The Vastness of Us

On February 7, 2017, Mikayla wrote, I tend to base my MC’s off of myself, and I was wondering if you (or anyone else on here!) had suggestions for how to deal with this, such as precautions, tips, or ways to separate myself from my MC.

The Florid Sword wrote back, I have lots of trouble with this. Usually what I do to make my MC different from myself is I take one aspect of myself, such as a hobby or a negative trait, and say, “How can I change this from being myself?”

So, for example, I like to draw. The book I’m writing right now is based on my own experiences and the main character has to be kind of like me, to react in a similar way. However, I decided to take my hobby of drawing and make my character a cook.

I also tend to get very annoyed by even the tiniest things, but to change that I made my character very longsuffering but also gave her a habit of exaggerating everything.

Clever ideas, Florid Sword!

In a way, all our characters come from aspects of ourselves, or we couldn’t dream them up. Sure, some are based on people we know and characters we’ve read, but inevitably, unavoidably, they’re reinterpreted through our experiences and our innards. Most of you know how much I adore Pride and Prejudice. I’ve gone to Austen more than once for character inspiration, even for my MC. However, I doubt that the real Austen, while spinning in her grave, would recognize my creations as having any connection with hers. We may not be aware of how we’re spinning our characters, but we are.

We’re vast. We who write fantasy, and even we who don’t, have entire universes whirling between our ears–because even the world in a contemporary, realistic story differs from writer to writer. And the world we create in one story varies from the world in another. And we manage to people all those worlds! Though I may usually live by routine, I can, with effort, dredge up occasions when I acted spontaneously. Though I think I don’t have a hair-trigger temper, I remember occasions when something has set me off like a match to kindling. Within me exist spontaneity and routine, calm and fury.

Suppose we decide, to write an MC entirely based on ourselves, exactly like us, down to whether we sleep on our back or our side or eat our favorite foods first or leave the best for last, I doubt that others would agree with our representations. If we’re self-critical, we’re likely to paint a darker picture of ourselves than friends and family experience. And vice versa, if we fail to see our faults. Virtues and faults, however, are only part of it. We don’t know how our faces look when we feel this or that. We rarely hear our own voices, and when we do, the occasion is special, not the ordinary. We may not be aware of how much we change in the company of this person or that, or we may think of ourselves as chameleons and exaggerate our reinventions.

The Florid Sword mentions giving her MC a different hobby from her own, cooking rather than drawing, which I think is a fine idea. However, there is an underlying assumption that this MC, like Florid Sword, has a hobby. Not everyone does. And, if Florid Sword knows nothing about cooking, she’ll have to learn a little or research cooking, which she’ll have to do in her own characteristic way. We can’t escape ourselves!

Coincidentally, in my historical novel Dave at Night, I gave Dave a talent: drawing, because, before I started writing, I drew and painted as my hobby. I picked drawing deliberately so that I could use something I already knew. We don’t always want to cut ourselves off from material that will make our task a smidgen easier.

One more thing. Our readers who don’t know us will read the character we believe to be exactly like us through the prisms of their own personalities. This is particularly true of our MCs, whom our readers will enter. Our identities will merge with theirs.

I think I often do this here–urge you not to worry. Above are all the reasons I think you needn’t. Now for my method of building characters. I do it to a large degree unconsciously, but this is how I believe I do it.

My stories arise out of ideas rather than characters. My new book, The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre, begins Rapunzel-ish, with an abduction. (I’m not giving away anything that you won’t learn in the first few pages.) Lady Klausine takes my MC Perry to raise as a member of the Lakti nobility and to learn the ways of their Spartan, warrior culture. When I developed Lady Klausine I considered what Lakti mothering might be like and modeled her on what I came up with. Then I thought about how her very-tough-very-little-love method might form her daughter. Both characters grew to a large degree out of these ruminations–which have nothing to do with my own past or my own personality.

