StoryBuilder 1.0 – Create the Perfect Character!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for some of you, if you hear one more author complain about some form of existential crisis that results in the catch-all epidemic known as Writer’s Block, you are going to find a block (or a writer) and throw it at said author.  Because, really, there has to be something better to do than complain about being uninspired.

Or maybe there isn’t. Maybe authors just like to complain about writer’s block because it gives us a chance to explain how great our writing normally is when we’re not blocked – which is most of the time, for some of us.

At any rate, this post is not going to be about writer’s block.  Not at all.  I promise.  It is going to be about Inspiration and Creation and How To Build a Beautiful Story Out of the Strands of Creativity.  Or something awesome like that.

writers blockI promise that this is in no way the result of a horrible case of writer’s block that is causing me to question my calling as a writer or my ability to tell stories.  Not at all.

So, to start this month’s fun exercise in StoryBuilding, we are going to create characters together!  Doesn’t that sound fun?  At the end of this post, you will have the perfect character to introduce into your new world.  I promise.  (Note: No refunds for time, effort, or mental suffering will be offered if the character does not meet expectations or spontaneously dies during the course of the story)

The way this is going to work is that you are going to categorize your character.  Simply pick a letter in each category and make note of what you picked.  At the end, you will read the explanation for each categorization and have the building blocks for a brand new character.  Aren’t you excited?  I know I am.

 

BUILD YOUR CHARACTER HERE!

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.   Mysterious
B.   Tragic
C.   Royal
D.   Ignominious
E.   Unexpected

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.   Dashing
B.   Uninspiring
C.   Ridiculous
D.  Magnificent
E.   Unexpected

3. Character’s Character:

A.   Optimistic
B.   Brooding
C.   Humble
D.  Courageous
E.   Unexpected

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self
B.  Country
C.  Beloved
D.  Favorite Pet
E.  Unexpected

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self
B.  Nemesis
C.  Beloved
D.  Allergies
E.  Unexpected

 

Now, I hope you made note of all of your choices because I’m about to tell you what you have chosen.  I will provide the descriptors for each of these category choices, and you will have assembled a complex and fascinating character to lead the charge in your new story.  Feel free to do this multiple times to add new characters to your entourage if you are in a questing mood.   (Note: I know some of you picked E: Unexpected for every single category.  You are about to receive your just reward for such a bold move)

1. Character’s Backstory:

A.  Mysterious: This character was found in a large soup tureen floating in the moat of some random duke’s castle and subsequently adopted by the local blacksmith.  No one knows how long the babe has been floating in the tureen or where the tureen or baby have come from.  Of one thing everyone is certain, however: This baby is Destined For Great Things. No pressure or anything.

B.  Tragic: This character was living a happy life selling apples in a market with his/her mother until, one day, an Evil Man on a black horse came and not only destroyed the apple cart, but stole every single apple.  Also, the Evil Man killed this character’s mother.  Thus began this character’s journey.

C.  Royal: This character is the second child of the king and queen of the country.  The royal parents shower all their attention on the first child and heir, causing extreme bitterness in this, the second child.

D.  Ignominious: This character was a farmer who raised sheep.  That’s about it.

E.   Unexpected:  This character insulted a fairy who was already having a bad day and was immediately put under a curse which causes the character to turn into a rabbit on the full moon.  No cure for this curse has thus far been discovered.

2. Character’s Appearance:

A.  Dashing: Congratulations.  Your character cuts such a dashing and noble figure that others are constantly begging to join this character and pledging their loyalty and gazing rapturously upon such incredible dashingness.  This is quite a burden for your character to bear.

B.   Uninspiring:  Read the above description.  Imagine the opposite.  No one respects this character or thinks they will amount to anything.

C.   Ridiculous:  This character has purple hair in a world where purple hair is both unlooked for and frowned upon. This character is also a bit on the short side, a bit on the wimpy side, and a bit on the no-one-knows-what-to-make-of-you side.

D.  Magnificent: This character has purple hair in a world where having purple hair is exotic, unique, and worthy of admiration.  Also, this character is often assumed to be royal, whether this is true or not, which makes things difficult when looking royal is dangerous.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a dragon, complete with big, scaly body, the ability to breathe fire, and an unfortunate tendency to frighten the populace of surrounding countries.

3. Character’s Character:

A.  Optimistic:  This is the character the annoys everyone with a sunny outlook on whatever predicament they might be in.  Nothing is ever too bad to be overcome.  A proclivity toward making long, inspiring speeches may or may not endear this character to others.

B.   Brooding:  This character hates the optimistic people of the world, is not prone to speaking much, and prefers to look darkly at things and assume the worst.  For some reason, others still find this attractive in your character, much to your character’s annoyance.

