Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Three More Methods of Character Development

Three methods of developing your characters, in continuation of last week's post. And there's even a little summary at the bottom. Get excited, people!


Basically, it's just like writing self-fanfiction, for all the people out there who have dreams of opening fanfiction.net, and clicking on the title of their novel, and reading real writing by real fans about their characters, and then gouging their eyes out with sporks, while secretly feeling very smug about the whole affair. This is exactly like that. Only without the real fans. Or the sporks.

For the sake of legitimate character development, one probably ought to go for one-shots that answer useful questions. How did your characters meet? What were their childhoods like? How did Raven get that adorable scar just above his eyebrow? But once you've started writing one-shots about your characters, why limit yourself to the constraints of your canon? One-shots can also be used to throw your characters into situations they will never be in, and that way you can explore how they would react, and learn all sorts of new things about them. Or while you're on the topic of fanfiction, you can shamelessly and gratuitously ship your own characters in ways that would never actually happen. I have done this, and to this day, I stand by my claims that it is a legitimate exercise in character development. After all, I tell myself, I will learn a lot about Storm's personality while trying to work out exactly when and why he would kiss his boarding-school room-mate. (Yes, I named my character Storm. Please don't judge me.) This shows how good writing one-shots really is – it can be genuinely useful and gratuitously fluffy at the same time.

Overall, this is lots of fun, and since almost any scene containing your character gives you insights into their psyche, you can pretty much do anything you like with character one-shots. And it's just like fanfiction, but without the sporks. It's also an opportunity your characters to come alive on paper in real, actual scenes, which is something that otherwise mightn't happen until you start writing your story.

Writing a page about each character

A lot of writing-advice type articles and books recommend this as a way to develop your characters. And that's basically all they say: write a page. Personally, I don't think this does much in the way of character development. I don't feel like I learn anything by sitting down and writing 'Gadkinalia is an exploited slave-girl in the palace of King Zdefn. She is fifteen-years-old, with medium length brown hair...' I find myself staring at the page, trying to fill it, and eventually just making up random facts in the hope of getting it finished. Like the questionnaires I talked about last week, this might be good for consolidating character – ensuring you have everything you know about them written down, so that you don't forget – but when it comes to actually learning and exploring different things about your characters, this is way too unstructured for me. Maybe I'm just intimidated by the blank page, but I've never found that this works.

Just start writing the novel already

It works. It really does. I suppose it depends on the novel in some ways, but most of my favourite characters that I have created have just turned up on paper without any development exercises or deep thought. For my second Nanowrimo attempt, I sat down on the first of November with no idea what to write, and so I named male lead Bessie, after Doctor Who's car. Over a hundred thousand words later, and he has plot, and personality, and relationships and all the other important things a character needs. The one thing he is a little light on is an explanation for why a boy in Victorian England is called Bessie.

Of course, the only problem here – other than the massive amounts of editing required if you knew nothing about your characters' backstory and the like before you began writing – is that you can't plan a novel without characters. So this really only applies if you are willing to dive into your writing with no planning whatsoever. And of course if you don't mind a hell of a lot of editing afterwards. But in terms of creating a memorable, well-rounded character, I think this works as well as anything.

In conclusion...

At the end of this, I couldn't resist a summary. Ordered with star ratings. Because I'm cool like that.

Writing a page about each character: This is too unstructured for me, and I don't think you learn anything from it. Two stars. 

Extended questionnaire: I find them stifling and dull. Two-and-a-half stars. 

Just start writing the novel already: It's super effective! I swear! Although I don't think it's for everyone. Four-and-a-half stars for people who don't like to plan. Two-and-a-half stars for people who do. 

List your characters from one to ten...: Lots of fun. Especially useful if you actually tailor them to your characters before you begin. Three-and-a-half stars. 

Interviewing your characters: It doesn't work for me, but I don't see why it shouldn't work for other people. Four stars. 

One-shots: It's fun. It works. I don't have much else to say. Five whole stars.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Three Methods of Character Development

At a request from Reni, I am writing a post on characterisation, and various methods thereof.  I must add that I haven’t yet found a tried-and-tested method which consistently works for me, although that isn’t saying they’ve all failed. It really depends on the character, and the story, and how you’re feeling that day. But here are some methods to try, at any rate. There will quite possibly be more next week, because this post turned out much longer than I intended.

Interviewing your characters

The idea is pretty straight forward – you ask your character a list of questions, and they answer in as much or as little detail as they feel. There are obvious variations – interviewing several characters at once to see how they interact; having one character interview another, and so on. The idea – or so I’ve heard – is that not only will you better understand your character’s personality and interactions, but they’ll also reveal whole tracts of your story to you that you knew nothing about.

