Living the Fictional Dream

Erin M. Kinch’s musings upon the writing profession

Archive for the 'Characters' Category

Celebrity Casting

Celebrity casting my novels-in-progress has become totally addicting. How do you find the face of that character you made up out of the ether? Unless a particular person/actor/what-have-you sprang immediately to mind, you comb through Google images based on some kind of search (dark haired dark eyed actors over 50; blonde blue eyed teenaged actress) until someone pops out at you with your character’s face.

However, is this a useless, time wasting exercise? Is it a time suck that you should eschew instead of actually writing? Or is it an exercise that can help you along the past to completing your work in progress?

The answer to all those questions is probably yes… and no.

Procrastination can take on many guises. Anything you devote all your time to that is not writing, is procrastination from the end game of a finished novel. However, finding the celebrity look-alone who embodies your character can also help with the writing process. It can help you with your descriptions. It can help you see the character better in your mind’s eye. It can help you take that character that might be a little vague or fuzzy in your mind and push them to the next level, and characters that live on the page are the ones that contribute to the vivid fictional dream that we all aspire to.

It’s hard, though. At least for me. A task that, while fun, does take time. Because I can’t settle for just anyone. Just because an actor has the right hair color and eye color, that doesn’t mean that actor can embody my character. I have to see something in a photo of that actor that feels like my character — a mischievous smile, the quirk of an eyebrow, the gleam of intelligence in his/her eyes. The wrong casting is worse than no casting at all, because then you’re struggling to make the misfit work with the character in your head.

But when I find one I like, I tend to have attachment issues. Even if someone more perfect comes along [or if my sister, a.k.a., my most opinionated (and best) editor doesn't like who I chose], I have a hard time switching to someone else once I’ve bonded with that character. But, I have that problem in other areas of writing, too. I hate putting in a placeholder name for a city or character, because it is super hard for me to switch later, even if what I’m switching to is so much better. My mind gets set on something, and that’s the way it wants things to be.

And now I’m celebrity casting in reverse, too. I figured out that my fantasy novel needs another character to flesh out the group. One who will most likely be an agent of the bad guy in the end. I was scrolling through pictures for some other character entirely, when I saw this one picture and realized that it was the face of my new character. The casting was perfect, and I don’t even have a good idea of that character in my head yet, but it just clicked. But now I have this face, and no name and only the barest of skeletons of character to go with it. So, it will be an adventure creating her opposite from how I normally go about these things.

Well, my laptop battery is winding down, so I guess I will sign off for now. Perhaps I can comb through a few more Google images before it powers down. I have a few more characters left without a face.

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What Happens Next?

It is really sad when you find an old story on your computer, start reading, get totally caught up in the world and the characters, and then it just stops. Especially when it leaves you wanting more. I did this over the weekend. Got totally wrapped up in a sci-fi world (colonies on the moon) that I created a few years ago (before babies). I have several stories set there, all drafts, not all even finished. But the world is totally clear to me. I don’t remember all the research I did now, but it’s there on the page. And I like the characters, too. Sadly, my plots are either unfinished or rather lacking.

And, yet, I want to know more. One of the stories especially… what happens next? I have no idea now where I was going when I wrote it back then. And, I probably didn’t know where I was going with it back then or I would have finished it at the time.

I tell you, though… I wish I could jump into those stories and read them all the way through, beginning to perfectly plotted end, and find out how they turned out. I’d really like to know what happened to those guys and girls on their colony on the moon.

OK, subconscious. That means it’s time for you to get to work!

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Happy Thanksgiving

My goodness — November has been such a busy month. It is lucky I didn’t attempt NaNo, because I surely would have failed. What with the last of busy season at work, I’ve been doing well the past few weeks to take care of the baby and myself and get all that work done. Things are finally slowing down a bit, though, and I’m definitely looking forward to the long weekend.

Some people on FaceBook have been putting what they are thankful for in their status updates all month. There are so many things that I’m thankful for — the health of my little girl who was born so early and is now doing great, supportive family and friends, an understanding job, my sister’s wedding that’s coming up… I could go on and on.

