characters

Meet the Cast of Happily Ever After

I can’t draw. I’m trying to teach myself, but frankly I suck. I’d love to be able to draw my characters, but that’s a long way off happening. Some people cast their words from real life, but I often struggle to find the right person to fit the image in my head. So, I’ve come to the next best thing. An RPG character creator. I’ve tried a few from playing various games over the years, but Black Desert creator is the best I’ve found so far. And even better, you can download the creator for free and not have to worry about the game itself! (It is seven gig, though, just be aware.) You can get it from here:

https://www.blackdesertonline.com/events/ccm/

So, below are the six major players from Happily Ever After. Of them, I think Lavie looks least like she does in my head, and Harry and Squeak probably look most like themselves. They’re only head shots because the clothing options weren’t great.

Lavie:

 

Harry:

 

Squeak:

 

Brendan:

 

Titania:

 

Thomas, the Usurper:

 

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We’ve just Met, and this is Crazy, but here’s Trauma, so Read my Story?

Someone once told me I was very good at torturing my characters. I take this as a compliment. (My characters are currently hiding behind the couch, quivering and wondering what fresh hell I have planned for them.) It’s important to worry about characters. If things come too easily for them, then we stop caring as much. It’s a dark kind of fun, at times, too.

But there’s a time and a place.

I’ve never read Harry Potter. It wasn’t the plot, or the writing that put me off picking it up. It was the room under the stairs. It was too much, too soon. How could I care about the suffering of a character I know nothing about? It felt like instead of presenting me with a rounded character, I was being offered a series of escalating bad events in place that was supposed to endear me.

It didn’t work.

Harry Potter isn’t the only example, by a long way.  And maybe other people feel differently. But for me, I’m much more likely to want to follow a character if I see something positive first. Captain Mal Reynolds won my heart through the way he handled a hostage situation in the first episode of Firefly. (The fact he’s played by Nathan Fillion didn’t hurt, though.)

I think this was one of the issues with the opening of Happily Ever After. While I didn’t pile on Lavie’s backstory, there wasn’t much of a chance to see her as a person, either. So I’ve returned to an earlier scene that was cut, giving a moment before the heat of battle and a chance for the reader to get acquainted with the three protagonists before things go to hell. There’s the entire rest of the book for that.

What are your views? Do you suck up protagonists who have lost both parents, been kidnapped by monsters, and had their puppy killed before the story gets going, or do prefer to get to know the character before the author starts beating on your feelings?

How to Slay the Blank-Page Beast

I came across a thread about the hardest thing about writing. For me, editing is probably the thing I find hardest. Having created something, tearing into it, criticizing it, breaking it down into little pieces is very hard, even if the end result is so much stronger. But for other people, the hardest bit was getting started.

The blank-page is a monster. It stares up at us, preening and immaculate, daring us to defile it with our words. It’s a mirror of our own insecurities – will the words I put down justify despoiling the perfect image in front of me? Can I be worthy? You get caught up, trying to find the important scene, the most compelling hook. Do I start in media res, or is getting to know the character more important? If you let it, the blank-page beast will get you so tied up that nothing quite seems right and after writing and deleting sentences, you give up.

You can try a not-quite blank page. I always begin with a pre-formatted template that has chapter title and page numbers in place. The beast is weakened, because you know it’s waiting for words now. But that’s not always enough. Here’s my tip for defeating the monster:

You don’t have to start at the beginning.

You don’t need to worry about that hook, or what’s the best opening sentence. You could write something that occurs in the middle, or something that’s near the beginning but not quite. You don’t even need to write something that’s going to be in  the book at all. If you want to write a page of exposition or the history of your world, or your main character’s first date with someone who’s going to be married with three kids by the time the book starts, it’s all good. As long as you write something, that page is no longer blank. It’s yours now. You have bound the beast to your will and it will now work for you.

It’s okay to be mediocre. That’s a very hard lesson to learn. Whatever reason a person has for writing, I’ve never met one who wrote simply because it was the least worst thing to do. Everyone who writes out of choice has a passion, a drive to become better and do their best. But that is never going to come instantly. If you polish every sentence as soon as it is on the page, you’ll struggle to finish. Worse, you might give in to the lies of the blank-page beast and never start. I’ve found the first draft is the most fun, and that’s because I’ve learned to stop worrying if it’s shit. The first drive is for meeting characters, throwing them into situations, and watching to see if they can pull themselves out and recover. The hook, the best opening paragraph, the pacing, and the plot holes can all wait. Don’t worry about them.

For now, just wrap your characters in the skins of the blank-page beasts and watch your creations sweat and bleed onto their hides.

Can Your Characters pass the Cabbage Test?

Picture a room. The walls are bare sheet metal. The floor is blank and rubbery, and the ceiling is just out of reach. There’s a light source somewhere, but you’re not entirely sure where. In the centre of the room is a red button on the floor. There is nothing else present. What do you do?

