Tag: How-To (page 1 of 7)

Character Creation

Courtesy Mythic Entertainment
Sometimes, I miss Warhammer Online.

This morning I read a rather brief guide on Writing Believable Characters from the Young Adult Fantasy Guide. It’s a great overview of what to do right and what to avoid when putting your characters together. I highly recommend you go give it a read if you’re thinking of starting up a new creative project any time soon.

When you think about it, creating characters for a story isn’t really all that different from going through the character creation process in a current generation video game, provided you got the game from BioWare or an MMO studio and they allow such things. Good luck trying to customize Nathan Drake from Uncharted or Issac Clarke from Dead Space. You’re stuck with them as they are, for good or for ill.

Instead of tweaking the character’s race, class and talent build, however, you’re going to be tweaking their background, outlook and personality. Granted, you can do this is MMOs as well, provided such things are supported in the game either with mechanics or community & developer support. Some studios can’t or won’t support such things directly, but that’s a subject for a different discussion.

Background

Your characters came from somewhere. And I don’t just mean the deep recesses of your brain. Unless they’re vat-grown genetically-engineered super-soldiers, they had a family. Parents. Maybe some siblings. Perhaps a childhood bully. How about a high school sweetheart? Who did they admire growing up? Who did they despise? What was their first kiss like? Their first heartbreak?

These are things you can talk to any person on the planet and get a different result. What would the answers be if you asked your characters? Think about it. They got to where they are at the start of your story by coming from the places that’ll come to light when you answer these questions.

Oh, and if they are a vat-grown genetically-engineered super-soldier, how do they feel about it? Are they jealous of people with families? Do they feel they live in a world of cardboard due to their super-strength or whatnot? Do they understand things like emotions, prejudice, philanthropy and zealotry? How are they programmed? Do they want to break that programming? And if they weren’t grown in a lab, do they remember their family? If not, will they remember them later? What happens when they find out about the past they used to have, if they don’t remember it at the beginning of the story?

I should mention that you should be doing this as soon as possible in the creative process. If you go back and fill in a character’s background later, it might make something of a mess.

Outlook

Tied into background is how a character sees the world around them. Like the questions asked of our SPARTAN super-soldier, it’s the sort of thing you can discern from people around you. Who’s in favor of the current state of things in the world? Who wants to see change? Who’s in it for the money? What motivates people, and by extension, your character?

Altruism can surprise people when it emerges. And some people get shocked when they look back on an event and realize how selfish they were. It’s natural for people to veer one way or another from their baseline behavior, but first they need to have a baseline. And the reason it’s called a baseline is that it’s consistent. It will change over time, since static characters are boring, but this is a gradual change, and sudden shifts away from it should not only shock the reader, it should also shock either the character or the people around them. If not both.

Personality

Note that outlook and personality are two different things. The way one sees the world is not necessarily how one interacts with it. People who are just in it for the money have to at least put on a facade of tolerance and goodwill from time to time in order to further their goals. The difference between one’s outlook and their personality can be a matter of inches or of miles. It depends on the character.

Sometimes these can move closer together, as the hard-bitten out-for-themselves mercenary starts to care about the people she’s thrown in with, or the kindly priest becomes gradually disillusioned with the church and, by extension, the people he’s been nice to for years. These are exciting, interesting changes that can and should be chronicled. It can make a story with very little action, suspense, gore or sex jump off the page and make room for itself in the reader’s imagination. Which is what writing fiction’s all about, right?

How do you distinguish your characters? How will you do so in the future?

PT: Unplug, Dammit

Gunnery Sgt. Hartmann

I know SEPTA’s got issues. A little inclement weather throws entire train lines out of whack. Engineers desperate to keep on schedule will leave the platform a minute early. Buses plow into eateries. No system is perfect. But I relish my train rides. I don’t pollute, I don’t get bent out of shape over traffic and the jerkasses that come with it, and most importantly of all, I’m unplugged.

I take no laptop, no netbook, no glitzy overpriced unmodifiable gizmo with a lowercase “i” in front of its name. …Okay, I have an iShuffle, an old one in fact, but pipe down I’m making a point. The point is, I have a binder with fiction work in it, be it my manuscript or blank pages to fill with a shorter work, and I take my pen to it. I scribble out thoughts. I frame dialog and action in ball-point gel ink. I write.

Writers have a lot of tools at their disposal to make their lives easier. Dictionaries, thesauruses (thesauri?) and other reference materials fit on thumb drives. Word processing software saves trees in both the writing and editorial process. E-mail lets submissions get fired off to agents and periodicals in a snap. And if you need to research something obscure or find out what’s hot in your genre right now? The Internet is for that. And porn.

