Friday, September 30, 2016

The six parts of character development

I’m on several writer’s forums, and so I know a lot of beginning writers. I know writers who haven’t finished a novel, and writer’s who’ve finished a dozen. On each of these forums, there’s a subforum/board for “character development” topics. For people who are stuck in their character development, who can’t decide on certain aspects of their characters or just want help or ideas. There’s places for “character lounges” (as they’re called) where writers act like they’re playing some sort of RPG, where they are their character in a given situation and they use those to see how their character reacts in certain situations.

Myself, I’ve never found those things helpful. The answers people offer in development topics are ones that I could come up with just as easily with five minutes of thought (I’m not suggesting that people who use those kinds of topics are lazy thinkers, it’s just a thing). Whatever is gained by me in lounges is lost in the time I spent doing that, rather than writing.
I’m not saying those things are wrong, not by any means. If those are helpful to other people, good on them. They can knock themselves out.

However, I’ve noticed a few common ideas that are created in these topics that I’d like to refute in this post, as well as suggest the six basic areas of character development, and their relative importance.

The Kiddy Pool

[As a disclaimer, I came up with one pool-related heading that worked well and so had to spend way longer than I meant to coming up with similar headings for the rest.]
What is the first thing you do when you develop a character? You probably come up with their name, right? If not that, then their appearance. How tall they are, their eye color, the length of their hair and the size of their hands. If you’re one of those “criminal record” style writers, then you give their height in exact inches along with their weight, exact age, gender, full name, and so forth. If you’re a pinterest junkie, then you have a board dedicated to pictures of each character in your story, and so you know exactly which celebrities and which stock photo people your character looks like.

Now, if this was all the development you did, would that character be real? Could you write them in such a way that your reader feels connected to this person?
You could try, but the answer is no.
Even if you tried, you’d end up subconsciously developing more than those things. Why? Because appearance and physical facts are frivolous details. They’re a bunch of adjectives that point to your character. In computer programming, there’s this idea of “referencing”. It’s when one part of your code points to another part. The referencing piece of code is nothing by itself. If you take away what it references, it becomes meaningless and void and will return all sorts of errors. So it is with outer appearance of your character. These things are modifiers. They’re references. If you change one, your character won’t have to change their entire being to accommodate for it.

These pieces of development are important, in some ways. You do need to be able to describe your character. Your reader does need to know what they look like. But this aspect is just like the kiddy pool. It’s necessary, so the little kids can splash around without needing someone to hold them above water, but that’s where its true usefulness ends. The big kids hate the kiddy pool. If they try to use it, all the water sloshes out and you’re left with disgruntled kids scrunched into a pool half their size.
You need something bigger. You need the real pool.

The Shallows

Well, we’ve arrived. It’s the big pool, with the three-foot end and the twelve-foot end. It’s big enough that the big kids won’t splash all the water out and they can bring their friends if they want.
In character development, the shallow end is the next part of character development everyone does. I do it, too. Actually, I do all of these but that’s beside the point.
Anyway, the next thing in development is what most writers call the character’s “personality”, even though that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
I like to call it the outer personality: it’s the pieces of the character that reader and the other characters see. It’s the bit that comes out in the dialogue and seeps into the narrative style. It’s that list of basic human attributes that are assigned to this character: humor, a quicksilver temper, a formal stiffness or a casual calmness. Characters are easily frightened or very stoic, they’re loud or quiet, quick witted or slow, lazy or energetic, and the list goes on.
These things are more important that physical appearance for one simple reason: they’re present through the whole manuscript. You’ll describe each character twice, maybe three times in the whole novel. But their “personality”? That will come out through the whole book, through every word they speak and every thought they inject into the narrative.
If you change these things, your character will change a little bit. You’ll have to rewrite passages of sarcastic ranting to accommodate to the change to being a quiet person. But that’s about it. Your character won’t drastically change their identity and being.

The Diving Board

Before we actually jump in, let’s consider what we’re jumping off of. The good pools have diving boards, and the higher the better. It hangs over the deep end and a lot of people chicken out after five minutes of standing there shaking.
In character development, the third area of development is similar to the diving board. Both of these aspects are better when they’re higher, more daunting, more impressive.
This area, of course, is the area of oddities. Collectively, I like to call these things the oddities because that’s what they are. They’re unique traits that your character actively brings to the table. Habits, quirks, slang, dialect, and thoughts on norms are all oddities. They’re actions (or active opinions) that come in a combination that only that character has.
These are powerful bits of information that make the character come alive. From their quirks (fidgety movements or nervous habits) to their slang and dialect (the way they speak what they speak) to their habits and thoughts (repetitive actions and ideas). These things don’t greatly affect the reader, but they bring out the reality that this is an individual. They aren’t just some filled-out form, they’re real.

