Livin’ In A Material World: Characters and Objects

You want a signature object? Try not thinking of this as a Sherlock Holmes hat.

I’m this close to buying a pendant off Etsy because it’s very much like something one of my characters wears. In fact, at this point, it’s damn near identical, because when I saw this version, the one in my book subtly changed to match it. It was too perfect for the character, and now I’m trying to decide if I want a copy of my own to wear while writing about this guy kicking ass and taking names.*

Why? Because things are important.

You can make this as materialistic as you want, but humans place a lot of stock in things. Tools. Symbols. Whether they’re things we need to do our jobs or just things that make us feel like us, things are a part of how we see ourselves and how others see us. A surprising amount of people have a signature item, something that’s always with them and without which they would feel a little…off. Maybe you’re that guy who always wears big leather boots, or has a huge collection of comic book t-shirts**. Maybe you’re that lady who loves red lipstick.*** Or you could be that person with the really cool glasses that you wear all the time. Nor does the item have to be fashion-related. It could be a holy symbol you wear beneath your clothes, or your lucky underpants. It could be a book.

All you armchair philosophers out there who are getting ready to tell me that those things don’t make us who we are…I know they don’t. Because that’s ass-backwards. They’re a physical manifestation of who we are, and who we want the world to think we are. Inside becoming outside.

Characters are the same. They have symbols. Things that they always have with them, that in a small way helps them feel like themselves. So if you really want to get inside their skin…think about that stuff. Give them tokens. Pieces of their history that they carry around, readable to anyone who knows the code. The guy who owns that necklace I’m thinking about buying? He’s had it since he was thirteen, when he killed something to get the pieces of the pendant. The part-time sheriff of his piss-ant little one horse town hammered it together for him so he wouldn’t forget. And he never has.

So, turn out your character’s pockets. Check their clothes and their bags. What are they carrying that’s theirs in more ways than just possession? What defines them, in their own eyes or in the eyes of others?

Figure that out, and you’ll know more about them.

*Ah, who am I kidding? I know I’m going to order this.
**Bonus fact: I am both these guys.
***I’m also this lady.

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Bathroom Break: Life Details In Fiction

Thank you, Poop Writer, for inspiring this post. At least you did something right.

I once read a story in which every characters’ bowel movements were graphically described.*

It wasn’t a very long story—maybe ten pages, max. But, of those ten, about three were devoted to detailing the process and product of taking a dump. And those pages were so detailed that I can barely remember the plot of the story. Everything else has been eclipsed by the endless descriptions of shit. I’m not squeamish by any stretch of the imagination, but at a certain point even I was all, Enough, dude. What’s the point of this?

When I read the afterword—yes, it was one of those publications that has afterwords for short stories, presumably to give the authors a chance to explain what the hell they just did to you—the author discussed how s/he** was striving for more realistic stories. S/he felt that most stories didn’t accurately represent the actual human experience, as far as conversation, thought processes, and, of course, sitting on the porcelain throne.

To which I say: well, duh.

Had Poop Writer been in my home at that time, I likely would have pointed out that fiction doesn’t need to be a perfect representation of daily life, with all its dead ends and wanderings and everyday boring errands, physical or otherwise. We already have something that does that. We call it life.

Fiction*** is an idealized representation of reality. It’s streamlined. It has to be, because fiction has something life doesn’t: plot. There’s a story being told in there somewhere, and all things are in service to it. Even ‘reality’ television knows this rule, which is why story lines and villains and drama emerge in every season. Someone out there is carefully cutting those scenes together and making a story out of them instead of the random, chaotic mess that is real life.

Which means I damn well don’t want to read about your characters musing on their digestive tract health unless it is key to the story.

It’s not just bathroom breaks; I’ve read things that had the occasional detour into What The Hell Land many times. Unreasonably long sections about running errands. The minutia of hair styling. And, on one memorable occasion, an entire chapter devoted to deer hunting and the preparation of the skins for wearing. It’s not that these things can’t be interesting, or even useful to the story. But in these cases, they weren’t. They were just…filler. Or the author showing off how much they knew.

