Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Return

Behind the sinking, golden sun, she trods a path, dusty and worn.  She's not fared as well as she could; her feet are sore and bruised, and her head aches as she keeps it lowered, fast losing energy to continue.  But she is almost home, and so, dragging her long shadow behind her, she steps forward time and time again.  Her feet padding on the dirt is the only sound for a mile around.

It has been too long since she was home.  She's almost forgotten what it looks like.  She only knows that no matter how many times she leaves, she will always return to those she loves.  So she plods on, through forests of pine and fields of wheat, knowing that this is the way she will always be.  She will never know whether she will be able to return or not; but if she is, nothing short of death will stand in her way.

In a little town, people go about their business.  They sell their wares, they tend their gardens, and they converse with their neighbors.  They do not lack, but they miss.  They know one of their number still has not returned, and they wonder if she ever will.

The townspeople go silent when she rounds the bend.  Her feet are scratched and bloody.  Her head hangs low.  Her arms are limp at her sides.  She is alive, but she is not triumphant.  Wearily, she lifts her head and surveys the crowd--old friends, and family, people she thought she might never see again.  But how will they receive her?

To be continued...
(sort of...)
(not really...)

To sum it all up, folks...

Image result for i'm back meme

Saturday, February 13, 2016

How to Meet a Character: Part III, Meet Some Prime Examples

Yes, I was wrong.

It's true, no matter how much I dislike it.  I was wrong about Part II being the end, and here you have the actual coda.

I want you to see some examples of what the past two posts have been about.

So, yeah, this post is pretty much a list.  But it's a fun list!  And I might rant, so that'll be fun.  But, I mean, who knows?  I certainly don't.  I've already talked about Stanley from Holes, so that's over and done with, but that section sort of gave me the idea for this post.

A little note before we start--there will be all sorts of characters here.  They won't all be similar, but some might, and I'll probably have more boys than girls, because I'm like that, and...let's get started (sorry, I'm in a rambly mood).

Anthony Lockwood from Lockwood and Co.
I love this guy!  Seriously, one of the most charismatic, lovable characters I've ever read, and someone who you feel real pain for him.  He's probably tied for my favorite character with maybe two other guys.  The thing about Lockwood is that he's smart, confident, and approachable, but doesn't flaunt it.  He doesn't have to.  And the character development...oh, it makes me swoon.  Lucy, who is technically the main character I believe, is intrigued by him from the beginning because he seems so much older than he actually is.  As the series goes on, we see more facets to his personality, we see that he hides painful secrets, we see that he cares about everyone in his agency, and we see that we don't even know him yet.  And that's really the coolest part.  Realizing that I didn't know him yet added so much depth to his character.

Eugenides from The Queen's Thief
Okay, I'll be honest with you, I've only read the middle two books in this quartet, but I've loved them so much.  Eugenides, or Gen, is...well, he's kind of hilarious to me.  He's grumpy, can be childish, and is a thief to boot.  He's also absolutely brilliant.  People underestimate him because he seems kind of sloppy and careless, but he knows what he's doing, and he can steal anything (as he's boasted before).  He's really...well, at the risk of sounding obvious, he's quite a character.  If you've ever read Megan Whalen Turner, you'll know that she's pretty much a genius.  The best metaphor for her books I can find is chess.  She's like those players you always hear about and maybe know, the ones who know exactly what they and you will do from the beginning until they win the game.  She doesn't include a single sentence, phrase, or detail that doesn't advance the plot.  At the beginning you just read, trying to figure out what's going on and why, a little confused and frustrated, and then about halfway through things start to fall into place, and it's the most satisfying feeling in the world.  And that describes Euginedes as well, especially in the third book.  By the end, you simply adore him.

Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid
I'll be honest, I feel a little odd about putting Greg on this list.  It's not because I'm a snob, it's because...okay, yes, I'm totally a snob.  And Greg isn't the type of character I'd usually love.  In fact, I don't love him.  But I want to talk about him and his character development.  I've never liked DWK all that much; it's too cringe-worthy.  But Jeff Kinney did a good job of character development.  Greg is endearingly honest and self-deprecating.  He doesn't hide his tendency to get into embarrassing and painful situations.  Instead, he writes it all down in his diary--I'm sorry, journal.  He also doesn't describe himself in detail, which would have been easy for Jeff to have him do, the journal a good excuse.  No, he's...almost humble.  Not quite there, but almost.  And yet, even though he's the one narrating this whole thing, you can see some of the vanity and unabashed selfishness that he doesn't notice in himself.  He's complex.  He's likable (to a certain degree).  He's well-written.

Hope Yancey from Hope Was Here
I know I've talked about this book on here before, but let's talk about the MC specifically.  Hope is strong, her name fits her perfectly (she picked it herself), and she's also a terrific and experienced waitress.  That last part I love so much, because Hope is one of those characters who knows what she's doing and that she wants to keep doing it, and that's really cool for me.  People often underestimate her because of her youth, but she surprises them, and it's obvious that she has real people skills.  Her aunt is a chef who travels around, helping pick up old restaurants and diners and get their business booming--until they close down and she and Hope have to move on again.  Hope's parents are out of the picture, and all Hope has from her mother are her waitressing tips (which are actually really useful).  Hope is very mature and wants to find her father.

Y'all, you can tell I'm tired when I start rattling facts without bringing my sentences together well.  I need a tea break.

*twenty nine minutes pass*

And I'm back, with a nice mug of hot Jasmine tea straight from Indonesia.  Seriously.  My friends brought it back from Indonesia.

Let's dive straight back in:

Lemony Snicket from All the Wrong Questions
How could I not mention this guy?  Lemony Snicket is the best fiction writer I have ever read, and his character development is a beautiful thing to see.  He's a mystery, and yet he's right in front of you, as real as anyone around you.  Except that he's a character from a book.  I read back over the last few sentences, and they're kind of confusing.  All I can say is, Lemony Character is as believable as anyone I've ever read, including the real ones.  I don't know how to add to that.  It's too perfect and complex to describe (plus, the tea, wonderful as it is, can only do so much).

Jackson Greene from The Great Greene Heist
Like the last two, you've heard this before.  But it bears mentioning again.  Because Jackson is in middle school.  AND HE WEARS A TIE.  I don't know why that's oh-so-wonderful for me, but I love it!  He's such an intriguing mix of rebel and traditionalist, formal and casual, laid-back and uptight.  And his older brother, his inspiration, is just as cool, if not cooler.

Man, I feel like such a writer right now.  Type a few sentences, take a sip from my mug, return to typing.  I'm so industrious.  This is the life.

Rose Howard from Rain Reign
This is a character I almost didn't put in, not because she wasn't written well, but because this book was painful for me emotionally.  But I know I should put it in, so I am.  We get to know Rose through first person.  She is autistic.  This book and the way she's written kind of opened my eyes, but I have to confess that the person I related to more was her father, Wesley.  I understand that feeling of loving someone but not knowing what to do with them.  I wish the book had ended differently, but even the way it ended I'll be thinking about it for years.

James from Midnight Thief
James was definitely my favorite character from this book, even though he wasn't the MC.  *SPOILER ALERT*  He was painful to read, because you care so much about him, and the whole time you know things are going to end with him being the bad guy.  One of the hardest parts was when he stabs Kyra, and you can tell some part of him doesn't want to, but it's not enough to stop him.  But as much as I love him, his whole character reinforced my knowledge that a person's actions will show the true state of their heart.  As far as character development goes, he was perfect.  We see little bits of him slowly emerge.  We're not told, we're shown.  And he's very real.  He makes human decisions, has human reasons and human reactions.  He would be purely lovable if it weren't for the fact that he's an evil murderer.  Yeah, there is that.