But, in addition to all that real life stuff, I’m also thankful for my characters. Characters are the most important things in a story (in my opinion, anyway). A story can have a great plot, but if I don’t identify with or at least like/respect/enjoy spending time with some of the characters, I won’t enjoy either reading or writing a story.

Here are some of my favorite characters from my own stories and why I’m thankful for them:

  • Caryn — She is the main character in my Y/A fantasy novel-in-progress. As far as characters go, she is the one who takes the most from me. Writing Caryn taught me that you can’t be too nice to your characters — if you don’t force your characters to go through hardships, you’ll have a very boring story.
  • Sean — He is the male lead in the same novel discussed above. He was the first really flawed character I created, and I’ve learned lots about writing trying to balance his flaws with the hero he is destined to be.
  • Sarah — She is the main character in my short story, “The Widow and the Stranger.” She is the first character whose first person voice came to me fully formed, which helped me better utilize that point of view (most of my stories are in third person). She also helped me realize that a plot does not have to be grand or action-packed to make a good story.
  • Luke — He is a werewolf and the hero of my urban fantasy universe, the pack leader who doesn’t want to be in a pack. He featured in my story “Alpha,” and he’s the main character in another story set in that ‘verse that is making the rounds.
  • Super Sonic — My very first superhero, the main character in “Zero to Clean in 10 Minutes or Less.” That little piece of flash started a whole universe, and I’m glad he finally got his happy ending.
  • Daniel — He is the male lead in a Y/A novel that I wrote for NaNo a few years ago (I stalled on the revisions, so it is also still classified as “in progress”). Daniel is deaf, and trying to write him was a good way for me to stretch my writing chops by writing about someone who is not like me. I researched into deaf culture and tried to make him as real as possible.
  • Viola — She is the antagonist in my short story, “The Sorcerer’s Wife.” When I wrote that story, Viola was the villain, but as I wrote, her character came to life and leapt off the page. She is the embodiment of something one of my graduate school professors said: “Everyone is the hero of his/her own life story.” Once I thought about the story from Viola’s perspective, it was a whole new ballgame.

So, those characters are some of the writing-related things that I’m thankful for this year.

What about you guys? Have you ever written a character who changed you as a writer or whom you could not live without? What writing-related things are you thankful for this year?

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The Crazy Eyes

The premier of The Vampire Diaries on the CW this month led me to pull all my old L.J. Smith young adult novels off the back shelf where they had been collecting dust and give them a re-read for the first time since the ’90s. Strangely enough, I don’t actually own a copy of The Vampire Diaries book trilogy, but I have copies of what (in my opinion) were Smith’s better trilogies — Dark Visions, The Secret Circle, and The Forbidden Game.

It’s been fun to journey down memory lane by rereading these old books. I loved them when I was the right age for them. In fact, Dark Visions was one of several inspirations for one of my novels-in-progress.

But, reading them now, with much more writing experience (and life, too) behind me, I can recognize their flaws much more readily than I could back then.

I may come back and address other flaws in these books, as I can think of several, but today I wanted to talk about eye color.

For some reason, writers love to take liberties with eye color. Why have boring old brown or blue eyes when youre characters can have aquamarine, violet, or amber colored eyes?

Now, I will admit to having done this on occasion. One character in my urban fantasy ‘verse, a werewolf, has the distinguishing characteristic of ice blue eyes. Though, I did do some research — there are a few wolves who have blue eyes.

But these L.J. Smith novels take eye color way over the top. One heroine has pine green eyes. One hero has blue-gray eyes that, every time they are described, are comparied to the sea. A villain has eyes that are bluer than blue — described as the blue that you see when you close your eyes, an unearthly blue (though, he is a Shadow Man from an evil dimension, so maybe he has a right to crazy colored eyes). A villainess has eyes alternately described as amber and golden, which are paired with honey-colored skin and a mane of black hair. A supporting character is always described as having emotionless or cool gray eyes.

