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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Fear And Writing In North Texas

When I decided to go full-time with my podcasting, one of the things that I was really excited about was finally getting a lot of time to dedicate to my writing. I imagined myself getting up at the crack of dawn with an oversized cup of steaming coffee, wrapping up in my robe and settling into my comfy chair, then pouring my ideas onto my keyboard for several hours before finally coming up for air.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that’s not what happened. But what I couldn’t figure out for several weeks was, why not? 

It’s not like I’m lazy. Well, maybe I am with some things, like jogging, and scrubbing the bathtub. But anyone who’s met me knows that if anything, one of my biggest flaws is taking on too much. So what was it that was keeping me out of my comfy chair and keeping me dicking around on my podcasting stuff when I had already made a deal with myself to spend the day writing?

As in so many aspects of my life, I finally realized that the reason for my inaction was fear.

I get on my podcast every day and in the midst of reviewing books and TV, I share deeply personal stories about myself, political opinions, and generally open up more than the average person does to a bunch of strangers online. However, that’s me sitting back and criticizing other people’s work, and that’s easy.

I have come to recognize that I’m frightened to put myself out there by creating something that’s all mine. I’m a perfectionist, and when I look at the first drafts of my books from the vantage point of having several more years of experience in critiquing, I can see so clearly how poor a lot of my work was. I feel ashamed and upset and frustrated, and I want to go back and erase everything from the memories of people who read my earlier versions. Even second and third drafts, when reading with fresh eyes, fail to capture anything like what I intended, and I lay awake at night suddenly aware of mistakes I’ve made in the plot, or dogged by the knowledge that certain chapters lag because I have no idea where my characters are going.

Today I’m sitting down and brainstorming until I have the plot of the first fifteen “episodes” of my books nailed down, in detail. I will be removing my finished books from Wattpad for the time being until I have decided how best to proceed with the formatting of “episodes” and the handling of POVs. I think a major overhaul is in order, and I’m pretty excited to get to delve into the future of my characters.

Are you a writer? Have you experienced this kind of realization, and if so, how’d you get through it?

Creating A Sacred Space

Close up Halloween flowers candle

There really is something to be said about the power of surroundings. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as a race, human beings have created distinct locations for different parts of our lives to take place. We have a separate building for prayer and worship than the one we live in, or at least a separate room if we can. We don’t often bury our dead in the same yard where we host summer barbecues. We don’t have the tables where we eat most of our meals in the same room as our beds (obviously if you live in London or Manhattan you can just laugh at that statement because having more than one room is a luxury). We compartmentalize, we separate, we distinguish.

Recently I undertook a complete redecoration of my office. The walls were dirty white and streaked or scuffed with god knows what, the furniture was second-hand fake wood veneer, there was no storage, and the whole vibe of the room was one of…disarray. Shockingly, it didn’t take all that much to drastically change the feel; $200 at Ikea for some new shelves, space rug, and decor; $35 at Walmart for flat grey paint and brushes; $15-$35 here and there for candles, everlasting floral (I prefer that term to “fake” hehe), and a new lamp…BOOM. It’s like an entirely new room. It’s so inviting and comfortable that I have caught my boyfriend in here reading when I’m not home, despite the fact that he’s fairly averse to pink.

It took me a few weeks since I don’t make much money, but I spend so much time in this room that not enjoying being here would make it really unpleasant to do my job. Now, I simply love being in my office.

It occurred to me the other day that while it may sound silly, there is ritual in everything we do, even the most mundane daily tasks. So why is it that we reserve the ceremony surrounding rituals almost exclusively for worship? In fact, introducing a feeling of ceremony in more aspects of our lives would probably make us slow down and appreciate the moment more; it would give us a reason to stop, take a deep breath, and acknowledge where we are.

Writing Ritual

I decided to put the idea to the test, and created a small “ceremony” for myself that I would perform before I began to write. Most writers know that there is nothing more difficult than making yourself sit down and simply write, without first doing laundry, or eating, or checking Facebook, etc. I thought that perhaps identifying the very moment when it was “time to write” would help me to define that block of time and give it distinctive boundaries.

Here is what I did: I put on my pajamas, turned on Pandora to a baroque station, put a fireplace screen-saver on my computer, put a 1 hour timer on my phone and set it out of reach on the windowsill, and lit a candle. Instead of writing on my computer I had decided a notebook and pen had far less potential to be distracting.

It was incredible. In one hour, I got more brainstorming and ideas rolling around than I had in months. The atmosphere made my mind wake up, calmed the voices that always pulled me in six different directions, and focused my attention like a laser. An hour went by so quickly that I thought I’d set the alarm wrong on my phone.

I decided to try something similar with podcasting, and the same thing happened. I was in the zone, in every sense. And when it was time to stop, I stood from my desk and blew the candle out…and that was it. Podcasting time was over. There was no sense of that work following me out to the living room like there sometimes was. It felt as absolute as if I were closing a book and putting it back on a shelf, almost as if blowing out the candle was like hitting the “Power” button to shut everything down.

It’s a common lament that people spend so much time on their phones that they miss their actual life passing right by them as they stare at a screen, imagining a different life entirely. The issue with blaming the phones themselves is that phones aren’t going anywhere, so how do you solve the problem?

I think that I’ve hit on an aspect of it: set boundaries. It’s easy to just tell people “pay attention”, but as human beings we need more clarity, a more definitive start and end to things. I believe now that ceremonies are a beautiful, interesting way to define those beginnings and endings. Ceremony connects with us in a way that mere words like “Now it’s time to write!” simply don’t. When my boyfriend and I watch movies we have been lighting a candle on the coffee table and putting our phones in a basket on top of a bookshelf across the room. The difference in experience is startling, and has so much more depth than it ever did before.

I hope that these ideas have resonated with someone out there. For now, it’s time for me to go blow out my candle and make a cup of tea. See you next time.