Charting Your Characters for NaNoWriMo

resumepicture

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?

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The Words (movie) and Plagiarism

Ghostwriter

My husband and I watched a movie last night, The Words, on the recommendation of two people who I work with at my library.

WARNING: If you’ve never seen the movie, this blog containers spoilers.

The premise is that a writer has written a book he is told is very good but it isn’t garnering him representation or a contract.  He has to get a regular job to support himself.  On their honeymoon in Paris, his wife buys him an old bag which he later finds has a manuscript in it.  It’s a masterpiece.  He retypes it and passes it off as his own.  Then the old man shows up and tells him he knows what the young man did because it’s his story, but he doesn’t want anything.

This movie didn’t really work for me, for two reasons.

First, I’ve been in a writer’s group for a few years now.  All of us would love to make a living at our writing.  Hell, we’d love to be bestselling and rich!  But, we would continue to write whether we ever sell it or not, because that’s what we do.  We write.  We’re writers.  We want to write and share through our writing.  What is the point of selling a piece of writing if it isn’t yours?  You’re not a writer, if you do that, you’re a publisher or an agent.  We writers live to create.  Did he think that if he just published the book he’d suddenly begin writing to that caliber?  We all know that’s not going to happen.  Good writing takes time and work.  The point is not to sell, the point is to create.

Maybe it’s just me, but in his place I think a lot of writers would have rather had the adventure of trying to find the person who actually wrote it.

Second, he says that he’s not where he’s supposed to be in life.  That’s not possible.  Wherever you are is where you’re supposed to be.  Life is a journey.  You have to let go of what you thought your life would be in order to find the life that’s waiting for you.  Maybe that just sounds like a platitude but it’s what I’ve found to be true and I guess I expect other writers to have that perspective but probably many don’t.

Okay, then you’ve got the whole Dennis Quaid storyline area that just doesn’t work.  Supposedly he’s written the book that tells this whole story of the young man’s plagiarism and old man, and he’s reading part of it at an award ceremony.  A young woman shows up who seems to know what is going on.  Now, if he’d published a novel before to critical acclaim like the one described in this new book, wouldn’t people recognize it instead of just this one girl suspecting that the new book was really what was going on in his own life?  Plus, she comes in with this all knowing attitude.  How?  I don’t think so.

Some of the cinematography was beautiful.  There was one shot that I had to go back and look at again, about a third of the way into the movie, with the Fall trees, the street and the sky line fogged in the background.  I would love to have that as a picture on my wall.  The soundtrack was beautiful too.

In the end,  The idea was interesting but the plot was not well executed.  I enjoyed it for the acting and the cinematography.  3 stars from me.  I am guessing that someone wrote this as a screenplay to be a box office smash with Dennis Quaid and Jeremy Irons.  (I went and checked, it was written by the directors.  They could have used a good writer’s group to poke holes in it before they turned it into a movie.)

What do you think?  Did you see the movie?  What about plagiarism?  As a writer, what’s the point?

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.

National Novel Writing Month

Here we are, almost at the end of National Novel Writing Month once again.  (Nanowrimo.org if you don’t know about it.)  It has been a month of crazy wonderful writing.  There have been days of slogging through, writing nonsense just to keep moving, and there have been days of inspired writing that made me feel like I was flying. 

Newspaper articles have been a great source of inspiration for me, informing the story and getting me moving when I lacked the motivation.  I have taken frustrations from real life and written them in.  (Hopefully no one will recognize themselves in the story by the time I’m done.)   I have quite a cast of characters at this point, and even a couple subplots!

For me, doing Nanowrimo has helped me see how I can find time to write in my crazy schedule of commuting, work and caring for my baby girl.  There are so many writing projects that I would like to make time for but, as everyone who has a life knows, it’s not easy.  By pen, pencil or keyboard, we’ll get there though.