Writing Full Characters

 

I haven’t written here in so long, instead preferring to focus on taking photos and sharing them on Instagram or Facebook. If you aren’t following me on there, you should. It’s a good time, especially at this time of year.

I have been struggling with my writing, as always, and turned towards some old advice that I had read in On Writing by Stephen King: read more. I took that advice and went hard on it by creating a whole new series for my UNspoiled! Podcast series, the UNspoiled! Book Club, hoping that the tie-in to work would cause me to be more consistent with my reading. And you know what? It worked!

I have been flooded with ideas and revelations since starting the book club, and in some ways I have been a little overwhelmed by the realizations I’ve had. I could clearly see that I was heading in the wrong direction with parts of the story, or that there were pretty big questions I hadn’t considered. But one of the biggest things I have gained from this exercise is a deeper understanding of what makes me tick as a writer, and that I need to explore that more deeply.

For me, it’s all about psychology. I am fascinated by people and human behavior and the ways in which people are shaped by their surroundings and upbringing. This is a huge reason why I’ve been discovering that Stephen King speaks to me personally as a writer: nobody I know of has quite mastered the art of the psychological the way he has. As I was reading both The Dark Tower and IT (I’m not done with either yet, so no spoilers!) I was struck by the fact that King is able to jump from one perspective to another, and still make me care about each individual despite my initial annoyance at being wrenched from a POV that I was starting to like. In a few words, he turns characters into complete people. I may not always like them, and in some cases may be disgusted by them, but I am almost never bored.

After realizing this, I decided to go ahead and create a series of questions that I’m going to begin asking myself about every character I write. All the character sheets I’ve found are pretty surface, asking questions like, What’s your character’s favorite band? How do they like to spend their free time? Do they get good grades?

I mean, c’mon. That’s all superficial stuff, the kind of dating-website nonsense that says nothing about who a person really is. Really you could pick the answers to questions like that out of a hat and still have no idea about the character as a human being.

 I think the questions I wrote get to the deeper root of who a person is. I’m sure someone out there has done something like this before, but I wasn’t able to find it so here it is. I think that, if you know who someone is on a fundamental level, figuring out something like their favorite band comes from a richer, more organic place.

Anyway, I decided that I would share this with you all in case someone out there finds it useful.

 

Childhood

Who are their parents? What values were they raised with? Did they accept or reject those values? If rejected, was this out of defiance (personality), or disillusionment (experience)?  If they subscribed to those values, was this out of faith or out of fear?

Self-Awareness

How do they see themselves? How does their family see them? Does their family know them well, or is there not a close relationship? Is their personality met with encouragement or discouragement, and is this supportive or abusive?

How do strangers see them? Is the character aware that people see them this way? Do they like this or do they try to fight it?

Direction and Goals

What are their goals, both long-term and in this immediate moment? Do they not have any long-term goals? If not, why not?  If they do, are those goals their own or have they been forced upon them? If forced, do they realize that or are they in denial and believe them to be their own? How dedicated are they to these goals? Do they honestly believe they can achieve them?

Friendships

How many friends do they have, a few close friends or many casual friends, and why? How close are they to their friends? Do their friends see the relationship with the character the same way that the character does? Are friendships is important to them or are they OK with being alone? Are they honest with themselves about whether they like being alone?

Sex/Romance

What kind of person is the character attracted to? Are they sexually active? Does the character believe in love, and do they prioritize love or sex? What is their relationship to sex: are they open or timid? Proud or ashamed? Do they have any kinks? What turns them on?

Are they an optimist or a pessimist regarding relationships? Do they prefer someone older or younger, domineering or submissive? Are they aware of that preference? Do they have people interested in dating them? Why or why not, and does the character care?

Are they attracted to people that remind them of family, and if so are they conscious of that? How many relationships have they had? What kind of pattern and do their relationships take on, and are they aware of them? In failed relationships, do they blame themselves or the other party? How does their family treat their partners, and what role does that play in whom they choose to date?

I’m sure I will think of loads more questions, and when I do I will update the file. If you’d like a printable sheet of these questions, you can find it here. I didn’t design the sheet to be filled out like a worksheet, more like a list to be kept and used as a jumping-off point from which to fill your notebooks and Scrivener pages with brainstorms about your characters.

