Tag: character development

Writing Exercise #1: Character Development

I’ve recently joined a local writing group. We start most of the bi-weekly meetings with a quick writing exercise. This week’s task was to select a random picture from a stack, imagine that the person was in front of us, and write his or her backstory. I’ve been thinking about my characters for NaNoWriMo, and so I decided to write about one of them.

shortline

Houston Jones sits across from me, his gaze darting around the diner.

“Want a drink?” I ask, hoping to calm him down.

He shakes his head. His hands, at first clasped tightly in his lap, clutch the edge of his chair, then drum a beat on the table.

“So…” I prompt him.

“It’s tough, ya know?” My expression must say clearly that I don’t know. “Being here. All this.” His hand sweeps at the patrons, the tables, the whole city.

“You need a job.” No sense wasting time. His agitation is only increasing, and I don’t know what will happen when he reaches his breaking point.

“We didn’t have cell phones. The internet. Think about that. You wanna meet up with someone, you call from a payphone. Plan ahead. Now everything is available, immediately. People ain’t planning no more. They’re in such a hurry, but they ain’t got nothing to hurry to. I learned, the last thirty years, there’s never nothing to hurry to.”

He takes a deep breath, as if to go on, but remains silent. His chest heaves slightly, like he’s been running, and maybe he has, only it’s his thoughts been running for the last thirty years he was locked up, and now they’re out but the world has changed and maybe he’s right; where do you run to?

“I need that job. No more running. I lost thirty years. I ain’t got no time to waste being like this.”

“It’s working in a garage, hauling scrap, general maintenance. Think you can do that okay?”

He laughs, a biting sound that hurts my heart. “I ain’t got much choice.”

shortline

This book will be about five people coming together in the face of tragedy. I’m toying with the idea of making it twenty-five short stories, almost like episodes of a sitcom, that are loosely linked and come together with the equivalent of a season finale. Thoughts?

The five guys you’ll meet in YA fiction: a guest post by author Stephanie Fleshman

As someone frequently working with high school students, I’m always on the lookout for books that’ll resonate with the kids. Stephanie Fleshman, author of YA book Render, writes about what kind of male protagonists are frequently found in YA.

According to GalleyCat, YA eBook revenues increased 120.9% last year.  The great news is whatever YA male character types keep you reading, it’s unlikely you’ll run out of books anytime soon. After a while contemplating my favorite YA reads, I noticed a pattern when it came to the male heroes in these stories. Without further ado, here’s a run-down of the 5 guys you’re likely to meet when reading a Young Adult novel…

Guy #1:  The Broken and Vulnerable

When I think of broken, I think of Josh from Barry Lyga’s Boy Toy.  The sad thing about Josh is that he knows he’s broken but blames himself instead of the person at fault.

When I think of vulnerable, two characters come to mind:   Sam from Maggie Stiefvater’s Wolves of Mercy Falls series and Cabel from Lisa McMann’s Wake series.  Cabel is doused with gasoline, then set on fire by his alcoholic father.  He wants to be loved, yet is scared. What makes him strong in a not-in-your-face kind of way is that he wants to love.  His lack of resentment and hate is what makes him attractive.

Guy #2:  The Abusive

In Jennifer Brown’s Bitter End, Cole is the product of “like father, like son.”  In Swati Avasthi’s YA novel Split, however, Jace is the product of being victimized by his own abuser.  Unlike Cole, Jace is capable of remorse and guilt.  He not only owns up to his actions, but he wants to pay for them.  By comparison, Jace makes Cole look like a sociopath.