Ender Wiggins from Ender's Game
Last, but definitely not least.  I read Ender's Game for the first time when I was ten, I believe.  I started reading it in the evening and read until two or three in the morning, when I finished it.  And for days, all I could do was think about it.  Ender is by far the character I relate to the most, of all the characters I've ever read.  We meet him when he's six and follow his development from a smart young boy who likes to keep to himself to a young man who is a brilliant leader and strategist.  The whole time, there's a similar theme--he doesn't want to hurt anyone, but he'll do what he has to do to get peace for himself.  He's not described at all, except in words from others, but the whole time, you can just feel how worn out with the whole thing he's becoming.  He never wants to hurt anybody, and yet, by the end of the book he's almost completely destroyed an intelligent species.  The thing that really struck me about Ender is that, true to human nature, he doesn't always do what you'd expect him to do.  His actions aren't always logical.  He'll do something without knowing why he's doing it, knowing that he's causing a person pain and that it's his choice, but he'll still do it, even as he asks why.  It's really sad, but also beautiful to read.

Read some more lists.

Here are some lists of similar characters.  The first list contains my favorite "type" of character, so pay special attention to that.  I don't know how authors can keep writing very similar characters and I love them all so much, but somehow they do.  This isn't a very good sign, but I'm going to add my Theodore to the list.  Some of these characters I've already mentioned above.

List 1: Young, Enigmatic, Charismatic Males
Anthony Lockwood
Richard Campbell Gansey III (Raven Cycle)
Artemis Fowl II
W.W. Hale V (This is open to debate, since Hale isn't the main character or one in charge.) (Heist Society)
Theodore Richard Norwood IV
Jackson Greene

List 2:  Young Main Characters With Specific and Useful Skill Sets
Max Starling [actor] (Mister Max)
Hope Yancey [waitress] (Hope Was Here)
Tess Kendrick [fixes people's problems] (The Fixer)
Connwaer [thief] (The Magic Thief)
Theodore Boone [lawyer] (Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer)
Katarina Bishop [thief] (Heist Society) 
Fletcher Moon [detective] (Half Moon Investigations)
Jackson Greene [con artist] (The Great Greene Heist)

List 3:  Characters Who Find Home in Unique and Unexpected Places
Charlotte Doyle [Seahawk] (The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle)
Piper [401] (The Mark of the Dragonfly)
Abilene Tucker [Manifest] (Moon over Manifest)
Capricorn Anderson [C Average] (Schooled)

Okay, we're done here.  I hope you've found some new books to read and have discovered things about character and writing that you didn't know before.

And with that, I conclude the three-part series, How to Meet a Character.



Tuesday, February 9, 2016

How to Meet a Character: Part II, Creating and Adjusting

To continue the character vs. story discussion...

So, yesterday my darling sister confronted me about the next to last section from Part I.  She disagreed with my statement that the story is more important than the character, bringing up Anne of Green Gables as an example.  She said that those books don't really have a plot, and the whole point is Anne.  Well, I've thought of that before.  I thought of it months ago when I was first discovering all this stuff, trying to figure it out, to untangle all the knots in my head.  And this is what I wrote down then.

If you're trying too hard to build your character, you're detracting from the story.  And if readers aren't interested in your story, they're not interested in your character.  That's why characters often aren't complete, and it's okay.  Because the book is a story, and the writer realizes that.  He tells us what happens to the character as it relates to the story.
"But Anna, what if there's a book where the entire point is to get to know the character?"
The writer would give the information necessary to know the character.  If not, the book would be rambling and boring.
"But Anna, what if it's a memoir?"
Then we're back at square one, because the only reason memoirs are written is that the person has a story.

The above is edited to be shorter, but the main points are there.  To respond to what Rebecca said: the only reason we love Anne so much is her story.  She is the story.  I think especially in a case like this, it's impossible to separate character and story.  They're two sides of the same coin.

I'm going to share another quote from this same paper, because I think it helps sum up a lot of what I've been trying to say this whole time.

Fact is, the less you describe your character, the more room your readers have to come in and give him the benefit of the doubt.  All people see others differently, and as long as you give them the cold, hard facts, they probably won't be wrong about your character.  People are complicated, so do everyone a favor and let your character be complicated too.

I hope this is all explained to everyone's satisfaction.  Now, to other matters.