When writing fiction, children, remember this: if it doesn’t serve the plot or illustrate character—preferably both—leave it on the killing floor. If it does one or both of those things, it’s probably a keeper.

Even if it’s about poop.

*I typed that sentence one-handed because I was drinking coffee at the same time. My right hand skipped most of the letters on the left side of the keyboard. Presumably because it thought the left hand was on that. Muscle memory is weird. Anyway. Back to the post.
**Can no longer remember the author’s gender. Or name. They will forever and always be known to my brain as The Poop Writer.
***Usual caveats apply. Surrealist fiction is, of course, a horse of a completely different colour with seven legs.

I Heart Sketch Bags: Writing Broken Characters

Totally not sketchy.

Everyone I like is a sketch bag.

Not my friends—at least, not all of them. Friends, you know who among you is a sketch bag, and rest assured if I haven’t beaten you with a sock full of nickels yet I probably find it endearing—but my fictional characters. Some people gravitate towards the Captain Americas and Supermen of the fictional world.* I am not one of them.

No, give me your broken women and fucked-up men, your people that fall down over and over again. Give me the ones that fail.

It’s a little too fucking trite to say that I like those characters because they remind me of myself. It’s a little too small, as well, because the truth is that they remind me of people. Because people mess up so much. The ability to fail—to fuck up, to make bad choices, to identify the right choice but still make the wrong one—is a compelling character trait because it reminds us of ourselves and everyone we know. We’re all a mess, in some way or another, so characters that reflect that are more believable.

But there’s a flip side to the sketch bag character coin, and it has a name: redemption.

We need characters that fuck up because we need to them to redeem themselves. You can’t redeem someone who’s already perfect. They need to be damaged before they can be fixed. And they have to fix themselves. It can’t be a case of some other character swooping in to solve the problem. That is annoying as hell and makes me want to set the book in which it occurs on fire. No, whatever is messed up, they have to untangle that ball of yarn on their own. Other characters can help, offer advice, maybe supply that crucial piece of the puzzle when it’s needed. But in the end, the character has to choose.

A compelling fucked-up character is one that makes the wrong choices a lot, but when it comes down to the wire, they choose right. Even if it hurts them.

This may result in new problems and emotional baggage and scars. That’s fine; change isn’t always good. But the character should be moving. Fuck ups who remain fuck ups in the same way are boring. Fuck ups who change are not only interesting, they are believable. And, hey, like the rest of us, they can always try again.

*Even in the RPGs I play, I’ve only ever played a lawful good/principled/fill in your system’s term for the quintessential Good Guy here character once; it was in a short campaign and I mostly played it for the lols.

Monday Challenge: Which Inane Buzzfeed Quiz Are You?

This is a trap. Go take the ‘Which Creepy Cult Are You?’ test instead.

There’s always a black hole of the internet ready for new victims. It used to be Wikipedia links. Then YouTube videos. Instagram, Vine, Twitter…all these have their followers. My new time-sucking black hole? Inane Buzzfeed quizzes. And I mean fucking inane. Somehow, I managed to go my whole life without knowing what haircut I should have, or who would play me in the movie of my life. But no more.

In the last week, I’ve discovered that I am Captain Kirk, a dragon, the colour red, Faith from Buffy, Commander Riker, a member of Dauntless*, and that I should be living in the Netherlands. Future quizzes will probably reveal what Elder God I should worship, the detailed sketch of my next tattoo, and which one of you will be responsible for my death.

God, how did we know anything about ourselves before internet quizzes?

To break up the inanity—or play into it, I’m no longer sure which—I started taking quizzes as characters and recording their results in the Story Bible for the rewrite. Why? I don’t know. Why do I do anything?**

Some of the results were spot on. Some were completely off base. Others were somewhere in the middle. But, whatever the result, I had to try and think like those characters to take the quiz. Fun mental exercise. Or introduction to having multiple personalities. One of those.

