Tag Archives: Characters

Guest Post: Dare to be Stupid

(…with apologies to Weird Al)

One of the things I noticed the other day in a conversation with Wordsmith was that I tend not to write stupid characters. My protagonists are invariably clever, brainy, wisecracking, wise, and have things to teach the secondary characters. On the Hero’s Journey, I am the wizard.

It’s not that I’m afraid to write characters who don’t know a lot, or who lack intelligence, it’s just that I don’t live in that headspace. I learned to read and write when I was three, and I was testing in at 12th grade reading levels in fourth grade — by the time I was nine. I’ve been called a geek and a nerd for decades, and it wouldn’t be far off, considering my love for science fiction, fantasy, and all the shades of worlds between.

When I write mystery novels, the detective always solves the crime at the end. (Can you imagine a mystery novel where the detective -doesn’t- solve the crime at the end?) The point of a mystery novel is that the mystery is solved and the villain (usually) is caught, or at least their crimes are foiled and justice prevails. Otherwise the reader is left without a sense of fulfillment for taking the journey of discovery with the detective.

The ending _has_ to make sense.

…orrrrr…. does it?

At one point in my writing training I took a class writing for children. One of the things they said was to observe children in their natural headspace — and you discover pretty quickly that Kid Logic Doesn’t Make Sense All the Time.

At one point in my comedic improv training we had a workshop where we were encouraged to let our grips on what Reality Was slip, in order improve our improv skills — to act like kids again, turning the ordinary into extraordinary. Where a bus wasn’t a bus anymore, but a spaceship. And nobody questions you if they’re playing along, but the adults are quick to deny your reality substitution (hat tip to Adam Savage).

Wordsmith and I had the privilege of keeping company to someone’s six year old, who blithely ignored the conversation of the adults around them playing their own alternate reality game (Ingress) to talk about her plans to build a Cheetah Machine, so she could go fast in some sort of race she was participating in. That sparked an idea for a story about her kid characters (which originated from a prompt I gave her: ‘show me your main character’s childhood favorite TV show and cereal….’). “Build a Cheetah Machine” is now one of our inside jokes.

“Stupid” is a stigma. We live in a literary society, where the lack of the ability to read and write is a barrier to communication, something to be embarrassed about. And yet we all started out without that ability at one point in our lives — and many of us are still ignorant of foreign languages, written and spoken. No matter how much I claim to be a writer and speaker, airdrop me in Russia and I am mute and unable to read street signs.

We should never, therefore, consider someone’s lack of ability to communicate on our level to be ‘stupid’ — but rather simply unable to meet us on our literary landscape.

And that brings me around to the front of this article — I’ve gotten too used to operating on my own level when it comes to building ‘my’ character in my universes. It’s my strong voice, yes. But expanding my palette of personae ought to mean getting out of my comfort zone. Creating a believable Luddite or similar without being trope-ish or cliche’ — those are caricatures of people rather than real people.

In reality, _all_ characters who grow are ‘stupid’ in their own way — not for lack of intelligence, but for lack of knowledge of needed skills or understanding to prevail against obstacles. Even our vaunted hero, be he or she a superscientist with PhDs or a celebrated crime detective, comes into the story with no specific truths defined save what they bring in with them. We follow them as they make false assumptions, or did not bring the right tools to address an obstacle, and we see them fail, not once, but multiple times. We see them struggle with their lack of actionable intelligence and learn from the experience in order to win the day. Their insights and deductions do not pay off on page 1, 2, or 3, but more like 201, 252, or 303, when they are (by the author’s decree) now smart enough to put all the pieces together to solve the puzzle.

No matter how outwardly smart a character may be, they are just as clueless as the people around them — the difference is that they step up to the head of the class first. But the wizard may be there ahead of them, giving them that added Cliffs Notes study guide to get off the ground, or redirect them when they fall off the rails.

So this one is for me; the next character I write? Will have no clue. I can be the Moon Moon if I want to be. I do not need to know how to Cat at the front of the tale. I do not Need To Be The Smartest Person in the Room, because when I was in school, I rarely was. And it was fine then, and it can be fine now.

It’s a worthy challenge, and I plan to play dumb and feel it out. We were all clueless once, and it’s been awhile since I remembered how. My head is full of trivia, and I got a swelled head because of it, when people react, ‘How do you _know_ that?” — the older I get the more I remember, and so it’s been tough to pretend not to know things.