Personally, I don’t find this method works at all. I used to use this series of questions:
  1. Who are you? 
  2. What are you?
  3. Where are you?
  4. What are you like?
  5. What do other people think you're like?
  6. Who are your friends?
  7. Who are your enemies?
  8. Why are you here?
  9. How did you get here?
  10. What do you want?
When I first found them I thought they were amazing, but they got tired very quickly, perhaps because they’re simultaneously too broad and too narrow. Where am I? Sitting on my couch in my house. Why am I here?  Because I live here…?

This problem is solved by a more genuinely interview-style interview, where you follow what your character is talking about. However, recently, I’ve found a different problem with the interview method, which appears to be brought on by a lack of imagination: I struggle to imagine a situation in which my characters would be interviewed. Obviously, characters would reveal different things to different people, so I have to know who is interviewing them. And then I have to know why they’re being interviewed, and for some characters, I just can’t think of a good reason. Can you imagine Frodo sitting down for a chat with his local paper? It just doesn’t work.

Personally, I’ve given up on this method of character development. However, if you have a better imagination than me, or a character who can easily be interviewed in a realistic setting, I think it has the potential to be quite effective. The key – like any interview – is to have questions that aren’t so broad you have nothing to say, but that are broad enough to reveal interesting new facts about your characters and your plot.

Extended questionnaires

There are a lot of these floating around on the internet , which can be found by googling things such as  ‘100 things to know about your character’. I could spend all day linking examples, but here is just one:

I find these questionnaires to be scary stuff. I don’t know the most important childhood event that affected me, let alone a character I’ve just come up with. Income, salary, financial situation and socio-economic level? Favourite expletive? Type of car? It is beyond me why anyone would need to know these things. One of my personal favourites, which I’m unable to dredge up, even included blood type. I realise that in some parts of the world asking your blood type is kind of like asking your star sign, but still. The mind boggles.

I can’t imagine a worse way to develop a character than sitting down and answering these questions. And then for the next character. And the next. I would be bored out of my brain. Not only that, but with so many questions, I think one would start ascribing traits to characters, rather than letting happen naturally. For example, by the time I had come down to eye colour – which is quite a way down the unfortunate list I have chosen as an example, at least – I would be going, “I dunno, like, brown or something. KILL ME NOW!!” and my character would never be able to develop as a realistic person who I felt was more than just a list of traits.

Surprisingly, many people seem to find this type of questionnaire incredibly useful. I  have  often encountered forums of gushing praise for their amazing character-development abilities. My only thought is that these could be used for two at least slightly more useful purposes – to keep track of traits that you already know about your characters, or to remind you of things you haven’t thought of. I have never felt the need for the first. I understand the danger of forgetting your character’s eye colour in the middle of a pivotal emotional scene, but forgetting whether they believe in God, or what their favourite saying is? Not so much. On the other hand, if you’ve forgotten altogether to consider whether or not your character is religious, or what they might do on a rainy day, reading over a list like this mightn’t be a bad prompt to fill in gaps in characterisation.

List your characters from one to ten…

I don’t know what these things are actually called, so all I can do is give you an example.

List your characters from one to ten, and then answer the following questions.

  • 4 invites 3 and 8 to dinner at their house. What happens?
  • 9 tries to get 5 to go to a strip club. What happens?
  • 5 needs to stay somewhere other than home for the night. Do they chose 1 or 6?
  • 2 and 7 are making out. 10 walks in. What is their reaction?
  • 3 falls in love with 5. 8 is jealous. What happens?
  • 4 jumps you in a dark alleyway. Who comes to your rescue: 10, 2, or 7?
  • 2 writes a book about his/her life. What is 5’s review of it?
  • 7 kidnaps 2 and demands something from 5 for 2’s release. What is it?
  • 3 has to marry either 8, 4, or 9. Who do they choose?
  • You get to meet either 1 or 6. Who do you chose?
I really enjoy these things. I have a ridiculously huge collection of them that includes everything from Hogwarts to poker games to abandoned children on doorsteps. You have to know a reasonable amount about your characters before you start – at the very least, you need more than just ‘Bob is the protagonist’ – but once you’ve got enough to be able to answer these questions, they’re very helpful. Sometimes you’ll get one – specifically, say, question two – where all you can say is, “No, they don’t,” but most of the time, it can provide an enlightening insight into your character’s personalities and relationships. At any rate, they’re an awful lot of fun, and not half-bad as a procrastination technique. If you want them to be slightly more useful, it’s probably a good idea to find or develop your own list, with less kidnapping and strip-clubs, and something slightly more genre-specific. That way, you may even get some plot – or at least some handy backstory-esque one-shots out of this. Either way, I highly recommend it.

