Writing Tip: Characters Are Crucial

Hello, again!  It’s been a busy few weeks for me at my other writing projects (many of which took a backseat during the home stretch for Change Of Season), so I apologize for my absence.  Rest assured, I am here and always available on Twitter at dillonac so please, say hi!

Last time I posted, I mentioned that there are two crucial things I look for in a work of fiction, two things that set the good apart from the great.  The first is fact-checking and the little details, which I consider a matter of respecting and engaging the intelligence of your readers.  The second is more of a matter of the heart, and is something I believe I specialize in with my own work.

Characters are crucial.  Without characters, there is no story.  Without people to care about, engage with, think about or crawl inside the heads of, what’s the point of fiction?  Reading is an escapist activity, a means of exploration or a seeking of empathy.  Characters are the keys to the doors of your world.  If the key is difficult to keep hold of, or simply doesn’t fit the lock, why bother trying to open the door?

Those little details I’ve previously spoken of come into play here as well.  If your character is a teacher, ensure that their actions and activities correlate with that profession.  If your character is a ten-year-old child, do not write him as having the vocabulary of a college graduate unless he is a super-genius for some specific reason.  Know the vernacular.  Know the nuances.  While writing what you know isn’t always necessary (for example, I’ve never gone to boarding school, nor met anyone who has, but wrote the experience anyway), it is best if you’re not able to research deeply enough to crawl into a character’s head.

What do I look for in a character?

  • Humanity.  Flaws.  Imperfections.  No one is perfect – no one.  Even the hero or heroine is apt to have made mistakes, say stupid things, carry false beliefs that need to be corrected.  Take Daryl from The Walking Dead:  he’s got serious biases, a general disdain for most people, and a chip on his shoulder the size of Atlanta.  But he also has a good heart and when push comes to shove, he makes the right choices.  Fans love him for a reason.
  • Growth.  Characters need to evolve if they are key players.  Have that character learn from mistakes, release misconceptions, heal from emotional scars or gain strength.  It speaks to our inner need to believe in change and life getting better.
  • Humour.  This is a personal preference, but I like my characters to have wit about them.  One of the reasons why I’ve fallen so hard for Mira Grant’s Newsflesh trilogy is the snarky, snappy barbs of Georgia and Shaun Mason.  Without that wry take on the world, the stories would be slightly above average at best.
  • Characters should not be unbelievably stupid simply to drag out your plot.  Don’t make the blonde run up the stairs from the killer.  It’s foolish and I’m not having it.  It’s okay for characters to not appreciate the full picture of a mystery, but if a child could pull it together, don’t leave them saying, “Huh?”
  • Depth and dimensions.  I don’t care to read many romance novels because they’re walking cliches.  Women obsessed with love and babies the moment the guy kisses them?  No thank you.  That’s not how the real world is for many, many women.  I also am not obsessed with clothes, shoes or fashion, so please stop writing women like that.  There’s a reason I run kicking and screaming from so-called “chick lit”…

The rest can be tweaked dependent on your genre of choice, but these are the core basics.  I am fortunate that my characters play out as movies in my mind when they come knocking. I can hear their speech, watch their mannerisms and observe how they play off each other.  When I write a protagonist, I want you to be able to embrace him or her as a friend in your inner circle, a relative, a coworker.  I want that character to be breathing beside you, full of life.  If I’ve managed that, the plot will follow along.

 

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On Fanfiction As A Tool

In the course of my internet journey this week, I stumbled onto this blog posting by author Seanan McGuire (Mira Grant to you, zombie fans).  In it, she discusses her stance on fanfiction and its merits, as well as her views with respect to her own works as an author.  McGuire’s opinion is one of the healthier ones out there, balanced between recognizing the place and value fanfiction holds while maintaining the boundaries she needs to protect her art.

I share many of her views on the subject, personally.  While I won’t get into the problems and objections I have with regards to pulling fanfiction and publishing it (that would be a rather lengthy essay), I will say that fanfiction is a vital tool that authors can take advantage of.  For burgeoning writers, fanfiction is a way to test out your talents, expand your storytelling capability and receive feedback from people emotionally invested in that fandom.  In my teens, I wrote a rather lengthy X-Files fanfiction, and if nothing else came of it, it was learning the importance of outlining and instilling confidence in my ability to write an extended piece of narrative.  I’d officially broken away from novellas, and haven’t looked back.