I hope someone out there finds this helpful, and I hope to see you again soon!

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When One Door Closes… Sometimes It Just Sucks

On October 30, I lost my job.

I was hired about 8 months earlier, overjoyed by my good luck in finally nailing down a day job that didn’t require a uniform, nights and weekends, or close-toed shoes. Working at a bank had never really been a goal, per se, but it was the perfect place for me while I had the podcast going on practically every evening. I told everyone who would listen how much I loved my job, and my bosses all liked me and told me they would offer me a promotion as soon as there was a position available.

Then I made a foolish mistake and posted something to Facebook that I should not have. When my boss fired me, both she and my supervisor were crying. They liked me, but their hands were tied; policy was incontrovertible, and in my carelessness I’d left them no choice.

I have spent most of my time on social media and the podcast trying to be positive. I received a ton of support from my listeners, both financially and via encouragement or advice, and I wanted so badly to stay afloat that I buried myself in work towards improving my site and subscription services. I spun the bad news, trying to emphasize that I would make use of the time I had now and that I wasn’t giving up. Focus on the silver lining, everything happens for a reason, when one door closes, have faith…

Now I’m going to use this space to talk about the part I’ve mostly ignored. The uglier part that doesn’t line up with inspirational quotes everyone insists on posting all over Facebook.

I’m so angry with myself I feel sick. Some people have tried to suggest that this whole thing was unfair, and that I shouldn’t have been fired; I disagree. It was absolutely my fault and I knew better and did something stupid without thinking it through, an all-too-frequent occurrence. I often watch other people’s hesitancey to take risks in their lives and marvel at how willing they are to settle rather than hazard any sort of failure, but the truth is that I’m not necessarily braver; I’m just more reckless. I have a childish sort of faith that with the right words, whatever I break can be fixed afterwards. As I get older and the stakes get higher, however, I’m learning that some things can simply never be fixed.

Being broke costs more. Now, without my day job and the podcast alone, I will be making about $680 a month once fees are taken out by my subscription service. AND GUESS WHAT. That income is too low to qualify for the break on insurance I was getting via Obamacare, and too high to qualify for Medicaid. Which means I have no insurance, which means I’m now paying $140 a month for medications that had been costing me $20, my doctor’s visits will all have to be out of pocket, and if there’s an emergency I will be utterly and completely fucked.

I’m so tired of starting over. Reinvention doesn’t come with a feeling of excitement now that my life has finally taken a more distinct shape. When I was younger, restarting felt like wiping a white-board clean: a fresh, clean beginning stretching invitingly out in front of me. Now that I’m older and have a more solid idea of what I want and have been trying to work towards that, starting over feels like breaking a plate, losing some of the pieces, and trying to fashion a new one by combining the pieces I have with fresh clay. It’s awkward, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t look right, and there are weak points all over it when I’m finished.

I have no idea how to run a business, and I’m terrified. If I’m going to be trying to live my life off the podcast full-time, I need to be tracking expenses and making sure that I don’t fuck up when I file my taxes and make claims. I need to be sure I’m putting money away to cover those taxes, figure out whether donations are taxed the same as regular income, track down the data from six different sales services, and generally be way more on top of things than I have been. Finding information that’s relevant to my off-beat business has been super difficult and frustrating.

I’m afraid to admit I’m pissed off and scared. So many well-meaning people have been saying things like, “Maybe this is a turning point for you,” “Maybe this is just what you needed to get going,” “One day you’ll probably look back and see that it was for the best,” etc. And maybe all of that is true, but it makes me feel like I am not allowed to freak out right now, which isn’t fair. I’m sure that people don’t mean it to be taken that way and they’re just trying to be encouraging, but I can’t help feeling like someone who says that to me isn’t really going to be willing to listen without attempting to cheer me up the whole time, which is frankly just irritating. Sometimes I just want to be upset and get through that emotion without attempting to curb, crush, or prevent it. I lost one of the best jobs I’ve ever had due to my own stupidity, I’m going to be making less money that any other job I’ve had for a long time before I reach a point where it’s a livable wage, and it’s perfectly reasonable to be COMPLETELY FLIPPED OUT by that.