I think the lesson to be learned here is that character descriptions are a powerful tool for drawing your reader into your world and for helping them to remember a character. All characters really do need one feature that is uniquely there’s so that the reader can distinguish that character from all the rest.

However, that distinguishing feature does not always have to be the eyes. And if you use too many crazy eye colors in one story, it starts to feel absurd and/or cliche. Maybe just give one character unique eyes, and let other characters have something of their own — a unique hair color, thick eyebrows, unusual stature (tall or petite), large hands, etc.

Now I have the urge to revisit my young adult novel in progress and see how many crazy eye colors I put in there. I remember emerald green and violet off the top of my head. Uh-oh!

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Rewrite

I recently received my first rewrite request from an editor. The story I submitted was a flash piece about a selkie. I would love to place this piece, so I will definitely attempt the rewrite. I wonder if I can get a first pass done before my maternity leave is over next week?

I appreciated that the editor’s request explicitly stated what they think the problem is with the piece so I know what needs to be addressed. And, I must admit, I agree with the editor. The basic problem is that the main character needs to have more at stake, more conflict, in the story. As it stands, the main character is more reactive than proactive — something I have to watch for in my writing. I did go back and try to give the main character in this piece a character change after her selkie encounter, but apparently that was not enough.

Now, I must ponder where to go next with this story… At least there is no restriction to keep it flash. The market in question accepts stories up to 4,000 words. I don’t plan to use that many, but adding more to the main character will probably require more words than I have left for it still to be considered flash.

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Nameless Characters

In one of the SED stories that I wrote last week, my main character was the reluctant queen of a kingdom that was getting overrun by civil war. She and her daughter’s life were in danger after the king’s death.

For some reason, when I wrote this story, the queen did not have a name. I just referred to her throughout as “the queen” or by various pronouns. I don’t know why… maybe because it was such a short piece — under 1,000 words. Maybe I just hadn’t had enough time to get to know her yet and learn her name?

Then again, I have read some storie where the main character (sometimes stories where none of the characters have names) and I have enjoyed them. The technique lends a certain amount of mystery to the story. Not having a name is a barrier between the reader and the character, and sometimes that barrier can be put to good use.

But, sometimes I’ve read nameless stories and just been irritated by them. So, as with many writing techniques, it probably depends most heavily on the skill of the writer who created the story and character in the first place. What some writers can pull off, others can’t.

Ultimately, this is a choice that I would not make in too many stories. Overuse of the nameless technique would not be a good thing. Also, I think it’s something better limited to shorter stories. Too much “the queen” would get really old — in an 8,000 word story, no way! (Of course, there is an exception to every rule — I could see writing a longer story about some kind of anti-social character and not using a name because he doesn’t attribute one to himself. It would have to be well done and it would have to be a compelling character detail).

If I got back to this SED story, I think I will give the queen a name and move on from there. She has more of a story to tell, and I think she could be a very personable character given a chance (and a name!). But the idea of writing without one on occasion is intriguing.

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Realistic Dialog

I think writers walk a fine line when they create dialog. You want dialog that sounds like something people would actually say, but you don’t want to get too bogged down in the realism, either.

Shows like My So Called Life that really get into the “realistic” dialog (complete with a full complements of ums and stutters and run-on sentences) get on my nerves before too long. And reading such things instead of just listening to it would be even more irritating. Dialog is such an important part of a story, that if it irritates me, I’m very likely to get thrown out of the fictional dream and not care about fighting my way back in.

I like dialog that is crisp and clear and that portrays important information. I want it to be realistic, but in the best way possible — realistic for someone who’s into public speaking or has had training. Forget “uh” and “um,” and also forget boring dialog that, while we might say it in real life, has no bearing on the actual scene at hand. We don’t have time for that in our fiction today!

Writers have to be careful about information portrayal in dialog, though. Too much is just as much of a faux pas and dialog that is not relevant enough.

I get turned off when I read a conversation between two characters where they tell each other stuff that they would already know. For example:

Joe: When are you coming home tonight, honey?

Jane: Well, I work in a law office, so I have to stay until all the other partners are gone for the night. I probably won’t be home until 9.

