Writing Characters as Paradoxical People


People are paradoxes. Choose any real person you know and try to describe them, and you’ll likely come up with a pattern like “very x and y, but surprisingly also z.”

When I’m having trouble developing characters, I sometimes go as far back to basic as possible. That means taking a list of dozens of character attributes and more or less playing roulette with them. If I want to start off simple, I go with three traits: two that complement each other, and one that seems to mismatch completely.

For example, let’s say I need a supporting character and all I know is I want someone snarky. What complements snarky? Lots of things: witty, fun, abusive, clever, crass, critical, pessimistic. I think I’ll make this character critical of others, which comes across in his snarky comments. Now, what trait would be totally unexpected in a critical, snarky person? I’ll take the exact opposite of one of my complementary terms: optimistic.

That seems like a difficult combination to pull off, right? May, you’re some kind of writing masochist.

But characters who fit too nicely into a personality mold aren’t interesting. More importantly, they aren’t real. I’d rather read about a critical, snarky optimist and find out why he’s like that, than read about a critical, snarky pessimist whose past is basically spelled out in his scowl.

Sure, May, but how exactly do you write someone like that?

*

I clung to the cliff face, heart pounding, though hell if I knew where all that blood was going since I couldn’t feel my fingers. Jork  dangled above me, staring down into the abyss as though wondering, of all things, where in that darkness his cigarette lighter had fallen.

“You could look a bit more worried,” I said. “Or angry, or you know, anything other than calm.”

He shrugged. “You want me to tell you how you effed up? How you somehow managed to get tricked by a little girl with a bag of dynamite who obviously wasn’t the coconut seller she claimed to be?”

“Well–“

“Cuz I’d be hanging here all night if I did that.”

“How is it,” I asked through clenched teeth, “that you can be so negatively analytical about everything else and then have no logical response to falling off a cliff?”

“Just because I don’t trust people doesn’t mean I don’t trust in the universe to get us out of here.”

I tapped my forehead against the rock. “In one direction or another.”

*

Written in roughly five minutes, but you get the point. 🙂

For some help coming up with personality traits, here’s a handy generator from a site with many other handy generators.

Got a paradoxical character? Feel free to share them in the comments!

Writing Foreign Characters and Non-Native Speakers


Finally taking a time-out from life to post. Yay!

I love writing culturally and linguistically diverse characters. As a linguist, I can’t help but consider how such characters would interact. For example, an English-speaker gets pulled into another world; what are the chances of people there also speaking English? Uh, zilch, unless they originally come from an English-speaking country in our world. So then I have to come up with a logical explanation for why my character can communicate with them, because my linguist brain kind of draws the line there for suspension of disbelief.

Seriously. Portals to another world? Sure, taken for granted. Language discontinuity? Stop right there.

One thing I see a lot with bilingual characters is a tendency to defect to their native language for words they don’t know. TV and literature alike are rampant with lines like “Look at that humongous gato!” This in and of itself is fine, but the way I most often see it handled makes me think the writer has never encountered an actual English Language Learner (ELL).

Take the above example. There are a few things that strike me as highly unlikely:

1. The speaker knows the word “humongous,” but not “cat.”

2. The word he/she defaulted on was a noun. Statistically speaking (from experience as an EFL teacher), nouns are easier to remember than most other word types. I’d say the hierarchy of difficulty actually looks something like conjugated verbs -> adverbs and adjectives -> nouns -> interjections.

3. Using gato is fine if the speaker knows the other person will understand, but if not, they would probably try to find another English word to explain. Think about it: If I don’t know the word in your language, why should you know it in mine?

So in a realistic scenario, the person is more likely to say “Look! Big gato!” or “Mira — the big cat!” or even “Look at the big — uh, there!” (with gestures).

If you don’t functionally speak your character’s native language, be sure to do your research. Check Youtube for actual clips of people with that native language trying to speak English. And don’t assume that all ELLs are going to make the same kinds of mistakes. My former Korean and Japanese ELL students, for example, always had the hardest time using “almost.” They would all give me sentences like:

“Almost Japanese people love karaoke.”

“Almost my coworkers go home after eight.”

