One Writer’s Journey

March 20, 2017

One Gay Character, One African American: Are you Just Covering Your Bases?

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:13 am
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Recently, I read a post over at the Nelson Agency about the dangers of informing a first-reader at an agency or publisher that your manuscript has LGBTQ+ character or that it is diverse.  This particular reader said that when he read things like this in a query letter, he felt like the writer was going down a check list.

One gay character.  Check!

A trans character.  Got it.

Someone who is questioning.  Present and accounted for.

The suggestion is that, instead of stating this, you should just tell about your story.  If these characters are an integral part of it, the diversity will be obvious.

I can understand this request.  Diverse characters are fantastic but they need to belong in the story, and not like sprinkles on a cup cake.  They need to be part of the cake itself.

Back when I was a paid reviewer, I ended up reading tons of teen chick lit.  I’m female but I generally did not connect with these books written “for a female audience.”  For one thing, shopping is not my thing.  I do it to feed myself and avoid exposure to the elements.  But these female characters LOVED to shop.  And, to help them out, they all had a gay best friend.

He offered dating advice and fashion tips, often picking out the perfect shoes to go with that darling prom dress.  Oh, heaven help me.  This character was never key to the plot.  Never.  He was just there.  And gay.  Providing all sorts of essential diversity.

When you are creating your story, your plot should spring from the characters.  The characters shouldn’t be there just so that you can strike them off the list whether we are talking diversity of the racial, ethnic, religious, or LGBTQ+ variety.  It all needs to fit and work together instead of reading like that table of mismatched items at a yard sale.

Really.

–SueBE

 

February 21, 2017

Character Development: What Can Your Characters Do?

lego-peopleIt isn’t surprising that writers frequently draw on themselves and their friends when they create characters.  Keeping that in mind, I guess it isn’t surprising than that so many characters, especially secondary characters like parents, are writers. But it does make me wonder when editors are going to start bouncing back writer characters as too common.

When you develop a character, brainstorm some of the things that you can do or have done.  Remember, leave writing off the list.  My own list of accomplishments would look something like this:

Jobs I’ve Held:

Nanny

Candy striper

Archaeological Illustrator

Research Assistant

Asst Scout leader

Editor

 

Hobbies:

Calligraphy

Dye cloth

Knit

Crochet

Use a bead loom

Free bead

Paint/houses and pictures

 

Cooking:

Bake a chicken in an earthen pit

Make bread from scratch

Cook down a pumpkin

Make butter

 

 

Household:

Re-assemble a pump (as in pump and cistern)

Do laundry using a wash board and water pumped from a cistern, heated in my great-grandmother’s kettle

Refinish furniture

Wire a house

Build furniture kits

 

Other:

Assist in digging a dry well

Make a pot from raw natural clay

Create a map from raw data

Assist in building a television from a kit — tube type obviously

Assist in installing a new car engine

Repack barrel bearings

Respool a fishing reel

 

 

This is definitely a more diverse list than my current primary job — writer.  Why not create a similiar list and use it the next time you develop a character?  You might also include things that your mother, father or grandparents could do.  That said, I’d have to do some serious research to make some of those skills available to my characters.  My mother was a top notch seamstress whereas I can sew on a button.  My grandfather was an army mechanic.  My father helped develop the ceramic tiles for the Space Shuttle.

–SueBE

 

January 12, 2017

Favorite Characters

picnicWhich 10 Characters Would You Invite to Dinner?

I have to laugh when I see headlines like this in book blogs and newsletters of various kinds. The articles generally go on to discuss male main characters and love interests, even if strictly speaking the books are not romances.  Or aloof, well-bred ladies.  The guest lists have a tendency to resemble a BBC costume drama.

Sure, I have my favorite characters but they probably wouldn’t be the best dinner companions.  Why?  Because they’re great characters — messy, broken, and difficult but endearing.  Or compelling.  Compelling is probably a much better word choise than endearing.

So who would be on this list?  Keep in mind it changes along with my reading but it includes:

Ronan from Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Cycle books.  This teen is bluster and rage and noise. He’s more than a little chaos with a bit of calamity thrown in.  As the books go on and you find out more about him, you realize that is just Ronan on the surface.  Ronan beneath is a creator and nurtures others but there is still all that noise.