You should all play with me. We’ll build our Cheetah Machines together and have a race.

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Diversity

I like to think I have a wide variety of characters. I have military personnel, a woman who has a psychosis, a guarded air force pilot who’s strong willed and hard up front, a politician, a struggling artist, aliens who come from a different world into another to try and make their lives in a less hostile place, space faring dinosaurs that want nothing but to gnaw on all the mammals in the universe, though some of them are more peacekeepers than warlords.

Last year, I found out my dentist actually writes novels, and crazy, wild, awesome ones. Erotica, body farming, time travel. It was incredible to me to find this out, someone I’d been going to for years and I just found this out.

It made me stop to look back at myself, what I was doing, how I was doing it. It made me see the space opera I was writing and wonder how it compared, see how tame or crazy it was.

What I didn’t do was look at the dynamic, and look at the details and pieces that haven’t been done much or at all. The childless 42 year old female leader who wanted to forge ahead in her career first. The elderly couple who still enjoys having sex. The equality that is so marked in every chapter. The naval officer who is filled with a sense of dread every time he thinks of his child wanting to sign up for the military like he did. Things you just don’t hear about. Sex drives and fear in places where honor should be and courage in people you wouldn’t expect, and the hardened, all-or-nothing attitudes from women.

I’m not saying no one else has done it. I didn’t get the idea because of my own pure genius, but because I was affected by something similar.

But looking at that, I see that I have another list. People and topics and character dynamics and details to fit in that I haven’t done before. Transgender characters don’t come to me immediately for the same reason mothers and fathers don’t unless they’re for established characters. I’m not one. It’s not because I don’t like them, it’s just that it isn’t in my arsenal of what I know yet, but that’s easy to fix by at least making an effort to make one or several.

I still need to write a same-sex romance with men, I’ve done several with women. I need a transgender character, I need mothers, fathers, I need aunts and uncles and close knit, bigger families, I need aromantic people, I need genderless people, I need color and I need spice, I need more, to really push myself, to test my limits.

And looking at this post right now, it looks a lot like I’m saying, “I NEED to do all these things for equality in every way!” But the nature of the writer is to dig in deep on unknown territory and just go. If I don’t give myself that chance, I have an unexplored avenue that I might actually know how to do some justice, like the short story I wrote about a polyamorous triad starting a family. It had quirks and bits and pieces that made it more unique.

Tropes are tropes are tropes. They aren’t ever going to be something else, but ‘trope’ isn’t a bad word if you give it your own personal spin, if you know how to cover it in your own spice and put it out on your stage and tell it exactly what to do.

What really matters is letting yourself explore, because keeping yourself in a box isn’t challenging yourself, it’s not forcing you to think critically and research and reach out and wonder, and I think that’s what I love.

You will always have something, a character, a genre, a setting, that you’re strongest with, that is your best bet to do the best justice possible, but let yourself learn, too. Familiar is only so good to you for so long before it tends to get a little worn. When there’s a whole wide world of knowledge and creativity and color out there, choose not to stand in place.

The Novice Wordsmith

Developed

I have an infamously naive and youthful character, who I’ve been writing for years now, a little over five. In all of that time, she’s found out lies about her past, her family, what was expected of her and how she was conceived. She’s gotten closer to some family and further from others. The demise of the one who wrought ill on her may have only been suggested, but because we never got to finish that story.

I’ve put her through her paces in all of this time. I threw her in a huge storm in the middle of the ocean and watched her spiral into an unknown, uncharted island, to get herself back to the world she came from with the help of other stranded strangers.

She fell in and out of love. She was introduced to people/things that could help her in her journey, has unlocked a lot of power and potential, and has even surpassed the strength of her father. She isn’t a stranger to sex, or trauma, or extremes. Time and again, when she’s forced to stand up, she doesn’t hesitate.

What I expected in all of this time was for her youthfulness to transform. To watch her go from this giggling, excitable young girl to a seasoned woman who knew how to push through and show up for what was right. Instead, she’s persevered, and held on to that brightness, that light of hers that shines when she smiles and even when she doesn’t.