You can do the same. Think about your story. What’s the world like? What challenges will your MC face, according to your plot as you’ve imagined it so far? Who will the other major characters be? How will they affect her? In an MC, we’re looking for traits that will allow her to survive but that will also force her to struggle and suffer. We can list possible traits and virtues and flaws, like greed, intelligence, friendliness, jealousy. How will this one or that one help or hinder her as the story moves along?

We can see how this works in reverse and how our MCs can naturally be unlike us. Try this: cast yourself as the MC in a fairy tale or a book or movie you know really well. For example, how would you behave if you were Snow White and the evil queen’s hunter left you alone in a forest? Further along, how would you co-exist with the dwarves? Would you stay with them?

Let’s say the answer to the last question is, No way. Their cottage would make you claustrophobic. You might like them or hate them, but remaining there would drive you crazy. You like to take control of your fate. Sadly, you would make an impossible Snow White. So, if not you, what sort of character would be able to do what the story requires of her?

Let’s turn this into the first prompt. Write the scene in the forest with the hunter with you as Snow White. You may need to check out the original Grimm version for this. If you can’t get with the program, figure out who would be able to. Put that new character in and revise the scene. In Grimm, Snow White is no more than a pawn, but make your MC more three-dimensional.

Here are two more prompts:

∙ Keep yourself as Snow White. You can’t act as she would, so change the story in sync with your nature. Keep going. See what happens.

∙ Use the characteristic that Florid Sword gave her MC. This Snow White exaggerates everything. Write a scene from her sojourn with the dwarves.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Entering the Opposite

Before I start the post, I’ll share this odd discovery I made today about Ella Enchanted and Fairest. I’ve started work, as I think I mentioned, on another book in Ella’s world, and ogres come into it in a major way, so I’ve looked back at the other books, in which there are ogres, albeit less prominently. Ella spends two chapters with the creatures but with no description except that they’re hairy, and females are a little shorter than males. What are they wearing? Are they… er… wearing nothing? In Fairest, in which the ogre encounter is briefer, a female has a scrap of red ribbon in her hair. That’s it. In Ella at least there should have been something. No one has ever complained, but tomorrow someone will. Or I already have.

Further proof for all of us that a piece of writing is always flawed. We do the best we can. We strive for perfection while knowing that the effort is doomed–in a good way, because the best we can do is worthy.

And something else. Please read or listen to this poem by John Updike, which is about getting through a novel and which reminds me of you guys who participate in NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://writersalmanac.org/episodes/20160507/?htm_campaign=TWA%20Newsletter%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&utm_medium=email&utm_source=Eloqua&utm_content=The%20Writer%27s%20Almanac%20for%20May%207%2c%202016&elqTrackId=b9e915bc82274beeb6edb771fa8b7d44&elq=ab58705a1d474dfcbe7e1bc4faf06736&elqaid=22020&elqat=1&elqCampaignId=19143.

Now for the post. On March 23, 2016, Bookworm wrote, Does anyone have any advice for writing a story in first person with a character with a different personality than the writer? I’m having a lot of trouble with that. It’s okay in third person, but first person is what I’m aiming for. Any help with this is welcome and appreciated.

Christie V Powell said she has a similar problem and suggested an approach to solving it: I’m trying that too, but I am having so much trouble that I might have to start out in third and then maybe switch over after a few chapters and edit in the POV change. My character is very talkative, and she won’t stop chatting and start telling the story!

Bookworm answered: In one of my WIPs (I have at least two), my MC isn’t much like me, as I mentioned in my last post. She’s really shy, and she doesn’t often say what’s on her mind. I have trouble sticking to what her personality is supposed to be, since I’m definitely not shy. Please help!

Next, Emma wrote, I am struggling with this a little bit too. In my WIP that I’ve mentioned several times on here that has four MCs, one of the sisters is very much like me, and one is very much not. I find myself subconsciously making the one that is most like me talk the most and ask the most questions (because I tend to be inquisitive, and talkative depending on the situation), while the character who is least like me says very little. I could use some help as well on this subject, so pretty much what Bookworm said.