Literally EVERY. SINGLE. STUDENT. It didn’t matter what their age, what level their English, or what kind of school they had gone to. Even my co-teachers in Korea, otherwise fluent, did this. They were told that “almost” was the same as “most” and it took hours of conditioning to make them drop the habit. My Saudi Arabian students, on the other hand, didn’t really have this problem.

They also have trouble choosing between “a” and “the” because Japanese and Korean don’t have articles. But you can bet Spanish and Italian speakers have got that down.

These few minor considerations can really give your characters an extra dimension of realism, even if your readers/viewers don’t consciously register why.

On the flipside, here’s an example of how badly things can go wrong if you take the easy way out.

Can you think of any instances, literary or otherwise, where a character had an awkward or unlikely line as a non-native speaker?

Inspiration, Slice-of-Life Style


I have not posted in three months.

I began several posts, but the motivation for them just petered out each time. And I know why: life honestly sucked for a while. The odd thing is, people who knew my situation had preconceived notions of the suckiness, and of what sucked the most. They were full of feelings for me. And I, for a while, just felt nothing, or felt sad about other things. The way I was supposed to feel about my sucky life was nowhere near the reality.

And that’s something that’s still the case. Because of this fact, other people have taken me to be a strong person. I’m not entirely sure I agree, but it’s nice to entertain the thought.

***

I’ve always wanted to be strong. Not beautiful, not a genius, not even kind. Strength was always the most valuable thing to me, maybe because I felt that the people around me lacked it. I grew up with super heroes and not-super heroes and war stories and history books and movies and literature and manga and always there was one simple message: be strong, fight back, succeed.

Some people think I’m pretty. Test scores and a Master’s degree say that I’m smart. And apparently I’ve been kind enough to make an impact on others. But those things all seem so easy to assess. Strength? Who even knows what strength is, really? Who has a right to define it? Is it even something you can have and keep, or does it ebb and flow with the situation?

Can someone tell me that I’m strong, and actually be right? Or is that something I determine for myself?

***

You can spend your entire life hearing the words “be strong.” People say it like a magic spell. You make it your incantation, hoping the words themselves will make you unshakable. And you never really realize what you’re saying.

“Be strong.” Sometimes it’s actually quite a simple thing to do. It means don’t run away; just plant your feet and let the world come at you. Sometimes you don’t even have to move forward, you just have to not be pushed down.

Sometimes you have to fight gravity itself.

***

A few weeks ago I got fed up with having no motivation to write. I had a novel on submission, it’s sequel with a couple of chapters done, and an older project that I’d put on hold upon conceiving the former. I tried working on all three of these for months with no success. It wasn’t even that I hated the words I put down — it was that the words would not come out for anything. Like they didn’t even exist inside of me anymore.

And then I had a dream. I woke up with characters and a situation and a setting all right there on a silver platter, and wrote it all down as fast as I could.

But it wasn’t until later, when I started consciously developing the main character, that I realized the story was more than just a story. There was an idea behind it. One central, humanizing theme, what John Scalzi would call the Big Idea: strength. Strength lost, battered, bullied, trapped behind dark memories and fear. Strength and the girl who needs it. Strength and the boy who doubts it.

***

Through everything, I am a writer. And through being a writer, I become more of a human being. I live other lives, I see other perspectives. I learn by doing, even if I only ever act in a fictional world. It’s not an escape; it’s a translation.

Writing is a translation of life.

Stories are the lives in them.

Every main character in a story has a sucky life, or they’d have nothing to tell you; nothing to change their perspective and make them grow. And how else do they grow, except by being strong?

Too Much Depth


If you’ve ever taken a class (or gone to a workshop, or browsed online articles) for writing advice, you’ve been subjected to the Laws of Character Development.

§ 18(2) art. 12: Thou shalt not have cardboard characters.

§ 327 art. 96: All characters shall have motivation for their actions.

§ 843 art. 2: No character is to ever have the name Bob, Bella, Mary Sue, or Vagastagnakor — unless it is a means of making their lives utterly traumatic or to bring the joy of irony to the reader.