I never really considered that the change was a little deeper for her. On the outside, I still see her and write her and feel like she is the same excitable, impossibly optimistic young woman who strives for the best. On a deeper level, under the surface, I see that she knows what must be done in some situations, she knows right from wrong and has a strong sense of morality. What was shaped in the roughness she was thrown into was her ability to adapt to situations and protect those she cared for at any cost.

I’d had other characters get put through their paces and turn out jaded and cynical and unkind for it. What I expected was much of the same, but that’s just not who she is.

Development comes in all shapes and sizes, I realize, after some consideration on this particular character. It doesn’t all have to be extreme, some are more resilient than others. It can be light, it can be heavy, but in the end, whatever it is will be true to who that character really is.

In other words, the surface isn’t the only place to look for a change. Sometimes you have to dig into the cushions.

It adds a whole new dimension to things, to the story, and to the character herself. And I kinda like it that way.

The Novice Wordsmith

I see Tropish People

About a month ago, I got a new job. It’s about ten times more exciting, stressful, and emotional than the one I had before. I also cannot write at that one, I’m too busy getting people checked in, checked out, and reuniting people with their pets.

There is a lot more traffic at this place, an animal hospital that I’ve been wanting to work at for years, now.

Whereas before, I used to see inspiration every so often in a few people who came or went, or in the people who lived at the facility, it’s about ten fold now. When traffic is higher, when there’s more going on, there’s more to see and notice and understand.

And I freaking love it!

People watching, as I’ve said before in so many other journals, is one of my favorite past times. It’s how I make new characters, come up with odd new conflicts or find a new novel angle. To see tropes played out in person has a wild effect, a fun one, one that makes me want to write them into a story somehow.

One of my first days was one of my favorites. Big man, with a police chief’s badge on his breast pocket. Frowning, he seemed unapproachable.

Except there was a small bichon frise puppy in his arms and he was making kissy faces at it, wiggling his fingers in front of its nose and teasing it to bite him. He mentioned it was his wife’s dog, but you could tell how attached he was to it.

Then there was the upset businessman who had a conference call at 3 pm and this is why he picked a 2 pm vet visit, so he could make that call. He left in a huff just five minutes to 3.

Or the blue collar couple who came in with their little yorkie, calling her a diva. Small woman with a big attitude, probably a waitress– though she was nice the entire visit– and her husband, the larger, quieter manual worker.

That was just within the first week. I’ve met countless others. It turns my head into a storytelling wonderland. I come up with backgrounds for people I don’t know, little maybes or what ifs depending on their attitude or their language, bodily or verbal. I see the tropes everywhere, and it isn’t hard to imagine what’s behind the front, the same thing you see in every movie or show or novel, but what may be is something wildly different than the norm.

This is definitely a good job for me. Even though the emotions and tensions run high, I really enjoy it. The people, the puppies, the kittens, and the staff all make it worth while.

-The Novice Wordsmith

Storytelling: One Size Does Not Fit All

A couple of months ago, I was on my way out to get my hair done by a friend of mine, a stylist, whose salon happened to be thirty minutes from where I live. Being a new driver, and it being my first time going out there on my own, I elected to take streets instead of the highway. I’d gone through the directions in my head constantly since the night before, quizzing myself on where to go and where to turn and where not to turn, what to look for, etc. My sister had only driven us out there once, and it was with the highway, but she had helped me figure out the route without it, and I’d tried to run myself through the paces I remembered when she drove us.

So I’m driving, and it’s getting close to the point where there’s the highway and the way I take. She said, stay left, so I stayed left, and I got myself on the highway on complete accident, for the second time in my life, and freaked out.

Okay, pause.

I’ve told this story a handful of times. Once to the stylist friend, in a humorous tone, laughing at myself and the situation after I’d gotten through it, once to my sister, halfway into hysterics and worried like hell, and a couple times to other friends, highlighting the craziness and my exasperation with what happened.

I noticed, immediately after I told my stylist about getting lost and making my way safely to her chair, that I told the story differently to her than I did to my sister. And then again when I told it to friends, and Friend. Now, to you, this is cut and dry and I’m emphasizing different points.

Each person we talk to has a different understanding and view of us. We have a relationship with them that allows us to have deeper conversations, or it stays shallow and we don’t bother them with how we were feeling. That doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s curious to consider. Shallow relationships yield shallow conversation and the deeper yield, of course, more robust explanations.