Monday Challenge: Take a random Buzzfeed quiz as your character. Does the result suit them? If so, why? If not, why not and write the result they should have gotten.

To get you started, here are some fucking random quizzes:

Which Late Night TV Show Host Are You?
Are You Hungover?***
Which Street Fighter Character Are You?
Which Miyazaki Character Are You?
Which Gay Sex Position Are You?****

For extra super bonus points, post your results in the comments below.
*I have neither read the book nor seen the movie, so I don’t know if this if a good thing or not.
**’Because I wanted to see what happened’ narrowly edges out ‘for the lols’.
***I don’t feel you should need a quiz to know this.
****Stay classy, Buzzfeed.

Monday Challenge: One Distinguishing Feature

That guy looks familiar… (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been thinking a lot about my characters this weekend.

Normally, we get weekends off from each other. They retire back to whatever alternate dimension they came from, and I either work on other stuff or take a break from writing. But this weekend…I don’t know. Maybe it was because winter rose from its frost-lined grave to terrorize us one more time, thus reducing the number of runs I could complete.* Maybe it was because I finished the TV show I’ve been binge-watching on Netflix. Either way, they were taking up more mental real estate than usual.

I came up with some good stuff, so I wrote out character descriptions for most of the main ones. Not physical descriptions; remember Friday’s post? This was stuff about backgrounds and voices.

But I did make sure to include the one physical characteristic I associate with the bastards, because that’s what makes them them. The rest of their appearance crystallizes around that one thing.

Monday Challenge time: describe your characters using only one physical characteristic. What defines them? What stands out?

And, because I like these as much as you do, here are my entries for the seven main characters I didn’t get to on Friday:

Contestant number one is a woman who has lost a lot of weight. Too much. In the right light, you can see the bones under her skin.
Number two has eyes the faded blue of a desert sky, all wide open plains and endless vistas.
Number three’s hands are large, with blunt, short fingers and scarred palms. You wouldn’t think they’d be capable of the kind of delicate work he’s known for.
Number four is dark: not just skin and hair, but eyes, too. The irises and the pupils blend together, making her look either unearthly or concussed, depending on the context.
Number five is…nothing. Nothing stands out. You would pass him in a crowd and never remember he was there. Which is just how he likes it.
Number six has curly, reddish-gold hair that almost glows in the sunlight. It’s beautiful, and she hates it.
Number seven is a big man, but he moves like a small one: all enthusiasm and quick gestures. It can be unnerving.

That’s mine. Now show me yours.

*I love running, but even I’m not crazy enough to run on solid sheets of ice.

Height, Weight, and Genital Size: How To Write More Effective Character Descriptions

The first thing I noticed was that he had a bat on his underwear… (Photo Credit for this awesome thing: Alexandre Dulaunoy via Flickr)

Here’s a thing: I usually don’t know what my characters look like until after the zero draft.

Weird, right? A lot of writers and writing guides will get all up into the physical descriptions. I can understand the reasoning: it makes the characters more concrete, gives them a toehold in reality. And I’m definitely not a fan of those stories where the characters are deliberately not described so that the reader can imagine themselves in their place or some bullshit. If you’re slipping inside the skin of one of my characters, bring some disinfectant. And the ingredients for an exorcism.

No, I don’t give much thought to physical descriptions until after the zero draft because I’m too busy finding out who they are to give a damn what they look like.

During that zero draft, there are two things I concentrate on when it comes to characters: personality and voice. Which is really one thing, since how they speak is an extension of who they are.  So the only physical things I put in are the ones that are integral to either who they are or what happens. If a dude is missing an eye, that’s probably going to come up.*

Think of it like running through the story: all I notice is the important stuff. The things that jump out at me. His eyes. The way she smiles. Those hands, long-fingered and slender and fragile. Then later, I’ll go back and add in some of the other details, if I need to.

