Friday, September 7, 2012

We're Here To Pump Your Characters Up

This week, we're going to get into the thick of it, the very nuts and bolts of what separates forgettable fiction from memorable fiction -- character development! And boy, were the regular folks ready to open the floodgates on this one.


What "tricks" or routines do you have to help you chart or plot the development of your characters across a story arc?

Lee Houston Jr.: The answer, at least to me, is to remember that the character is not exactly the same person at the end of the story that he/she was at the beginning. Even if the most they experienced is the passage of a few hours/days, that is still time out of their lives. Granted, some events might not affect future stories, especially in episodic material, but the writer still has to remember that the characters have those memories even if the readers don't.

With that in mind, I stop and think about what I have planned for a story actually will affect the character(s). For example, while the events of his forth coming second book don't have much direct influence upon HUGH MONN, PRIVATE DETECTIVE, he does have an epiphany moment about his life during "Catch A Rising Star" that will be part of Book 3.

On the other hand, events in PROJECT ALPHA will have an ever present effect upon the superhero for a long time. Considering how Book 1 ended, it should come as no surprise that Alpha will wonder about his place in the universe within the pages of Book 2: Wayward Son.

Nancy Hansen: I'm assuming we're talking about main or pivotal characters here, and not the red shirt walk-ons that don't last beyond the chapter. Since I'm a visual thinker, and I'm going to be working with this individual for a while, I have to be able to see and hear her or him in my head. The first thing I do is find a name that seems appropriate, some kind of distinguishing mannerisms, and then I go looking for a picture online that kind of illustrates the idea for me. Since I have a lot of crossover characters between stories and books, this helps me cement the image I have. A lot of my stories start with the character first in some situation and the rest gets built around that.

For instance, Eann of Anders, the main character of the first Vagabond Bards tale, was a nameless person who came out of a vivid dream that story was based on. I had this mysterious male figure in a coat and hat playing a flute as he walked across a devastated battlefield looking for a woman he knew who had been beaten and tortured and was chained to a wagon. She handed him a little leather bound book. That was all I remembered when I woke up, but I wrote it down because it was just too good a visual to waste. While researching flutes, I stumbled across a promotional picture of Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull in the same basic outfit holding one of his flutes, and so my lonely bard got named and we were off and running with a brand new series. Lori of the Song Of Heroes (short stories) also came from a dream, where I could see a beautiful blonde woman on a beach pick up that magical bracelet in the sand and put it on, clasping the adjoining chain to a big pearl ring she was wearing. Then it wouldn't come off. Making her into Lorelei The Siren, doomed to repaying her past sins by violently wiping out little pockets of scum and villainy in the modern world just kind of suggested itself, and the bracelet became an important prop in summoning her fallen 'heroes' to do the heavy hitting.

Sometimes the names just pop into my head; Roshanna of The Huntress Of Greenwood was that way. I saw her long before I got any of her stories written, this buxom and feisty frontier ranger who is comfortable living by herself in an enchanted forest. Other times, names and character ideas get plucked out of real life. Levanti, the Elven Loremaster who figures so prominently in Fortune's Pawn and the books following it, was named after a local Greek American restaurant, though his character is sort of a blend of Spock from Star Trek and Native American wisdom.

I do borrow character traits from real life people around me too. Several of my recurring ones are based on people I find interesting. I have this woman in mind I want to use who was the head of the Special Ed Resource Room at my son's school. She was a big gal with a bright and bouncy personality, and a thick New Jersey accent. She always carried a humongous jangling ring of keys, one for every room in the school building. I so want to use her as a prioress or innkeeper!

I have a few difficult people in my everyday life I've used it stories too. They either get killed off in gruesome ways, or defeated on a regular basis.

I have a t-shirt that says, "Careful or you'll end up in my novel". It's best to take that warning seriously...

Selah Janel: I usually have a very concrete idea of where a character starts and where I want their growth to end. Sometimes I have specific plot points or ideas I want to cover and those will be highly plotted out, but I've learned to also leave a lot of leeway for characters to do their own thing and give me ideas, too. I've come up with much better plot ideas if I give them some breathing room and let the basic personalities I've set up give me input. Otherwise I may be trying to do something I think it interesting with a character personality that really isn't suited to that plot point.

Joe Bonadonna: I think of the voice and then "style" of an actor from Golden Age Hollywood, and then combine with someone I know/knew.

Tempus Thales: My characters that I use over multiple years or books have a catch-phrase or a mantra from previous uses that I use to invoke them if I need it. I know where they need to go, but leave it up to the story internal plotting to decide how they'll develop -- unless they're going to die, in which case that's known from the outset of a shorter arc. For the long arc (decades) characters, they and we develop together, mostly.