If Joe and Jane are close enough that he would call her honey, they are close enough that he would already know she worked in a law office, so Jane would not feel the need to say that. The information was just thrown in so that the reader would get it. If that’s the only reason the information is in the dialog, cut it right out of there. If it’s that necessary to the story, find a way to get it in through narration or naturally in a scene. Don’t shoe-horn it into dialog.

And, now I’m off. A long weekend at the cabin. No internet — I hope I manage to get some writing done. Perhaps I’ll work on dialog! Either way, I expect to enjoy a relaxing weekend, which is probably the most important thing!

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The Name Game

Naming is such a tricky thing. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a character will spring to mind with his or her name already in place. Sarah Kirby from “The Widow and the Stranger” was like that. Some of the characters from my novel-in-progress — Caryn, Sean, Brilynn — as well.

And then there are the ones I have to struggle for. I flip through name books or name websites, looking for the perfect name. Sometimes I’ll pick a letter of the alphabet and go through all the names for the appropriate gender that start with that letter. I’ve always believed that characters should have names starting with different letters so it’s easier for the reader not to get them confused. In a novel, you can have a couple with the same initial, but the shorter the story, the more strictly I try to adhere to this rule.

I always thought that my experience naming characters would be helpful when it finally came time in my life to name a child, but now that my first little one is on the way, it’s not proving such an easy task. Of course, for the baby, my husband and I actually have to agree on a name. (Well, I guess that’s not always true, but it’s important to me — I want him to love what we name our child just as much as I do.)

The problem is, we have very different ideas about what makes a good name, especially for girls. We had our boy’s name totally picked out, but since the ultrasound said girl, we’ve been wrangling back and forth for months.

I love plant names… Sage, Holly, Rose, Laurel. He thinks that those names are too sissy, and has outlawed all plant names. Left to his own devices, he chooses many names that I think are too common or boring.

And, as if we didn’t have enough trouble between the two of us, there are always plenty of other people to offer suggestions and opinions. My sister loves the trendy names, like Piper and Taylor. My in-laws prefer more traditional names, like Ann — and they especially dislike names coming from the natural world (like Sierra) or names that would have nicknames. One friend told us that we should be sure to name our baby something that you can find on those racks of keychains in souvenir shops, because the child would be disappointed all of her life if she couldn’t be a part of that. Another friend tends to point out negativity in the meaning of a name (Leah was the unwanted sister in the Bible, Sage is a big ugly bush).

Now I understand why some people don’t tell anyone the name until the baby is actually born and the name is on the birth certificate, LOL! But a lot of times, the comments are helpful and encouraging, and sometimes other people see something that we didn’t see before. My husband especially gets a kick out of announcing the “name of the day.” I think it amuses him when people don’t like it!

We still have several months to go, and I have faith that eventually my husband and I will settle upon the perfect name for our little one. We have three top girl names that haven’t really changed in a while. And, of course, if the ultrasound proves wrong about the gender, we still have that boy’s name all ready. I suspect that, at this point, we need to meet our little one before we can decide on the perfect name.

But all this drama and back and forth over names has made me appreciate how much easier it was when I was just naming characters. Sure, those characters are very real to me, but if you’re writing along and suddenly the name isn’t working for the character, it can always be changed. And, when it comes to a character’s name, there is only myself to please.

Whether for a real person or a character, names are important. Names are identity. Names say a lot about who a person is. Nothing tells everything about a person, of course — I’m sure there could be an assassin or a ninja out there named Ethel or Maude — but names send a certain impression out into the world, and, for both my baby and my characters, I want to make sure that impression is a good one!

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Sookie Stackhouse vs. Anita Blake

Over the weekend, I started reading the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries by Charlaine Harris. (These are the books upon which the HBO TV show True Blood is based, but I think the books are better than the show — different, but in a good way.)

I won’t do an in-depth book review on the series right now, as I’m still in the midst of reading it. However, this series really has me thinking about one thing writing-wise, and I wanted to get some thoughts about that down while they are still fresh.