Let's talk about character vision.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has imagined an awesome character, tried to write him or her, and been depressed by how flat the attempt fell.  I hate that feeling, when it's like your character is just completely out of your control.  And then you try to wrest them back to what you wanted, and they're just...fake.  Disjointed.  Often bipolar.  At some point you may just throw your pencil down and lean back, sighing in frustration.

Don't sigh.  Get to work.  In order to reunite you and your estranged character, it's important to understand why he left you in the first place.  Normally it's one of two reasons.

1. You try to describe your character too much.
We've talked about this.  We're done with this.

2. You've got no idea who your character is.
To be fair, the second option really isn't likely with the scenario I described at the top, because this is lack of vision.  So let's try and figure this thing out.

I had a huge problem with one of my stories.  Its inspiration was a sentence, which grew until I had a world I wanted to fill with a story.  I also had a role that my main character had to fill.  The problem?  The role had nothing to do with her personality.  I ended up with enough to make a fantastic fairy tale-type story.  A novel?  Not so much.  The thing is, when I was coming up with this whole story, I neglected to figure the character's own personal choices into the plot.  She really could have been anyone.  But what she ended up being was shallow and vague.

Now take Rivenbark (which is the book that I'm currently super proud of).  Theodore was its inception.  I had a definite vision for him: rich, comes across as arrogant, smart, thoughtful, enigmatic, charismatic, surprising.  And the whole story revolves around him.  It doesn't seem that way all the time, but in the end, it does.  The story affects dozens of people, but Theodore is the one who starts the chain reaction, who moves things along when they threaten to slow.  He's the mastermind and, in a way, the victim, and I wrote him because he had that potential.

And thirdly, I am the Enemy is a story I've done a lot of brainstorming for, but haven't written anything except a short prologue for.  It was inspired while I was watching a Republican presidential debate, and politics has a large part in it.  But even before I realized it, I had a vision for the character who would be born out of all the chaos IATE begins with.  Before I knew it, I was fitting the story around my MC (whose name I completely forget, shame on me), and it became her story.

I don't know exactly what application to make after those three paragraphs.  I guess the only thing I can think to say is, when you've got an idea for a story plot, make sure you have a character that figures into it.

I've been hammering story over character so much now that I seem to have forgotten to mention that character is crucial. I truly believe that story is more important, but not by much.  Character is so, so important.  To use an analogy that is probably inaccurate, character is the beans to story's rice.  I'm too tired to come up with something better than that. 

My humble belief is, you should never get really into a story where you're not just as into its main character.

And...I have nothing left to say.  Or if I do and I forgot, it'll go into a part three.  But I think this is it.

Seriously.  I'm so tired.

Friday, February 5, 2016

How to Meet a Character: Part I, Less Telling is More Better

Writing is hopeless.

This statement would probably surprise anyone, and if you know me, even more so.  Since I was ten years old, I've known I wanted a career as a writer, and that hasn't changed.  So why would I write that sentence?

Well, in a way it's false.  Not all writing is hopeless, and none of it completely so.  So let me rephrase it.

It is hopeless when writing fiction to try to explain/reveal/exhibit human nature.

I've always thought fiction was about humans.  I've always thought the point was to explore our nature, to lay it open.  Think about it--we read a book; we enter someone's head.  We think what they think, we feel what they feel, we see what they see.  We become two people at once.  And yet, we think of the character as a person, someone who isn't us.  We know them, but we are not them.

As a writer, I've always struggled with making a character real.  The human I know best is...myself, but I can't make every character like myself.  But I can take little snippets from people I know, put them together, substitute and combine, and I end up with a Patchwork Personality, someone who isn't anyone, but is everyone.

But there are always more problems.  How do you put an entire person on paper?  How can you represent all the individual facets, the quirks, the different angles, the joy, pain, confusion, and a hundred different emotions we all experience at the same time?  The answer is fairly simple: you can't.

I'll just lay it out for you--you'll never, ever, ever know a character as well as you know yourself, unless they're one-dimensional and badly written.  Your only hope would be to know them as well as you know a close friend or family member, if that well.  Honestly, human nature doesn't really follow hard-and-fast rules.  We change, we develop, we go through seasons, and it's not predictable.  The best rule I can find for writing my characters is this one:

More is less.