The Deep End

We’re all big kids, here. The shallow end isn’t enough for us, we want to get in deep, where our feet don’t touch the bottom.
Here, where the bottom sits far beneath the ripples, you find the parts of character development that reach into the darkest parts of humanity and pull out the dredges. Secrets. Fears. Flaws. Motivations. In a way, the deep end is the reality that the shallow end pretends to replicate. It’s the real parts of the personality. It’s the parts of our personality that only the closest people get to see. Sometimes, not even then.
In a character, the deep end is comprised of all the secret and hidden things. Whether those are actual secrets they’re keeping, or if it’s their fears (both small and large) or their flaws or their brokenness. And it’s always their true motivation.
Without these things, your character is only a husk. You can write a story with a husk, you can even have good husks. Most side characters (especially those who only show up two or three times or less) are husks. They have a description, they have a basic personality, they’ve got a quirk (often called a character handle), but they don’t always have these things. It’s hard to go this deep without dipping into clichés, so we avoid it. It’s hard work.
But it is dreadfully, dreadfully important. These things are vital to the character. If they lose one of these things, it changes who they are, it changes all the aspects from before (well… maybe not their appearance, unless they dye their hair) and those to come. A changing motivation results in completely new action, a new fear results in new personality, new reactions.
Without these things, your character is only a husk.

The Hot Tub

Everyone likes the hot tub. Especially the little kids who wish they could go in, but the sign says 18+ only. It’s warm and the jets are funny and you’re close to people in there. This is where you hang with close friends, or even closer close friends. It’s where you can relax, be you.

In characters, the hot tub is where everything connects. It’s the symbol of relationships. I’m not just talking about the character’s family and significant other, when I talk about relationships, I mean the ways in which the character relates to other peoples, places, and things. It’s the way your character acts in situations with people or things.
When you develop this, you have to ask yourself “how does my character relate to [this thing]?” It can be hard, because you’ll relate differently than your character. Your brain really has to think, or else be lazy and come up with lame answers.
The thing is… relations are important. Without them, your character has no contact with the world around them. They’re floating in a bubble of self-consciousness and nothing else. Relations are how they interact with the people and animals and buildings and political ideas and religion and best friends and strangers and pets and monsters and demons and lovers and fathers and daughters and tyrants and flowers and darkness and light and society and all those things they’ll ever come to see, know, and be with.
This is something you’ll often develop on the fly. It’s what comes out as you write. Rarely will you find a writer who’s successfully developed these relations before their first draft. That’s okay. It doesn’t matter when you develop it, it matters that you do develop it.

The Locker

Ew why am I bringing up this it isn’t even a pool thing.
Let’s be honest, though, the Locker is the most important part. It’s where you leave everything you don’t want to get wet. It’s where the bits and pieces of you get left behind.
In character development, that collection of clothing, wallet, cell phone, tennis shoes, fedora, towel, random quarters, lint from someone else’s pocket, and that one stain on the side of the locker that looks like blood although how it got there you can’t imagine represents the complexity of being.

People are more than their fears. They’re more than what they look like, than their quirks and their outward personality. They’re more than how they relate to the world around them, they’re more than all of that.
They’re bundles of complexity that no one can possibly hope to unravel.
People are paradoxes of love and hate and peace and turmoil, of black and white and gray and a thousand unnamed colors, of joy and discontent, of dreams and nightmares, fears and braveries. Each of the first five areas connect and intertwine in ways that we can’t possibly imagine.

I’m just gonna say this: you will never be able to fully-replicate the complexity of being. Never. It would take a lifetime to do, a lifetime that you don’t have to spend on creating a character that complex. After all, you’re too busy doing it for yourself.
What can we do?
All we can do is try. We can create moments of complexity, and let the rest hang on them. People are infinitely complex, at all times, but characters can’t be. There’s not enough time to perfect that. Instead, creating a few moments in each chapter, a moment in a scene, and let the rest of the character hang on those moments. Let them cling with all their strength, and you’ll have done it.
You created a character that is real.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Why I Hate Being a Critic

I am cynical. Very few ideas and stories can catch my attention and make me excited or enraptured. I’m so in love with story that I’ve grown picky about which stories I invest in. When I read stories by “amateur” writers, the new ones, I find myself thinking derisively simply because they make mistakes or have clichés in their stories that should be so blaringly obvious and somehow they miss them.

It’s a fault of mine, a fault I dislike to admit, but must.

I hate it.
Most of the time, I long for the days back when I didn’t care whether the story was unique or if the setting was well-described or if the characters were flesh and blood and carried through poignant arcs. Back in the days when a simple story could entertain me, when a plot I’d read a dozen times before never got old. Where I could read the same book seven times in a week and not get bored of it. Where the wonder was never lost on me.

