NaNoWriMo and Word Choice in Characterization

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NaNoWriMo and Word Choice in Characterization

As I sit here, we are anticipating some winter weather tonight and I am looking forward to it.  There is nothing like sitting inside on a snowy day with a fire in the wood stove and a warm mug in hand to write.

I must confess that I am well behind in my NaNoWriMo word count. The goal is 50,000 by the end of the month and I am just around 25,000. Yes, I am well behind but there is still a chance I can catch up, though it is a small one.

Basically, I would need 25,000 words in eight days. That works out to over 3,000 words per day. Granted, this is the weekend, so I will intersperse writing with everything I do. However, the 3 year old may have some different ideas of how we should spend the day and Daddy will be off hunting a good bit of the time.

Another confession, I have been going off on some mighty big tangents, working on short stories, and just plunking the thoughts down inside my NaNoWriMo document at the end.  It’s not my novel but it is adding to my word count. With my limited writing time, I just can’t afford to ignore the short stories when they show up.

Anyway, I picked up an interesting book on Southern writers and artists yesterday at the library for inspiration. Of course the thing that caught my attention was a well known picture of Eudora Welty on the cover. I leafed through it then listened to the first part of the CD interviews on the way home.  I’ve always enjoyed southern writing, the characters are so vivid, and I love listening to writers and other creative types talk about their craft and world view.  If you’re interested, the book is The Storied South .

Characterization keeps coming up for me this week. Characterization through word choice was a major topic in writer’s group last night. Afterward, as I was sitting down to work on my novel, I wrote the line “I don’t know, but I kinda doubt it.” for my Professor character. As soon as I was close to done typing it, my brain had already edited to read, “I don’t know, but I rather doubt it.” (Yes, contrary to all admonitions to keep writing, I do edit little things like that as I go.) Just a simple word choice can make such a difference in a character and I think I was aware of what I was doing because of the discussion in group.

Then today, I had a library patron ask me what the most commonly used silent letter in English was. He amended that to be British English. Hmmm. That sent me researching only to find out that there is Received Pronunciation, also known as The Queen’s English, and Estuary Pronunciation, which is all the dialects that change every 20 kilometers and is how most people speak. That really gave me some insight on how hard it is to right proper dialect. Having an ear for that must be very difficult. (It also makes me think of the Car Talk guys on PBS radio who could guess where people were calling from a large percentage of the time after just a sentence or two. )

So, the answer?  I didn’t come up with a definitive one. My best guess was that it was e.  I said they’d have to consult a linguist.

What do you think?  Do you have any tricks for bringing your characters to life?  I could use some tips to keep me thinking.

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Charting Your Characters for NaNoWriMo

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So, what do you really need to know in order to write a good character? There’s the basics –

  1. Height
  2. Build
  3. Hair color
  4. Eye color
  5. Temperament
  6. Job
  7. Hobbies
  8. Skills

Then there’s getting down to the nitty gritty.  I just picked up Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do by Meredith Maran and I’ve been enjoying the entries on the various authors tremendously. (I admit I’ve been skipping around instead of reading straight through.) Terry McMillan has an interesting way of creating characters. Years ago she picked up a job application for McDonald’s and fills it out for every single character in her books.  She goes further though. “I create a five-page profile for every one of my characters so I know everything about them: what size shoes they wear, if their hair is dyed, if they bounce checks, have allergies, what they hate about themselves, what they wish they could change, if they pay their bills on time.”

Now, maybe this isn’t completely necessary but I can sure see the benefit.  I’ve always been something of a “method” writer, getting inside the character and writing from the inside out.  I need to know whether my character would really do the things that I’m writing for them.  Will it ring true for the reader?  I figure if I know my character inside out, I can put them in a situation and I will know what they will do, how they think and how they will react.

I found a great job application out of Alaska at http://www.jobs.state.ak.us/forms/genapp.pdf  It asks the generic questions but in a way that gives you a broad idea of your character and lets you infer some interesting things.  For instance, if someone is willing, or even prefers, to work the graveyard shift – why?  Hmmm. Who would your character contact for references?  How about in an emergency?

4,000 Questions for Getting to Know Anyone and Everyone by Barbara Ann Kipfer offers some very specific questions that you could ask your character.  I think it’s a great book for a writer to have, but I don’t think I could possibly answer each one for all of my characters.  She does break it down into some good categories.  Some of these questions are hers and some are mine, but more are hers than mine.

Childhood & School

  1. Where did you grow up?
  2. Where did you go to school?
  3. What is your saddest memory? (And a bow to Humans of New York)
  4. Do you have any siblings?  Did you get along with them?
  5. In what organizations and extracurricular activities did you participate?
  6. Did you have any serious accidents or illnesses as a child?

