Brace yourselves, ya’ll, it’s about to get literary.
I attended the Get Published! 2016 Writer’s Workshop this past weekend at Herrick Library in Holland…Michigan…not the country. An unexpected nose bleed (not mine) delayed my departure.* Because of my late arrival, I had to not-so-surreptitiously sneak into the event and plead for a chair to be set up in the back because I was too embarrassed to crawl to the middle seats in front of everyone. Then I dropped my snack apple—twice—so didn’t get to eat until the first break. I blame any errors in my notes on low blood sugar.
This post is intended to boil down the advice and recommendations and perhaps some of the enthusiasm of this past Saturday. There is just something about feeding your literary aspirations with a six-hour diet of concentrated study that is both invigorating and daunting.
Each panel was arranged from a pool of eight representatives from the writing industry: publishers, a playwright, fiction writers and editors—most of these people wore more than one hat and all had something to say. (The list of attendees can be found at the foot of this post.)
I can’t recapture the entire presentation here—even if I wanted to, my note taking skills aren’t that good. In an effort to maintain sanity, I will be breaking up my notes into as coherent an organization as I can manage. Today’s topic was one of my favorites—the first presentation was called “Character, Point of View and Voice”. Honestly though, the talk wandered whichever way the questions led it.
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Building More Interesting and Believable Characters:
As readers, we cherish a well written character—fully fleshed out with a recognizable voice and believable motivations. Fully-formed protagonists and devilish villains are the peaches in the pie, so to speak. As writers, it can be very difficult to figure out why what we have written is about as dynamic as poorly-designed stage scenery. In the first session, the moderator introduced the question of how a writer goes about constructing something more lifelike than a clumsy homunculus sculpted using Roget’s Thesaurus and a trowel of desperation. Not surprisingly, the panel differed in their approaches—some prefer internal mechanisms of constructing motive while others recommend stalking the populace to feed your imagination.
In life, people are haunted by their pasts and driven by their desires—characters in stories are no different. When you look at the stories you are writing, the experts suggest examining why your characters act the way they do. “Believable characters are going to have things that only they understand about themselves.” Tim Rohr. The panel was quick to point out this doesn’t mean that we ‘explain’ motives to the reader in a detailed, point-by-point fashion. When deciding how much backstory to present, we should keep in mind “what we want to include versus what we need to include. Characters are not their past—they are what we put them through. Backstory isn’t that interesting.” Tim Rohr. Sue Ann Culp piggybacked on this statement warning, “Watch for the moments when the author is talking and not the character.” The consensus opinion was that, often, exposition is the author not giving readers enough credit. Therefore, a cardinal sin of writing is the dreaded Info Dump: “As authors, we have a message we want to get out. It isn’t that it is not a valid thing to do, but you don’t want the reader to put it together until after the end of the story.” Matthew Rohr. If you want to write a believable story, don’t rely on the main character’s past to frame the narrative.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN I CAN’T INCLUDE BACKSTORY?
Hang on, if we can’t write about backstory, what should be put in its place? Tim Rohr recommends the story should be carried by the character’s actions and reactions. “If it is (interesting enough) you should be telling that story—(the characters) are the trials that we put them through.” An author instinctively wants to explain everything to the reader; to write well, we have to quash this impulse. Writing—Bob is running away from his life and responsibilities because a mid-life crisis had been building since his wife started talking about possibly having a third child—isn’t as strong as—Bob took one look at the booty his wife was knitting and left…for Tahiti.** The ‘write’ thing to do might just be keeping a few secrets for the audience to sniff out…but from whence arise these complex characters chock full of mystery?
FROM WITHOUT AS WITHIN
As Gods of Creation, writers may seek help from the world around them. A few panelists suggest that, if you need inspiration, it can be as close as the nearest coffee shop. “I’m a big airport eavesdropper. I will look around to see who is talking and then I will go sit behind them and listen to their conversations.” Sue Ann Culp. Another writer, Matthew Rohr, referenced gathering facets from people around him to create a composite of personalities, quirks, and appearances and stockpiling them for future use, calling this his “Bureau of Unemployed Characters.” Character studies already exist, everywhere around us—in the places we visits, our co-workers and family members; they are also available within.
