Other Voices

I’d say one of the hardest things for me to learn as a writer, especially when I was younger, was learning how to give each character their own distinct voice.  By this, I mean letting each character sound unique.  [Let’s just say that a lot of my high school-era writing sounded like a lot of Jonc clones spewing bad puns, whining about how life sucks, and making obscure music references.  It makes for extremely embarrassing and painful reading…]

I learned to do this in different ways over the years.  During my film college years I paid attention to differences between characters in the numerous movies I had to watch for assignments.  In the mid to late 90s and into the 00s I became a voracious reader, not just of fiction but comic books and manga.  Nowadays I keep my eyes and ears open for even more unique voices out there.

It becomes a focus on how the author or director wishes to let the story unfold.  There’s often a reason why this character is written the way they are, and why they act the way they do. It’s easy to fall into safe character tropes.  They’re not inherently bad, but I try not to rely on them too often, as I feel that makes for samey characters and stories, and I don’t write those very well at all.

My personal way to get around this is often to go beyond the tropes and make them unique.  Twist them a bit.  Instead of the Disheveled Investigator nursing a hangover and trying to find out why no one’s talking about a murder, turn it on its head: Disheveled Investigator is stone cold sober for personal reasons that tie in with a previous case, and the murder is being covered up by a rival investigator who’s a raging alcoholic and also his best friend.  Et voilà, unique characters and a nifty use of conflict for your plot!

I’ve also made it a point to read a lot of different writers — not just in terms of gender, but in race.  I’ve long had a love for Japanese literature, and that’s expanded to Latinx, Chinese, and more recently, Arabic/Middle Eastern literature as well.  I love to witness how a story unfolds in different cultures; why they unfold the way they do, the tropes they use in their own culture, and so on.  It gives me grist for the mill.  [I should probably state here that I’m not purposely appropriating here; I’m paying attention to how other characters in other cultures work within the context of the story, and contemplating if this is the kind of character I could write myself.]  There is indeed a little bit of Method Acting involved, at least for me.  I like to get inside each of my characters’ heads a bit to learn how they tick.  And I learn a little bit in the process!

This process of learning how to write other voices other than your own can be tricky, but with time and practice, you’ll eventually get it.

 

On Writing: Names

When I’m creating a character, the last thing I think about is what I should name them. More often than not, I’ll do the least amount of work possible to give them one.  Instead, I’ll just give them the first one that comes to mind that sounds good and fits the person to some degree.  If it needs changing, that’s what Find & Replace is for!

For example:  I’ve mentioned before that I came up with the characters of Caren Johnson and Alec Poe for the Bridgetown Trilogy rather simply: for Caren I wanted a name that purposely didn’t pop out, much like her avoidance of being the focus of attention; for Poe I wanted him to have a slightly awkward name that he felt didn’t quite fit him, to match his being adopted and not knowing his true origins.  That’s about as far as I went with them, and that process took all of a few minutes.

In my latest projects, I did pretty much the same thing.  For Zuzannah, the magical girl from In My Blue World, I wanted a name that was normal but had evolved over the course of time.  The three sisters, Diana, Katie and Allie Meeks, are just three girls you know in your home town; no one special, just neighbors or friends.  There’s only one character in this particular story that has an unconventional, obviously made-up name, and that’s done on purpose.  Even with the Apartment Complex story, where I’ve had to invent a lot of the names, I kept them relatively simple.  Kaffi, the tintrite co-lead, has a simple, fun name to mirror his friendly demeanor, while his father Graymar has one that commands respect and attention.

I’ve never really gotten into the habit of coming up with names that have to mean anything; I always felt that process, at least for me, was trying too hard.  I always create characters that you’d meet on the street or hear about from someone, so I find I can’t go out of my way to come up with a name that means ‘faithful healer’ or something like that.  [Mind you, I only did that once in the Apartment Complex story; I chose Diwa’s Filipino name for two reasons: I wanted a gender-neutral name, and it means ‘awareness.’  But the choice for meaning was only secondary here.]

Think about what kind of character this is, and also think about the people around them, how they react to people.  Especially if it’s a made-up alien name — you can have fun with that by giving them a bit of background in the process.  Diwa and Kaffi’s friend Anna-Nassi, for instance, is part of an alien race whose names combine the culture of their own and of humans as a symbol of planetary community.

When you’re coming up with names for your characters, especially during rough drafts, I’d say go right ahead and put in a placeholder if you’re not entirely happy with it.  Diwa’s name was originally the made-up Riksah before I decided to give him a proper one and decided his family is half Pinoy.  If your character merits a symbolic or metaphorical name instead, that’s fine too.

The most important things to remember here, though, is that a) it should fit the character, and b) it should fit the story.  It’s not just about avoiding anachronisms, it’s also about avoiding words that will stick out like a sore thumb.  You probably wouldn’t want to write a serious romance novel where the strikingly sexy chisel-chinned male lead’s name is Petey Bumblewiggins, right?  As they say, you want a name that fits the character.  How much work you put into that is totally up to you, but it doesn’t always have to be that much work if you don’t want it to be.  Just give it enough for it to work for you and for the story.

 

On Character Development

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Source: Polar Bear Café

Creating the backgrounds for characters can be both fun and excruciating when you’re starting out a new project.  You can come up with interesting, unique people to write about, give them all sorts of back stories — their background, their culture, their quirks, their powers and their weaknesses — but at the same time, they don’t exist in a vacuum.  You need to also remember that they’re also there to interact with your other characters and the story itself.  Otherwise they’re just placeholders, or worse, redshirts — the throwaway characters put there for the sole purpose of getting rid of them later on.

