Fixing Boring Fictional Characters By Looking Into Their Real Lives

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There’s always a lot of discussion about characters in writing, as should be. I mean, without the characters, your story is just a long narrative on scenery and background. But hey, sometimes even with characters, your story is just a long narrative on scenery and background. And that sucks.

But maybe your characters are just boring or too predictable throughout your work. Do you, as the writer, really know who you’re writing about? Are they shallow because you haven’t developed them enough throughout the story, or shallow because they indeed, are just that type of person? Do you have any idea about their upbringing, their values that they hold true, or their innermost beliefs? Do you know their favorite expression, hobby, favorite music, or most hated food?

I’ve found an interesting way to find answers to questions like these and likely others that you haven’t even thought about through a fun and simple writing exercise.

Drop those characters into situations that they would never encounter in your story or novel. Put them in scenarios that they would likely never encounter in their real lives. Yeah, I said it. The real lives of your fictional characters. Go ahead and take a minute to think about that one. Because there’s a lot of character development to be had when diving into the real lives of your fictional characters.

Are the characters from your story rural based? Take a few minutes to magically drop them into a Hollywood red carpet event and write down their personal thoughts and their conversations with others at the event. How do they react? What do they whisper to each other? How would they respond to the extravagance, and sometimes arrogance, of Hollywood life? How do they react to the reactions of others to them? You can bet that there will be some basic beliefs and values that come out in those thoughts, conversations and inner reflections from that event. And they’ll help you determine their actions and the reasons for those actions throughout the scenes in your story.

Maybe your characters are top of the line, successful detectives, complete with all of the latest tech gadgets, information processing, and social media skills that help them solve or even prevent crimes. What if these detectives were all of a sudden swept up and relocated to a time period without all of the current technology or sophisticated cellphones? What if these detectives, armed with all of these savvy skills, were dumped into a scenario where people didn’t have or know of such devices? What would those conversations be like? Would the detectives be deemed crazy? Would they have the patience to deal with problems in the old-fashioned way, using old-time detective work and personal interaction? Their acquired and innate personality traits will ultimately determine their actions and reactions, which will be the same traits that are the basis for their actions in your current work in process, both in their work situations and in encounters with others, positive or negative.

These traits, recorded from the unexpected, uncomfortable situations that you put them into are the true traits and beliefs of your characters. Traits that were either acquired along the way or taught to them long before they became a character in your manuscript. You brought them into the reader’s world to share a story about a particular time or event in their life, so it’s your responsibility to show the reader the character’s true personality, which hopefully evokes love, hate, or at least a rooted interest, positive or negative, from your readers.

Which is infinitely better than a reader putting your book down before finishing because of boredom.

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Hello New, Old Friend. I Think I’ve Missed You.

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Hello there old friend. Why, those are some attractive accessories you’re sporting these days, and may I say you’re looking sleek and confident. Have you lost weight? Indeed, it shows. Come, let’s sit, talk, and get reacquainted, shall we?

Ah, nothing like getting used to a new piece of equipment after your old one just decides to die, right in front of you, leaving you hurt, angry, speechless, and also wordless, which some clients don’t always like to hear. But it happens, and we must move on, learning yet another, newer, and supposedly better way of doing things, even though the old ways were perfectly fine, dammit!

Back from the depths of technology hell, where glitches are said to be caused by outdated operating systems, leading to operating system updates that lead to bigger glitches, system crashes, damaged hardware, and well, you can figure out the rest, I suppose.

But when new, out of the box equipment starts acting up, and technicians on the phone explain it away calling it yet another glitch, I start really, really hating the word glitch and move on to frequently using a new word, aggravation. So two days and two marathon phone conversations later, after that innocent little glitch renders a new laptop unusable, I returned the laptop to its rightful owner, the store where I purchased it, and came home with another, again all bright and shiny computer with again, promises of a beautiful relationship experience.

We are celebrating a couple of months together now, and while catching up with work, moving a website to a new server, drinking to ease the pain of moving a website to a new server, and the setting up of this machine to my liking, I can say that we’ve already been through a lot of aggravation, turmoil, but also some relatively good times and none of those pesky glitches. Still, as much as I need technology to do what I do, I sometimes hate this technology that I need to do what I do.