And Christie V Powell opined, You’re not usually shy, but I bet you have felt that way sometimes–first day of school? Giving a speech in class? You could try keeping those experiences in mind. I’m doing the opposite for mine–I am not very talkative, but every once and a while I’ll be in just the right situation, with just the right people, and one of my favorite topics has come up, and then I have no trouble being talkative!

I don’t know if it’s the same for everyone, but when I’m feeling shy it’s usually because I’m not sure how to act in a given situation. I have to have it figured out in my head how I’m supposed to act, what rules I need to follow, and how to respond to possible situations. Also, a lot of times there’s a fear of being judged– once when I was a teen, I was talking about writing to a trusted adult, and she said, “you must have mistaken me for someone who cares.” It took me years to be able to talk about my writing with others. I still often freeze up and think, “They aren’t interested in me. I’d better not say too much because I don’t want to torture them with something they don’t care about.”

Gee, Christie V Powell, what a terrible thing for that person to say! You earned that bit of shyness! Too bad!

I like Christie V Powell’s suggestion about changing POV to delve more deeply into a character, or to make her be the personality we’re going for. We can switch back and forth from first-person to third and create consistency when we revise. If we’re stuck, we can even shift into second person and see what happens, as in, You want to speak, but you’re afraid of sounding foolish. In your mind, you phrase and rephrase. The moment passes. The conversation moves on. You nod, hoping to seem part of the conversation.

Here’s another idea. If we’re not shy but our character is, we can turn his speech into thoughts. He’d like to express his opinion of, say, another character when she’s being discussed. He has an opinion, but he can’t bring himself to put it out there for whatever reason: he’s afraid no one will agree with him; his mouth is suddenly dry; he thinks he can’t say it well enough. If we put his dialogue into his thoughts–made him a talkative thinker–we may satisfy our own not-shy impulses.

If we ourselves are shy, we can reverse the process and turn thoughts into speech.

My guess is that most of us often write characters who are unlike us. Presumably, our villains aren’t much like us. Our other secondary characters probably aren’t, either. The differences don’t give us trouble, but when the different personality is our MC, the process gets difficult. We may not be sure about what’s going on in her heart and mind.

Christie V Powell did us a service by revealing what’s behind her shyness. When we write our own shy characters we can build on what she wrote. Our character may be careful and deliberate. She may think ahead and prepare as Christie V Powell does.

I’m shy sometimes, but usually not. For those of you who are shy, here are insights into the inner workings of a non-shy person. It seems a little like boasting, but in most social situations I feel confident. I’m interested in other people and hardly think of myself, which gives me a leg up. My motives for speaking up are varied. Sometimes I want to connect with others. Sometimes–shame on me!–I want to show off how thoughtful I am. Sometimes, lately, as I age (this is probably crazy), I want to demonstrate that I’m not senile. The reward for being not-shy is that often I do connect with people. The downside is that sometimes I rush in where sensible people won’t tread, and I goof. We not-shy, impulsive people have to take the consequences. Sometimes I kick myself afterwards. Sometimes I wind up with a funny story to tell on myself. We can do both with our characters.

Poetry school is almost over for me. On Friday the graduating graduate students will read from our theses (collections of at least twenty-five poems) at NYU’s Writers’ House, and then I’m done. I’m very sad. These three years have been marvelous, and I’m a better writer for it. I’m mentioning this, though, because in my final poetry workshop our entire class seemed to fall under a spell of shyness. Our teacher is soft-spoken and, I think, shy. A few of my classmates seem shy, too, and I’ve fallen under the spell as well. We email our poems to each other before class. Each student reads his or her poem and then we discuss, praising and criticizing. Our teacher weighs in, usually with comments and suggestions about particular lines or words, which are usually helpful, astute, and surprising. He seems to prefer spareness, my preference, too. The poet isn’t allowed to speak until the end, when he or she can ask questions. The spell kicks in. We speak softly. There are long pauses. Animated discussion never breaks out. The class always ends early. I’m almost as shy as everyone else, and I have an ulterior motive, because I have a long train ride home. I feel disappointed and glad.