The presenters recommend using your writing to act out the emotional upheavals or life conflicts and basically translate that into your work. “When you are first writing your story, you have to use it as a punching bag. Let your raw anger and angst come out. Have your characters express anger. Let your dark characters express the dark.” Kristen Wojtaszek. She went on to say, “What we as authors are doing is acting. When you write, you have to wear that character’s skin. Spend time daydreaming and put yourself into it…act it out.” Get to know your creations. Take them out for tea—find out if they like Oolong in light green, ceramic bowls or Lipton sun-brewed drunk from a canning jar with lemon slices and sweet enough to carve cavities on the spot. Once your fully-fleshed-out character is ready for action, the only way to test their mettle is to throw them into the literary blender and push ‘frappe’.
Good writing is driven by more than just motivation, it is the balance of what the character wants to happen and what the author does to keep them off-balance with their goals tantalizingly out of reach. We can’t love our creation so much that we aren’t willing to put them through hell to write a good story. Brittany Wilson had this to say about character development: “Sometimes we fall into this trap…we want our characters to be perfect.” She described reading books where the main character has no flaws and that everything comes out happy in the end with little to no struggle. “You get to the end of the book and feel ‘I hate these people.’ Your heroes are going to be good, but they have to have some bad in them. And your villains are going to be bad, but they need to have some good in them. Lean more toward the middle.”
There is always something in the character people can relate to—whether good or bad.” So, if our good guy has flaws like any real human…our villain’s flaw is their niceness? Matthew Rohr explains that it is all about the audience, “The thing people identify with in a good character is their flaw. The best villains have an understandable or believable end goal.” Basically, the best villains are not Snidely Whiplash—they are not pure evil. They may have a goal the reader can agree with or even find laudable; it is the villain’s method of achieving the goal that is reprehensible.
IDENTIFYING WITH MOTIVATION = BELIEVABILITY
You can’t only wear the skin of your hero, you also have to walk in the shoes of the bad guy. Sue Ann Culp mentioned a story she read, I Hunt Killers—about a teenage boy whose father was a serial killer and the boy is worried he has these tendencies. “The dad in the story, in his own twisted mind, loves his son. He believed teaching his son the ‘family business’ was a thing a good father would do.” Writing reflects the duality of human nature—a character might justify killing several people to prevent what he considers a greater injustice. Viewed through this dark lens, what seems incomprehensible begins to make a terrible sort of sense. In fact, for the reader, the motivations have to be believable on some level or the story won’t float. The architecture of a tale does not rest solely on the actions of the hero—if you feel the conflict is one-sided, then perhaps it is time to take a walk on the dark side.
When you are stuck in the narrative and want a different perspective someone suggested that you “Re-write the story from your villain’s point of view.” Remember, that from the villain’s perspective—they are the good guy. Their actions might be misguided, stubborn, malicious, or just plain wrong—but the villain’s beliefs and desires will direct as much or more of the story than what the otherwise law-abiding hero does. Whether you are writing a good or bad guy, you have to remember that their motivations might not serve their best interests. “The needs and the wants of the character don’t always match up. Story conflict is a good place to build a character.” Brittany Wilson
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU WRITE A BAD BAD GUY?
An overly-good hero is going to be just as bad as a cardboard-cutout, super villain bent on destroying Metropolis for no better reason than they can. As one of the panelists put it, “If you find yourself with a ‘Boris and Natasha’ character, you really need to flesh him out.” Sometimes though, when you are putting your first words to the page, you don’t know why the bad guy is the bad guy. Brittany Wilson suggests you should James Bond It. She goes on to describe the moment in every Bond film where “James Bond is strapped to a table, surrounded by sharks, and the evil villain is sitting in a chair stroking a cat and he says, ‘Now that I have you, Mr. Bond, let me tell you my reason for my nefarious actions…’ and then bad guy explains his actions and motivations.”***
The idea behind James Bonding It is to use the first draft of a novel to outline the bad guy’s motivation. Write the scene where the bad guy has the hero helpless and cackles maniacally about his or her life of crime leading up to this singular moment. You can go back and cut the Monologue of Villainy after you have a clear idea of why and how your bad guy acts the way he/she does. Once you understand the why, you can construct the how–let those convictions direct their actions and frame your story.