But, because the assumption is that opposites attract, I can only conclude that this machine and I are indeed made for each other, as things are now getting done on time, with little interruption.

And, I really do believe that I’m starting to see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Unless, well, you know.

 

Writing Fiction With A Nonfiction Brain

 

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Just The Facts Ma’am

It’s a learning process, that’s for sure.

I was trained to see and report the facts, and only the facts. News reporting, community happenings, and numerous city council meetings meant digging for, uncovering, and reporting only the facts, in succinct, short, quick to the point sentences and fragments. It was mandatory to clearly share point after point after point while fitting the necessary information into a specific number of column inches. It would become the way I saw and remembered everything.

But now, in creating fiction, I felt like that dog that carelessly gets adopted and confined to an apartment bathroom, only to be finally let out into the world to be in awe of everyone and everything around me.

World building, descriptions, fictional details all available to me to complement my story? Descriptive and creative license available at my every turn? Turns available at every twist? More twists at those turns?

“Whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” as I go screaming around the house.

What I’m trying to say, as you can gather by now, is that it’s a different set of skills to learn how to write in a fiction setting vs a nonfiction setting. And therein lies the constant struggle in my writing psyche. For so many years, and even continuing to this day, much of my writing is based on facts, research, and numbers. The creative part is me just trying not to bore you to tears while providing all the necessary information for the article or study. But whilst brandishing that fiction pencil, all options are on the table. That can be daunting, and certainly demands a reset of my brain processing function.

How do you perform that mind reset?

Well, that’s a good question, and in all likelihood has as many unique answers as there are writers. For me, I have to be consistent in reminding myself to have fun with the words, since I have the luxury to make things happen as I want them to happen. It can be raining or not. It can be a cold day in winter, or a perfect beach day across the continent. Characters can be fashioned after anyone walking, running, strolling, skipping, or driving down the street. I can still write as if it’s a news story, but I have the creative license to go back and fill in the story with details, descriptions, and dialogue as I see or hear them. There are no fact checkers for these events, because I am my only source, leaving no one to refute my findings.

I know what you’re thinking, and it has to do with editors. That’s a damn fine point, but  more to do with the consistency and believability of the story, not my self witnessed, fictitious facts. As Stephen King says,  “The job of fiction is to find the truth inside the story’s web of lies”.

So whatever you need to do to flip that switch in your brain from fact based, nonfiction writing to fiction genre storytelling, do it on a consistent basis and pretty soon it’ll become as natural as sitting here cursing while watching those damn chipmunks dig up my yard everyday. The fiction writing mode of thinking will fire up more readily and allow a pretty cool working relationship with the rest of your mind.

And although I’m sure there is a statistic that would sound very official about this whole psychological matter, I’m forcing myself not to do the research and report back, because thankfully, I’m getting better about this whole switch flipping and brain resetting myself.

Damn chipmunks!

Hey! Who Is Gonna Take Care Of That Fictional Dog You Just Put Into Your Story?

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It was an easy decision at the time.

I’ll add a cute dog in my fiction. Who doesn’t like dogs, right? It’ll be a great secondary-type character to add to the story, one that will pal around and help show the emotions, attitudes and thoughts of my characters.

A dog will coexist perfectly with the characters, their personalities, where they live, how they live, and so on. It’ll be that little extra that adds another layer of reality to my story.

But then another reality hit me, and while looking around, I shouted, mostly to myself, “Hey! Who the heck is gonna take care of this thing?”

The more I started thinking and writing, the more I realized that I had to account for this fictitious, yet needy canine companion. The characters have to consider the dog when they do things, when they go places, and the length of their absences. It’s going to be there in the evening and overnight. It’s going to be hungry in the morning, and well, it will have to go outside and do it’s thing, which means somebody has to clean up after it does that thing.

My make believe dog is beginning to be just as time-consuming as the real thing, so now I’m wondering if its even a good thing to do, meaning adding a fictional dog to your story. Will there be fictional slobber in my shoes? Will there be fictional chew marks on our fictional furniture? Do I have to spend a couple of hours to find a fictional vet for my fictional dog? Just who is going to take care of this dog? And for crying out loud, what is his name?