For experienced writers facing a block or returning to the craft after a long hiatus, fanfiction is a brilliant way to stretch those proverbial muscles out and limber up.  It’s the boot camp for a professional fighter:  the scenarios are pre-planned, the players handed to you, the world defined by the rules of your trainer.  Your goal is to practice the moves utilizing these handy pieces in order to prepare for the unpredictability and originality of the actual fight – or, in our cases, write a novel.  I fell into a deep drought of ideas in my early 20’s and struggled to put proverbial pen to paper for some time.  What brought me back to life, composing threads of plot, was fanfiction.  I spent two years reviving and refining my craft and, in the midst of that regular schedule of delivering chapters for impatient readers, I suddenly spotted a way to take an abandoned screenplay and transition it into a novel.

Without fanfiction, there would be no Change Of Season, and that would be a shame, as I feel it’s my strongest work to date.

Fanfiction can be silly, lighthearted or serious.  It can stay true to the world in every sense, or venture forth into alternate worlds, bringing the characters along for the ride.  I commend authors who recognize the immersive love that a fandom provides their readers.  It’s a place where a beloved book or series never truly ends.  Isn’t that why we write: to feed the imaginations of others?

Fanfiction works should never be deep, dark secrets – unless they’re very juvenile and dreadful.  But to deny its role in writing on the whole is to not only negate the evolution of tomorrow’s authors, but also dismisses published work that is, by definition, legally sanctioned fanfiction.  Wicked, anyone? It is as great a tool as any guidebook or critique group, one that should be in every writer’s toolbox as a potential resource.

33 Truths: Reading, Writing and Literature

Hello, from the land of post-secondary finals!  Surfacing briefly from oceans of papers and exam prep packages, a friend’s blog inspired me to post this today.  I’d love to hear your truths as well, so please, feel free to link me to your own lists via Twitter (@dillonac), Facebook (A.C. Dillon) or here!