Family & Friends

  1. Did you have any pets as a child?
  2. As a child, were you closer to your mother or your father?
  3. What is your ancestry and ethnic background?
  4. What was your parents’ relationship like?
  5. Did you like school?
  6. Did you have a favorite teacher or subject?

Fun & Sport

  1. What are you currently reading?
  2. Do you participate in any organized activity?
  3. What do you do for fun?
  4. What do you think is funny?
  5. What sports do you like to watch?
  6. Do you dance?

Habits

  1. Do you get up on the weekend or sleep in?
  2. Where do you eat dinner?
  3. Is your house neat and/or clean, or is it messy and/or dirty?
  4. What are your vices?
  5. Are you careful or careless with money?
  6. Which pant leg do you put on first?

Love & Sex

  1. Do you have a significant other?
  2. Do you believe in love at first sight?
  3. Do you believe in marriage?
  4. What sexual position do you favor?
  5. Who was your first love?
  6. Tell me about your first kiss?

Outlook

  1. Are you a pessimist, an optimist or a realist?
  2. Do you like or dislike change?
  3. What are five things you are grateful for?
  4. What worries you the most?
  5. Do you have goals for your future?
  6. What is “success” to you?

Politics

  1. What political party, if any, do you align yourself with?
  2. Are you pro-choice or pro-life?  Why?
  3. Do you believe in the death penalty?
  4. Do you think we should have national healthcare?
  5. What do you think of marriage equality?
  6. What does the term “feminism” mean to you?

Spirituality

  1. Were you brought up in a religious tradition?
  2. Do you identify with a particular religion now?
  3. Do you believe in ghosts?
  4. What does “evil” mean?
  5. Why do you think bad things happen to good people?
  6. Do you believe in destiny or choice?

Work

  1. What was your first real job?
  2. What do you do for a living?
  3. Do you like what you do?
  4. Do you think you’re a hard worker or lazy?  What would your boss say?
  5. If you had to change careers, what would you do?
  6. How many hours do you work each week?

How do you build your characters?

Who are your characters in real life?

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Well, I got my rejection email from the James Jones First Novel Competition yesterday –

“Thank you for sending us “Biomalware.”  We appreciated the chance to read it. Unfortunately, your manuscript has not been selected for the final round.”

A little disappointed but not devastated.  Onward.

I still have plans to research and do a complete re-write of Biomalware, at a more leisurely pace, this summer.  I want to do some serious in depth research into the issue of GMO’s.  I know how I feel about them based on the information I have seen but I want to make sure that the feeling is supported by all the information available.  More research might prove me wrong, bolster my opinion, or just make me more confused.

First comes the short story collection though.  In that vein, I’ve got some that I’ve written that I want to edit and some that I’ve been working on for a while.  I also wanted to write something completely new.  I felt there was a gap in my collection.  I’ve got re-writes of fairy tales, ghost stories and vampire stories.  Basically, it’s a paranormal collection.  What I do not have, is a superhero story.

Then I met the perfect person to base my main character for the missing story on.

Now, we all take aspects of people we know and have known and work them into our characters.  I long ago realized that my perception of who a person is doesn’t necessarily conform to who they think they are or who they really are, which can also be two different things.  I figure I’m creating a character of most people based on my own perceptions and imaginings.  Why not use that in my fiction?

I like to take an actual person that I’ve met but don’t really know and imagine everything else about them.  I’m making up a character based on just a few traits and perhaps a physical description then fleshing that character out in my mind.

Does anybody else do that?

It’s a lot of fun.  Give it a try.  It might just liven up your weekend.

Character Motivation

Heated Discussion

Heated Discussion

 

I’m told that people like the honesty in my writing but figuring out what is honest can be difficult, like trying to figure out what people mean with the words they choose and their motivations. Sometimes even they don’t know.

As humans, we are prone to ascribing motivations to people that may, or may not, be true. “Well, he said… but what he really meant was…”

Likewise, “Did he really mean what I thought he meant?”

As authors, we have the power to ascribe motivations to our characters, but we shouldn’t forget this ambiguity. Characters may not be sure of the motivation of other characters, they may ascribe motivation incorrectly and our characters may not even know their own minds.

We get to help them discover it.

And sometimes we have to step back, stop trying to figure it out, stop trying to be clever and just take things at face value.

At times like these, it can be nice to just sit down and write a story where events happen and we don’t have to ascribe meaning to them. We don’t have to try to figure them out.

People will usually try to ascribe their own meaning to the events anyway, as you may have experienced at one time or another.