I’ve been dealing with this quite a bit for the last few weeks, with both the Apartment Complex story and In My Blue World.  A lot of the central characters are springing forth rather easily, and that’s because I already have fully-planned purposes for them.  A few of the other characters, on the other hand, are still a bit vague and need more research and planning.  I only have vague purposes for them.  By vague, I mean that they support some of the main characters, but other than that, they’re kind of inconsequential.

Granted, both projects are still in their rough draft iterations and haven’t gotten the MS Word transcription/revision yet.  I’m not giving up on them just yet.  They’ll shine on their own eventually, once I flesh out the story and get a clearer picture of who they are and why they’re there.  I just have to be a bit patient about it sometimes!

So how do I know if I can trust this character to blossom during a later draft?  Or will they end up being a redshirt that I’ll have to edit out later?  Good question.  Often times I don’t. The point here is to let them give the old college try.  I put there for a reason, so I just need to figure them out.  I’ll give them just that little bit more TLC when I’m revising; I’ll think a bit more about their relationship to the story and the others within it.

Eventually, they’ll become part of the main entourage instead of a throwaway.

Characters and Their Stories

calvin-writing
When I’m pantsing my writing…which I’m trying not to do this time out.

I supposed you could call my preferred style of prose ‘character-driven’.  The way I often create stories is to put characters in a scene and try to figure out how they react — to the situation, as well as to those around them.  This reaction often drives where I’ll go with the plot next.

Noted: it’s not as if I let them run rampant in the scene to the point where I have no idea what comes next until I get there.  I just have them going from Plot Point A to Plot Point B and I pay attention to their movements and emotions.  There’s a few reasons I do it this way:

–The character is always evolving.  One of my worst errors in a lot of my early attempts at writing was that the characters had style, but they were static; they never changed.  And when they did, it felt forced.  I don’t always expect each one to change completely and irrevocably…more that I just want them to evolve in some way.

–I pay attention to how they interact with other characters and use that as part of their evolution.  A good example is Christine Gorecki from my trilogy: originally she was a one-off character, but her initial single walk-on part with Sheila and Nick worked so well that I had to expand her role considerably.  She was obviously well-loved by all the main characters that she needed an important role as well as her own personal story.

–Quite often, the interaction between the various characters gives me more background, more grist for the mill.  One character’s personality will irritate the hell out of his brother after a while, which in turn gives me a subplot dealing with the two brothers not talking to each other for a year, which in turn gives me a scene where they have to sit in the same room and talk to each other and behave.

In a way, my writing process is a mash-up of half-pantsing and half-outlining.  I have a solid (if vague) idea of where the story is supposed to head.  Lately I’ve been calling that the backbone or the spine of the story.  But I keep the movement of the story fluid, keeping it open for change and unexpected inspiration.

In the process, any major arcs in the story feel less action-driven and more personal.  The action moments end up being there for a reason; it’s less about playing plot point bingo or trying to Save the Cat and more about how life puts unexpected hurdles in our path, and how we respond to that.  Personally, I find that a MUCH more fulfilling story.

Character Evolution

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I was talking with A. earlier tonight about how often we see characters on American TV shows that don’t seem to evolve all that much.  Or if they do, it’s often on an external level instead of an internal one.  What I mean by that is that there are some characters who aren’t so much evolving as they’re reacting.  A lot of 80s shows fell prey to this, and in the process, when they did evolve for any reason, it was usually forced.  A character changed personality due to a death, or a lover leaving them; or on the positive side, they changed because they ‘saw the light’.  Sure, I’m super-generalizing here, but you get the point.  [And if they didn’t evolve, the show was usually a Perils-of-Pauline drama of the week.]

This has changed a bit over the years, and American TV has had characters evolve on different levels.  Spiritually, emotionally, and so on…they were changing and not just because of that episode’s actions.

We noticed this primarily because we don’t watch much network TV at all, preferring to watch British imports on Acorn or Netflix.  And I’ve read quite a few non-American novels over the years where character evolution is handled differently.  I sometimes think of animes like Ergo Proxy, where the female lead evolves from a stellar but snooty investigator (she’s the daughter of an extremely high-ranking leader and often thinks She’s All That) to a more empathetic hero who realizes her actions affect others.  Or AKIRA, where Tetsuo and Kaneda, both violent biker teens with death wishes, evolve to the point where they both achieve their own versions of spiritual enlightenment.

These are the kinds of characters that usually inspire me when I create my own.  I try to give them not just a background and a list of actions they must take, but a way for them to evolve somehow.  Alec Poe is a good example of this:  aloof, somewhat distant and often terse at the start of A Division of Souls to fiercely dedicated and understanding by the end of The Balance of Light.  His evolution is not just jumpstarted by the Awakening Ritual in the first book; it’s challenged numerous times throughout from those nearest to him, including friends, coworkers, and family.

It’s one of my favorite things to do when writing novels, to tell the truth.  This is a story that’s not part of the main plot, but it’s to be told anyway, through action and emotion.  It shows that the character isn’t just reacting to what’s going on, it’s affecting them to the point that they’re consciously aware they need to change in order to move forward.  It gives the novel a richer, more realistic life in the process.