33 Truths About Me: The Reading, Writing and Literature Edition

  1. I learned to read by age 3.
  2. I am a natural speed reader, which has been a tremendous boon in school, lemme tell ya.  I tend to average 120-140 pages/hour depending on the density and vocabulary of the material.
  3. In grade two, teachers advised my parents that I had a college reading level, in terms of the complexity of sentence structure I was capable of understanding and maturity of the material.  My parents handed me adult fiction in response.  One of the first of those books?  Read the next item…
  4. The book I have read the most times in my life is The Princess Bride by William Goldman.  I’ve read it hundreds of times.  I also love the film.
  5. Speaking of film adaptations: as a general rule, I refuse to see the film before reading the book if I’m aware the two exist.  The one exception:  Lord of the Rings.  In most cases, the book is better.  (And now you know why I haven’t seen The Hunger Games yet.)
  6. My favourite books (because choosing one is utterly impossible) are:  Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman; House of Leaves – Mark Z. Danielewski (his sister, Poe, is one of my favourite singers); Prozac Nation – Elizabeth Wurtzel; The Princess Bride – William Goldman;Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland & Through The Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll; The Newsflesh series by Mira Grant; andThe Cat Who series by Lilian Jackson Braun.
  7. I love Shakespeare.  Teachers often asked me to read the largest parts aloud, as I could whip through it with ease.  Reading his complete works when I was 14 for fun probably explains that.
  8. Despite being a speed reader, I cannot read a book I hate with any haste.  This is why it took me 6 weeks to read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in grade 6.
  9. As a general rule, I dislike fantasy and sci-fi books.  I have very few exceptions, and Neil Gaiman has written most of them.
  10. When I was ten, I joined the Harlequin book club and somehow, my mother didn’t see a problem with this.
  11. My first fanfiction was a very serious novel based in the world of The X-Files that I wrote at age 15, actually believing I could get Chris Carter to allow me to publish it.  I started a second one, but never finished it.  I still have the notes, though.
  12. I wrote my first novel-length effort at age 10.  It is terrible, but it did kill a week of free time one summer.  No one has read it.  It’s very reminiscent of Lois Lowry’s Anastasia books.
  13. Someday, I’d like to rework a novel I wrote at age 13 on typewriter (like Angela Lansbury, aka a boss!).  It’s very Christopher Pike-ish.
  14. I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2003 after swearing I was too busy to do it.  An idea hit me on November 6th.  I finished the 50K words (but not the novel) ten minutes before the month ended.  I abandoned the novel for several years before finally finishing it.
  15. I have several novels that I began and never finished lying around – not because they are bad ideas, but because I can’t force my writing and go through crazy blocks.
  16. Publishing fanfiction – with readers demanding new chapters weekly – has been a tremendous help in keeping Change of Season on track.
  17. I used to read as many as 40 books in a week (short ones – 150-200 pages, YA fiction).  I miss having that sort of time.
  18. I am obsessive about reading a series.  I must read them all, in order, even if order doesn’t matter, or it bothers me.  Series I’ve gone on a binge with:  Nancy Drew Files; The Cat Who… series; The Babysitters Club; Sweet Valley High; Fear Street…
  19. I love true crime stories.  I’ve been reading them since age seven, when I grabbed my first Max Haines compilation at a book sale.  I also enjoy true crime shows like The First 48.
  20. Even if a book is terrible, I tend to see it through to the end (see #7).
  21. I don’t believe in pulling fanfiction to publish it, unless there are very extensive rewrites.  I feel it’s disingenuous to the original readers to suddenly ask them to pay, nor do I feel it appropriate to piggyback off another author’s fandom.  If your work is solid, it will speak for itself.   I also feel it’s risky to publicly post a novel you intend to publish and sell, lest it be stolen.  The fanfiction I posted will forever remain fanfiction.  I consider it a gift to fellow readers.
  22. I cannot get into most classic female authors.  It may be because I generally loathe stories of romance and would have gone mad living a century or two ago, but either way, I can’t read their work.
  23. Moby Dick is incredibly boring.  I managed 200 pages and couldn’t take it anymore.
  24. I prefer reading books with just enough exposition to set the scene and plenty of dialogue and internal thoughts.  I’m much more concerned with bonding with characters and crawling into their heads.
  25. I think nonfiction is vastly underrated, especially memoirs.  I strongly recommend that if you enjoy psychologically complex stories that you borrow a few memoirs of mental illness or tragic events.
  26. Conversely, I feel writers should read memoirs to improve their understanding of issues and trauma for their fictional creations.  Writing about a rape survivor?  Read Alice Sebold’s Lucky, and step into that world.  I believe my true crime story passion is interwoven with my preference for writing psychological thrillers.
  27. I am addicted to Dan Savage.  Seriously.  He may get it wrong at times, but he’s usually spot on.  His column is in my Google Reader and his podcasts live on my iTunes.
  28. I read the news every day.  My first bookmark in my header bar on Firefox is the local paper I prefer.  Not Google. not Facebook nor Twitter.  News.
  29. I have a very old book of British children’s stories that is long out of print on my shelf.  It was bought for me as a child, is falling apart after my sister had her hands on it, but I will never part with it.
  30. I plan to eventually read (or attempt) every single book from the American Banned Books List.  Why?  Because someone is trying to stop people from reading literature, and that pisses me off.  Allow parents to parent their own children.  I’m grateful mine recognized my advanced skills and maturity and handed me Stephen King at age 10.
  31. I cannot go a day without reading something, even if it’s blogs or the news.  I also cannot go a day without music, but that’s another list.
  32. When it comes to other languages I’ve studied in school, the one thing I’ve retained despite absence of practice is reading the basics of languages.  My speech abilities fade fast, but reading sticks.  I assume there’s a scientific connection, as I have always found myself far more eloquent and comfortable expressing myself in writing in English as well.
  33. As much as I love the feel and smell of actual books, I am in love with my Kobo Vox.  Have you ever had to lug two or three books on transit because you’d inevitably finish one mid-trip?  I have.  Often.  Now, I can take 1000 books anywhere I go.  Brilliant!

Stay tuned to the various places.  Coming soon:  an introduction to one of my favourite characters in Change of Season, Veronica St. Clair!