Not anymore. Now I’m critical of everything and I dislike more than I like…
I didn’t intend to end up this way. So where did this come from, this lack of enjoyment?

The Source of Criticism

We all have our moments of cynicism. Those times where we look at something and our lip curls a little and we go “I don’t like it”. Sometimes, it’s from valid reasons: a movie is poorly made, or it’s filled with unnecessary gore and completely lacks a story. Other times, we just don’t like something. We prefer a different kind of music or we didn’t like that particular song because of its message or whatever it may be. Regardless of the quality, we don’t like it.

Each sort of criticism has its time and place. It’s okay to dislike a movie because it lacks a story (in fact, I wish that more people disliked them, so that they won’t be made anymore and we’d be left only with movies that have stories… it’d be a step up from what we have now). It’s okay to have music preferences.
Sometimes, however, it’s easy to forget that there are times and places to abandon our sense of “everything must be excellent” and realize that it’s okay for there to be things that are “so-so”. It’s okay for there to be “catchy songs” with a fun beat but lacking in ultra-deep lyrics.

It makes me wince to type that, because part of me refuses it.
I don’t want that to be true. I want there to be only good songs, with quality lyrics and well-written music and deep meanings, beautiful meanings. I want only movies that engage and amaze and rip the emotions out of you.

Criticism is an expression of a desire for excellence. It’s wanting everything to be good. But when the only thing you are is critical, you begin to lose sight of where excellence is. You lose sight of “potential”.
Early I noted that I read the work of “amateur” writers and smirk at them. Writers who are just starting, who’ve maybe written one “novel”, if that. It’s hard for me to say, because I don’t really mean to. I want to like their stories. I want to encourage them, to show them that I care and that I want them to succeed. I do. I mean… I’ve got a blog that’s basically directed toward helping them do what they do better.
I’m a critic. I’m here to say “I didn’t like this because ___”. The longer I stay in that “critic mode”, the harder it is for me to get out of it. Sometimes I’ll be stuck in it for days at a time, unable to ignore the errors and the wrongs and the imperfections in everything.
And I ignore potential. Potential is a powerful thing. It’s where excellence comes from, where the thing that critics desire most originates. Without potential, nothing would ever come of anything. As the song from Sound of Music goes, “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could.”

Leaving Criticism Behind

The hardest part of being a critic is knowing when to stop. When to stop pointing out problems and start pointing out strengths.
It’s not just in the realm of novels that this applies, or movies or music. It can bleed from the realm of art into the realm of life (because oftentimes they are one and the same). We criticism each other as much as we critique art and entertainment. We sum each other up and find others wanting. It’s a dangerous action, which can and often does result in pain. But we keep doing it.

It’s okay to be a critic. It’s okay. In fact, it’s fantastic to be a critic, to be able to look at something critically and realize “this isn’t art, this is meaningless”. To realize “there is no story here” or “I’ve seen this story told a dozen different times, and more originally than this”. Those are intellectual benefits that people need.
At the same time, however, criticism takes away our wonder. We abandon the potential of the things around us to chase after the excellence we’ll never find because we ignore its source.

Today, let’s practice putting down the cynicism and the criticism. Let’s look around with wonder, let’s consider the potential first, the weakness second. Today, find the wonder.

Friday, September 23, 2016

The “Sci” of Sci-fi

Last week, I talked about magic and fantasy and writing the two of those things well. The week before that, I spoke about my findings and observations about writing historical fiction. Great, right?
I love speculative fiction, which is probably very apparent.

It seems, however, that many of my posts are directed toward only one category of speculative fiction: fantasy. Many of my world blips are pointed toward fantasy world development, or toward dystopian or toward weird genres like steampunk.
I’m ignoring something, aren’t I?
Not on purpose, of course. I don’t intend to brush over this particular genre, give it one example or one reference and move on. It just so happens I’m not as experienced with this one genre over the other.

Tired of my playing the pronoun game? I mean, we all know which genre I’m talking about because the blog post literally says it in the title.
Fine, I’ll say it: I don’t blog much about science fiction.
Because I don’t write a lot of it. That’s the honest truth. I’ve written one or two pieces of writing (details in the recently renovated “In the Forge” page) that deal with futuristic fiction, but most of them aren’t that great. They need rewriting, mostly for the story than the genre.

Today, however, I’m going to put an end to my long dance around the subject. Today, I’m not going to talk about fantasy, as much as I love it. Instead, I’m going to talk about Science fiction.

Science… fiction.

Let’s do this.

What makes Science Fiction Science?

What’s the first thing you think of when you think of Science Fiction? The majority of the world will immediately think of Star Wars, or some story related to it. The universe of Star Wars stretches beyond their far-off galaxy to permeate our own with enough tropes to satisfy any light science fiction lover out there.

