This Isn’t My Real Face: Writing As Someone Else

HI.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve gone back to my journalling ways*, partially as a writing aid, mostly as a brain and mental health aid. Surprise: I’ve got some faulty wiring upstairs. Who’s shocked? Anyone?

Anyway, I thought I’d share the other, less well-adjusted side to my journalling: about half the time, I journal as someone else.

This isn’t as insane as it sounds. Well, it probably is, but since I’m a writer I can get away with that shit.

Most of the time*** I write as one of my characters, in an effort to get inside their weaselly little brains and make me understanding of them more complete. This works because:

1) People write shit in their journals that they’d never tell anyone.

2) While they’re not always honest, they do present the facts as they see them. Other opinions matter less.

3) Often I can work out motivations behind the scenes that they play out on the manuscript page with more realism.

I don’t always journal as the good guys, either. Most of the really interesting ones are written from the point of view of my villains. Not that you’d know it from the journal entry, because not even the most despicable tyrant refers to themselves as the villain in their diary.

Some of this is the deep background I mentioned before, the process that goes on behind the scenes of a written work. Some of it is to get a feel for voice, action, reaction, thoughts.

Mostly, though, it’s just fun. And, if the novel gets published, it’ll make for some fun extra material to release. Assuming my paper journals survive that long and my many many backups don’t go over to Skynet before then.

So give it a try. Write as your characters. See what they have to say.

You might be surprised.

*Albeit without the Sharpie’d pentagrams and song lyrics on the covers of my notebooks that I favoured in high school. These days I prefer to let my subversive thoughts pass under the radar behind the plain black covers of a Moleskine.**

**I just realized that the current Moleskine is sitting next to my new turntable, which means I’m one case of craft beer away from bursting into full, gloriously bearded hipsterdom.

***I’ll leave you to speculate on who I write as the rest of the time.

Advertisements

Who Let The Philosopher Drive?: Keeping Your Ideas From Murdering Your Story

Who let the Essential Absurdity of Life drive again?

I was reading yesterday, it being Sunday and me still being trapped inside by the winter snow like a caged beast. For real, am I ever going to see the lawn again? I can barely remember if we have a lawn.

Anyway, I was reading a book that had started off well but was losing me now. Eventually I gave up on it, but being a writer, I had to figure out why I gave up. Sometimes figuring this out is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of preconceptions, expectations, and whatever bullshit I absorbed through trawling the internet lately. But this time it was pretty damn simple:

It was an idea, not a story.

There were some very interesting concepts, but they were driving, and it wasn’t a trip I wanted to take. Because in the car with me were the biggest collection of cardboard characters I’ve encountered outside a porno.* The ideas were in the driver’s seat, and no matter how fast they drove, they had no idea where they were going.

Nor should they. That’s what characters and plot do. Compelling characters and a decent plot make it a story, instead of an essay or a philosophical dialogue.

But, alas, in this story, the Ideas had taken over, and the story was dead. I felt like I was being shouted at, not being told a good tale. And who wants that?

You cannot let your ideas murder your story. Well, you can. You can do whatever you want, because I’m just a stranger on the other side of a monitor. Or possibly a voice in your head. Am I a voice? Do I sound like Bane? I hope I sound like Bane.

Anyway, you can do whatever you want, but so can your readers, and if they find out that you’ve taken them down Didacticism Lane instead of Story Road, they might get justifiably bored and bugger off to do something else. Something more interesting, probably.

No one likes to be preached at. That’s not to say that you can’t present points of view that you feel strongly about; you should, because if you don’t feel strongly about something then you probably aren’t writing. But be a little subtle about it. And don’t ruin the story in service to an idea.

The ideas should serve the story, not the other way around. If you find your ideas are what you’re really interested in, maybe switch to essay writing. Because no one wants to pick up what they thought was a novel only to find that it was a sermon.

*Inside a porno, at least it’s stiff cardboard, AM I RIGHT?

Decide or GTFO: I Hate Your Wishy-Washy Character

Which do I want? Toast? Muffin? TOAST OR MUFFIN? I WILL SPEND THE ENTIRE BOOK ON THIS DECISION!

It’s no secret that I love a good bad guy. A great villain can make a piece of fiction, just like a shitty one can make me wish I spent my time doing something else, like regrouting my bathroom or organizing photos* or conquering a neighbouring country.

The conflicted bad guy, the grey area bad guy, the downright evil bad guy…I love them all. And my love for them is matched only by my hate of another character.