You have to know your characters inside and out; but, when you write them, you show who they are by their actions and their words and a limited amount of internal dialogue and little to no backstory. No one is all good, or all bad, remember to Lean to the Middle. Once you have well-drafted characters, remember to give them hell—conflict is the oil that greases the works. And, lastly, when in doubt in creating your villain, James Bond It.
Asterisk Bedazzled Footnotes:
*Nothing like finding your child in a pool of blood in his bed to give you heart palpitations.
**This example brought to you by a neophyte writer—where better doesn’t always mean good. Also–Tahiti sounds like the name of an exotic dancer, so that would definitely put a twist in the plot’s panties.
***Ask yourself: WWJBVD—What Would James Bond’s Villain Do?
The List of Presenters
Sue Ann Culp – playwright and author, writing professionally for over twenty years. Her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Wee Wisdom and Kaleidoscope. Her stage play is being presented at the Holland Civic Theater, “The Lies that Bind” was named one of the top 100 plays of 2009 by Writer’s Digest. She teaches fiction writing for children and teens. Visit her website at SueAnnCulp.com.
Jacqueline Carey – New York Times bestseller, author of the critically acclaimed and award-winning Kushiel’s Legacy series, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, and the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy novels www.jacquelinecarey.com.
Eileen Wiedbrauk – a paranormal fiction writer and Editor-in-Chief of World Weaver Press, as her bio describes, she is an editor, writer, coffee addict, cat herder, MFA graduate—among other things. Websites: World Weaver Press a mid-size publishing company and Red Moon Romance–a site that, by the look of it, just might warrant a sizzling NC-17 rating.
Kristina Wojtaszek (whose name I mangled in my notes) – self-professed former woodland sprite and/or mermaid growing up around the shores of Lake Michigan. She has a bachelor’s in Wildlife Management. Her focus as a writer reflects her interests in fairy tales, ghost stories, poems and YA fiction–published in World Weaver Press, in Fae, Specter Spectacular, and Scarecrow, and in Far Off Places, and Sucker Literary Magazine. Follow her blog at Twice Upon A Time.
Brittany Wilson – Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer of Caffeinated Press is a jack-of-all-trades — writer, editor, finance ninja, and NaNoWriMo Municipal Liaison. Brittany has a degree in investigative accounting and a minor in creative writing. She has earned a partial bachelor’s degree in Japanese.
Jason Gilliken – Director Editor for Caffeinated Press Jason earned a degree in moral philosophy and political science–apparently he is not adverse to irony–with minors in history, Latin, and comparative religion and is currently pursuing a graduate certificate in applied statistics from WMU.
Matthew Rohr (one of the Bookend Brothers, so named for their seating at the table)-writer and editor of short stories and novels in the Urban Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Science Fiction, and post-modern, pre-industrial retro-futuristic steampunk haiku-funk fusion genres. (The last genre may or may not actually exist. He is still thinking about it.) He is a founding member of MiFiWriters and editor of various editions of the Division by Zero anthology.
Tim Rohr (The other Bookend Brother) – A graduate of Hope College, Tim is a writer and editor and one of the founders representing MiFiWriters – a Michigan Fiction Writers collective http://www.mifiwriters.org/ focusing on speculative fiction and producing an annual Michigan Writers Anthology entitled Division by Zero. He runs the Monday night writers group for Herrick Library. He can be found at his eponymous website.
AmyJo Johnson – Business leader and corporate trainer, personal trainer and enthusiastic participant in all things related to Minnesota athletics–Amy Jo leads CafPress’s marketing endeavors. Caffeinated Press
YOU READ THIS FAR BONUS: Heaven help me if I made a mistake in this article. No doubt one of above good people will give me an earful if I did!