Some of us, however, will think back a bit farther than Star Wars. Back to Isaac Asimov, to H.G. Wells, to those distant hard science fiction writers who crafted stories that send shivers down our spines, that delight us with vision of the future.
From stories about aliens from mars, or humans going to mars or perhaps it’s time travel, or journeying to the center of the earth or even stories that never come close to our world. Science fiction delights us, because it shows us worlds that could be.
Humans are obsessed with the future. Even those of us who try to “live in the moment” can’t help but be caught up in the mad scramble to understand the future and what it holds. It’s not a bad thing, in some ways, because it results in some fantastic stories.

I tossed in two phrases in there somewhere that might have breezed right by you, without you even realizing what they were. Light science fiction and hard science fiction.
What in the many worlds of science fiction am I talking about?
To put it simply, soft science fiction is any sci-fi you could also label science fantasy. Of course, it’s more than that, but that’s good enough of a definition for this post. Now… what is science fantasy? It’s stories that mash together sci-fi and fantasy.
Take the example of Star Wars, since I’ve already used it. Where is the sci-fi element? You should probably whack me upside the head for having to ask, because we all know: in the spaceships, in the interplanetary travel, in the clones and the droids and so forth. In short, the technology. And where is the fantasy? Well, it’s mostly in the force, which is a sort of magic (and I’ve heard the arguments against it being a magic, but I haven’t heard any good arguments yet).

Hard science fiction, on the other hand, is thoroughly based on technology alone. Of course, one could claim that all technology can appear as magic, when advanced enough, but here’s where I like to draw the line: magic clearly defies physical laws that technology really couldn’t. In the case of the force, it’s similar to telekinetic/psychokinetic powers which are (as science appears to be telling us) impossible according to the laws of the physical world. There’s no technological/biological way that Darth Vader can choke someone from ten feet away or Darth Sidious could spew lightning from his fingers (and that midi-chlorian crap? Literally magic, folks.).
A good example of hard sci-fi is War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells which applies a fully technological idea (aliens invading via spaceship) and has very little to do with magic. We know spaceships are a thing, and they don’t break physics in what they’re doing. Even if the aliens are a little “out there”, we also know that it could be possible that there are other life forms out there. Scientists have found planets that could harbor life. Whether they do or not is irrelevant, because they could.
Other good examples include a majority of Isaac Asimov’s Foudation, Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds, Manifold: Time by Stephen Baxter, and many more.

There’s nothing that makes one or the other better, hard or soft. It’s personal preference. But there is a difference, and if you intend to write hard science fiction, you’ve got quite a few more barriers than almost any other genre.

Know the Subject

If you thought historical fiction required research…. Let me introduce you to its research grandparent, who makes it look easy.
See… historical fiction readers have a certain level of leeway they’ll give you. Take the musical Hamilton as an obvious example. Several historical facts are changed in order to make the emotion and conflict stronger. And people love it (including critics and people who hand out really important awards and so forth).

When it comes to hard sci-fi, however, you’ve got a leeway that’s a fraction of that which historical fiction has. Yes, you’re making things up, but you’re also targeting an audience that is far, far more knowledgeable in what is possible. Instead of just ignoring truths of the past, you’re breaking (purposely or not) laws of the present.
If your target audience is unforgiving, what’s the solution?
Lots and lots of research.
No, a little more research.
And just a little more…
There…. Well, actually a little more would be better. Hard sci-fi is read by people who enjoy it for the science behind it just as much as the story. We’re such geeks, aren’t we? The reason why so many authors of hard sci-fi have degrees in scientific fields (PhDs in astronomy or physics or some such thing, quite often) is because you really do have to know your stuff.

Man I sound depressing, don’t I? You don’t have to have a pair of doctorates to write sci-fi. Instead, you can go for something simpler…

Softly Science

Soft sci-fi, on the other hand, is much easy to prepare for. You need only two things: a basic understanding of science and an imagination. Thanks to schooling, most every single writer is equipped with the first and if you’re an author, you have to have the second, so.
Soft sci-fi can be anything, from Star Wars to the Divergent Trilogy (near-future sci-fi/dystopian), to the Hunger Games (dystopian sci-fi), to your average action flick that’s more explosions than story. It’s a story that contains technology that our world does not currently possess.
It can be technology that we might soon possess (movies like RoboCop or Chappie come to mind), or technology we probably never will (hyperspeed travel from Star Wars being an excellent example).

The key to writing science fiction? Even in all the science and the worldbuilding, never forget that the story is more important. Genre is just a setting. It’s an arbitrary boundary we place our story in. Nothing more, nothing less. It affects the setting and the story only to the amount that we let it.
If we let the genre overpower the emotion and the conflict of the story, we’ve missed the point of writing.

Let’s not miss the point.