No amount of awesome plot can make up for lack of character depth. No depth means no motivation, no sympathy, no interest.

Okay, I don’t need to repeat what innumerable others have already said. I’ll be hitting this topic from the opposite side of the field.

Some character-building worksheets go into excruciating detail. They want you to know your protagonist’s favorite brand of cereal, or what flavor gum they carry in their backpack. And while this is nice for discovering little attributes that you never would have considered otherwise, it can also lead you down a dangerous road of over-developing your character. Is knowing that Bridget likes watermelon bubble gum important to anything in the story? Is there even any reason why she should prefer watermelon over every other flavor?

Sometimes too much development, and hence too much depth, can actually… tangle up the story.

This is exactly what happened to me, even though at the time I wasn’t even consciously developing Bridget’s character. I had her strengths and her weaknesses; I had her flaws, her ticks, her dreams and hopes and fears. Her backstory grew organically from these; I realized only after finishing the second draft of Ciphers that I’d been hinting at a milestone event in her past all along.

As soon as this revelation occurred, however, certain actions of hers that didn’t stem from how this event changed her stopped making sense. I found myself thinking, “Why would she do this? True, I gave her this character trait early on, and it’s not like this trait and that one (the one influenced by that major event) are mutually exclusive in real people…”

Ah, in real people.

Real people are seldom defined by a single event in their lives; we take in millions of little influences every day, from friends, family, strangers, and celebrities. A thirty-second ad on TV can be the difference between going out and ordering in, as well as every little thing we’re exposed to as a result of that decision. Sometimes these little things define us more than the big things. At the very least they define us just as much.

Fictional characters don’t have the luxury of experiencing a ton of little things off-screen, or even on-screen really. So they can only be defined by the milestones: big achievements, big failures, traumatic events, the most influential people around them, like parents. And because we have this limitation, our view of them must be appropriately limited so as not to confuse the readers.

And trust me, if your character has a certain personality trait, there had better be a good reason for it — even if that reason is never fully revealed to the reader. As long as the author knows the character’s backstory, the readers will find hints to it in the writing, and they’ll still be able to feel like they can relate to the character.

But the character’s backstory, motives, and actions must be coherent. And coherency is easy to lose when you start bringing out personality traits that don’t fit in with the defining event of their lives, or vice versa. It can also disappear fast when there are too many defining events squeezed in, making for a set of traits that you may as well have chosen by throwing darts. Now, keep in mind that you can have multiple events if they all contribute, as a group, to a single set of traits. Or a secondary event sealing in the character a trait which the first one had only set to budding.

So here are some new entries for that law book:

1) All major personality traits and motivations should be coherent with the character’s backstory.

2) Backstory should consist of one or two defining events.

3) Multiple events should serve only to reinforce the same set of resulting traits or motivations.

 

Thoughts? Questions? Rebuttals? Give me your words in the comments section!

Query Time!


(alternatively titled “Synopses Suck”)

With the second draft of Ciphers complete and safe (probably) in the hands of my five wonderful beta readers, I decided to pass the week with a focus on agents, query letters, and finally writing that dreaded synopsis.

You know how there are some tasks you forget to do in a kind-of-accidentally-on-purpose way?

Not all agents require a synopsis. For the initial contact, some want only a one-page query letter. Some ask for the first few pages of the novel along with that. But that doesn’t mean synopses can just be slapped together for those agents who do want one. In fact, if novelists had their own version of Dante’s Hell, one of the rings would surely have synopsis-writing as the punishment.

Okay, May. This won’t be so hard. At least, not as hard as with Lavender. Ciphers is only half the length, and of much higher quality…

Some synopsis-wanting agents will be specific about how many pages it should be, usually one or two. But if not you’ll just have to go by the general rule of thumb, as told to you by… Google?

Synopsis-writing Rule #1: There is no rule about length.

So what Google tells us is that you are squashing an elephant into a sardine can in the most artful way possible. Some authorities say one or two pages for the whole novel; some say one or two pages for every hundred novel pages. The other option is to trust that what holds true for some agents will hold true for others. From my agency webpage searches, synopses of “no more than two pages” seem to be preferred, when there is a preference stated. The danger in this is that every agent is different.