But these can also make a writer lazy. A crashing computer can be frustrating as hell and lose you hours of work. The Internet can distract you in various ways. An e-mail from someone to whom you submitted your work that says what you sent just isn’t good enough can be discouraging.

So turn ’em off.

There are times when typing out the words I want to express feels a bit like a disconnect between myself and the work. Like the electronics are getting in the way. Being a child of the electronic age and having grown up around this stuff – I’m still my parents’ go-to guy for tech support – it’s more of a niggling little annoyance than a real issue. However, the feeling still exists. There’s also the fact that my notes, snippets, edits and letters are not going to be obliterated by something as mundane as a power surge or a missed click.

When the zombie apocalypse happens, provided rampant fires don’t destroy everything, I’ll still have my notes. And hopefully some ammunition. I might hold on to my thumb drive full of manuscripts, short stories and ideas, but where am I going to plug it in? How is a computer going to get power? And why didn’t you barricade the door more effectively? I’m in the middle of a love scene here, I can’t stop to grab my shotgun and keep that zombie from helping itself to a mouthful of your brain! YOU BROUGHT THIS ON YOURSELF!

…Where was I? Right. Writing.

If you find yourself running out of time during the day for a variety of reasons – you saw a great tweet, you’ve been playing a game, you’re spending an hour every day in your sweltering car screaming obscenities at some douchebag in an Audi who’s yammering into their Bluetooth headset about the killing they’re making in the stock market – find ways to unplug. Disconnect yourself from the grid. Take up a pen or pencil, grab some wood pulp in sheet form, and get to scribbling.

If you have more suggestions on how & where to do this, or if you have experiences in this vein you’d like to share, go right ahead and share ’em. That’s why you’re here, after all.

Unless you were brought here by searching for ‘inception ariadne’ or ‘troll female.’

Which brings up a whole lot of interesting thoughts when you combine those two search strings.

The Elements of Style

Courtesy Strunk & White

I only own one copy of The Elements of Style. Some own quite a few. My copy is about as old as I am, the Third Edition published in 1979. I took it with me this morning instead of my manuscript, just to brush up on writing well as opposed to just writing a good yarn. I was reminded why I should make it a point to read this book as often as possible.

The Elements of Style for writers is what Musashi’s Book of Five Rings is for martial artists, what Sun-Tzu’s Art of War is for strategists. It is taut, direct writing on the subject of writing. It doesn’t over-complicate and remains on point, and it’s conciseness means the book is small enough to carry just about anywhere.

This also means there’s a bit of self-reflection at work. The book, which discusses good writing in terms of brevity, grammatical correctness and active voice, is written so that the work is brief, grammatically correct, and active. You don’t just read the book to learn about good writing, you read it because it is good writing.

That’s been my experience with The Elements of Style, at least. What are some of yours? How many copies do you own? Is this the first you’ve heard of it?

The Home Stretch

Courtesy Corner Balance

Maybe it’s just me, as I amble towards the end of my current project, doing my utmost to follow my own tenth rule of writing fiction. There’s something that I’ve noticed over the past week. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting into ‘conference’ mode, or maybe this is a side effect of continuing to get everything squared away with the new flat.

The impression I get, however, is that the sooner we get to that finish line, the more things crop up to grab us by the ankles and trip us up before we cross it. Like hitting the wall only with the goal in site.

I mentioned this last week but I might have given the impression that I see a large portion of the entertainment industry through a somewhat cynical lens. I occasionally have to remind myself that the same industry that produces The Human Centipede or Jumper also produces Schindler’s List and District 9. For every Twilight, there’s A Song of Ice and Fire. You might hear a bit of Nickleback on the radio, but there’s bound to be a little Muse right around the corner. I guess what I’m driving at is that I don’t hate the industry, and it’s unfair of me to paint it with a broad brush.

But there is mediocrity out there. There’s the kind of thinking that would have you subscribe to the notion that it’s okay just to get by. That being amazing is just wrapping up another client’s project, and exemplary work is the kind that brings in more business that’ll help maintain the Audi’s suspension for another six months. That’s the kind of thing I want to get away from. And as I get a bit closer to finishing a manuscript that feels like it’s got something behind it other than my hot air and swollen ego, a bit of fiction with a brain in its head and some characters that actually have a touch of depth to them, I can almost feel that mediocrity creeping up on me, trying to smother my enthusiasm and remind me that my place is not to shine among the stars but to look up at them and dream as I remain mired in the mud down in the foundations of somebody else’s palace.

