suddenly I get all kinds of interesting answers—like what is missing in my character’s lives. Before I know it, I’m dealing with another story that cries out to be written.

How about you? Where do your characters come from? What kind of questions reveal the deepest recesses of your character’s psyche?

And, have you ever encountered a man you nearly mistook for a marauding multi-tentacled supernova-eating sentient space being?

Related posts:

Black Hair, Grey Eyes

Character Interview: Rigel Mondryan

Not Nicholas

Look!!!

There’s a new meme in town, and its name is ‘Look!!!’

(And it comes armed and loaded with no less than three exclamation points to make sure you do, indeed, ‘Look’!!!)

Last week, the talented and soon to be published Jamie Ayres tagged me and my humble blog with this meme, and fortunately for me, the rules are quite simple, straightforward, and involve posting an excerpt of my WIP—always a challenge for me! According to the game, I am to chase down the  first occurrence of this ubiquitous ‘Where’s Waldo?’ of vocabulary words–‘look’–in my manuscript, and post the surrounding paragraphs. Then I get to tag as many other writers as possible. So, ‘look’ out, I’ve got my tagger loaded, and I’m ready to use it!

Okay, I’m going in. Wish me luck! Here’s what I came up with:

(Aw, shoot, the third word in is ‘looked.’ I hate my beginning and I don’t know how to fix it!  If you really must see it, it’s posted here. Mulligan please?) Second try:

Nick looked up, shaken from his reverie, his last chord disintegrating from a D minor seventh into a major mess. “Huh? Sorry, man. What song?”

Stuart shuffled over to the wingback chair and twisted the cap off a bottle of vitamin water. He held it in front of his lips. “‘Thirteen Steps;’ the one I just wrote?”

“Yeah, sure, just gimme a minute,” Nick said. Ever since Stuart had gotten sober, his friend’s ambitions had surprised even Nick.

“I gave you a minute, man. It’s been half an hour.”

“I lost track of time. It happens, alright?”

Stuart grinned. “I can’t stay here all afternoon. I got a date, remember?”

Okay, that was fun!

Now it’s time to spread the love. There are quite a few manuscripts I’ve been itching to take a peek at (or ‘look’ at if you must …), and now I have my chance! Here are my nominees:

Kristina Stanley

Armchairauthor at Ink

Rabia Gale

Nancy H. Doyle

Anushka Dhanapala

Thanks for the tag, Jamie! 

How about you? Want to show me the first occurrence of the word ‘look’ in your manuscript? Any ideas how to fix a clumsy opening paragraph?

Getting My Bearings

I love maps. Whether nestled inside the cover of a fantasy tome, or tucked into the glove compart- ment of my car, a paper map still gives me a better sense of where I am and where I am going than any GPS ever will. I like to see the big picture, and I like to dream about places on the map I haven’t seen yet.

Today, I decided to do the same with my writing goals. I made a mind map, starting in the middle of the page with my dream of publishing and then just listed everything I could think of that would contribute to that goal.

And I used colored markers to make it pretty to look at.

That’s a lot of stuff! And I’m sure I will be adding more as I progress.

What I’ve decided to do, as a way to set goals and check them off, is to highlight one facet of this map every week. Once I’ve completed the smallish goal, I get to check it off.

This week’s goal, in addition to my ongoing work on the revision, comes from the critique section of the map, where I’ve decided to finish editing chapter two of  ‘The Tempest’s Serenade’ and post the revised version at Critique Circle.

Speaking of revision. I edited three pages yesterday and three more today, to finish revising scene forty (of sixty-nine scenes.) I know, that’s not a lot, but I’m hoping the little steps add up in the end. I am determined to make some headway this weekend!

So, that’s what is on my scenic route. What is on your writing map? Any tips to help me keep my bearings?

The Pictures In My Head

Why do I write? Really?

In the beginning, before I ever thought I’d even finish a book draft, I wrote for the pictures the words made in my head. Here’s one that found me only yesterday:

The Muse lies on his back with his raven-feathered wings spread out to both sides over the moonlit grass. He plays his guitar, its black metallic finish reflecting the starry sky, as he watches the galaxies spin in the firmament above us. I listen and I write, translating his thoughts, his wry observations and his whimsy into words.

Sometimes, when the clouds roll in and lightning splits the sky, he stands behind me, holds his hands against my face, and makes me look when I’d rather look away—when I don’t want to feel anymore. When I’d rather sleep, or drink, or run away to kill the pain, he says,

“Look, listen, weep if you must, but live. You only have one shot at this life. Make it count—for me—because though I’m imaginary, I am the only part of you that has a chance to live forever.”

*Sniff*

“Can I stop now?” I ask him.

“You may. But, please, for me, soon, words? In a dark room, just you and I?”

“For you, Muse, anything.”

What kind of pictures have your words sent you? Does your Muse chase you into dark rooms?

In a programming note:

I’m excited to announce that I will be posting more regularly here, as I am winding down my other blog. ‘Write A Book With Me’ has moved back to its founder, Holly Lisle, and I’ve decided one blog is plenty for me! Stay tuned for shorter posts two to three times a week (this is the scenic route, remember? So no hustle!), commenting on my progress or lack thereof, alternating with miscellaneous literary observations fitting into my theme of ‘Postcards from my Journey into Noveldom.’