Reading this series, really got me thinking about what makes a good character.

It’s fairly inevitable that the Sookie Stackhouse series would get compared to the Anita Blake series written by Laurel K. Hamilton. They are both urban fantasy. Both include significant vampire and werewolf/shape shipfter action. Both involve vampires “coming out” as legal citizens of the United States. Both have strong female protagonists with supernatural abilities of their own, and both women have significant romantic relationships with other supernaturals over the course of the series.

Despite all these similarities, I find myself heartily preferring the Sookie Stackhouse books to the Anita Blake books — both the books themselves and the heroine. I started asking myself why this was, and when it gets down to it, it’s all about the main character. (There will be some points in this post that would be considered spoilerish if you have not read the series, but I’ll try not to get too specific.)

I read a lot of the Anita Blake books when I first discovered the series, and I really enjoyed it at first. However, as the series continued, my enjoyment in it began to wane. The focus of the series seemed to me to shift in a direction that just wasn’t to my personal taste. Even if you have not read the Anita Blake series, you may have heard it described as “erotic” or “sexy.” At the beginning, though there was a lot of sexual tension and romance, it wasn’t the focus — the focus was more on the plots and mysteries, as well as on Anita’s life. But, by the point where I finally gave up the series, it felt to me like the plot in the books was merely an excuse to allow Anita to have crazy supernatural sex with a huge harem of guys — the love triangle beween Anita, vampire Jean-Claude, and werewolfe Richard widened to include more vampires, more shifters (especially the werepanthers), and others.

My other problem came with Anita herself. Over the course of the novels (I gave up the series after reading Narcissus in Chains), she became more and more powerful — to, what seemed to me, an absurd degree. In the beginning, Anita was a normal woman who just happened to be an necromancer. She also had trained herself physically to be a vampire hunter. As the series went on, she gathered more and more powers and titles to add to her burgeoning collection — lupa of the werewolf pack, part of a triumverate of power with Jean Claude and Richard, alpha of the werepanther pack, etc., etc. And then she suddenly developed Jean Claude’s talent of drawing energy from sex (and getting weaker if she didn’t get said sex), which made things even crazier for her personally and for her huge amount of powers.

I liked Anita when she was a normal person with one significant power and some skills that she’d trained into herself by working hard. I didn’t like it when suddenly she was all-powerful.

Sookie Stackhouse starts out her series similar to Anita (I’m currently in the middle of Definitely Dead). She’s a normal girl, a barmaid in a restaurant, but she has one supernatural power to deal with. She’s a telepath. Then she meets Bill the vampire and discovers that she can’t read vampire minds — she is immediately intrigued because it is restful for her to be around Bill — she doesn’t constantly have to fight against being bombarded by stray thoughts.

Through her association with Bill, Sookie is introduced to the supernatural world (both the world of the recently legalized vampires and still underground supernatural creatures, like Weres, shifters, and fairies), and becomes embroiled in supernatural affairs.

Like Anita, Sookie is given some enhanced powers — the difference is, they don’t last. In Sookie’s world, humans gain power from drinking vampire blood — it enhances their strength and speed, their looks, and other abilities. However, the effect is temporary, based on how much she’s had and how old the vampire in question was. So, she has these abilities, but only for a while. Other than that, she never adds to her supernatural skills, though, over time, she does learn how to control her telepathy better and use it in new (and believable) ways, such as projecting thoughts to other telepaths (but not to regular Joes).

Also like Anita, Sookie becomes greatly in demand in the supernatural world. However, unlike Anita, the supernatural world doesn’t fall at Sookie’s feet. She’s dragged into it (or sometimes rushes into it head first), but she has to work for the acceptance that she gets there (and she is not always accepted).

For example, Sookie meets a werewolf named Alcide and they are attracted to each other. However, (1) they do not hop immediately into bed together and (2) Sookie does not gain any type of leadership position in his pack. She is named a “friend of the pack,” but that is because she alerts them to a problem in their territory and helps out a pack member who gets hit by a car. In fact, despite dancing around the issue for a couple of books, Sookie and Alcide never actually have a relationship. They are interested in each other, but each has a load of personal baggage (in the form of exes and other issues) that gets in the way, and the relationship is never even consumated.