Guy #3:  The Obsessive

It’s no secret that Edward from Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga is borderline stalker when it comes to Bella.  She is his world entirely.  In his mind, though, he is only being protective.  So, is Edward protective, overprotective, or obsessive?  You decide:

  • Protective:  Capable of or intended to protect someone or something.
  • Overprotective:  Having a tendency to protect someone, esp. a child, excessively.
  • Obsessive:  Of, relating to, characteristic of, or causing an obsession; Excessive in degree or nature.
 Guy #4:  The Dominant

A good example of this type of YA male lead character is Patch from Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush series.  Patch is 100% boy.  He’s self-confident, strong, and stands his ground against Nora.  Though he is dominating, I don’t believe it’s in a harmful or abusive manner.
In the second book, you get to see more into his heart as he begins to really care for Nora’s well-being.
By the third book, he’s thinking of Nora’s safety and how he can stay with her.  He sacrifices what he wants in order to protect her and their relationship, which seems non-existent to Nora by this stage.  Not everything is what it seems, though.
Other good examples are Alex from Simone Elkeles’s Perfect Chemistry and Avi from the same author’s How to Ruin series.

Guy #5:  The Lovable

I’m going to start with Koldan from my own YA novel, Render.  Koldan is firm but not so dominating that he feels the need to control.  He’s confident and strong, but recognizes his weaknesses.  He’s romantic in the sense that he will do whatever it takes to keep Raya safe, even if it means risking his own life.  And he’s not afraid to show his feelings for Raya.
Now, I cannot move forward without mentioning Holder from Hopeless by Colleen Hoover.  Thirteen years!  Thirteen!!!  That’s all I’m going to say.  Those of you who have read Hopeless know exactly what I’m talking about.  For those of you who haven’t, there’s nothing about this guy not to love.

Now I’ve got a question for you:  What’s your favorite YA male character type? 
***** 

 
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About Render:  A betrayal born of blood. A curse for a gift. A love worth saving… Seventeen-year-old Raya Whitney thought she knew Koldan–until a sudden turn of events threatens both their lives. Get it on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or iTunes.

Stephanie Fleshman graduated with a degree in psychology and has family throughout the United States as well as in Thessaloniki and Athens, Greece. Visit Stephanie on her websiteTwitterFacebook, or GoodReads.

What motivates you?

As a writer and an educator and a parent with a psychology background, I’m fascinated by motivation. Why do people – characters, kids, students, society – do what they do, and, more importantly, how can we influence it?

What’s important to keep in mind is that there are two kinds of motivation:

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within – doing things for the sake of doing them, because you want to, with no expectation of a reward
  • Extrinsic motivation comes from someone or something else – doing things for a reward (something tangible, like money, or praise or acceptance) or to avoid punishment.

In my current WIP, A Handful of Wishes (tentatively scheduled for a December 2014 release), I explore this idea further by following Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

In the first stage, obedience and punishment, people are extrinsically motivated by fear of punishment: I don’t steal the cookie because I know imma get a wuppin’.

The second stage, individualism and exchange, is also all about extrinsic motivation, driven by tangible rewards: If I share my milk with you, you’ll share your cookie with me.

In stage three, interpersonal relationships, the extrinsic motivation takes a bit of a twist, with a social reward: I give you my cookie because then you’ll want to be my friend.

Stage four, maintaining social order, walks the line between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation: I share my cookie because from preschool on we’re taught that in our society, it’s polite to share. I do it because society tells me it’s the right thing; it makes me feel good to do it, and it makes me feel good when society is happy with me.

In stage five, social contract and individual rights, people are intrinsically motivated: I give you my cookie because you don’t have one, and that makes me feel good.

Stage six, universal principles, is the pinnacle: doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

The main character in my novel, Zeke Archer, moves through each of these stages as his life progresses, guided by his genie, Paribanu.

If you’re a writer, how are your characters motivated – intrinsically or extrinsically? Where do they fall on Kohlberg’s list? Where do you fall?

Postmodernism and the unreliable narrator

In my Human Behavior in the Social Environment class, we recently had a great discussion about what paradigm we agree with most:

  • positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out the cause and effect of everything (if I promote my book on Twitter, I’ll increase sales)
  • post-positivism – using a rational approach, we can figure out correlations; there are too many variables to be definite about anything (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but I also promoted it on a Saturday night when more people were home and online, and several people retweeted my posts who normally don’t, and…)
  • postmodern – everyone’s experience is unique and therefore no conclusions can be drawn (I had increased sales after promoting my book on Twitter, but you may not)

Most of us seemed to fall between post-positivism and postmodernism – we think it’s useful to have categories for people in order to identify them (posting about your book on Twitter vs not posting, maintaining a blog vs not having a webpage), but you need to take into account personal differences (having 100 real people following you on Twitter vs 10,000 bots, blogging consistently for 5 years vs not updating it, etc).

