Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Characters - Beyond the Second Dimension

We've all heard at one time or another that our characters are flat. Okay, so what do you, as an author, do with that? Well, it isn't enough to know that you're characters are flat, you need to know in what area they fall flat in.

Characters can be flat in a couple different ways: personality, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. So, if you're having trouble figuring out just how your character(s) fell flat enough for someone to comment on them, ask them to elaborate.

How do you stand that character up and give him or her enough mass to hold themselves upright?

If it's merely a case of the reader wanting to know more about the physical appearance and description of your character, ask them what they feel is lacking. Maybe the problem isn't necessarily lack of detail, but how long the reader has to wait to find it. Be sure to put a face to that name early enough to draw the reader in, even if the current features are temporary and might be different from the true ones. It will help the reader put things into the proper context.

If you're not sure how to get your descriptions any clearer, maybe you need to test your description skills. The best way to do that is to start with your own body and how you would describe it. Then, give that description of yourself to your significant other and ask them to guess who you are describing. Then you might want to move on to other people (family and friends) that may be in a position to recognize your physical description. See how many people guess that it's you? If some have trouble, ask they why? Maybe you left out some key detail that helps cement the picture in their head.

As a test, repeat the exercise for a couple of other people you feel you know very well and then test your description with the people who may be in the best position to judge your description and see if they can guess it correctly. The results can tell you a lot about yourself and your relationships with others. How observant did you find yourself to be? If others found your descriptions lacking, you've just identified a weakness. The best way to fix this is to observe people and try to describe them. The more you practice, the better you'll be.

If their seems to be issues with the personality, psychology, or emotional nature of your character, the problem may be that you did not dig deep enough into your character's mind and you need to go back and pick it some more.

How do you do get deeper in to a character's head?

Well, the first thing I suggest that you do is think about yourself and what makes you tick. Make up a realistic situation, put yourself in it as the main character and consider how you fit into all of the facets of it. What would motivate you? How would you react in this situation? What would your thought processes be? If you aren't sure, talk it through with the person who knows you best and ask them what they think you'd do and see if you agree with what they came up with. If not, why not? This might help you arrive at your answers. How do you're life experiences effect your answers?

Once you get some sort of understanding of yourself, move on to other people that you know (male and female). How would they react in the same situation? Do you understand what would motivate them in that situation and what their thought process might be? If not, then you need to discuss this activity with them and find out how they answer the questions to try to see what makes them tick.

The interesting thing about this type of exercise is that you learn a lot about yourself and your relationships with other people. If you were able to answer them in some way, you need to test how accurate you were. Who do you think you know better, your family or your friends? To see how well you really did, talk to them and find out how close you were.

Be sure to understand how their life experiences effect their decisions. That can help you better understand a character type you chose to write about and help you to dig deeper into your character's head to find the missing pieces.

If you did very well, the problem could be that you just need to add a few more well placed details to make a more complete picture to help the reader understand your character better. Maybe the problem is that you don't understand the character type well enough (soldier, car salesman, etc.) and you need to do more research into character types.

Yes, a character interview/questionnaire can be helpful and informational, but it won't take you very far if your understanding of your chosen character/character type is lacking. The best way to discover this is when readers or others, "in the know," tell you.

Another way to give your character substance lies with the emoting and the, "show don't tell," approach. To really make an impact here requires two things - physical gestures and speech descriptions. Sure, a character may be smiling when he says something, but how does he say it and what kind of smile is it? Does he have a sarcastic, bored (as in a sense of ennui), or devilish tone?

Another parameter to consider is the emotional and physical responses of the other characters involved, if there are any. How do they react to what he says and how he says it? Do they laugh and call him a card, are they offended and slap him before walking away, or are they downright scared with chills running down their spine?

What the character says and does when alone (especially a villain) can be very telling for motive and attitude towards other people.

Hopefully, I have helped you find a way to flesh out that character that's giving you trouble!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Unique Characters?

To me, one of the hardest parts about writing is creating unique characters. I'm always reading, so I am always finding new character types, but inevitably, I find that someone has already created a character similar to what I am working on. Of course, the character type is never exact, but close. It used to bother and frustrate me, but not anymore.

During an Ancient Egyptian Civilization course, we had a class discussion about the advancement of early civilizations. During that discussion, an argument was made that a civilization couldn't make huge strides all by themselves but had to be influenced by other societies and/or civilizations. Conversely, another argument of that discussion brought up the notion that all it took for a society to advance in great leaps is for one person to have an ingenious idea and for others to listen to and support that person. Which means, that it is totally possible for two civilizations to evolve along the same lines even though they might be oceans apart. The over all point of the discussion was to say that human beings tend to think alike, or solve the same problems in similar fashions.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense. Think about it for a minute. Where might we be today if they actually listened to Galileo when he first proposed his thoughts? What about Kepler, Da Vinci, and all those other intelligent people who were considered heretics at the time, even though they were leagues ahead of their generation? I guess we might be a bit farther along than we are now, but maybe not.

So, if I can think of something neat and interesting, why shouldn't someone else be able to think of something similar?

When I accepted this as an inevitable possibility, I started to realize that it wasn't the character types that would be unique, but the personality that I breathed into each character that would make him or her unique. While I may find many people who think like me or experience some of the same things I do, ultimately, my voice will be different from theirs and the personality I give to a character will be different too.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Considering Time

Think about how ruled we are, as a society, by time. When we get bored, we look at the clock to see how much time until the lecture/meeting/workday ends. We look at the time to make sure we get to where we are going at the time we need to be there. Most of us are ruled by schedules and spend time coordinating our schedules with spouses, children and grand children. As a parent, you have to make sure there is enough time for everyone to get ready for school/work and that everyone gets where they are going. Does Jimmy have a ride home from soccer or football practice? How will Sally get to dance class this week? When do I have time to get to the gym?