Monday, 13 August 2012

On Subtext

Today it is time for a rant about something in fiction that really annoy me. High up on this list is homosexual subtext, something that appears to mostly plague TV shows and movies. Once, it appealed, and I thought ‘Isn’t the writer kindly setting up potential slash-fic for so many fanfiction authors out there? Aren’t they being open-minded and accepting?’ and other such positive thoughts. But then I thought: If the writer were being open-minded an accepting, wouldn’t they have actually made the characters an out-in-the-open homosexual couple?

I read an an article a while ago about the BBC series Sherlock. Among other things, they interviewed Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman about Holmes/Watson slash. It was kind of hilarious. Especially when you imagine Benedict Cumberbatch, talking about fanfiction. In his voice. He is even describe at one point as ‘nervously giggling’. But I digress. I also think I just broke my internet by googling Benedict Cumberbatch too much. Anyhow, the point is, a comment was made in this article by Gatiss that they had “had a lot of fun” with the idea that Holmes and Watson might be a couple, or might be mistaken for one. This scene sums up the way the show treats a potential relationship between Holmes and Watson. On the other hand, Cumberbatch also very explicitly says that there is no actual romantic relationship between Holmes and Watson in the show.

What annoys me, then, is that while the writers are unwilling, for whatever reason, to actually explore the concept of Holmes and Watson being in a homosexual relationship, they are perfectly happy to use the idea of such a relationship as a source of ‘fun’ and a joke for their viewers. Homosexuality is not just there in fiction for that awkward ‘people thought we were a couple but we’re actually not’ joke. That joke is so, so overused. To stop bashing Sherlock (because I am actually a huge fan of the show) and move onto something else – the Doctor Who episode “Closing Time” exhibits all the same issues. Half the episode runs solely on the joke that the Doctor and Craig appear to be a couple, and everyone assumes as much, even though they’re not. If a show is so willing to mention and address homosexuality, surely they should be willing to actually show it on screen.

I realise that Doctor Who – and perhaps Sherlock, although I can’t remember off the top of my head – does have same-sex couples on screen and various times. I am especially a fan of Madame Vastra and Jenny from “A Good Man Goes to War”. And Doctor Who did use a very similar joke to the one with the Doctor and Craig, but with the Doctor and Donna. However, I don’t think they ever felt the need to base an entire episode upon it, simply because one wouldn’t think you can derive so much humour from two people not being a couple. Unless of course they’re gay, and you’re showing how accepting you are of the fact that they could be. If you want to be accepting, cut the subtext, and put it in the actual text. That is all.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

To Plan or Not to Plan, and the Rule of Cool

This post is dedicated to Lisbeth, the first person to comment on my blog without being coerced into it.

After last week’s adventures with the terror that is the Snowflake method, I continued trying to plan the poor story which I subjected to it. As it turns out, without the goal of writing a blog post about it, I have zero motivation to do such detailed, formulaic planning. On the other hand, I feel like I’m doing it wrong if I plan half the novel using the Snowflake method, and the other half in whatever strange way I see fit. Which has left this story at great risk of being abandoned altogether. This leads me to the question: Was it worth sacrificing the idea for research into the Snowflake method?

A lot of people say that if they try to plan a novel, they exhaust the idea, and never start actually writing it. Which is pretty much the current problem with my poor, Snowflaked story. Similarly, a few other stories I’ve planned recently, where I’ve gotten so caught up in the plan, that by the time I’ve finished it, I have no inclination to write the actual novel. I think part of the problem here might be that planning stifles characters – if you plot a character’s every move, they have no space to do anything interesting. It’s especially true if you start planning before you’ve actually got a good idea of your novel or characters – they become a vehicle for plot, which is by far the worst way to destroy a character, in my opinion.

On the other hand, the story I’m having most fun writing at the moment – something ridiculous about insanely talented Mary Sue teenagers at a performing arts boarding school – was not only planned before I wrote it, but the characters were created using a table with insightful headings such as hair colour, height and skill level. I developed the plot basically by listing all the things that might happen in the setting, and then ordering them in the most likely fashion. And it worked. Amazingly well – every time I sit down to write, I consult this handy-dandy list of plot points, and I know exactly what I’m doing. And strangely enough, the characters from that terrible table have personalities, and realistic interactions (and totally unrealistic levels of talent and angst), and my sister is a ridiculously enthusiastic fan. (On the other hand, she has always been a sucker for angsting teenage super-talented pianists.) So the question is: Why did this work, when planning so often has failed me?

My theory is that it’s because when I plan things, usually, I start taking the story too seriously. I start trying to close plot holes, and have a cohesive plot that makes sense, and all those other (very useful) things which detract from making things gratuitously awesome. Rule of Cool always wins. In order to write about the performing arts teenagers, I basically decided they would be ridiculously talented, and then threw every plot point I could at them. And it was fun. I don’t expect it to be brilliant, because it’s gratuitous as, but nonetheless, I can’t deny the effectiveness (so long as you’re not looking to write anything deep and literary) of plotting your story by thinking of awesome things, and writing about them.