Mark Bousquet: I try to ask myself two questions: what is a character doing in this story and what is a character doing beyond this story. The first helps plot the overall narrative and the second helps plot the individual development. I don't worry about where the development is going but I do want to know where it starts.

Arman Tamzerian: I like the organic route, honestly. I let them develop themselves a lot of the time. Which is really odd when they do something I don't expect.

Jim Comer: I have a sort of mental picture of the character, and it contains answers to the basic questions about them. For example, Charthat, a monk, has dealt poorly with his same-sex urges and ends up falling in love; he is also a scholar but ignorant of religions outside his own.

Herika Raymer: I generally run the story mentally first, allowing the characters to make their decisions before writing it out. Then, while writing, fleshing out the details helps explain why they do what they do. I guess you could say I have a general idea of their motivations and personalities beforehand, give them a 'dry run' before setting the stage, and finally record what they do while listening to them talk/yell/scream/argue at or with each other.

What pitfalls most easily derail you from character growth as you get into the actually work of either typing or writing (for your old-school notepad types)?

Lee Houston Jr.: Sometimes it's recent events, because even if what you're writing is fiction, there can be uncanny parallels between what's on the printed page and real life. I had to strike a shootout from "Catch A Rising Star" because of the idiots who have been taking firearms to movie theaters over the summer. Yet I threw in more dramatic events that the Shambalans suffered during PROJECT ALPHA to show exactly how evil Conalaric was, despite the parallels with some Earthly happenings.

Other times it's wondering if you're on the right path with what you're doing. I debated long and hard whether or not Hugh should have a girlfriend. On one hand, even the private detective has debated the merits of being during the course of Book 2. Whether or not the relationship works out is something only the future will reveal.

Nancy Hansen: Never had a huge issue with that in writing my own stuff. Some take longer to develop than others, but eventually they all come through. Now and then I get a side character that demands his or her own story... I run into more problems when I'm trying to write someone else's character. It takes me a while to get to know them and so I'm pretty picky about the projects I do. In the two Pulp Obscura stories I wrote, both of which were in genres I've never worked in, I had a tougher time getting the character in the same voice as the original writer than I thought I would. Adding in my own guest characters was a lot of fun though.

Selah Janel: Sometimes I let them have a little too much breathing room, especially if it's a longer story. I'll start really getting tickled by things they might get up to or tangent subplots that really won't contribute to the main story. I've learned to jot these ideas down for future reference, but to be firm in leaving some of them behind to keep everything on track and cohesive. And sometimes I'm still dead set in doing a certain scene or getting a certain reaction from a certain character, without taking into account that they really don't want to act that way or that it isn't true to their personality. I've learned that sometimes you just have to re-work some scenes or else they turn out really forced.

Joe Bonadonna: Since Dorgo is my only "series" character, and tales are told in 1st person, the story always centers around another character, who goes through an arc; he's the main but there's always a central character. 

Tempus Thales: No deterrents come to mind except poor concentration: when that happens, I go back to the last place I was connected and get rid of any wrong turns; I only have a very few characters whose growth is not targeted over multiple volumes in a series: the characters I work with tend to face their fates head-on, and we choose the scenes properly so that character growth and challenge are inherent in the story scenes; if I'm too tired to do the needful and I write a "marking time" section, I simply rip it out.

Mark Bousquet: I wouldn't say I get derailed, but I would say the story will often cause me to switch tracks.

Jim Comer: I let plot derail character, and it's a problem.

Herika Raymer: When a character decides to do something contrary to what is expected. Many writers will admit to this happening. The general outline is done, things are going smoothly, then BOOM - one of the characters does something strange. Either that, or the proposed solution did not have the result that was intended - which happens too. Rather frustrating.

Are there times or genres in which your character's development isn't as crucial or can be a deterrent to readers, such as series books where a character should be consistent across titles? How do you make that work?

Lee Houston Jr.: I think the most difficult genre is licensed properties. Although THE NEW ADVENTURES OF THE EAGLE has been the only volume published thus far, for the Pulp Obscura stories I contributed, I read everything that was published in the past, and then wrote my tales as if they were the next stories in the series. However I left things exactly how I found them at the end.
Another issue is the passage of time. While months may have passed between books, how much time (if any) should pass for the characters?

Which also raises the all important issue of continuity. Stan Lee is accredited as saying "Every issue is someone's first issue." Even if a new reader's first volume is the latest book in an ongoing series, it should be readily accessible or else you won't gain new readers. Yet you also cannot contradict yourself, for long time readers are savvy enough to instantly pick up on any inconsistencies.

But how do I make that work? Ah, that's the secret to good writing, and thankfully I've honed my skills at walking that tightrope.