Poetry is kind of an invitation to shyness. Poems are slippery. Good ones are often subtle. Meaning is elusive. Even graduate poetry students fear they’ve misunderstood the work of their fellows. I know this from looking inward. I don’t want to be revealed as a blockhead. So here’s a crazy suggestion: If you want to shy up your ebullient MC, stick her in a poetry class and see what she does.

Or, to make this a tad more ordinary, put her in a situation in which she feels less than competent. Before you start, think about what’s she’s good at and what she’s not. Then stick her in a setting where she feels like the least accomplished person in the room. If she’s tone deaf, put her in a music appreciation class. If she can’t tell her left from her right, make her participate in a conference on high-seas navigation.

Of course, our MC can be different from us in ways that have nothing to do with being shy or outgoing. He can be generous although we’re a little tight with money. His background and manners can be upper crust while we’re solidly middle class. He can be nervous while we never worry, even when we should. And so on.

To help us craft alien personalities, we can research these dissimilar traits. We can interview people we know who exhibit the characteristics we want in our MC. We can discuss our plot with these people. If we share our work with other writers we can ask them if we seem to have gotten it right. We can think about characters in books and movies who align with our MC. If we worry about imitation, we can also change our characters in important ways from our models so readers won’t pick up the source.

Here are three real prompts and a possible one:

∙ Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems don’t easily reveal their meaning, if they ever do. Here’s an example:

Except the smaller size, no Lives are round,
These hurry to a sphere, and show, and end.
The larger, slower grow, and later hang—
The Summers of Hesperides are long.

Emily, I have no idea what’s going on. Put two MC’s in a poetry craft class (where published poems are discussed). The students are considering this poem. One MC is outgoing, the other shy. The outgoing one offers her opinions, so you need to give her dialogue. The shy one thinks what he’d like to say. Write the scene and make both of them suffer.

The possible prompt is to comment on the blog about your interpretation of the poem. Comment whether you’re shy or not. Since this poem’s meaning is so opaque, it won’t be possible to be foolish.

∙ Your two poetry MC’s happen to run into each other later at a café. Write their conversation, which may or may not go well.

∙ Your MC is out of work, impoverished and hungry. She will do anything to change her circumstances, so she sees an online opening in an occupation of your choosing. To give herself a chance, she invents a resume that includes education, expertise, and experience she entirely lacks. She’s hired. Write her first day on the job.

Have fun, and save what you write.

Memorable MC

Because you should get something out of my poetry school, here’s a link to a beautiful poem: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/175780. Let me know what you think. Have you ever had a similar experience? Have you ever felt the way the speaker of the poem does?

I want to let you all know that an audio version of Writing Magic is now available, and I’m the reader. So, if you’ve never gotten to a signing and would like to hear my somewhat scratchy, old-lady voice, now you can. What a recommendation!

In August, Rebekah wrote, When I’m writing, I can’t seem to make my MC believable. My other characters all have memorable qualities, voices, and such (or I hope so, anyway), but I can’t seem to find my MC’s voice! Any suggestions on making her more memorable?

In response, Bug wrote, I may be misunderstanding a little, but when I had trouble with this, I switched the POV (not for the whole book) and wrote a scene from one of my minor character’s eyes. I then discovered what I had not realized about my main character-he was a lot more sarcastic then I had thought; he was funny, etc. 

Bug’s suggestion is excellent. Anyone with this problem is likely to benefit from trying it. I’ve had this kind of trouble myself, and I’ll keep Bug’s idea in mind if it crops up again.

The root of this particular evil lies, I think, in reliability, and it crops up most often, I suspect, when we’re writing in first person. The reader sees our story through the eyes of our MC, so we want the lens to be clear. Sometimes, though, that clear lens washes out our MC’s distinguishing qualities. She’s showing everyone else to the reader, but how do we reveal her?

We may have to step back and consider her. She has a problem or a situation, or there would be no story. How does she approach solving it? At this point we may want to revisit our better defined secondary characters. How would each of them attack the problem? How is our MC’s method different?