Adam also from the Raven Cycle books.  He’s Ronan’s opposite in many ways.  He’s quite and watchful.  He’s the poor kid on scholarship to the rich kid’s school and because of this doesn’t fit in.  It bothers him sometimes but he knows who he is even as that definition and awareness of same changes.

Amani in Alwyn Hamilton’s Rebel of the Sands.  A child of the desert, she respects and loves it for its beauty and danger even as she wants to find someplace better.  She’s smart and sassy and it’s hard to believe with her lack of impulse control and smart mouth that she’s survived this long but it would also explain her relationship with her aunt.

Elisa from Rae Carson’s Girl of Fire and Thorns.  Where Amani is a rough one who finds out how to be both bandit and girl, Elisa is a posh princess who finds her hard edges.  When her husband is murdered, she eventually ends up heading the rebellion, a reality no one saw coming least of all herself.

Elisa would be the best dinner companion of the lot.  What is it that draws me to a character if not elegance and polish?  I love strong characters, those who aren’t afraid to defy convention.  I don’t mind contradictions — the characters who appears rough and rowdy but as a nurturing side.  I want complexity. I want daring.

Now I just need to learn to create these characters for my readers.  Easy peasy . . .

–SueBE

May 17, 2016

Characterization: Verbal cues, facial cues and lying

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:49 am
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lyingHow do your characters behave when they are lying?  In my reading I’ve come across characters who glance down or away, shift from foot to foot, can’t keep their hands still or have a nervous smile.  I’ve also come across a number of adult characters who are veritable lie detectors.  In my own work I’m going to make sure this isn’t the case because I just watched Kang Lee’s TED talk, “Can You Really Tell if a Kid is Lying?

Lee and his team of researchers told a group of children that they would receive a big prize if they did well enough completing a task.  Working with one child at a time, they left the child alone  with top secret material.  Cameras watched to see if the children would peak.  Then the researchers came back and asked if the child had peaked.

Lee showed the audience two recordings of children claiming that they didn’t peek.  In the first, a boy displays classic “liar” behavior, glancing down and away.  In the second, a girl shakes her head. Lee than asked the adults to vote on who was lying.  Let’s just say that their accuracy was horrible.  Panels of adults have been shown the videos and none of them scored significantly better than if they simply guessed.  The panels included teachers, social workers, judges, police officers and parents.  Lee’s conclusion?  Adults are awful lie detectors.

Lee has discovered that only one reliable physical indicator exists — a change in facial blood flow.  Simply, blood flow to the cheeks drops off and to the nose increases.  There are no visible indicators.

In spite of this, as a society we believe that lying makes a child bad (it is developmentally normal), children are bad liars and adults are good at telling when a child lies.  Lee has shown the lie in all of these assumptions.  A little something to keep in mind the next time your character tells a big fib.

–SueBE

May 13, 2016

Characters: Keeping Everyone in Play

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 2:45 am
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smiley-1041796_1920I’m about fifty pages into my middle grade novel which is, I suspect, about 2/3 of the way through the plot.  As I move forward, I’m noticing a few issues.

I’m really good at keeping my main character busy.  She’s always on the go and keeps the plot moving forward.  Unfortunately, about 90% of the time she’s accompanied by her younger brother.  I’d love to say that I’m equally good at keeping him occupied but I’m not.  It’s as if he is in limbo when he isn’t needed for a discussion or to be the assistant in some escapade.

Characters who aren’t on-screen for four or five chapters?  I’ve love to say that I’ve given them a lot of thought but I haven’t.  In all truth, I haven’t given them a lot of thought.  Because of this, my guess is that they feel pretty insubstantial when they do appear “on-screen.”  How to solve this?

First things first, I’m going to finish this draft.  Once I’m done, I’m going to replot the story.  No, I’m not going to change the plot but I’m going to expand on it.  For one thing, I have to add a few scenes.  I’ve given my main character a trait that comes into play early on and again at the very end but in the middle is nowhere to be seen.  I’m going to have to do something about that.  But I’ve also given some thought to the kid brother.  I need a scene or two that shows him in contrast to his sister.