I don’t want to seem ungrateful. I am concerned that because everyone has been so amazingly supportive and kind and generous, if I admit I’m worried it will come across as me saying, “People aren’t doing enough to help me”. I am truly grateful to all of the people who are helping me out, from the listeners who’ve donated or pledged, to my boyfriend who is letting me take this time to attempt to expand. But it puts me in a position where I feel like I can’t voice my concerns about being broke or failing without seeming like an ungrateful brat.

I have lost some of my faith. Enough has happened in the past three years that when well-meaning folks say things like, “It will all work out” and “Things will improve soon”, I just want to scream “WHEN?????” I am trying to take personal responsibility and not be a victim, I truly am…but there are times when I just feel beaten. There are moments when I suddenly realize that things just aren’t necessarily destined to work out in the end…and that’s a lonely, frightening feeling.

Now that I’ve whined for a while, I’m going to close this post by saying that I am not giving up and I’m not going to stop working. But being positive all the time is just flat-out dishonest. I feel like so many memes and quotes out there imply that unless you “look at the bright side” and force a smile onto your face, you’re somehow inviting more pain into your life and only have yourself to blame when you feel terrible. It’s horse-shit: you are a person, and you will be sad and angry and frustrated. Sometimes you will despair and truly, deeply, in your heart of hearts, want to give up. You will believe that people might be better off without you in their lives.

Ride it out. It will pass, and feeling this way doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you unworthy. It makes you human. As awesome and beautiful as life can be sometimes, the darkness and shadows cannot and should not be obliterated. Without the shadows, how can you see where the light is coming from?

An Attitude Of Gratitude

 

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It’s an unfortunate habit of human nature that, as a species, we tend to focus on the negative. There are some people that claim to be positive thinkers, and some of those people might even be telling the truth. But If we’re being brutally honest, most of us would  have to admit that despite getting 100 nice comments, it’s the one shitty comment that we will focus on and obsess over.

Those of you who know me from my other work probably know that the last three years have been full of upheaval for me. Financial problems, the death of my father closely followed by the death of my grandmother, my divorce, my temporary stay with my mother before finally finding a home in Texas…it just felt like there was one thing after another.

Even now, after finding my footing with the podcast, getting a day job that I actually like, and finding the unequivocal love of my life, I still get bogged down. Recently my paycheck was cut back to less than $400 every two weeks, and my podcast income dropped by $100 per month. I felt that familiar anxiety (panic, if I’m being accurate) creep through my chest at the thought of yet again not being able to put money into savings every week, of still having to scrape by for everything despite working 60 hour weeks.

And you know what? That’s all true. I will have to work hard and I won’t make much money. I will have to be careful and everything won’t necessarily be easy. But the train of thinking I was riding on was chugging right by all of the other things that are also true.

  1. I had a tough, painful divorce. But it allowed me to discover someone who is so perfect for me that it’s downright uncanny. Owen is everything that I never thought I would find in anyone, and every single day I think multiple times how lucky and blessed I am to get to be with him.
  2. Two out of the three closest members of my family are gone, and I will always miss them terribly. I will miss my father at my second wedding and all the holidays and every time I wake up after a dream about him, when I reach to pick up the phone and call him and realize he won’t be there.  I miss my gramma and her creativity, the magical Christmases in front of her stone fireplace, and the weird quirks that made her so infuriating sometimes. But I still have my mother, whom I was closest with out of everyone. She was there for me after the divorce, and she and my stepdad welcomed me into their home and gave me somewhere to start over, even drove me to work every day and picked me up. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
  3. I don’t make much money at my day job. But I have an amazing schedule that allows me to do what I love consistently and according to a schedule, plus have days off with my man.
  4. My podcast income is unpredictable and entirely dependent on the whims of my supporters. However, making any money via podcasting is incredibly difficult, and all things considered I’m doing amazingly well on that front.
  5. I can’t afford a new car or other luxuries. But honestly, I have everything I need. I can put beautiful and nourishing food on the table whenever I want it, I can turn a knob and have piping hot water to take steamy baths, and my house is a lovely 72 degrees on days when the asphalt outside could fry an egg.

It’s so easy to lose sight of all the great things in my life just because of a few setbacks. Truly I have an abundance in my life that is unknown to most people in the world, and I mean that in more than just the material sense. When I think about it I’m one of the luckiest people I know.

So what I’m saying is: Thanks, Universe. I owe you one. Sorry for being a whiny brat sometimes.