No, not the good guy. It always surprises people, but I love good guys, too. From the slightly-shady Black Widows to the perfectly stand-up Captain Americas, they are their own kind of fun and I love them for it.  It doesn’t matter if they use guile or brute force to achieve their aims. Because what I like is conviction.

And what I hate is wishy-washiness.

That is the character I hate: the one who won’t commit. The one who lingers on the sidelines, wringing their hands, never getting a damn thing done.

The heroes who refuse to take a stand.

The villains who won’t take the steps needed to win.

The secondary character who could have solved all this if you had just bothered to do anything.

You all suck.

Worse: you’re all boring.

I’m not saying they can’t be conflicted. Look up the page: I love conflict. Have a hard time with a decision. But then decide.

Writers, beware: life is full of enough hesitation and half-measures. I don’t need that in my fiction. Go big or go home.

And make sure your characters get the memo.

*I still have not printed a single wedding photo AND I DON’T CARE.

30,000 Words I Won’t Use: Why I Write Deep Background

Over there is where we’ll put the Tragic Childhood.

In keeping with my New Year’s Resolution, I’ve been working faithfully on this novel manuscript since January.* During the last week, though, I’ve been writing a different part of the story.

It’s the part that happened before the book started.

Some context: a few things are hinted at through the story.  What happened to So-and-So’s parents. Why that guy had to drop out of school. Stuff like that. Everyone concerned knows what they’re talking about, so they don’t need to go into much detail. And, except as character development, it doesn’t really have much to do with the current story. They’re just generally shitty thing that happened to all the main characters when they were kids.

But, while I had a pretty good idea of what happened, I didn’t know the details. Which is a bit shit when you’re trying to refer to something.

So, I’m writing it.

Most of this will not appear in the final manuscript. It’s what I’d call deep background: the stuff that shapes characters into the people they have to be to make the story happen. It will be alluded to, and occasionally someone might outright mention That Time With The Thing, How Fucked Up Was That, Did She Really Do That? But, since it has at most a tangental relationship with the story I’m telling, it’s not necessary for it to appear in its entirety.

Doesn’t mean I don’t have to know what it is, though. This is the stuff that made these characters the people they are. This is where the cracks first appeared and were papered over. This is what damaged them to the point where they will make the wrong choices. I need to know what happened so I can make sure they make the right wrong choices.

When I’m finished this, and I know what happened and what other people think happened, I can allude to it with ease. These incidents are important, all of them. And now that it’s almost done, I can see how these things serve as a prelude to the main story. They serve as the place where deeply-held ideas, the kind that shape your life, are planted. It’s the reason that main characters believe their friend could do terrible things: because it wouldn’t be the first time.

But they’ll never talk about it, because some things you don’t talk about. Some things you don’t have to.

This is the deep background. Lay it down right and it’ll tell you everything about the characters. Just try not to get lost in it.

* And keeping track with my stickers, of course.

Protagonists I Would Like To Put In A Sack And Drown*

Goddamn it, Jacob, stop hugging me so I can go unleash a plague or some shit.

1. The Earth Angel. So fucking perfect all the fucking time, until you just want to smash their imaginary face in. This character is sometimes known as the Mary Sue, but that’s fucking sexist and also ignores the term’s origins in fan fiction. So I’m going with Earth Angel, because this character, whether male, female, another gender, or entirely genderless, is so goddamn perfect that they stop the story dead in its tracks. Nothing ever happens that they can’t fix perfectly, with no consequences or fucking it up or accidental deaths or anything. Snore.

2. The Psychopath. Dead, emotionless, usually bad-ass, and completely in control. I don’t know how this became a thing—though I’m looking hard in your direction, American Psycho—but it is creepy as hell. If your protagonist relentlessly mows down others in order to get their own way, then I’m probably rooting for the villain.

This doesn’t mean characters can’t be selfish. Selfishness is part of being human, and a healthy amount of self-interest drives characters to make interestingly poor choices. But a dead-eyed hustler who uses other people as a means to an end and then discards them without a second thought? Someone put a scorpion in their Armani jacket, will you?

3. The Lump. Need a character who does something? Look elsewhere. This often-found problematic protagonist never actually does anything. Instead, they’re relentlessly shoved around the story by other characters, like a leaf on storm-force winds. They might as well be a camera lens for the reader to see the story, an dispassionate observer of the events. The good news is their dead weight will be enough to drag the Sack of Crappy Protagonists into the briny depths.

4. The Emo Sad-Bag. We get it. You’re fucked up. You hurt. But, for the love of Christ’s most holy butthole, do you have to keep talking about it? Or thinking about it? Or generally sitting around like a mopey sack of crap, looking in mirrors and sighing wistfully?