So, in the end, you might as well close your eyes and throw a dart. Personally, I wanted to stick with the two page limit and just hope it didn’t drive me mad. That will work fine for most agents, including several who specified two pages… Not so much for that one agent demanding a single page. Which means that regardless, I’m writing at least two variations of a synopsis.

As we say in Korea… 헐.

Once you’ve set your limit, it’s time to decide what to include. With a 200-page novel, there’ll only be room for the really important stuff — the plot skeleton, picked clean of any literary flourishes, details, and character depth. A cold outline serving no other purpose than to tell the agent/editor what happens, whether it’s interesting, and whether your plot carries through. Right?

“Maybe reading it this way will make it less boring.”

Synopsis-writing Rule #2: Your synopsis must convey plot, voice, and character development.

When I finished my first novel and learned of the wretched existence of the synopsis, I found a lot of advice on the web that told me to forget about everything except for the hard facts. “Explain what happens, caps lock each character’s name the first time you use it, and for god’s sake don’t finish with a teaser.”

Yes, explain what happens. Yes, spoil the ending. Erm, I don’t think anyone wants to see characters’ names in caps lock anymore. But make sure you have this perspective: agents and editors only have so much time to allot each submission. Therefore they have to limit what they see, and make a snap decision based on that little sample. You can have an engaging query letter and a sample of pages that scream with potential, but if the essence of your writing doesn’t carry through in your synopsis, whoever’s reading can and will forget about everything else that makes your submission great.

Imagine Terry Pratchett writing a synopsis that reads like a Tolstoy. The agent would probably think, “okay, this is the usual epic fantasy; but what’s with all these inappropriate place and character names?”

Ciphers is written from two main 3rd-person points of view: Siph’s and Bridget’s. Our hero is cynical, short-tempered, and articulate, while Brid is uncertain, stubborn, and loves lingo. Oh holy Hell how am I supposed to convey that in only a page or two? It would be nice if I could just state it; but then the synopsis would remain dry and lacking any real voice.

What the Internet would have me write: “Siph is a short-tempered cynic. Bridget is a tomboy. Siph resents having to observe Bridget.”

What will actually impress agents: “Siph is glad to finally be allowed outside headquarters; not so glad to be stuck with the idiotic Gard for his partner, or to be baby-sitting a tomboy with a skateboard.”

Much better… but look at how long it is!

This is where you fall into the Pit of Synopsis Despair only to land on the Giant Hamster Wheel of Cyclical Editing. Take your dry, voiceless words and pretty them up. Then it’s time to hack them down again to meet your page limit. By the time you’ve removed all the “unnecessary” words, it’s a skeleton again.

And you keep on dressing up and cutting down, over and over, for that little sliver of a chance that before you go mad you might look up from your work and find yourself with something presentable…

And that is why synopses suck.

Ciphers Update and the Importance of Character Motivation


Where have I been lately? Just the usual: recovering from pneumonia, getting shuttled all over Cheollanamdo for Chuseok, sinking to my knees in Korean mudflats in search of snails to fry up in their shells, chatting with my host mom’s good-looking 27-year-old brother, watching the family pull bee larvae out of their honeycomb and eat them, getting ready to move this afternoon…

I am a horrible blogger. 😄

But I’m trying not to be a horrible novelist. Once again, it is Friday afternoon and I find myself at Cafe Vill, working on Ciphers. I have just under two months until my self-appointed deadline of a query-ready manuscript, and while I haven’t been able to work on the novel half as much as I would have liked, I still have hope that I can actually make this deadline. Especially now that I’ve wizened up and remembered I have Writerly Tricks up my sleeve!

In a nutshell, my lack of productivity has been more due to being overwhelmed than anything. At first I thought the last six or so chapters of the book would need a horrendous amount of rewriting. I figured out a way to avoid that (which also happens to strengthen the villain’s character a lot) but have still been procrastinating because…

Monday: Ugh. Really? I’m too tired for so much thinking today. I’ll do it tomorrow.

Tuesday: Four classes. In a row. Sorry, novel.