And what is this ‘Noveldom’ I speak of and that annoys the heck out of spell check?

My noveldom is a place where anything can happen. People can travel faster than the speed of light. Science can discover cures for horrid diseases. My noveldom is populated by birds and music and warm starry nights on beaches where sand sinks between your toes. Here, in my world, good can triumph over evil. Love can last forever.

Let’s explore it together, shall we? What lies in your noveldom?

Does the World Really Need My Book?

Hello Insecure Writers!

I’m back with more rants about my latest writing demons, thanks to Alex J. Cavanaugh who hosts the coolest blog hop around, known as the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. If you want to participate, just click on this here linky, and hook up with some of the nicest writers on the web.

I wasn’t sure if I should even post this, lest my Internet profile become permanently tarnished by this blasphemy, forever ruining any chance I might have of a successful writing career. But I’m a writer. I ask questions that others are afraid to ask. What better time than now, while my anonymous blog is nothing more than fly spit on the face of the world-wide web, to reveal the anathema that rattles around in my insecure writer’s conscience?

What if I decide not to pursue publication?

I can hear your incredulous shouts already.

What?!

(And you in the corner, rubbing your hands together with glee as you cackle, “More readers for me,” should probably rethink your IWSG status.)

Isn’t publication the dream of every lonely scrivener, who crawls out of bed at the crack of dawn to type a few hundred words before dragging himself to a day job of drudgery hoping to scrape enough money together for another ink cartridge and a month of internet access? Isn’t that the sole reason we write stories—so that someone else can read them, and validate, that, yes, life is a tough gig, and yes, love redeems us all?

Won’t getting my book out on Amazon free me from the bondage of my day job, so that I can write all day and all night, until my fingers are raw?

No?

Then, why publish?

For the sake of argument, and to keep my Internet reputation from being permanently relegated to SEO purgatory, let’s consider this a thought experiment.

What do writers really gain from publishing?

As most writers do, I like to daydream, and sometimes wonder what it might be like to be a New York Times bestselling author. Among the numerous perks I imagine would be bequeathed upon me are a big paycheck allowing quittage of the aforementioned day job, book signings with my adoring fans, speaking engagements, late night parties teeming with luminaries from the movie industry accompanied by the requisite long-legged blonde-coiffed ladies.

I admit, aside from chance encounters with not so adoring fans, and the sweaty palms involved with meeting large crowds of well-wishers, it sounds like a pretty sweet gig, all of it ripe with interesting story material. But about that: When do these people get time to write in between all the commotion?

Granted, dispensing with the aforementioned day job will help with that, but just imagine the pressure there must be, to write something equally amazing–and marketable–as the last novel!

I’m a happily married suburban housewife who only wants to write lots of novels. The big paycheck would be great, naturally, but I could buy a lottery ticket and my odds of hitting the financial jackpot might be better.

Perhaps, I can daydream some more and imagine a different scenario? Maybe writing a moderately successful novel series would be my cup of tea. I’d write characters and stories I enjoy, at a pace that allows me a good night’s sleep once in a while. I could keep in touch with my fans. Fend off attacks from haters. Track my sales numbers. Trek to my day job, because the sales aren’t high enough to pay the mortgage. Write the same series for the rest of my life, because my fans demand it and will track me down and strap me to my laptop to keep me writing it.

Okay, maybe that’s not for me either.

How about if, after a thorough professional editing, I were to put my books up on Smashwords and Amazon? In this case, no one will look at them unless I start building my brand, so it’s off to the Big Bad Internet I go. They say I need to build my platform, and the funny thing is, I’ve discovered this blogging thing is the cat’s pajamas! The more I write, and blog hop, and guest post, the more the world takes notice. I get to meet lots of people just like me, and some not like me, but all of them interesting.

The drawback? Posting and hopping and commenting are taking over my sacred writing time. The more I write about my cat’s latest antics, and how well my Christmas cookies turned out last year, the greater the assault on my novel’s word count. Does anybody really care about the heat wave in my back yard? Does it matter enough for me to sacrifice those few hours I have left after the day job to sell books, when I’d rather be writing them?

All I really want to do is write, and learn the craft of story telling. It’s ironic that much of the work involved with pursuing publication seems to take me further from that goal.

And, worst of all, as platform-building wisdom states, I need to be promoting my book before I’m even finished with it. Which brings me to the biggest reason publishing scares the bejeezus out of me.

It is a question all insecure writers can relate to.

What if my book isn’t any good?

I feel I’m too close to my work to answer that question, so last month I shared the first chapters with a few of the best writers I know. What they said surprised me.

They enjoyed my story! They loved my characters! They wanted to know what happens next!

I couldn’t believe how wonderful it felt to know that my story had made someone smile—and that it had made someone think.

The world needs to smile. And the world really needs to think.

Maybe publishing isn’t such a bad idea after all.

How about you, Insecure Writers? Have you always wanted to publish? Or are you like me, and apprehensive about publication?