Into the sack. Try not to drown in your own bravely-held-back tears before we get to the shore.

5. The Idiot. I cannot deal with stupid protagonists. Short-sighted is fine; bright but not as smart as they think they are is even better. But genuinely stupid, to the point of making bad choices for no goddamn reason at all other than the author needed a way to move the plot along? Get in the sa—actually. You don’t go in the sack. The lazy author who created you goes in the sack.

What about you? What protagonists can you not abide?

*As always, your mileage may vary. Someone out there must love psychopath characters, or they wouldn’t keep getting written.

Making It Worse: Why Awkward Characters Are The Best

So, is this a good time to tell you that your scabbard is in a REALLY awkward place?

Awkward characters are the most fun to write.*

Here’s why: you’ve got a situation. Because you’re a writer, it’s probably bad. Some shit’s about to go down and everything stands on the brink of disaster. One false move, one inappropriate word, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

Having an awkward character there is like having a match when you’re standing knee-deep in gunpowder.

It’s all about potential. Awkward characters—and by that I mean characters who say or do the wrong thing at the wrong time, just like real people—are endless sources of complication, hilarity, tragedy, and things going completely pear-shaped. They’re like machines designed to make chaos.

Which, as a writer, is fucking great.

See, the best thing about awkward characters is that you never have to look outside for sources of conflict. They make their own, which is far more compelling than anything I can impose on them. Comets falling from the sky and invasions of Mole-Things from under the earth are way less interesting than a rookie fighter who, because of some broken wiring, can’t stop herself from mouthing off to the biggest, baddest necromancer around.

This isn’t to say external conflict isn’t good and, sometimes, necessary. It can also be fun. But if you’re looking to create tension, most readers instinctively cringe when a protagonist does something stupid. Because we know what it’s like. We’ve done that. Okay, maybe not giving the finger to the five-storey-tall rampaging mech, but we’ve definitely said the wrong thing to our boss, or our partner, or a cop. We’ve done stupid shit and had to reap the consequences.

And knowing that a character can do something awkward is a great source of tension: “Oh, god, Jimmy’s stuck in the middle of the horde of Bob the Bleak-Hearted, he should just give up, give up, Jimmy, don’t start talking again, every time you talk it goes bad.”

Whether or not Jimmy says what’s on his mind to Bob, the tension is there. People will read just to see how bad he fucks it up. He might not fuck it up, especially if this is the Last Great Confrontation and Jimmy has to get his shit together or destroy time and space. But the potential for fuck-uppery permeates the scene, winching ever tighter around the heart of the reader, until the sheer tension makes them want to throw up.

Writers: we’re bastards. Get used to it.

*Though, for me, not always to read. When I’m reading I love those knife-edged, grey area bastards like Harlequin in Myke Cole’s Control Point.

Monday Challenge: Man’s Best Friend

In retrospect, the Millers regretted letting Mittens get his firearms licence.

I learned yesterday that Jezebel, my friend’s obese, cantankerous, generally demonic cat, no longer waddles the planet. She was occasionally difficult and often gave the stink eye for absolutely no reason, but she could also be very cute. Usually when she wanted something.

She died as she lived, though: I’m told she bit the veterinarian who put her down.*

Jezebel might have been a demon of the ancient world** but she was also someone’s beloved pet. As someone who has owned some kind of furry quadruped since the age of three, I find it hard to imagine life without pets. Even the ones that are jerks. From the family dog that used to kick me out of my own bed to the cat that dragged an entire chicken breast out of the frying pan and ate it under the couch, they’ve given my life some interesting stories.

So maybe it’s time to give my stories some interesting pets.

Consider, if the plot allows, giving one of your characters a pet. From a story point of view, they serve so many purposes. They humanize villains, aid heroes in need, allow someone to monologue without talking to themselves too much…

And, depending on your story, they may be more than just something to cuddle with while your character watches reruns of Parks and Rec. They may be intelligent. They might be a helper pet for someone with a disability. They might be equipped with reinforced titanium jaws to guard against intruders.

Monday Challenge: write about a character and their pet. Pet dog, pet horse, pet acid-spitting wyvern. Or, if you have alien characters, pet human. What purpose does the pet serve? What do they do? Can they do any neat tricks? What will they do for their owner? And what will their owner do for them?

*Pour one out for a fellow honey badger.

**I should point out that this is not in fact a judgement of her. I have a demon of my own, and while I occasionally wish Fender would be less bitey, I do love her.