C.   Humble:  This character is not worthy of anyone’s high regard no matter how awesome they may be.  This character wishes everyone would stop assuming such good things about him or her and wants nothing more than to serve, despite being the leader and main character.  This character is simply not good enough to be so good at everything.

D.  Courageous: Leading every charge, risking life and limb whenever a small child or kitten is being assaulted by a minion of darkness, caring not at all if he/she lives or dies, this character may or may not be truly skilled in battle, but will bravely sally forth regardless.  Often seen sporting war-wounds which are simply ignored, this character will stand up for Truth and Right and battle Injustice and Evil unswervingly.

E.   Unexpected: This character is a combination of all of the above, a complex individual who hopes for the best, plans for the worst, hates attention, and loves taking unnecessary, but impressive risks.  This leads to an assortment of conflicted emotions that often paralyze this character in a state of indecision just when important decisions need to be made.  This character’s friends and foes alike are often confused and nervous whenever a confrontation is imminent because one never knows what to expect.

4.  Character’s Priorities:

A.  Self:  This character may have many good qualities and is well aware of them, which is why this character deems it so important to preserve such a valuable life as his/her own, perhaps at the expense of someone slightly less valuable.  This may seem callous and unheroic, but your character realizes that it is utterly impossible to be a hero if one is dead or imprisoned or otherwise inconvenienced.  Keeping oneself alive is a first priority from which every other heroic trait might naturally follow.

B.  Country:  For better or for worse, this character loves king/queen/president/dictator and country more than life itself.  This may become something of an issue of the country somehow fails to uphold other standards of the character, but ultimately, preserving the country from foes foreign or domestic is this character’s goal.

C.  Beloved:  True love conquers all, and any villain worth his/her salt knows that to get to your character, all they have to do is find your character’s beloved and place that individual in some creative form of danger.  Your character will risk life, friends, country, and any unfortunate person who gets in the way in order to save this most prized and treasured of beings.  Most likely, your character’s beloved is somehow a key point in the villain’s plot anyway, so saving him or her conveniently serves two purposes.

D.  FavoritePet:  Who needs people?  Your character’s favorite steed, favorite dog, or favorite bird is somehow constantly in danger and constantly in need of saving.  Thankfully, this favored pet of your character will end up saving your character’s life at a significant juncture, thereby justifying your character’s strange priorities.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character wants nothing more than to be a traveling bard.  Every experience, both good and bad, can be turned into a song.  At the end of it all, your character hopes to write the ultimate ballad by which to be remembered forever.  Your character is frequently caught composing a new tune during critical moments of the plot.

5. Character’s Weakness:

A.  Self:  Your character has issues.  While somehow remaining lovable, your character often questions his or her ability to solve problems, be a leader, be a follower, save others, save him/herself, or otherwise succeed at the given task.  If anyone insults your character’s appearance or ability, your character is immediately consumed by self-doubt.  It is both irritating and endearing.

B.  Nemesis:  The villain of your story is either the character’s sibling or schoolmate who knows all of your character’s weaknesses and goals, being a former confidant.  After a falling out, which was in absolutely no way your character’s fault, of course, the villain is determined to destroy the main character by any means necessary, and is frightfully creative in doing so.

C.  Beloved: See above description of Character Priorities: C.  Pretty much everything threatens the life of your character’s beloved, rendering your character incapable of making logical decisions, inspiring headlong rushes into traps, and ultimately causing your character to question any moral principles once held if they stand between the character and his/her beloved.

D.  Allergies:  Whether it is peanuts, glowing green rocks, or some mysterious antagonizing agent in the possession of the villain, your character cannot seem to get through an entire chapter without stumbling headlong into something that causes excruciating pain, delirium, and poor decision making specifically to this one individual.  Since no one else is affected, having friends around can be helpful, but this allergic reaction will occur in conjunction with any important plot point.

E.  Unexpected:  Your character is deathly afraid of rabbits.  This may or may not be known to the villain at the outset of the story, but probably will be by the climax.  Woodland areas are traumatic to your hero, as are most grasslands, farmland, and pretty much everywhere else.  No one is quite sure how your character is still (mostly) sane.

 

Share Your Results!

Having reached the conclusion of this character description workshop, you should now have a complex and interesting person to work with for your story.  No two characters should be alike, even if you’ve picked the same letters as someone else, so if you would indulge me in sharing your character’s description, adding your own details and filling in the basic outline a bit, I would be much obliged.

Next week, we’ll do some world building in a similar fashion.  By the end of the month, I expect to have several bestsellers in the making.

You’re welcome.

NaNoWriMo – Half way through and barely started

In the midst of trying to write a novel in a month, I have to write blog posts.

