Friday Exercise – Compiling Conflicts

A crisis occurs in your story.  Doesn’t matter what kind of crisis; any crisis will do.  Obviously, that means there’s conflict occurring – but don’t stop at one conflict.  Dig a little deeper into the situation, and find at least 3 forms of conflict within this one event.

As an example, say one character is threatening another.  The obvious conflict here is one character vs. another.  But then there’s the threatened character’s response to account for – are anger and fear battling for dominance?  The desire to strike first vs. the fear of repercussion or vs. the desire to do the “right thing”?  What about other external factors?  Is another character pushing one of the others toward a certain decision, angling for a certain outcome?  Or is the threatener internally conflicted, too?  Or do the police get involved?  And are there legal considerations at odds with one another in this instance?

The more angles you have on any conflict you write about, the more depth you can put into it, the more you can make it count, the more your characters will come across as “real people”, and the more intriguing the events themselves will be.

Stereotype Busting: The Token Chick

While I love a well-written strong female character, and appreciate that women get better roles in rip-roaring adventure stories these days than we used to, I’d rather have a story with no women than with badly written ones.  Most guys probably feel the same way about romance novel men.

Top 5 most annoying things in a token, stereotyped “strong female” character:

1.  She’s always right.  No way is anyone always right, and making a token strong female character always right just makes her annoying.

2.  She’s the only woman in the world, somehow.  All the men in the story are interested in her.  Sure, most people are attracted to confidence and strength, but if she’s the only confident, strong woman around, then she’s clearly just a token to equality and not a real person at all, which defeats the purpose of having a token to equality in the first place and gives you a lousy character.

3.  She’s got to be pretty.  Really?  Always?  We can have guy heroes who are scarred up, fat, or funny-looking yet somehow charming in spite of it, but our heroines have to be slim, young, and pretty?  Get over it.  Charlotte Bronte already proved you can have a good heroine without good looks with Jane Eyre, and that was in 1847.  Especially since it’s a book.  No one is going to see your heroine unless you hit it big and get movie rights, in which case they’ll have someone pretty play her, anyway, no matter what you wrote.

4.  She’s either 100% good and pure or

5.  She’s 100% ruthless and cruel.  Either way, she’s a lousy character, and I don’t know that being an aggressive, hateful person is the same thing as being a strong person.  Nor is being stupidly naive and just pretty enough to get away with it.

Friday Exercise – Pantheon

I feel like throwing out a purely-for-fun exercise today.  Maybe someone will get something out of it (maybe I will), or maybe it’ll just be fun.  Fun is never a bad thing, though, right?

If your main character were a member of some ancient pantheon of gods and goddesses, what would he/she be the god or goddess of?  Which pantheon would he fit best in – Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, or some made-up fusion…?  What symbols would her temple be decorated with?  What animal would represent him?

The character I’m currently working on, I’d probably put in a made-up pantheon, and he’d be a minor trickster god of luck, brotherhood, and woodlands.  A god you want to stay on the good side of, as he thinks he’s exceedingly funny when he’s bringing down bad luck on someone.  I’m calling the birch tree and the otter as his sacred symbol and animal representative, respectively.  Why an otter?  They’re clever, slick, deceptively charming, and adaptable.  That’s why!

The Bad Side

It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people.  They’re okay.  They’re not offensive.  They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.

Wait, these are your characters.  You need people to give a damn.  You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives.  Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.

It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities.  It’s pretty simple.  A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior.  Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.

The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have.  You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden.  Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:

  • Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw.  I’ve written entries about this before on this blog.  Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency.  Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
  • You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you?  Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too.  Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
  • Plan ahead.  What character flaws would benefit the story?  If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book?  Great.  Make her cocky.  Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc.  Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
  • Balance characters against those closest to them.  You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character.  In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up.  That’s a heck of a place to start from.  If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother?  And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other?  How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
  • Dialogue.  How does your character interact with other characters?  Is he funny?  Cutting?  Brusque?  Does he interrupt?  Does she take the lead in conversation?  Listen more than she talks?  This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her.  Pay attention.  What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?

Friday Exercise – Wish List

Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book).  If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use.  For example:

  1. three friends as the central characters
  2. lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
  3. scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
  4. adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
  5. a dog

And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.

Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story.  List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with.  Fill in the details.  You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre?  Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different?  How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before?  You want an exotic setting.  Otherworld or real-world exotic?  If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research.  If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?