Just because I had a good (or bad) experience with Twitter doesn’t mean you will, but that doesn’t make what happened for me any less valid than what happened to you.

Or does it?

This is where the unreliable narrator comes in. What if that narrator’s experience is completely invalid? Just because he perceived something one way, doesn’t mean that’s how it really is.

I think of the male MC in my upcoming novel, The Lone Wolf (out December 2nd from Evolved Publishing). Andrew is every bit the unreliable narrator; he views the world through a very narrow lens, shaped by an abusive childhood. Everyone in his life needs protection, whether they want it or not. Everyone is either a saint on a pedestal, or a fallen hero; there’s no middle ground for him, no shades of gray – including how he sees himself.

As a writer, it’s my job to portray the story through Andrew’s eyes, while subtly letting the reader know his POV is flawed.

What’s your view on postmodernism? Is everyone’s POV just as valid as the next, or do we as readers and writers need to be aware that the way someone sees the world is wrong? Do you prefer reliable or unreliable narrators – and is there even really such a thing as a reliable narrator, when no one truly knows what’s going on in everyone else’s heads?

Your character is not you (and neither am I)

There are a few topics that come up frequently on writing forums: the value of adverbs, what constitutes passive voice, whether you should self-publish or go the traditional route, and what to use to form your characters’ personalities, actions, and motivations to make them believable.

Today I want to tackle that last one, and I’m going to start by saying

YOUR CHARACTER IS NOT YOU.

Yes, he may share similar traits.  She may have had a similar childhood, or the same goals.  But your character is not you.

I’m sure you’re a wonderful person.  But as Mark Twain said, “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”  And for you to be in your story, as yourself, it’s not going to make sense.  I struggled with this while writing The Lone Wolf.  It was only when I realized that Kasey’s primary motivation was her family, that the story came together; I’d been trying to have her react how I would react.  And I definitely wouldn’t have made the same choices she did, because she’s not me.

But it goes beyond your personal goals and traits; your expectations and views of societal norms can also affect your character, without you even realizing it.

After I graduated college, I taught high school in rural North Carolina as part of a national program.  One of the things that was hammered into us was that these kids and their families had different cultural expectations.  They were a different religion, a different race, a different economic class, living in a different region.  We had to understand why they acted how they did, influenced by their backgrounds and surroundings, before we could reach them.

In social work, this is referred to as an ecological systems theory, but I think it applies everywhere.

Part of the fun of reading is getting into someone else’s head, into their thoughts and actions. But why stop there? Why not apply this to everyone you come across?

I like opera; you don’t. That’s fine. But rather than tell me how no one could pay you enough money to go to a show, why not just leave it at, “I don’t like opera,” or actually try going to a show before passing judgment?

Same with writing. I write; many people I know don’t. Rather than make fun of my novel, why not just acknowledge that I like to write, and you like to watch reality TV, and agree that we don’t have common ground with our interests?

Try putting yourself in your characters’ heads, or in the heads of those around you. Try seeing the world how they see it, for better or for worse. You might just be surprised what you learn about yourself in return.

A is for Antagonist #atozchallenge

(Last year I signed up for the 2012 Blogging from A to Z April Challenge. I met some great writers, so I thought I’d do it again this year too. Basically, you write a blog post every day in April except Sundays, going through the alphabet.)

Day A of the 2013 Blogging from A to Z April challenge. Today’s topic: antagonists.

A couple years ago I wrote a short story, “The Kindness of Strangers,” which appeared in the The Indiana Horror Anthology 2011. Basically it was about a girl who wanted to get revenge on her ex-boyfriend, and she was helped by an evil paranormal antagonist, Alec.

Usually I write about a character once, and that’s it; I have very few recurring characters.  But Alec stuck with me, and when I started a story about a guy driving through the Midwest causing trouble just for the fun of it, I realized that guy was Alec.  The story is mostly written, except for the end, and I’ve been stuck on it for quite awhile.  This past weekend, the story unstuck itself.