The more a character is described, the less believable they are.  If you know every single thing about a person, if you can always predict what he's going to do, chances are he's a pretty boring person.  If someone doesn't have any mysteries, just how interesting is he?

With this past November's NaNo novel, I was in large part experimenting.  The main character, Theodore, has two chapters in Rivenbark that show his point of view.  The entire rest of the book is told in third person objective to dozens of other people, some who we know better than others.  And yet, there's never any doubt that Theodore is the main character.  What I tried to do, and what I hope I accomplished, is to make readers so eager to find out about Theodore and his personality that they'll keep reading, searching deep for any snippet that explains his personality.  He is mostly a mystery, and yet we care about him, we sympathize with him.

Here's an excerpt from near the beginning of Rivenbark.  It's unedited, so don't judge.  But it shows some of Theodore's personality.  As the book goes on, we see different sides of him, and he gets more complex.

“It’s inexcusable,” Theodore announced.  “Absolutely inexcusable, Sebastian.  I find myself bored.”
Sebastian looked over at his friend, noticing the way Theodore’s eyes were narrowed in frustration, his lips pressed in a straight, firm line.  Every feature of him spoke rigidity.  Though only sixteen years old, Theodore Richard Norwood IV was more imposing a picture than most adults.
“How about a trip to Arrowood?” he suggested.  
“I have been to Arrowood,” the boy said, his voice dripping with disapproval.  “I like it.  It belongs to me.  But I have been there, and there is a whole world outside of mine that I have not explored.”
“I want to explore it.  I’ve come to realize that there is something that appeals to me about always taking the hardest way.”  Theodore’s gaze was unreadable, his face bathed in evening light as he stared out across the river.  A face like stone, Sebastian thought.  A wall more impenetrable than any ancient civilization had ever built.  “If you’re trying to make things as difficult as possible, you’ll never be disappointed.  Life will be regretless.”  A hint of a smile cracked the stone wall.  “Of course, it’s hope that gets in the way.  It’s hard to prepare for despair when there’s a nagging expectation that something good will happen.”
    Sebastian didn’t say a word.  He knew that whatever Theodore said next, it would be important.  Really, things that his best friend said were almost always important.  But Theodore was evidently restless, and that meant anything could happen.
A bird called out as it dipped low over the water, and Theodore’s eyes followed it, he evidently lost in thought.  Sebastian tore a piece of grass apart, waiting for his companion to speak.
“Pack your bags,” Theodore said suddenly.  “We leave tomorrow.”
Sebastian was used to surprises, so he merely nodded.  “Where to?”
Theodore looked calmly over at him.  “Somewhere far away.  Somewhere very, very different.”

When I think of books with good character development, my mind immediately goes to the book Holes by Louis Sachar.  We start out not knowing much about Stanley, and the only way we progress from there is by being given the facts, like what he says, how he reacts to things, the way things are described and you can tell it's how he thinks of them.

And then there's his friend Zero, who we know even less about, and care about just as much.

If you're trying to describe a character for your readers by filling in every last detail you can, you're not giving them enough credit.  That's a cool thing about humans--they can think.  They can draw their own conclusions from what you give them, and they can fill things in on their own.  They can adjust their thinking when it needs to be adjusted, and they can follow a story without knowing everything about the main character.

Ready for another surprise?

A book isn't about its main character.

This is a point that most people don't get.  People don't read a book because they just love this character so much.  They read a book because of what that character does.  That's why books have such a thing as a plot.  The story is what matters, and if one person is at the center of this story, then good.  Fine.  He's privileged.

But remember that.  A character isn't important, what a character does is.

Don't be that person.

You know, the one who will tell your whole life story to the first person you meet.  Or rather, don't let your character be that person.  Like any person, your readers will get to know him, and if they know so much about him at the beginning, just the sheer amount of information becomes part of his personality, and it weighs the story down.  And the story is what's important here.

Part II coming soon.