I’m also going to draw up timelines for the various characters in the story.  I need to know who is doing what when they aren’t “on camera.” This will give me a better feel for each of them.  Even if not all of this appears “on-screen,” it will add depth to the story.

What about your secondary characters?  Have you given them enough to do?  Do you know where they are and what they’re up to when they aren’t interacting with your main character?  If not, you may need to give it some thought.  Secondary characters, after all, are the stars of their own stories even if it isn’t the story you are telling.

–SueBE

October 6, 2015

The Trope Trap

Beware the characters you create.

Beware the characters you create.

At the Missouri SCBWI conference on 9/26, editor Kate Sullivan warned us to avoid creating disabled characters who are trope. A trope is a word, character or phrase used for literary effect. Sullivan warned us about one trope in particular but her warning roused my curiousity so I did a bit of research.  These are the disabled character trope seen most often – avoid them at all costs!

  1.  Poor, sad, disabled person.  Do not create the pitiful disabled character.  Yes, someone who loses an ability due to an accident is likely to be depressed, but do not create a character to be pitied.  Do.  Not.  But that’s not the only pitfal to be avoided.  Do not create a poor character who is deserving of help because he is disabled.  Do.  Not.
  2. The Super Crip.  This is the character type that Sullivan cautioned against.  In the Super Crip, the person is seen as a hero because of their disability.  Any time another character finds your disabled character to be “inspiring” simply because of the disability, you have created a super crip character.  Do. Not.  Another Super Crip is the character who loses one ability (sight) and develops his other abilities to an insane level as a way to compensate.  Super Hero hearing, for example.  Do. Not.
  3. Disability as a Burden.  This person’s life is somehow worth less or seen as a burden on their family or friends.  If you have a character who is “so good because he helps” someone else, you’ve created a Burden.  Do. Not.
  4. Disability as a Metaphor.  Do not use disability within your book’s society as a metaphor for something else.  People who couldn’t hear what others were saying and suddenly lose their hearing?  Do. Not.

As we work to create diverse characters for our books and stories, we need to avoid creating disabled characters who fit any of these stereotypes or trope.  After all, stereotypes don’t sell.  Well rounded characters do.

–SueBE

 

July 16, 2015

Characters: Tormenting Your Darlings

torment“Create a character that you love.  You’re going to be spending a lot of time together.”

That’s good enough advice and it is something that most writers hear early in their careers.  The problem with it is that we also have to make our writing interesting.  This means that we have to create problems for our charcters.

That’s how your story starts – with a character who has a problem.  The first thing you have to figure out is what this problem is and what gets your character started in trying to solve it.  Sometimes this is called the inciting incident.  Clara has always been remarkably shy but when she sees Becka picking on the new boy, she can’t keep quiet because somehow he reminds her of her little brother.

But you can’t have your story end here.  That would be more of an incident than a story.  You have to throw in an obstacle.  Clara sticks up for the new boy but she really wants him to stick up for himself.  Unfortunately, he’s perfectly willing to let her do it again and again and again.

It works best when you can match your external struggle — Clara vs Becca — with your internal struggle — a shy person who has to step forward to help someone else out.  The trick is in solving both struggles at about the same time.  How can I do that in this situation?  It depends on how I want to set it up.  Clara could retreat from helping the new boy — she’s simply too shy and standing up for him actually makes her ill.  Or the struggle could be in standing up to him as well — to truly come out of her shell, Clara has to learn to stand up to both friends and bullies.

Setting up your characters isn’t easy but it sure can be fun.  Fun?  Certainly!  All that stuff you didn’t quite have the nerve to pull on your younger brother?  Now you have characters to torment!

–SueBE

July 10, 2015

Child Characters

Filed under: Uncategorized — suebe @ 1:56 am
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Michelangelo_Buonarroti_-_The_Torment_of_Saint_Anthony_-_Google_Art_ProjectWhen we create fictional characters, especially children, we have to make conscious decisions regarding whether they will be typical or extraordinary.  We have to consider whether or characters will have unusual skills or talents or whether they will be “every child.”