Sookie does have a relationship with vampire Bill, and a couple of other supernatural guys are interested in her, but the interest is believable. I never wonder why all the guys are so taken with Sookie (like I did with Anita), and there are plenty of guys in the series who aren’t actually taken with her. Also, every supernatural guy Sookie meets does not automatically become her bedmate.

The difference between Antia and Sookie, I’ve decided, is the Mary Sue phenomenon. If you haven’t heard of a Mary Sue, this is a term that came from fanfiction writers. A Mary Sue is a character written into a story about an existing universe (Buffy the Vampire Slayer was always my fanfiction neighborhood of choice) who basically represents the author’s wish fullfillment. This character is instantly loved and embraced by the main characters of the existing universe — all the guys fall for her and all the girls want to be her best friend. Everything a Mary Sue does comes easy for him/her, and she gets everything that she wants in the end. And any “weakness” a Mary Sue has is usually a strength in disguise and never gives her much trouble.

As the series progressed, Anita felt more and more to me like a Mary Sue. Everything came too easily for her, too many guys liked her (without enough reason) and liked her so much that she was able to treat them like crap and they would still give her whatever she wanted. Her powers got exponentially stronger to an insane degree, and even her weaknesses just don’t seem that bad.

Sookie, however, doesn’t feel like a Mary Sue to me. She feels like a real, vibrant character of her own accord. She’s strong, but she has real weaknesses. She might have a selection of cute guys to be interested in, but she doesn’t get to have all of them. And the relationshpis she does have include real life issues and don’t always work out. She also has issues in her life that don’t magically get solved — like money problems, problems with her brother, and problems with the law. Sometimes she will find ways around them — like earning a significant sum of money using her house as a hide-out for a vampire on the run — but inevitably something will happen to set things back again — like a house fire resulting in a huge expenditure setting her finances back to ground zero.

The writing lesson I’m taking away from all this debate is a reminder of just how important characters are to a story. Without characters the reader can really invest in, they are more likely to stop reading (like I did with Anita Blake, whom I could no longer relate to). But a character a reader really likes becomes an old friend that they want to visit in every subsequent novel (like Sookie is for me — at least so far, I’ve got a few more books left to read).

Part of making characters that readers will like and identify with, in my opinion, is being willing to be hard on them. They need real obstacles to overcome. You can’t be too easy on your characters or there is no real struggle for them to go through and suddenly your character is a Mary Sue.

When I first started writing, I was way too nice to my characters, and the stories suffered for it. I still struggle with that, but I’m becoming much less benevolent to my characters as I mature as a writer.

If you enjoy urban fantasy and murder mysteries, I would definitely give the Sookie Stackhouse novels a chance. And if you like True Blood, I think that you’ll enjoy the books, as well.

Happy reading, watching, and writing, y’all!

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Your Favorite Part

I don’t have a big blog topic to talk about today, so I thought I’d turn the spotlight around on you guys.

What is your absolute favorite part of writing? Why do you return to the keyboard day after day? It’s a fairly frustrating job — lots of work for little to no money (unless you make it big with a novel, and even then midlist authors are having a hard time squeaking by these days).

I answer that last question easily. I write because I have to write. I would be making up stories in my head anyway. I might as well write them down. And if I’m going to bother writing them down, then I should make them the best they can be, and see if anyone else out there thinks they are worth sharing. I don’t expect to get rich or famous of off it (though I’ll take it if it comes!).

My favorite part of writing, though, has to be that escape. I love disappaering into someone else’s world, seeing that world through their eyes, and yet also having a hand in creating that world. Getting into the creative zone is an amazing feeling. Nonwriters don’t understand when I say I’m not making all this up — the characters tell me what’s going on. But it’s true, and any writer knows it!

I also really love creating characters and world building and all the intricacies there-in. Those are my favorite parts of the creative process itself, but my favorite thing about writing, the escape of the creative zone — definitely!

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