Many of us have so many things going on that it's next to impossible to remember everything, so we use planners, calendars and PDAs to help us remember things like doctor appointments, meetings, birthdays and anniversaries. Even blogs give us the ability to program when we want a blog topic displayed. We have developed conveniences for our PDA/Blackberry/iPhone/laptop that save time by allowing email to be checked and written while having a telephone conversation.

Police even go to great lengths to recreate a missing person's schedule for the days prior to their disappearance.

With this in mind, ask yourself: How strongly does time matter when considering a story?

Well, in truth, that depends upon the story, doesn't it?

Or does it?

For most stories, time means everything. What I mean is that if you're writing a historical or regency, a lot of things need to be straight and correct to properly submerge the reader in the time frame in which you are writing. Sure, you know enough not to have anyone drink a soda or eat a Twinkie, but do you know enough to be able to name what brand of tea your character would drink or the prices of houses and such in that era? Well, if you're a history buff or a fan of those periods, you would. If you're a novice, like me, you wouldn't necessarily know all of those things, but you'd know how to find them. However, you don't have to be a history buff or a fan of the era to appreciate the effort an author takes to get things just right. An avid reader of historical novels can tell when something doesn't seem right or is out of place. Therefore, time means everything. To make a person truly believe that the story they are reading takes place in the past, the details need to be as right and true as possible.

How much does time really matter in science fiction or space themed stories?

This answer is a bit trickier. Why?

Well, it depends upon how long you want your books to be read and make sense. When most people write a futuristic tale, whether it takes place on or off earth, they try to pick a date far enough in the future so that the plot, storyline and futuristic creations make sense. The farther into the future a space travel story is set, the more comfortable we are with accepting what may or may not happen. Of course, there are other elements that go into building a world than just time, but for this post, time is all we are considering.

Back in the late 1800's and early 1900's and even into the 1950's, it was acceptable to use dates such as the 1980's, 1990's and 2000's as time settings for futuristic tales because no one had any clue as to what kinds of things could be made possible. In one such black and white movie from the 1920's or the 1930's, can't remember the name or exact date (I just know it was old), I saw a brief clip of planes flying through tall skyscrapers, reminiscent of a Ratchet and Clank video game. However, if you didn't take into consideration the date in which it was created, it would lose it's futuristic appeal. However, it was funny to think that people of that time thought that the popular mode of transportation of the future would be the airplane. What's even funnier, when you think about it, is that we are still trying to make cars fly.

Because much of the younger generations tend to have difficulty accepting or appreciating well crafted movies and books of the past, they end up being remade and "modernized." Dukes of Hazzard, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, Batman, Superman and Star Trek are some titles that come to mind.

Because of the way generations change in what they want/expect from books and movies, when choosing a futuristic time setting, it is just as important to consider how long you want your futuristic story to be considered "futuristic." Meaning, how many generations do you want to be able to appreciate your characters and storyline. Obviously, it's easier to write for the current generation and ignore future generations. Before you decide, please remember that those texts we consider to be classics are ones that anyone from any generation can enjoy. So you need to ask yourself this: Do you want to be among the ranks of Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, writers like H.P. Lovecraft or Ray Bradbury, or if you just want to be one of those authors that fades away with time and not remembered after you die? In other words, what is your target audience and how long do you want your work remembered?

Note, words like "bling," might be neat to use, but they will inevitably date your piece with a time stamp and can lose their appeal over time, so if you want to have some sort of, "pop culture lingo," in your piece, make it up according to what works best with your characters and storyline and make it easy for the reader to understand its meaning.

Time is more than just years in the past or future and in relation to what audience you focus your stories to, but it also helps to have a believable chronology of events. In other words, a timetable that makes sense.

Overwhelmed yet?

Hopefully, I can provide some clarity and relief.

The timetable/chronology must follow the logical time frame in terms of characters and technological advances. No matter what you choose to do with your characters in terms of aging, acquiring strength and having children, it must make logical sense or follow a pre-determined set of rules defined on the world you create, such as how many hours are in a day/night, days in a year, growth rate, etc. If characters on your world live longer lives, whether 100 or 1000 years longer than the average earth human, the way they handle their day-to-day lives needs to correspond appropriately as well as how they adjust to acquiring abilities. A person who lives to be over 1000 years probably won't view time the same way as someone who only lives to be 80 or 100 and may be more laid back or in less of a hurry than earth humans.

Time effects technology and technological advances as well. A reader may become disengaged if the existing technology, the way it's used and the rate at which it's developed seems unrealistic or unbelievable. The rate at which technological advances occur depends upon how much knowledge a group of people have to start with. If a group of people leave earth to colonize another planet, the time it takes to travel through space as well as how much knowledge (types of scientists and equipment, etc.) is brought with them must be considered.

When you bring in technology, you have to determine if the existing technology continues to work or not. If the technology fails, you need to determine how long it takes to fail and if the scientists have the abilities to determine why it fails and stop or prevent it. The timetable for experiencing any problem must be as believable as the time it takes for the characters to find a solution to the problem, if there is one. If there isn't a solution, reaction time comes into play. Reaction time depends upon character type, intelligence and availability of materials.

Time, something many of us take for granted, can be one of the most complex issues to deal with when writing. I hope I have managed to demystify some of it.

What methods do you use to deal with time issues?

Is there any aspect that still puzzles you or hasn't been covered enough?