As I turned away from writing this, I thought about that old cardboard box graveyard of old, dead Tamagotchis, GigaPets, and Nanos that we once had, way back when, and I feel a sudden, irrational fear and anxiety that my fictional, yet unnamed dog may suffer a similar fate, caused by inattention or just plain forgetfulness later in my manuscript.

Should I adopt this dog, even in a fictional world?

These decisions about getting pets are tough, even in a make-believe world.

He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags Are Killers

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So I finally worked up the nerve to have the first 3000 words of my WIP read out loud and critiqued at a writing conference.

Gasp!

Yeah, I know, but there I was, in the crowd, waiting for my page to be drawn and read out loud by an actual publishing person, and then judged by other prominent publishers, writers, and agents. And I’m talking about a couple of heavy hitters in the room, recognizable by face as well as name. When I heard my working title read, I tensed, trying to not look too guilty of being the creator of this passage, even though I may have noticeably readied myself a bit more for taking notes. I’ve hesitated to do this in the past, but after revising it a few times based on other classes and advice I had gotten from reading and researching, I felt pretty good about letting this one be judged. Hey, we need to get used to being judged in public settings anyway, right? Why not here, where the learning, and the help, is readily available?

The instructions from the reader to the panel were to listen and read along, and raise their hands when running across anything that would make them stop reading, things like poor flow, bad grammar or vocabulary choice, a boring scene, non believable actions or situations, etc. If during the read, the panel showed three raised hands, the reading was stopped and then discussed. If the reading was allowed to finish, the panelists all took turns critiquing the work, both for what they enjoyed and where the improvements could be made.

Gulp!

My words were read out loud, and I could feel myself silently reciting the chapter with the reader. One hand went up. My eyes caught the motion of a hand being raised. I hoped for an instant that they just had an itch on their head, but no such luck. I panicked a little and started scanning the panel and hoping that there would be no more. The judges remained looking down at their copies of the transcript, intently reading along. No hands seemed ready to bolt up, and as the read was completed, they all seemed intent to listen to more. A big sigh escaped my chest.

But…

Something wasn’t right. While having someone else read my words out loud, I noticed it. So did the judges, by the way, who were all in agreement. Dialogue tags. Too many dialogue tags. The story was good, and the setting built the level of suspense that I had hoped. But the story read choppy, because of all the “he said, she saids” I had inserted. They were killing my pacing while adding extra, unnecessary words to the chapter. I had two people conversing in the entire scene, so there was no need to keep telling the reader who said what. I can achieve that through voice and proper dialogue, which I was glad to discover and learn in a separately offered class within this same conference.

But if it wasn’t for hearing a professional in the writing industry read my words for a set of equally professional judges and experts, I may not have caught this fault until further down the path in my WIP, and that wouldn’t have been good news for writer or reader.

He said it, she said it, they all said it. And I listened.

Good writing!

 

Crayons, Pens, Butcher Paper or Tablets, A Writer Is A Writer, No Matter The Method

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There’s always talk about writing methods, and how to stay organized while telling your story. But I’ll tell you a little secret. I hate outlining. Hate it. Always did, and as far as I can tell, I always will. It just seems repetitive to me. I mean, if you know enough to thoroughly outline a story, why the heck wouldn’t you just write the darn story in the first place?

Does this drop me into the “pantser” category? I suppose, to some extent. But since I know where I want to go, or at least where I want to end up when writing a passage or story, am I a “plotter” also? How do I find out? Do I need to know? Will the discovery of a tag for what I do change me in any way? Would it change you, your habits, or the way you approach writing?

I doubt it. After all, our style of writing is our style of writing, no matter what it’s called. It’s all about the journey, and staying on the path unless the characters in your story tell you otherwise.

I know where I’m starting, and I know how and where I want this thing to end. But the path to get to that point may not be so clear that I can write down a logical series of steps needed to get there. But I know the events that will, and should, happen along the way, including confrontations and character traits and backgrounds, and who I can trust and who raises my suspicions. Is that outlining? Plotting? Just plain old brainstorming? I write down notes and jot down events and scenes, just not in a thorough, step-by-step format with color coded highlighters, stickers, and exclamation points.