If we don’t know, we can decide.

Let’s say our MC, Leona, is in a theatrical troupe that’s been sent to a neighboring kingdom to promote goodwill between the two, which have been at war intermittently for generations. In the production they’ll be performing, Leona plays the younger sister of the female star, and she’s also assistant stage manager. Her mother, the prime minister of the kingdom, has impressed on her that if this mission fails, war will result. Things are not going well. The star, who shares a room with Leona, keeps sneaking out at night. Will she cause an international scandal? The male lead hasn’t learned his lines. The director directs mostly by yelling.
The stage manager is disorganized. The first performance, which will be attended by the king, is three days off.

Oy! This is hard! I don’t know what I would do. But the situation suggests lots of questions we can ask ourselves about Leona:

• Is she direct with people?
• Or subtle?
• Is she a good judge of character?
• Or does she tend to trust the wrong people?
• Is she cautious or reckless?
• Does she worry about hurting people’s feelings?
• Does she give up easily?
• How talented an actor is she?
• Is she organized?
• Does she get along well with the other cast members?
• Can she cultivate allies?
• Does she annoy people?
• Is she shy or outgoing?

You can think of more questions. A benefit of asking them is that we see choices. We can also come up with flaws in Leona that distinguish her and make her task harder, and we’ve given her ways she can grow in the course of our story. Probably we’ll want her first attempts to go badly. If she trusts the wrong people, for example, she’s bound to make mistakes.

That’s the big picture. Now we want to know how she expresses the character that we’re beginning to develop, so that the reader will recognize her easily.

If she’s our POV character, we have direct access to her thoughts. She can seesaw between despair and hope. On the page she can think, This will never work. Then, Bad attitude, Leona. It will work! There. A few pages later she can get discouraged again and pep-talk herself out of it. Or she can pepper her thoughts with anxious questions, like, What am I doing? How can I say that? Will he hate me? Or she can recite a phrase to calm herself, like, The ground is solid, the sky is always there, and I am here. If she is a talented actor, she’ll probably be thinking about her art. If she’s not talented, if she has a role just to help her mother, she may be worrying about ruining the show. Or she may not be a worrier. Her thoughts may be exceedingly organized. Plan A attempted. Move on to Plan B.

Of course, we don’t want to overdo these thought tics. Occasionally is enough.

Feelings help the reader relate, so consider Leona’s inner life. She may be homesick or delighted to be on this mission, which she regards as an adventure. She may be confident or a worrier. She may cry easily, or she may hold her feelings in, and the reader discovers them through her thoughts and clenched jaw. She may be cheerful or depressed, or her feelings may swing from one to the other.

Distinguishing dialogue will also make her interesting. I’ve gone into this in Writing Magic and in dialogue posts. We all express ourselves uniquely, and Leona can, too. How does she speak? Slow? Fast? In bursts punctuated by silence? What kind of vocabulary does she use? What body language accompanies her speech? Again, dialogue tics, once we establish them, should be used sparingly.

And, of course, how does Leona look? Aside from her face and body, how does the inner person affect the outer? I bet you know people who look worse than they could, and vice versa, those who, through fashion sense or posture or flair, always look great. What does she wear? Does she know which colors are best on her, or does she not have a clue? How does she move? Is she graceful? Always rushing? Are her gestures big? Or do her arms stay tight at her sides?

Here are four prompts:

• Write a scene in which Leona and the entire troupe have an audience with the king the day they arrive. Have Leona do or say something that does not go well. Make sure you include her thoughts and feelings.

• Write the first rehearsal, with Leona juggling her time onstage with her stage managing. Be sure to include dialogue. Make things go badly in this scene, too.

• Using Bug’s suggestion, rewrite the first rehearsal from the POV of one of the other characters: the director, the leading man or lady, the stage manager. Show Leona through the eyes of the character you pick.

• If you like, write the whole tale.

Have fun, and save what you write!