It was just interesting to note, because I’d never noticed it before. How could I be practically crying on the phone with Angie when I’m trying to navigate my way through a mostly unknown city and then turn around in fifteen minutes and laugh my ass off with Vicki about it?

Because I have a deeper connection with one and I don’t have half the bond as I do with the other.

And then I applied it to characters. Their comfort level with the other character in question greatly dictates what they have to say about the situation or event playing out. How guarded or cavalier they are about what’s going on with them, how personal it is, and who engaged the conversation also has a huge impact on how it goes.

It seems so obvious, when you think about it, it’s just natural, but then you observe it in your own life and it makes you stop in your tracks.  What you say to people is largely based on your relationship together and the trust you have with them.

Something to chew on for the weekend, I think. Or to put to the test with a variety of different characters!

😉

-The Novice Wordsmith

Static versus Round

Every storytelling aspect can be applied to real life, in different ways. Tropes, climax, conflict, heroes and anti-heroes, and, most of all, round (or dynamic) and static characters.

I found this particularly true for the round and static character explanation over the past several months, but it got more into the dynamics and elements of storytelling itself with some fundamental things changing or being different than normal.

Static characters are not typically in the forefront of the story, for example. Every main character I’ve read has had a change of heart or a change of life and has handled it differently in the end than they would have in the beginning. They are round, and called such for the change, the fact that they are always curving and turning when you zoom in on the lines.

I digress, the fact is that there is a shift in view or perspective for those dynamic characters, they learn and in turn their actions change.

Recently, though, I realized that a friend of mine hadn’t changed much or at all, and her perspective, her reactions, her general disposition had all remained the same. When asked a question lately that she’d been asked years ago, her answer was the same.

People who are immovable in many ways are usually the secondary or tertiary characters, or in the background somewhere. They matter less because the main storyline relies on a lot of change, it relies on conflict creating a different view, it’s why you read the story in the first place, to see how something progresses. The definition of progress is ‘movement to a goal or further to a higher stage.’ How do you get there if your sights are in the same place?

Could a story technically still survive with a static character in the front? It becomes more about their struggles and their daily life and how they handle it. Sure, because you’re highlighting the way of life, there’s a message in there somewhere.

Then again, if that’s all you wrote, wouldn’t your writing become very limited?

Someone who is not open to learning or change is stifling the ability to become a better version of themselves. I mean those who outright refuse.

There is a story to be told there, but, as the name suggests, dynamic characters have a lot more possibilities.

I have to admit that I’ve never met someone so stubborn and unwilling to change, someone so against the idea. In 25 years, I’ve met one or two who don’t fully grasp the concept of learning and being shaped by ideas and the world around them. They understand it plenty, but they refuse to let it take hold.

The thought had me wondering about main characters, about stories and novels, and how many of the main characters don’t budge, don’t change or get shaped by the way their world moves. What kind of story does a character like that make for?

In contrast, a lot of my characters tend to be like me in that they thirst for knowledge. Some, like secondary or tertiary characters, aren’t given that much dimension, so they remain static. So there’s a difference there between refusal and not being given the chance.

Usually, how you hear about static characters is by the fact that they aren’t the ones the story’s changing is directed at. They aren’t going through conflict. They simply look on from the sidelines. They are a stationary piece of the puzzle themselves.

Which reminds me of Welcome to Nightvale’s deep quote from the other day: “Death is only the end if you assume the story is about you.

Whether it’s a story you’re writing or your own story, static and dynamic characters are everywhere, and each have a place. Just as it is in what we write, our life has lessons for us, if we choose to see it that way. We are what the story makes us, if we’re willing to accept that.

What kind of character will you be?

-The Novice Wordsmith

Dare: Summarize

Today’s dare is not character or plot centric, but in consideration of your whole novel(s), short stories, or scripts, or articles.

When you pick up a book, look at the back or the inside flap, and you’ll see, obviously, a summary of what’s going on. This pulls you in, gives you an idea of what you’re about to read, and a glimpse at what is about to happen within the pages. They are what we rely on when we decide if we want to read a book or not, usually.

Write a cover summary like this for one of your works. How would you word the conflict? Think about how engaging the first sentence is, would you want to keep reading on?

Don’t hesitate to look at examples, either. There’s a format and a tone typical to those brief pieces.

If you’ve already done something like this before, think about how you felt about it. Would you do anything differently? Do you like doing it, or would you rather have someone else do it for you?