If you pushed the button, (or did anything other than sit around and mope), then congratulations. You have done more that a head of cabbage placed in the same situation. I can’t claim credit for the metaphor, as that belongs to a friend of mine, but it is an important one to consider.

Characters need to be active; they need to do things, even if those things end up having negative consequences. If they sit around waiting for the plot to happen to them, then you might as well replace them with a head of cabbage. They’re boring, passive, and their victories feel hollow because they haven’t done enough to achieve them. Having characters saved by outside forces feels less satisfying that when they save themselves.  This is a particular problem for female characters, (see my post on the Passive Princess), but every character should be looking at their situation and doing more to solve it than the average root vegetable.

The Problem of the Passive Princess

The book has female characters, who act like women, rather than cardboard cut-outs or men in dresses. They talk to each other about things other than men. But is that enough? There seems to be a problem with women, (and it nearly always is women), who talk up their strengths, who take the lead in stories, and then don’t do anything.

If the plot carries on around them, if they only react to other people’s actions, if they sit around and wait for things to come to them, is there really a point to them being there? If the strong independent princess can handle a sword as well as any man in the kingdom but doesn’t, is there any reason for her learning to first place?

What bothers me most is not just that it happens, but we don’t always notice. Hell, I’ve done it myself. When I wrote Apple, I handed the draft to betas, feeling pleased. I had a bright, brave little heroine, who survives on her own and saves her big brother from a nasty fate. That was great, right? And the feedback came back that it as okay, but Apple was very passive. She doesn’t do much. Things happen and she reacts to them. She doesn’t really do anything to try and change her situation.

That feedback hurt, probably more than anything else I’ve received. I thought it couldn’t be true, but when I read back I could see their point. Plot fell into her lap. Other people did things and she reacted. At no point did she do anything as simple as even go exploring the house. I rewrote to take care of the issue, but I felt disappointed in myself that I had let it happen. And it’s not just me. I’ve beta’ed books and seen the same effect. Read them and been unable to point it out.

It’s not just  books either. My partner was discussing a TV series he’d started watching, and was saying how it wasn’t great but it was still watch-able.

“It’s got a very male dominated cast,” he said.

“That’s not necessarily a problem for me,” I replied, trying to decide if I should watch it myself.

“Well, it should.”

And he was right. It should bother me that predominantly male casts exist because it says that women aren’t necessary for stories. And it should bother me when, even when they are there, they don’t do anything towards solving the plot. It says that plot happens to women, around women, but is not controlled by them. And more, that we accept this happening.

How are your Characters Coming Across?

It can be hard as a writer to take a step back from our stories and separate what’s on the page and what’s in our heads. After all, we know the characters like they are family members. We know their habits, motivations, and personalities off by heart. It’s obvious to me, for example, that Harry is a born optimist and hopeless romantic who is out-going in public but tends to prefer the company of a few select people, is terrified of being abandoned, and is still struggling to come to terms with the death of his twin sister. But is it obvious to you?

Try this as an exercise: Make a list of your characters traits, habits, motivations. Anything that makes them who they are as a person.Then go through your first couple of chapters and make a note of each line that shows these. You won’t get everything about them out early on, and of course characters change as stories progress, but it will help you see if your writing is showing them as you want.

Then get a reader to go through the text and pull out any traits they think the character shows, and the lines that gave them that impression. Hopefully they’ll pick out the same things as you did. You might need to get a couple to go through, as some people might miss things that others pick up on. But if your readers repeatedly aren’t seeing what you’re seeing, or are seeing the character in a different light, then you know you’ve got a problem with how they are being presented.

Getting to Know your Characters

How do you get to know your characters’ every facet? I know lots of writers who construct intricate character sheets with every possible piece of information about the major characters. These can be a useful crib sheet, but a person is not their star sign or favourite colour. They don’t help you get to the heart of who a person is.

Before starting on a new manuscript, I like to get to know the characters as well as I can. Stories often start with a scene for me, and I’ll work out from there until I have the framework of the plot. I like to focus on moments of strong character interaction, because once I know the people involved and how they react to each other, the plot is driven by their decisions and motivations. This, of course, goes for protagonists and antagonists.

Once I think I have a handle on them, I like to run them through a setting or scenario that has nothing to do with the plot. Just something simple, like going shopping. (For the purpose of the excessive, I assume they know what a supermarket is, rather than declaring automatic doors and self-service checkouts magic or devilry.) I ask myself is this person someone who makes a written list or one who commits their shopping needs to memory? Are they swayed by bargains? Do they take their time or  hurry through? Do they go to a cashier or choose self-service? Do they have any idiosyncrasies, like pretending to look at another product because someone is standing in the way of the one they want to buy, or rearranging the jars of spices to spell out things like boobies?

I find running through a scenario where interactions (or lack of them) are the focus is better for getting into a characters head than simply listing facts about them, How about you?Any techniques for getting to know your characters? Do share!