I guess that’s why I enjoy writing with Scrivener, even with the tedious, and endless learning curve associated with it. It allows me to write in scenes or separate, divided mini-stories, sometimes, okay mostly out of order, and then put them together later like a giant puzzle that culminates with the end passage delivering the reader where I want and need them to be.

And even better, with a process like this, on those days that I wake up in a mood that mirrors or lends itself towards the specific traits and characteristics of one of my characters, I’m going to be much more in tune with writing about them on that particular day, no matter where their appearances or particular actions appear in the story.

But then, I’m sort of, kind of, outlining in my head aren’t I, since I seem to have some idea of where they are going to appear and with whom they will interact with in this story? Wouldn’t I have to at least know a little about the plot, then, to know the different scenes that are going to occur?

Do I need to sit down and make a quick sketch or diagram of my habits and tendencies, just to make sure I haven’t wrongly categorized myself?

Are you getting as confused as I am about all of this? Should we even care what category we fall in to?

How about we just write as we see fit and are accustomed to?

I say whatever gets you ending the day with words on the paper, screen, or tablet is the type of writer you are, and that’s just the right type for you. (I’m thinking there’s a Dr Seuss saying in there somewhere)

Besides, there really is no category for those of us that sit on the floor, surrounded by sheets of white butcher paper and 64 count boxes of crayons, humming the theme from The Three Stooges while spinning around, jotting down situations for our characters to work through.

Finding The Time To Write Usually Means Making The Time To Write

 

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Sure, we all have the same amount of hours in the day. That’s been the retort when complaining about not finding time in the day to get some quality, uninterrupted writing done. But everyone has their own individual priorities that have to be completed, based on work, family, or even health situations.

So I always roll my eyes when I hear about that go-getter that writes a sentence at traffic lights, jots down a few ideas that they’ll get back to in the next book while bouncing around on the metro, comes up with another hundred words while waiting for the barricade to rise at the parking garage, and then successfully finishes that integral  paragraph while waiting for the elevator.

I mean, can they be a legitimate writer?

By all accounts, at least from what we’ve seen on the internet, those statements just can’t be true, because we know that real writers act like now, don’t we? Being the cerebral sort, we writers, according to social media, obviously need a pre-writing routine to even think about getting words down. We have to endlessly organize and reposition things on our desk. We need to have just the right coffee cup, with just the right saying on it, in just the right spot on our desk. We have to arrange our favorite pens in just the right order, even if we write exclusively on our computers or laptops.

All the legitimate writers start their day by browsing through the wonderful and inspirational quotes from other writers and stare longingly at rustic cabins in the snow or sexy little shacks on pristine beaches so that we may have glorious words flow like spring water from our wonderful creative minds out through our fingers that are sparking along a keyboard or traveling side to side through a leather bound journal.

And last, but not least, how the heck can we be writing if we haven’t even proclaimed to the world by way of social media that #AmWriting?

So I ask you, how can we believe these stories of spontaneous yet connected words being written during the awkward pauses of life’s moments to be true?

How is one supposed to find the time to passionately pursue their writing?

The only way that I know, and it works pretty well, is to put your sitter-downer in the chair and start pecking on the keyboard or scribbling on a legal pad. I do like to always have a pen and some sort of paper with me to jot down thoughts and ideas, even unrelated to my current work, because as soon as I think I’ll remember it later, it’s gone, and trust me, it’s just as hard to make out those ink smudged words when they are written on your sweaty palms.

To find the time, you have to make the time. (Somewhat inspirational quote)

PS  I wrote this short blog, sentence by sentence, while gargling mouthwash, waiting for the dog to hack up whatever is stuck in his throat, and pausing to pick up the paper off of the front lawn, because #amwriting.

Wait, What’s Your Name Again?

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The name game.

Do you have a process for choosing your character’s names? Are there reasons behind the choices? Family? Acquaintances? Bullies from grade school? Coworkers?