This exercise, as I see it, is a good way to help you look at your work at a different angle. Summarizing, you are able to make broad strokes about what’s contained in all of your thousands (or less than) of words. Though vague, it helps to come up with a bigger picture. In that, it forces you to think about what are the most important points of the work.

If your weakest point is summarizing, or you have a big piece of work in front of you, this can also be a very helpful exercise, seeing as it helps you pick out what to mention and what needs or doesn’t require any wordspace.

Most of all, good luck, if you plan to take on the challenge!

-The Novice Wordsmith

Re-Generator

As a writer, we rely on generators sometimes to help us when we’re stalling out. They help our creative flow and get us thinking, or they fill in where we can’t fill out.

I’ll say that I’ve seen map generators and name generators so far, but I have never seen an appearance generator until today, and I think it is going to be my favorite thing for quite some time.

BAM.

You just have a few things to do in the drop down menus, several specific choices to make, and then voila, it spits out something random for you. It can be as vague or as detailed as you like, including a few physical quirks. From there, be inspired, take or leave what it gives you, but I’m determined to think this is one of the most unique things I’ve seen in a while.

So in case you need it(especially for NaNoWriMo), this is at your disposal now! Have fun!

-The Novice Wordsmith

Dare: Collector

Just as much as one character says a lot about you, so too does what your roster look like.

Look at your stable of critters. There’s going to be some repetition in some traits of theirs, though they all treat it differently. Maybe there’s a few that are widowed, or they’ve just gotten out of a bad relationship. Some have children, some are still children, others are elderly.

Take a second to look at what you don’t have. Find something you haven’t done before and challenge yourself to come up with a character who has traits or does things that you haven’t written into before. Don’t hold yourself back from going wild, or, if you’d rather, create someone quiet.

A friend of mine once told me that he got flack for creating a wild and outrageous, and powerful, character, but the follow-up to that was, “if you want a character that’s a bartender or a farmer, that’s your business.”

Go between the spectrum, one extreme to the other, have a strong character, whose life and focus is on power, and have one whose life is less exciting in the violence department. Create a dentist. Or a UFC fighter. Or a brand new wizard whose fireballs only have enough power to knock over lampshades. Or a super soldier who has the best pedigree in the world.

“Add to your collection” of heroes, as it were, round out what you write. Go boldly where you haven’t gone before, whether it’s a library or an explosive war, and don’t let anything hold you back. Go all out. 😉

-The Novice Wordsmith

Prompt/Dare/Challenge: Meeting the Main Character

In a stroke of genius, I’ve sort of forgotten entirely about posting all day, but I need to share with you what happened yesterday, because I can’t let it rest, and I’m still buzzing from it.

So yesterday, Friend gives me an interesting prompt, after we had a conversation about ‘what do your characters say about you?’ Then he said, here, use this as a prompt. When he said, “No, seriously,” I paid attention, and it clicked and it would not let go. Like I said, still buzzing.

The prompt is this:  “If your characters could have lunch/dinner/breakfast/tea with you, what would they pick, and what would you talk about, and what would they think of you afterwards?”

Think about that. Really. Take one character at a time, and go out to meet them. How would they react, what would they say? Would you even get along? Try it with old characters, try it with brand new characters, fit yourself into a point in time of their life where you want to see them. Are they young, is it the latest moment you’ve put them in, or is it something in the distant past?

I’m still not done writing. I’ve had so many ideas and one today just pulled me under and wouldn’t let me breathe until I finished. When I step back and blink and have to remind myself to breathe after looking it all over, I think I did a pretty decent job.

Let your characters surprise you. I had one that switched in a direction I never expected, and I had so many other things I wanted to say, but that didn’t happen. The other was as complex as the character herself, and had so much dynamic and different elements implemented that wasn’t even intentional at first. Some will be simpler. There was one yesterday that had turned out to be a dud, but because I’d fallen out of sync with that character.

Go out to them, let them come to you, or have them contact you somehow. Are you strangers? Do they know you? Have you seen each other before? How much do they like or dislike you, and why, what do they have to say about what you’ve done to and for them? Do they know what kind of being you are, or have they never seen a human before?

As one of my favorite prompts of this month, let alone probably of this year, I hope you give it a chance, and I really hope you like it at least half as much as I did.

-The Novice Wordsmith