The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.

The Things You Remember

What’s weighing on my mind, at the moment, is the recent death of my friend Steve.  As I’ve said on this blog at least once before, one of the greatest benefits of being a writer is having a built-in process for investing painful emotions into a creative outlet.  It can come across as exploitation, particularly to non-writers, which is why (I think) many great writers have ticked off a lot of people.

Since Steve was both a writer himself and a hardcore fan of Hunter S. Thompson – who ticked off probably everyone he ever wrote about – I think he’d be perfectly happy, and possibly amused, to know that (a) he’s being thought about by his friends and (b) that some of us would mull over his death via writing, and perhaps gain some inspiration in the process.  Inspiring people was one of the things Steve enjoyed most.

The closest thing to a writing exercise I can come up with this week is this:  Think about the most important, most core aspects of people you know, the thing that would stand out about them if they were abruptly gone.  The stories you would tell about them to process their passing, the things that really make them tick, what they’re reaching for in life.  Even if you’re not a writer who bases characters on real-life friends, relatives, or acquaintances, looking at these things about real people can help you realize what’s extraneous detail and what’s the HEART of a person, real or fictional, or some combination of the two.  If you know that, everything else about a character will fall into place on its own.

Monstrous Considerations

Yes, I forgot to post on Monday.  Entirely forgot to post!!  It was my birthday, is my excuse.  But!  I did get inspiration for a post on Monday night and then was very confused when it was Tuesday the next day and I realized I had missed the correct posting day.

I’m generally behind the curve on movies, and the new King Kong directed by Peter Jackson is no exception – I saw it for the first time on Monday.  While I have a rather mixed-opinion Official View about the movie as a whole, when it came to Kong himself, I was wholeheartedly thrilled.  Five years old again and King Kong is my hero, the best thing in the world, a miracle on screen.  As a kid, I would likely have taken a bullet to save Kong (in spite of the fact that such a sacrifice would probably not have helped the situation) if that gives you any idea how firmly rooted in my childhood psyche the gigantic gorilla really was.

I’m a sucker for monster movies in general, especially the old ones, and the “monsters” like Kong – who simply are what they are, doing what they do naturally, pure, natural, intelligent, and destroyed essentially because of their inconvenience to humans (because they don’t fit into our world) – are the ones I fall the hardest for.  There’s an innocence to such monster archetypes, an incomprehension in the face of betrayal and manipulation and dishonesty, that makes us pull for them.  Particularly in the case of King Kong, since it wasn’t even his fault he ended up in New York.  He was minding his own business, being awesome and fighting dinosaurs, until the stupid Americans showed up and decided to make money off him.

Anyway, the point for writers here is a lesson in sympathy and vulnerability.  Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein’s monster…they’re all big (Frankenstein’s monster far less so than the first two, but he’s really just a smaller scale of the same archetype), powerful, capable of sweeping destruction, have bad tempers, and aren’t easy to take down.  You’d think that would add up to their being the “bad guy”, but viewers pull for them instead.  There’s something about the fact that anything so big and strong can still be hurt, can still be betrayed, can still die, and not even comprehend why everyone is out to destroy them, that makes them lovable (or at least sympathetic).  In King Kong’s case and in Frankenstein’s monster’s case in particular, it’s heart wrenching to see them taken down, confused and angry, because they had bonded with humans, had shown intelligence and the capability to reason and love and appreciate the world around them.

Maybe you don’t write in a genre where monsters are a feasible character type, but any of this can be applied just as easily to a regular ol’ human character – if someone has a lot of power, whether it’s physical strength or political clout, people will inevitably want to cut them down to size, and if your strong character isn’t pure evil (which would be lazy writing) that will garner them some sympathy, even if (and maybe more so because) they make mistakes.  A character with a terrible temper can be tragic in their ability to strike fear into people they don’t want to drive away.  Unquestioning and misplaced trust or innocence of deception can make for an extra-poignant vulnerability in an otherwise intense, dominant character you’d never expect to get hurt.

And I would still be King Kong’s real friend, because he deserves one.

Friday Exercise – Special Occasion

There’s an occasion or event of some kind – a holiday, a city-wide celebration, a party, etc.  Write an interaction between at least one character who’s excited about it and at least one character who’s dreading it.  No matter what they say aloud to one another about it, what are the real reasons they feel the way they do?  What’s under the surface for these people?  What associations do they each have with this occasion?

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?