I came to a hard decision this week. I walked away from someone I’d considered a friend for half my life. But I’d realized: this so-called friend had no idea who I was.
A few weeks ago, this friend- or, rather, this person was telling me about someone in their family who had started to write an epic fantasy story. He’d step away from the table after dinner, my peer informed me, and say, “I haven’t written today, and I need to sit down for a few hours.” I commended that dedication, because it sounded so familiar to me. Upon being questioned regarding his desire to write a story, the young man informed this person that he wanted to become a rich and famous writer. Then, my long-time acquaintance said, “He’s the only person I know who’s ever been really dedicated to writing.”
I have never been struck so speechless as I’d been at that moment.
I couldn’t believe it: here was someone who’d known me since we were basically kids. I’ve been writing stories through that whole time. But because my end goal isn’t to be rich and famous, I didn’t even register on this person’s radar as a writer, or even a storyteller. That’s when I knew: I might have been a friend to this person for all those years – I’d listened to the school and job and relationship trials and lent the sympathetic ear – but they hadn’t been a friend to me. I’d been merely a project to them, a person to mold in similar image. When I’d gone my own path, when I wasn’t interested in being something they could fix, I wasn’t anything to them any longer.
I don’t have a lot of friends. I’ll miss having one I thought was so close. But, I’ve felt a lot of love around me, especially through this past year. Why waste time on someone who doesn’t have my back?
Do you picture your characters in your head, do you hear their voices? Do they flesh out the more you entertain them and actually write about them? … Do you even start out with distinct picture of a character/situation that grabs your attention?
Generally speaking, I do have voices for all my characters. They often don’t change, either. And, it helps for me to speak out a conversation when it’s still in the plotting stages as well as after it goes down on paper. If something doesn’t sound natural to me, I spend a lot of time reworking it. Unless it’s plot exposition, though I still prefer that to have a spontaneous rhythm to it. 🙂
My sister has an uncanny audio memory. She’ll hear something once and remember it for years. Even inflections! I’m not that good, but I do think that reworking fiction conversations in my head over and over until they become second nature has helped my character voices a lot. One thing a few recent readers have commented on is that my dialogue flows really well, so I’m proud of that.
Characters become more real for me the more I work with them. I think that probably happens with all writers, though. And, it makes sense. We spend so much time in the heads and hearts of these people, we come to know them better than we know the physical people around us. Likely because we are privy to all the inside thoughts and turmoils. Personally, I project a lot into my characters, though I try to keep some of them to specific boundaries, because they all have different conflicts. (It’s hard to articulate.)
My inspiration often can be traced back to a single face/moment/voice, and, as time goes on, characters develop into their own people. For instance, Daniel (“Finding Mister Wright”) evolved from Hal (“From Hell”) by way of Aral (“Anywhere but Here”), who was a different side of Ross (“Fearless”). But, they share similarities in look, manners, and voice, which unites them in my head, and allows me to jump into their shoes with much more ease than I might be able to do otherwise. Fresh characters, as it were, take much more time for me to grasp. One thing that my husband mentioned to me when he read “Finding Mister Wright” was that the first two acts work really well, but the third needed more time with one of the late-intro’d characters. As it stands, she feels like a plot device, not a person, as the other characters do. I see his point, and I think it’s because when she was originally written, she was still one of those “new” characters. Of course, since then, I’ve written more with her, so, now, it’s a matter of going back and growing her into a person as fully-fleshed as the others.
My main writing project at the moment has a fair amount of deep-and-dark in it, and when I fear I’m becoming a bit too mired in that sort of thing, I need to take a step back with something a bit more light and flighty. Lately, that’s been the cast of misfit characters from “Finding Mister Wright,” my short story/novella from this past winter holiday break.
I usually write for Marshall’s life when I take up these characters again, but, this time, it was Rob who commandeered my brain. What’s funny is that the original story idea I had for these characters centered around Rob, Paige, and Daniel. In my earliest notes, Marshall barely played a role beyond counterpoint to Daniel. Of course, that changed when I finally started putting voices together in my head, and I found Marshall had a (rather significant) story all his own. The relationship story between Rob and his own family took a backseat to that of the Wright brothers, and Marshall and his loves in particular. But, Rob’s story has remained important, at least to me. He’s just as complicated as Marshall proved to be, but in a way that’s somehow more relaxed.
After my husband read “FMW,” he made the comment that he thought all the characters worked for their own reasons, but Rob was his favorite. “At first,” he told me, “you think he’s just one thing. Then, you learn a little more, and he becomes more than that. And then, there’s [a conversation], and you realize, oh, this guy really has three dimensions to him.” While it might have offered me a greater ego boost to hear my main protagonist was my husband’s favorite character, a part of me was really happy that Rob’s original story shone through in his few scenes, to the point where he made an impression on a reader.
A moment of weakness led to this six-pager (it clocks in at around 2,900 words), which I wrote over three commuter train rides and a lunch hour. It’s rough and a bit scattered, but that’s one of the reasons I find free writing so…well, free. No worries over themes, scope, flow, or any of the important parts of a mature work. It’s just my fingers translating for my brain.
“Romance-in-the-Dark” (PDF, 314KB) I hate to have to offer a warning about this, but be aware: the principal romantic relationship depicted in this particular free-write is about two men. There’s nothing explicit herein, but if you’re uncomfortable with the idea, just skip it and watch the lovely lady in the video below, instead.
The whole thing – Rob’s story, the original idea for “Finding Mister Wright,” as well as this free-write – is heavily inspired by the lovely and awesomely talented Catherine Russell’s rendition of Lil Greene’s jazz standard, “Romance in the Dark,” which you can listen to and watch below. It’s a mainstay in my FMW writing playlist, and I usually hit repeat at least once when it comes up in rotation.