I realized that I’d been looking at Alec all wrong.  Yes, he’s the antagonist.  Yes, he’s an unsympathetic d-bag whom readers will probably want to suffer for his crimes.  But he’s more than that; he has a back story, and motivation, and a goal.

I read somewhere recently that every character is the star of his or her own story, and antagonists are no exception.  Great antagonists are ones who could be us except for the (subjectively?) bad choices they’ve made.  They’re trying to reach their goals as best they can, skewed by their moral perceptions and backgrounds.  And my Alec is no exception.  In order to connect, in order for an antagonist to be memorable, I think a big part of it is just getting to know the antagonist as well as the protagonist.

Who’s your favorite antagonist, and why? Do you prefer nuanced villains or one-dimensional bad guys, and why?

A picture is worth a hundred stories

One of my hobbies is genealogy. I love the research aspect of it – hunting for overlooked relatives with misspelled names on censuses, finding an elusive obituary with my mad Google skills, identifying a long-lost relative that cracks open a whole new branch.

More than that though, I love the stories that make my ancestors come alive. Unfortunately, all that’s usually passed down is names and dates, with nothing that makes someone a real living person.  But occasionally, you come across an old photo that gives you tons of details into the life of someone who died decades or centuries ago.

I’m lucky that my grandmother and great-grandmother both loved not only taking pictures of their daily lives, but scrapbooking as well.  I’m in possession of boxes of old photos that I’m slowly scanning to share with relatives scattered around the globe.

I recently scanned my grandmother’s wedding album, and tonight when she was over for dinner, I asked her to identify someone in one of the pictures.

Rather than just confirm that the man hiding in the back row is indeed her stepfather, she told me about where the picture was taken (her mom’s dining room), details about the furniture (that cabinet is made with all pegs, no nails), and what the wedding party went on to do (marriage, dentistry).

She further explained that she and the maid of honor were best friends and frequently double-dated. The maid of honor didn’t like my future grandfather, and my grandmother didn’t like the maid of honor’s future husband (the best man in this wedding, who was good friends with my grandfather). So one night when the two guys asked the two girls out, my grandma and her friend blew them off instead. The young men wanted to know why, and the girls just said, “Eh.” This happened again the next week, so my grandpa asked my grandma to go skating with him, solo.  They were married six months later.

Looking at this picture, there are so many other stories (all true): a woman who left a man to marry his brother. Another woman who left her own husband to run off with an older married man and live under an alias while they traveled the country as truck drivers during the Depression. A bootlegger uncle. An arranged marriage. A mother who sent her young illegitimate son to live with family in America. An overly-protective mother who undermined her child’s marriage. A woman left widowed with 5 kids after her husband killed himself.

What can your old pictures tell you?

Finding inspiration from sucky people

On Monday I started a new temp job, working as a secretary at an insurance agency, the part with adjusters who handle filed claims (and the resulting lawsuits).  It’s not bad, as far as temp jobs go: a variety of clerical tasks, no automaton data entry, very little interaction with the public, snacks at my desk, etc.

The best part, however, is the stories.  Oh my God, the stories.

I don’t think I signed a confidentiality agreement, but even so, I’ll keep it vague.  Here are some things I’ve learned so far, that I intend to weave into stories:

  • Insurance fraud is hard to pull off, but that doesn’t stop people from trying.  Like someone who “broke his back” in a fender-bender that barely scratched the vehicles’ paint.  And the high school dropout will always assume that he’s smarter than The Man; any attempts to prove otherwise will be written off as a conspiracy of him vs The World.
  • People are stupid and willing to believe anything the person they love says, including that pregnancies with twins last 18 months, because there are two of them. Yes, someone actually bought that.
  • People are greedy.  They’ll sue their kids, their elderly parents, and their best friends if they think they can get something from it.  And sometimes they do it just to spite them.
  • There’s always a very good reason for the incident, and it’s rarely the fault of whomever’s it really is.  You got drunk, ran a stoplight, and plowed into a pedestrian?  Well, the road was slick.  He came out of nowhere/intentionally jumped in front of your car. The breathalyzer test was faulty because The Man is out to get you.
“I swear, officer, the old bastard had it coming.” (photo from Flickr)

It’s a lot of negatives, I realize, but sometimes it’s useful to have a reminder that there really are a lot of stupid, greedy, manipulative people out there.  Not bad people, necessarily; people who put their own interests ahead of everyone else’s.  And sometimes those can be the worst villains, because they’re ordinary, believable people thwarting your MC’s goals.