It’s like spraining a toe in the last 5 meters of a 100 meter dash. Taking the last turn a bit too wide on a Formula 1 track. Being down at least one goal as the clock hits 90 minutes and there’s not a lot of stoppage time. The well-educated, reasonable, lazy, McDonalds-eating thing to do is stop. Quit. You’ve done a great deal, but now you’re just hurting yourself and you should be content in making a good effort. Pat yourself on the back, treat yourself to a rest, you’ve earned it.

Am I just beating a dead horse, here? Am I saying anything new? I’m not just talking about this post, either. What possible difference can my work make? Do I really have a shot at producing anything interesting, anything worth reading?

I’m certainly not going to find out if I quit.

This is the home stretch. The checkered flag is in sight. A few more steps, painful as they might be, and I’ll cross that finish line. And yes, my performance will get picked apart in post. There’ll be slow-motion replay of every little mistake. People with a lot more experience than me will be all too happy to point out what I could do better, what they’d have done differently and might even tell me that I should have quit long ago.

I know this is coming. I know it might not be comfortable for me, that it will feel like I’ve just caught my breath only to have somebody punch me in the gut. But I accept this. I have to. I need to be aware of the fact that what I’ve done is imperfect, that it needs help, that it’s a lump of carbon deep in the darkness of my imagination and to truly shine it needs to be placed under pressure from a lot of outside forces. It’s frightening, on a fundamental level, and potentially painful, which might be why the last couple of days have seen me putting very few words of any significance down.

I’m girding my loins. I’m seeing the Wave coming and I’m ready to catch it. I hope some of you will come along for the ride, even if it’s just to tell me how much I suck.

I’m not quitting. I’m pounding out those last 5 meters. I’m making that last turn. I’m staying ahead of the defenders and waiting to get that pass that’ll let me slip one past the keeper. And for right now, I’m done making lousy metaphors.

It would be a hell of a waste of a writer’s conference if I didn’t do any writing, after all.

Diving Right In

Jumping Ship, or Diving In

I’d really like to say, “This is a subject that requires no introduction.” It’d be a funny way to open up the subject of exposition, since a lot of stories start out with something expository. Especially in genre fiction, more often than not, the world or worlds in which the tale is set will be completely alien to the audience. While this isn’t always the case, it happens often enough that the ins and outs of good exposition are worth talking about.

There’s a method of storytelling out there called in medias res. It’s fancy Latin jargon for “diving right into the good stuff in the story.” Stories that begin this way spend little to no time on exposition. Sometimes this can be pulled off even in genre fiction. Take a look at the opening of the original Star Wars. We get a little text crawl that sets the scene a bit, telling us who the Empire & Rebellion are but not a great deal else, and then WHAMMO. The space equivelant of a beat-up cargo van is getting chased by the mighty, imposing, ball-shrinkingly intimidating hugeness of an Imperial Star Destroyer. The shot and scene are composed in such a way that, without saying another word beyond that opening text, we know just about everything we need to know about who these folks are and what they’re about.

This is an example of good exposition. As Chuck said over on Terribleminds, “[E]xposition is sometimes necessary, but it should never be a boat anchor.” Going on expository tangents is a surefire way to have people losing interest in your story. If you’re lucky, they’ll turn a few pages ahead to look for something exciting to happen, or hit the fast-forward button if it’s in a medium other than print. The classic writers of genre fiction, Tolkein and Lewis for example, could get away with long expository passages because that was the style of the day. However, even as a fan of their work, sometimes I just can’t stand reading another of JRR’s long descriptions of how Tom Bombadil’s hat looks.

Some of the best exposition out there is woven into other things that are going on. Sometimes the best way to do this is to have one character talk to another about something they don’t already know. For example you could have an human explain to an alien some odd human custom that’s become common in whatever year 20XX you’ve set your story. Then, the alien replies that the custom is strange to them because of how things are done on their homeworld. In a few lines of dialog, you’ve not only established a way in which the world has changed, but also how different the aliens are from us.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” or so we’re told. Or, as Mr. Plinkett puts it, “Don’t waste my time.” If you can find a way to get exposition out there that doesn’t feel like a chore to write, you can tell your audience more about the story without tempting them to reach for their smart phones or what have you. Because if it’s dry and boring to write, you can bet your ass it’ll be dry and boring to read.

Share some thoughts on exposition. What sort of expository passages or scenes stand out in your mind as good or bad examples? How do you get around the difficulty of creating stories in a new world? Help others help you help us all.

Or something like that.

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