Nancy Hansen: Traditionally in Pulp there seemed to have been a dearth of character development, as the focus was squarely on an action plot. You gave the character his or her props, a couple of stock quirks, and you're off and running. It's a formula that still works. I'm a big REH fan, and I'm thinking of Conan as I'm writing this. Describe him and you get big and muscular, strong and fierce, deadly with weapons, ruthless and brutally effective; by Crom... Doesn't say much about his personality, other than brooding and easily angered. It's all about the action. Conan isn't a thinker, he's a doer, and he's always doing something.

I came into writing pulp from mainstream Sword & Sorcery fantasy, where whole parties of characters peopled a tale, each with their own little back story arc and issues to resolve. Those books tend to be long and detail heavy, so you can get away with that. Once I started writing pulp, one of the hardest things to learn was how to get the necessary character info across quickly without slowing down the pace, in a novel that was 1/3 as long. Once you master that, the story dictates the rest and the character follows through in her or his own special way. I do a lot of series work, so I reuse characters quite often, whether in novels or short stories, and so consistency is important. One of the nice things about series writing is your character can develop over subsequent appearances, so you don't have to shove all those details into one story. The trick is to show those changes in the midst of whatever is going on, not have the character stop the action and begin yakking about it.

Selah Janel: It depends. For me, a series is where I really want the characters to progress. I get suspicious of characters that are brought back for three, seven, ten books and don't change. Extended events change people. However, I think things like comics are a little different. You generally want Batman to always act like Batman, though I'd argue that he's a fairly static character in short term arcs who has a huge growth overall. In a lot of horror, especially stories that are based on a specific idea or punchline, it isn't always conducive for the characters to experience a lot of growth. Usually they're more of the straight man to the situation/monster/horrible thing that they're up against. Anything that's a Twilight Zone/Tales from the Crypt/Creepy kind of story usually is more about the situation/punchline than the character. There are exceptions, but even with a more literary set up like Twilight Zone, there isn't a huge amount of character growth in an individual episode. If that's what's needed, than as a writer it's my job to hold back and focus on what the character's desires and motivations are for that specific moment in time. It's a much smaller focus than in a story, book, or series that is based around the growth of a person or cast of people. Same with a lot of message stories. In my work, characters in a piece like 'The Other Man' whose main action revolves around one argument aren't going to have much growth. They may reveal secrets, they may come to a certain understanding, but they aren't necessarily going to evolve. The point of that sort of story is to show a problem that exists, and how those types of personalities deal with it and what comes of it. Something like my book 'In the Red,' however, revolves around how the main character falls prey to temptation, goes down a very indulgent and dark path of separation, and then fights to come back to himself. That path of action is much more dependent on who the character of Jeremiah is, what he's dealing with, and how he will be affected and evolve. Originally that story was much shorter and more of a narrative punchline story, but he was a character that demanded attention. I was wrong with my original intention, and it's a much better story because that character demanded room to progress where my instinct was to keep him penned in.

Joe Bonadonna: His three new tales see a change in his character, picking up after the first six tales: what he undergoes has changed him, has made him somewhat meaner, and a lot tougher. I followed the "Michael Corleone" arc. He's stil a good guy with a sense of humor -- but now you just don't want to tick him off: he's had enough. Not sure where he goes from there. I do have some very strange ideas for him, though.

Tempus Thales: For long series, such as The Sacred Band where I wrote first a story a year, then multiple novels over many years, I disagree that the character should be "consistent" across the long story arc: that character still must grow, expand, learn and change, but such characters need to be defined for each new volume based on where they are in their growth when the story starts; it's impossible and unhelpful to detail their entire past experience when a character has a million words under its belt. Sometimes I put a life-changing scene up front in these cases, so that both the new and old readers of the series get the same bump; the character is defined by what he does and says facing that new challenge, and I can have other characters muse on his past, or he can, in tidbits here and there -- saves lots of unnecessary typing.

Mark Bousquet: Sure. As important as character development is, not every character needs to be developed across every story. Sometimes secondary characters can remain basically unchanged for a good long while to help create the background of a story (like, say, J. Jonah Jameson).

Arman Tamzerian: I don't believe so. I think that character development is important. That said, in short, one shot style stories, there is no need to spend 2000 of your 5000 words contriving character development.

Jim Comer: It is not always necessary to spend a lot of time describing characters when there is a plot to pot. Characterization needs to take place while the plot unfolds, not in spite of it.

Herika Raymer: Unfortunately not sure I can answer this one as my serial characters have not been published yet. Though I have gleaned that character development is still preferred in serials, otherwise it gets a bit stagnant. The key is to have them grow in each story in one or two aspects, not altogether. That way, at the end of the series, it makes it all the more fun.

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