My general rule is as follows: imagine you have just seen this person across a crowded coffee shop. What is the one detail that jumps out at you? How they dress? A particular hairstyle? A face tattoo? Other details can be dropped in as necessary, but one striking thing should be the dominant feature. After all, after meeting someone for the first time, how many of you remember their exact hair colour? Whether or not they had freckles? What their nails looked like? Chances are that you will notice the thing that is unusual. The arrogant man with the bloody, close-bitten nails. The woman with two different colour eyes. The punk kid with the foot high bright pink mohawk. And if there’s nothing unusual, that’s a characteristic, too.

For example, throughout the entire zero draft, there was really only one detail I knew about one of my main characters: the colour of his eyes. They’re brown, not dark like the earth but a golden-tinged honey brown, all warmth and light. A boy’s eyes in a killer’s face.

And that was all I needed. Stuff like hair colour wasn’t as important because it didn’t tell me anything about that guy. Now, I’m putting in a few of those details, because I’m editing my way towards a complete sensory experience, but they’re still less important than that single detail.

Next time you get the urge to put in everything from exact height to genital size, ask yourself this: if your characters had a single defining physical characteristic, what would it be? And why?

*If only because it’ll be easier for people to sneak up on him.

Staying Inside The Lines: Writing For Anthologies And Other Stuff With Rules

“Monsters and Waving Hero Junk” sounds like an anthology I would read. Someone get on this.

Short stories and I are taking a break from each other right now—it’s not you, stories, it’s me—but most of the ones I’ve written have been written just for anthologies or collections. Which means that I’m writing to a specific set of guidelines. This is a valuable skill for all fiction writers to have because 1) it’s a cool way to try something new, and 2) it gives you more markets for your work.

But how do you fit your style into a set of guidelines? Unless your style is entirely illegible, it’s not that hard. Here it is: the Bare Knuckle Guide to Writing For Anthologies.

1. Read the guidelines. Then read them again. Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to write. I’ve seen guidelines that ranged from the crazy broad to the hella specific and everything in between. If you’re going to write for something, then make damn sure it fits the guidelines. They’re there for a reason.

2. Check your pipeline. Got something half finished that could work? Or something that you completed that fits the guidelines? How about an idea that you had a while ago and hadn’t gotten around to writing yet? You might surprise yourself with what you have already available. A few tweaks might be necessary, but, hell, you’re a writer, aren’t you?

3. Research. Is the anthology/magazine/collection/whatever based on a time period? Do some reading about history. Particular sub-genre? Google it and check out what comes up. Spend some time trawling Tumblrs and Pinterest* boards with the keywords. Get images, styles, philosophies, geographies. Anything you think might help.
A note for those who worry this might taint their final project with unoriginality: bucko, you can’t work in a bubble. Well, you probably can, but it’s not advisable. Have faith in your own awesomeness and do the goddamn research. It’ll stop you from making silly mistakes.**

4. Let it percolate. With the theme in mind, let your hind brain work on things. Brainstorm a few things, and then settle in to think. This is less about driving toward an idea than it is about filling your brain up with crap and then seeing what it comes up with while you’re doing the dishes.

5. Listy McListPants. Make a list of ideas. You might have to roll a few around before you find something that sings. Don’t throw the others away, though. They might fit something else down the road. Writers: we’re like idea hoarders.

5. Write. Now you actually have to write the story. With your hands. Like an animal.

6. Check the guidelines again. Does your story still sound like what they’re looking for? Stuff changes in the writing sometimes; it’s like trying to pin down a Hydra. Double check what you’ve done with what they want and see if they still cross over. If not, you have two choices: change the story to fit, or keep it as is and write a new one. Use your own judgement. And remember that if you feel changing it would alter the story in ways you don’t like, that’s cool. Just don’t submit it to that anthology. You’ll waste everyone’s time and come off like an entitled douchebag who can’t be bothered to read the guidelines. Don’t worry, a home for that story will come along sooner or later.

7. Submit: Again after reading the guidelines. Write the cover letter (if one’s needed) and send that bugger packing. Move on to the next one while you anxiously wait for a reply. Rinse. Repeat.

*Fuck me, but Pinterest is obsessed with steampunk.

**While giving you all the freedom to make bigger, better mistakes, of course.