Personally, I tend to aim for somewhere in the middle.

I do this because Every Child tends to be a bit ho hum.  This is the kid who watches the average amount of YouTube per day, has a smart phone and doesn’t do great in school but isn’t in trouble either.  He or she is pretty zzzzzz….. well, boring.  Yet this is where a lot of us go when we create fictional characters.

Other times, when we try to avoid the plight of Every Child, we create Wonder Kid.  Wonder Kid is an A student that all the teachers, parents and children LOVE.  Everything Wonder Kid does turns out PERFECT until his archnemesis comes along.

Wonder Kid is way too perfect to be interesting for long.  That’s why I try to blend these two extremes together.  I go for the kid who has one exceptional talent.  This is a better way to go than great at everything but it will still create some problems.  What do I mean?  See this painting?  This is The Torment of St. Anthony.  It was painted by a 12 year-old.  Yes, this 12 year-old happened to be Michelangelo but seriously?  This is not the painting of your average 12 year-old.  Set your character up with talent like this and he is going to attrach all kinds of attention.  A lot of that attention will not be good.  From bad attention, we can very often spin plot complications.

Where do your young characters fit on the spectrum?  Are they so average that the blend into the beige background?  Or are they so overpowered that nothing could possibly stand in their way?  If the answer to either of these questions is yes, it looks like you have a bit more work go do.

–SueBE

January 15, 2015

Character Archetypes: What They Are and How to Use Them

What you need in your story is a mentor . . . or a trickster . . . or a guardian.”

If you know the character archetypes, you immediately know what this critiquer means.  Archetypes are simply character types that are as old as the oldest oral stories.  They are the types of characters that appear again and again because they fill useful and needed roles.  Think about it — what would an epic be without a hero?  Or a mentor?  Or the character who appears to be the loyal sidekick until you realize that she has betrayed the hero to the villain and is actually a trickster.

When a story feels flat or a character isn’t working, you can turn to these archetypes for inspiration.  You want your character to be a hero, but somehow it just isnt’ working.  Then you read up on heroes and discover that a hero must sacrifice his own ambitions for the good of the group.  Not only has your character not done that, but his goals are too small to require any kind of sacrifice that would truly matter.  To make your character a true hero, you are going to have to increase what is at risk.

Everyone in the village is against your character but your critique group doesn’t think that will work.  If everyone has consistently belittled him, why will he believe the can do this?  The herbalist who gives him an encouraging word?  Expand on this character giving her a bigger part in motivating him either with her stories or the example she sets.  Turn her into a true mentor.

Archetypes can help us flesh out our stories.  To find out more about these age-old characters, you can read the work of Joseph Campbell, the folklorist who originally studied this or you can read The Writer’s Journey, an analysis of Campbell’s work as it applies to film writing.  Use these character types wisely and they will take your work to all new places.

–SueBE

January 3, 2014

Kintsugi: What It Means for Flawed Characters

This piece of Kintsugi is for sale at thefairypond.com.

Recently, I read about kintsugi on The Crooked Book. In this Japanese art, broken pottery is mended with gold-colored resin. As you can see, it takes a piece of nice pottery up to extraordinary.

When I read manuscripts for newer writers, their characters are often perfect — smart, attractive and talented. They are the golden boys and golden girls walking the halls of their various high schools. When trouble comes their way, it is never their fault and you never doubt for a moment that they are going to prevail. That are just too perfect to fail. Think of them as the bowl, unbroken.

Then there are the books that I read with the shattered characters. They are suffering following the death of a parent or friend. They are coping with debilitating illnesses. They may be angry, lashing out at others or quietly self-destructive. At the end of the story, they haven’t changed or grown in any way. ”That’s in book 2,” the author cheerfully tells me. These characters are the broken bowls, unmended. They are most likely going to be swept into the dust pan and thrown away because without change or growth they’ve become tedious.

Readers want characters who are like this kintsugi bowl. We can see that they are flawed and imperfect, but we can see that they have also made an attempt by the end of the story to pull themselves together. Maybe they fail at their ultimate task, but they have changed. They have grown. We have hope. That’s the character that finds a place on the shelves of readers.

–SueBE

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