Before we get to Ms. Russell, here’s my question for this week: Have you ever had a minor character hijack a story for his or her own? If so, how did the story turn out?
Last time, I talked about writing villains. Everybody had great comments, but Vanessa’s sparked a new idea in me. In my head (sometimes on paper), I have backstories for every character who walks onto my pages for any more than a sentence or two. Most of these backstories are rather simple, because I don’t see the point in spending too much time on a character who is basically just a spaceholder. But for anyone with any significance to the story, they have their own story. But Vanessa’s insight offered me a different perspective: basically, that we storytellers should remember that every good villain is the hero of his or her own story.
Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that your villain needs to have heroic traits. But, their motivations and characterization should come from a place of realism. The best villains are often ones with whom a reader can personally identify. I don’t know if I managed that with the villains illustrated in last week’s post (actually, I doubt it), but it’s a good characterization technique to remember. So, this morning, I drafted up a couple of would-be storylines for each of those principal antagonists, posted below. If nothing else, it was fun to look at them from a new angle. I’d recommend doing something similar for your own antagonists – you never know when you might be struck with new inspiration.
The Red Widow
It’s a man’s galaxy. That’s what they say. Certainly, it seems that way to a girl sold into slavery for men’s pleasure. But this is no ordinary slave girl. This is one who learns from her so-called “masters”: how greedy, vain, and susceptible men are. Especially to a woman’s charms. Justiciar, pirate, or politician: no matter the insignia on their collar or the banner on their ship, men have their weaknesses, and she knows them all. Her marks have called her many names: Anya, Elsbeth, Illia, Una. But the galaxy knows her better as a woman as smart as any justiciar, as savvy as any pirate, as sly as any politician. It knows her as Red Widow. And she’s going to turn this man’s galaxy upside-down.
Into the Light (Lohengrin, the Swan Knight)
Abram had a son, once. A bright, beautiful boy full of possibilities. A gentle boy cherished for his kindness and skill with a tanner’s knife. The air would sing with the strokes of that knife, and wealthy women and men would come from across all districts to watch and buy his work. Abram loved his boy. But the Darkness loved him, too.
One day, that Darkness came for him, in the form of another smooth-faced boy, and lured Abram’s son away. Away, into the Darkness. What choice for a father but to save his only son? And the only way to save him from the dark was to lead him back into the light. With fire.
The Darkness has taken other boys. The Lost Boys, they are. But he will save them. He will take up arms and become their knight, to set them free, body and soul. He will be Lohengrin, the Swan Knight, their savior.
The Body Electric (Reilly)
The Dahl Army gave Reilly everything: a job, a purpose, even something like a family. For twelve fine years, he fought, laughed, caroused, and conquered by the sides of his fellow commandoes and their skilful sergeant. But on what is supposed to be a routine grab-and-go mission on Artemisia, the unthinkable happens: the op goes sour. An explosion and fire burns away half his soldierly body. And what does Dahl do? They dump him like scrap.
When the Hyperion salvage team finds him rotting in an Artemisian infirmary, they see his potential, and make him an offer: Become part of the Body Electric, a soldier enhanced for the technological wars. Of course, a soldier with potential needs a purpose, but Reilly has a purpose: hunt down his old teammates who left him to die, starting with his glory-hungry sergeant, the man responsible for it all.
Every Shot a Kill (Strenk)
Walking around the galaxy with the S&S munitions manufacturer family name stenciled on his uniform has never meant much to Lukas Strenk. Guns are just tools, only as good as the man who holds ‘em. And he is a great man, the best in the Inner Ring. Every shot from Strenk’s Orion rifle is a kill. But even the simplest kills can go wrong. When Galactic Defense redacts his latest target assignment after knowing the job’s already been done, they blame Strenk, of course, never mind his 100% success rate and the value of his name. “Get yourself gone or get yourself dead,” the GD Justiciar tells him. Strenk’s only answer is a bullet.
To hell with the shifting, shifty so-called rules of the Inner Ring. When the galaxy gives you lemons, you shove ‘em straight up its gaping *** and lick the residue from your fingers.
Once again, I think Strenk came out on top as my favorite of these, though I enjoyed the exercise for all. Have you ever flipped the coin on your antagonists? Have you ever found you identify more with a villain than a hero in a story? Let me know!
A few weeks ago, I put up on the blog an excerpt of a fight scene I was having trouble with. Based on your feedback, I made some changes to the text, ones I hope create a smoother experience for the reader. Do they or don’t they? I’ll let you be the judge. (Clicking the image below will let you read both the original and updated versions, the latter of which I posted for readers just this past week, coincidentally enough.)
I like to think the update works better within the confines of the chapter…but I’m never sure. Because working from feedback has always been difficult, for me.
I like getting critique, especially if it can help my story become better: tighter, clearer, more effective. But, I spent a large part of my early writing life aping others. My sister first, then my favorite published authors. To this day, when I read books while I’m in the middle of writing a story, I find myself incorporating others’ techniques and quirks. It’s been said imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Though, when does imitation go too far, and we lose our own voice to the art?
I like my voice. It varies from story to story (admittedly, less successfully when I drag out a story for too long), but I like thinking of my stories as my own. When I get critiqued – especially when it’s good critique – I always hesitate. “If I change this phrase to x, will I sound more like A? If I edit that section to y, is my voice becoming like B?”
Even though I may not be destined for publishing, I still want my story to be the best it can be. So, in some cases, writing like favorite author A or insightful reader B might be better. But, does that make a story less mine, less me? I don’t know.
In the face of solid critique, how do you remember to keep to your own voice?