I think we all have somewhat of a process. You know, we likely all have that one person we secretly would love to see on the other end of some bad karma, so BOOM, there’s your antagonist, villain, or adversary. Likewise, our protagonist might conjure up thoughts of goodness and all that’s right with the world, leading us to name them along those ideas. Friends, family, and past and present acquaintances all leave impressions on us throughout our daily lives, and subsequently leave an impression on us that is associated with their name, whether good, bad, or indifferent.

Others spend a lot of research on the naming of their characters, intensely digging and uncovering the meaning or origin of the name, the qualities that a person with that name might exhibit, and if they are historically accurate. The characters may even be assigned an appropriate birthday so that their horoscope reveals a supposed set of personality traits that matches their desired name choice.

I personally just go with the flow while writing until I think to myself that this person is sure acting like a …(insert appropriate name here). And I’ve changed the names on my characters more than once to, in my opinion, better match the situation and story. And geez, don’t even set me started on last names. That’s a bigger issue for me than the first names.

But I do tend to stay away from any iconic names, you know, like those that are so strongly associated with someone who it would be impossible to form a new and unbiased opinion of the character. So I won’t ever tell you that her name is Beyoncé, or that Elvis is the owner of the corner grocery store, especially if the story is set in the early 1900s, OK?

OK.

Any process or method you use is fine, by the way. There is, by no means, a right or wrong way to discover and decide upon the names of your characters. When it’s all said and done, you gotta do what works for you.

And right now, I gotta get back to writing about ol’ whats-his-name.

Good Writing!

 

 

Want To Move Forward? Just Look Back

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You’ve heard it many times. We all have.

Don’t look back.

Never look back, they may be gaining on you.

Keep your eyes forward: What’s in the past is the past.

Honestly, I think that’s about the biggest pile of bull byproduct that I’ve ever heard. I mean, c’mon, are we supposed to forget about everything we’ve just done or gone through. Should I forget that I just typed this sentence? Should I forget that I just typed this sentence? Should I forget that I just typed this sentence?

Hehe, just having a little moment there, but you get the drift. If we refuse to look back, we may repeat things we don’t necessarily want to repeat.

If you refer to that picture up top, you’ll see one of the most powerful forces among us, water. Oh it’s beautiful, no doubt, and very relaxing with the waves and the sounds of the water hitting the beach. It also possesses the force to cut through mountains of rock, wipe out cities, and take lives, but does the water only move forward? Of course not. It reaches a point, then retreats and regroups, gathering the strength to come again, many times faster, harder, and longer. Then it goes back again. And again. And again.

Why shouldn’t we be like the water, going back just a bit to regroup while striving to be better and stronger the next time?

As writers, I believe its essential to look back, so that we see what has worked for us and what hasn’t. We need to see where the opportunities for more success are located, and where we have become stagnant. The only way to do this is by looking back and recognizing not only our successes, but our failures.

So go ahead and look back, adjust, regroup, and then move forward with a clearer vision, hitting it harder and more successful than the last time. Over a length of time, just as the ocean waves do, you will see a continuous rise in production and progress.

Good Writing!

That’s It, Write It Down

One thing that I have learned over the years is that it can be pretty dang hard, if not impossible, to edit something that’s not yet actually written.

Yeah, brilliant, I know, but for many years I wrote, trying to edit at the same time. And while typically driving me to drink, that process really…slowed…down…my…writing. I’ve heard the old idea over and over, “Just get the words written. Get that first draft down, and worry about editing later”.

Well, you know what? That’s true. True as can be. Start writing the words, even if you have to make up some new ones to finish the article, feature, chapter, or book. Because you can’t edit what isn’t finished.

I’m not saying it’s easy. No sirree! I’ve fought the urge to go back and rewrite some things in this little passage already. I have to constantly tell myself that I can do it later, after everything is written. It’s a mindset that I have to continually focus on. The first draft is just that, a first draft. Don’t expect perfection. Don’t expect a polished piece of prose that rolls off the tongue. Do expect to edit and polish later, at a more appropriate time.

More importantly, in a novel scenario, I know that no matter how many times I edit that first chapter, and no matter how perfect it is, it means nothing without all of those subsequent chapters. So I better get those down so I can edit those, don’t you think?

Let’s get after it!