Do you prefer your villains evil or mundane?  Why?

Author interview: Samyann

This week’s interview is with historical romance author Samyann, who’s just released Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.

In Yesterday, Amanda is afraid that everyone she loves will leave her.  But then she meets police officer Mark and is hit by a sense of familiarity.  Guided by her elderly godmother Mary, Amanda uses past life regression analysis to connect with the story of Bonnie, a girl growing up in the shadow of the Civil War and later in 1870’s Chicago.  As the novel progresses, Amanda must decide just how much influence her past will have on her future with Mark.

Samyann recently chatted with me about writing historically accurate stories, self-publishing, and reincarnation.

Me:  Your novel, Yesterday, has three settings: Chicago today, Chicago in 1871, and Charleston, SC, during the Civil War.  Obviously as a native of Chicago you know a lot about the first one.  How much research did you have to do for the other settings?

Samyann: Being a native Chicagoan, it’s not really surprising that I have, over time, picked up quite a bit of the history of the city. I think I learned about much of the Great Chicago Fire history when I was pre-teen. For example, the fact that Chicago’s streets were made of wood blocks covered with tar prior to the fire. There was more research with regard to South Carolina and the Civil War era. The fact that the internet is available to make such research pretty simple, it not only didn’t take very long, but has supplied me with a great deal of information that isn’t in the book.

Me:  Did you travel to Charleston while you were writing the book?

Samyann: Not while working on Yesterday. But, in a previous life, I traveled a great deal. Charleston, and the King Street Antique District, which is part of Yesterday, was visited. I didn’t visit St. Michael’s Church, though. I wish I had, simply because of the awesome history of the bells.

Me:  Previous life as in a hundred and fifty years ago? 😀

Samyann: Pretty close!

Me:  What kind of websites were the most helpful to you in your research?

Samyann: The websites that helped the most were library, newspaper archives, and city sites. An example is The Charleston Mercury website. Bonnie’s father, one of the characters in Yesterday, reads about the battle of Shiloh in the paper. This battle was chronicled by The Charleston Mercury, and you can read about it on-line today. There are also quite a few sites devoted to the Civil War. Dates were relevant to accurately convey character ages. Chicago has it’s own valuable resources, such as the Chicago History Museum and website, Historical Society, too. These helped a great deal given the fact that Lincoln, an Illinois politician, is factored into the story, if only for the escape of the characters into Lincoln Park from the Chicago Fire.

Me:  The Chicago History Museum provided you with a picture for your cover, right?

Samyann: That’s correct. It is a terrific diorama that can be seen at the Chicago History Museum, at LaSalle Street and North Avenue.

Me:  Did you just call them up and ask to use it for your cover?

Samyann: Yes. I simply made a phone call. There is an agreement I had to sign, which allows for a certain number of copies. If I manage to sell ‘X’ number of copies of their image, the agreement will be re-written. I will be delighted to re-write the contract 😉

Me:  Past-life regression therapy plays a huge role in your novel.  Did that require a lot of research too, or were you already familiar with it?

Samyann:  I think the concept of regression is something everyone has wondered about. I’ve the same fundamental knowledge about the topic as everybody … that and curiosity, primarily. Toss in some imagination, and voila. Seriously, I did do considerable research into the process of regression, bringing someone into an ethereal state. I wanted people who are studied in the process, and even those who are not, to sense reality. The concept of using the pendulum of the clock as opposed to the hypnotist swinging a shiny object or watch just seemed logical.

Me: I think you’re definitely right, that everyone has wondered about reincarnation at some point.  Given that, and all you probably discovered with your research, how plausible do you think your story is?  In other words, do you believe in reincarnation?