Wednesday: What novel?

Thursday: Zzzzz…

Friday: Hey, I think I got this! Blog time!

I know, I know. But I promise this post is going somewhere!

Because there was a scene in there I REALLY couldn’t stand, in which one character used a kind of emotional hypnosis (“psychic persuasion”) to make another character do something. It was random, illogical, and — I realized — a total cheat. I was just avoiding letting the hypnotized character be responsible for his own actions, because I didn’t have a good reason why he would actually choose them.

In other words, I’d completely overlooked that character’s motivation.

And I couldn’t figure out a motivation strong enough to make him do what was necessary.

Solution: revisit this. My own plotting technique. I almost kicked myself for forgetting about it. Even though it’s such a simple guideline, it’s really an awesome tool for me because, as a scatterbrained author, I need the organization. Using this template forces me to break complex plot lines into individual events, and then break the events down into five very simple parts: task, motivation, method, obstacles, outcome.

I won’t get into more detail because that’s what the linked post is all about. But I will say that using the guideline I spent all of five minutes on my motivation problem before figuring out what would finally get the character to move, and exactly how that would affect the outcome.

Five minutes. After hours of dithering and weeks of cringing at that scene thinking “this needs to change” and then marking it to work on later.

In conclusion, don’t forget the motivation!

Goesan, Day 24: Things I’ve done today AND Identity part 2


Starting at midnight, I:

  • walked home drunk for the first time ever. Fortunately, I was not as drunk as I could have been, but I did drunk-talk the entire way. Largely about Linguistics.
  • drunk-talked with one of my closest friends here as soon as I got back to campus. I don’t even KNOW what I said to her.
  • got back to my room and thought my roomie was already in bed, and hence stumbled around in the dark trying not to wake her. She came in some time after I’d fallen asleep.
  • woke up blissfully not hungover at 7:30.
  • blew up about 40 balloons for the Camp Fulbright Olympics.
  • ran around in the sun and heat for two hours, trying to control up to 20 screaming Korean kids at a time while they played soccer… five times in a row with only water breaks.
  • got sunburnt, as expected. @D (Though it was worth it for the kids who got really into it — especially one tiny elementary school girl with a love for bugs, who refused to back down in a game against boys literally twice her size! Tough as nails. >^_^<)
  • forgot I’d left the shower head on instead of the faucet and accidentally sprayed ice water all over my left side… for the second time since coming here.
  • hung out with my writer friend, Andrea, and had a “writers’ afternoon.”
  • took a much needed nap.
  • wound up talking gossip with my friend Kristal over dinner.
  • and just got back from watching the movie UP, several parts of which made me cry and several others of which made me think of a certain someone. I predict lots of introspection over the next few days.

Well, the list started out entertaining enough.

At some point during the writers’ afternoon, I mentioned to Andrea something that I realized for myself not too long ago: the fact that I’ve been given the rare opportunity to start anew and choose who I want to be.

Back in the states, I went by my real name more often than not; even friends who called me May only did so in certain circumstances, like in KakaoTalk. So when I mentioned, in a rather offhand way, that I liked to be called that on the Fulbright forum, I had no idea that I would actually arrive in Korea to find my nice, official name tag stamped with “May Myers.”

It took longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that this was a real life Call to Adventure, Joseph Campbell style. I wrote here that it felt like my true self had been smothered by the pressure of trying not earn a negative reputation (not in those words, though). Since then, I’ve gradually become more outgoing, more confident, and more satisfied with my experiences here. All the while, there was a single question in my head, wanting to be answered:

Who do I want to be?

At this point, the answer could be anything. Sweet or bitchy; brave or cowardly; innocent or wise; lazy or motivated; a victim, or a strong, independent woman. All of these aspects exist within me right now, just as they exist, to varying degrees, in everyone. My identity lies in the ones that I will choose to foster. The ones I deign important enough to actively strive for, rather than giving in to their opposites. In some cases, though, opposite does not mean bad; just that I want to be one more than the other. And sometimes the middle road is alright, too.

So my next step is to actively consider these aspects, their pros and cons, and how to work toward becoming my ideal self.

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