Samyann:  As indicated in Yesterday, a few billion people on earth believe in reincarnation, so I’m not sure I’d put up a very good case against the concept. I think the plausibility is there, sufficient enough for the reader to simply ask themselves, “what if … or why not?”

Me: Way to dodge the question.  🙂

Samyann:  Cool, huh.

Me:  If it is possible, who do you think you might have been in a previous life?  Someone famous? Some ordinary?

Samyann:  I’m sure someone equally as ordinary as I am today.

Me:  What about the idea in the story that our paths are connected with someone else, throughout all our lives? Do you think that’s possible too?

Samyann: Why not? That’s a concept in reincarnation called “soul pods,” traveling through many lives within a group of souls. In reality, the entire concept of reincarnation is speculative, with many different thoughts. I don’t think anyone could say with a degree of surety that any one possibility is impossible. That negates the idea of speculation, which is basically what Yesterday is about.

Me:  You definitely have a soul pod going in Yesterday, with Amanda, Mark, and Mary connected both in the present and the past.  I think from a reader’s perspective, though, it makes it a lot easier to connect the two stories.  Amanda=Bonnie. Amanda’s struggles parallel Bonnie’s struggles.

Samyann:  Don’t forget Oprah and Electra 🙂 [my note: those are Amanda’s and Bonnie’s cats]

Me:  It goes to show that while Yesterday is a romance, it’s not just about the love story between Amanda and Mark; it’s about coming to grips with your past and letting go of it so you can move forward.  Do you think this theme is something that’ll resonate with your readers?

Samyann:  I hope so. I’d like the reader to grasp that happiness is in reach for everyone. But, your happiness today is in your future today, not your past … Yesterday.  EWWWW, how cool is that!

Me:  How similar is Amanda’s character to you?

Samyann: Well, she’s young and beautiful, so we can nix that part :-). Maybe a few decades ago we would have had more in common. Primarily I think, if anything, some of my life experiences might be in her character, a bit. But, they’re also in the other characters. Mary’s in particular.

Me: I think Mary might be my favorite character.  She’s the ideal old woman – lively and comfortable enough with herself to say and do whatever she wants.  That’s how I plan to be when I’m old.

Samyann:  She’ll tell you to have at it, and “don’t pick fly shit outta pepper.”

Me:  That’s disgusting, by the way.

Samyann: LOL

Me:  On a completely non-disgusting topic, you self-published not only a hard copy of your book, but you’ll soon have an e-book and an audio book.  What are your overall thoughts on the whole process?

Samyann:  That it takes time. Lots and lots of time. That it’s not as expensive as I thought it would be. Granted, I did spend a bit to have a custom cover design, and purchased the services of a narrator for the audiobook. But, beyond that, the entire publishing process has been free. I think given the state of affairs with the publishing business today, what an individual with average tech-savvy ability can do, there really is no option anymore. Why would I use a conventional publisher to do what I can do? The biggest marketing effort they do for you is to list your book with Amazon and a few other on-line and bricks & mortar bookstores like Barnes & Noble. Well, I can do that myself so I fail to see why I shouldn’t.

Me:  So you’d do the same thing for your next novel?

Samyann: Absolutely. Unless some big publishing outfit offers me a huge advance, which we know won’t happen.

Me: I just read a quote by author Jon Scalzi, who said, “Hey, I became a writer to get rich.”  Is that your motivation?

Samyann:  No. I write because it’s fun, I’m retired with little else to do, and I always wanted to write when I had the time. When you’re retired, everyday is Saturday.

Me: Fair enough.  🙂  What tips do you have for other writers who want to get published?

Samyann:  If you have what you believe to be a good story, and others have told you it’s a good story … don’t wait for the gatekeepers (agents), do it yourself. There are many avenues. Get your book read by others, join a critique site. Yesterday-Chapter 1 had close to 100 critiques. Many people need to tell you that you have a good story, not just “mom.”


Make sure to check out Samyann’s book, Yesterday: A Novel of Reincarnation.  You can also connect with her on Twitter – @Samyann_Writer – or at her website.

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