And it is time for me to face the fact – I am not writing a novel this month.

I wanted to…I told myself I was going to be disciplined. I was going to be loyal to my goal.  I was going to write like a mad woman, sleep less, and be creative ALL the time!

Truth is I started out the month trying to recover from a cold/flu and sleep became a necessary and spending time with friends became more fun than hiding in the darkness of my room with only the glow of the computer screen for company.

Enough complaining…I’ve barely started but I want to muse about my process.  I am working on a character and part of the story that I have not fully conceptualize.  I have a method of writing…it normally consists of just writing what comes to me, when it comes to me.  NaNoWriMo forces me to force the story out of a sluggish and cantankerous muse. I have written a good portion of the story already (last years NaNoWritMo) but I discovered that I was only telling one character’s story and I did not want her voice to be the only one.  I needed to make the story I was telling fuller, deeper, more alive and real.

This is a good thing – making the story a better story.  The problem rests in the fact that only that character’s story came to me freely and full of inspiration.  The other character’s stories are more like shadows and mysteries.  I am stuck trying to understand a character that I don’t fully understand.  I know I’m the author.  I should know my characters and that is why I’ve barely started.

So, I’m working through my writer’s block or character block by slowly writing scenes that I do know and understand, in which these characters feature prominent roles.  I am hoping that these scenes will slowly fill the gap in my story and bring life to my characters.

Happy writing!

Movie Muses: Thor 2 and Why Characters Matter

Last weekend, I got to see another new movie.  I feel very spoiled.  Normally I wait for them to trickle their way down into the local dollar theater (which actually costs two dollars on weekends… I feel lied to) or just rent them later from Redbox.  But not lately.  Lately, I have been too eager to see these new films in theaters!

thor the dark world filmI went into Thor: The Dark World with mildly optimistic expectations.  By optimistic, I mean that I expected to be entertained, if in a very shallow way, by lots of action and adventure and things being smashed by a hammer and Loki being an extraordinary villain(ish). That’s all I wanted.  I had read a few reviews ahead of time that indicated the movie could be summed up as cheesy good fun and nothing more.

That is pretty much exactly what the second Thor movie is.  It is funny, it is fun to watch, and it is pretty shallow entertainment, but not in a bad way.  When we left the theater, though, I made a profound realization about this movie.  And this is the profound realization that I made:

“The plot kind of sucked.  If it hadn’t been for the characters, this would have been a horrible movie.”

Clearly, I am meant to be a movie critic because I think such deep thoughts.

But I stand by what I said. The plot is pretty silly.  Without giving away anything crucial (although just to be safe, I’ll cry spoilers! so you can’t get mad at me), this is basically how it goes:

Ancient evil elves want to destroy the universe using glowy universe-destroying goo.  Thor stops them.  The end.

 

dark elves thor dark world
Evil elves!

I know.  Wow.

But despite the fact that the plot was not terribly enthralling and a lot of it was simply Thor tossing the hammer and angsting about saving his girl, it was still enjoyable.  Why is that?

The answer is because of the characters.  Or rather, because of some of the characters.  Ironically, the main characters of this film, Thor and Jane, are not the strong ones.  They don’t do any growing or character development during the movie and while they are both generally likable and decent characters, they were not the ones who had the audience laughing and deeply engaged throughout.  Instead, the characters who held this movie together were several of the secondary characters.

One of the greatest fears we have when we go to see a sequel is that the idiot producers will look at what people liked in the first film and then overdo it in the second one (think: Pirates of the Caribbean franchise).  In a way, this movie did take what was good in the first film and give us more, but in this case it actually worked.

thor dark world darcy erik internThe characters that I enjoyed in the first film, such as Jane’s friends Erik and Darcy, were even funnier and more charming in this film.  They had a very strong supporting role and I cared more about them than I did about Jane.  Again, I had no hard feelings toward the female lead, but she wasn’t what drew my attention.

Now, there was one other character who was extremely important, crucial even, for the success of this film.  I’m not forgetting him.  I’m just saving him for last.

loki thor dark world lokiMany people liked the first movie more for the villain than for the hero, and in this movie, the character Loki is improved upon, if that is even possible.  He is even more sardonic and snarky and wounded and clever and interesting.  If anyone grows in this film as a character, it is actually Loki, although I will not tell you that he becomes “good.”  Watch it and see for yourself what happens with him.  No spoilers from me.  Suffice to say that Loki alone makes this movie worth watching.

Ultimately, this movie is about the characters more than it is about the story because, let’s face it, the story is pretty silly.  Furthermore, this movie is about the secondary characters rather than about the title character or his lady love because, let’s face it, they’re nice and all but not that fantastic.

thor dark world lokiFor someone who cares more about characters than plot, this film demonstrated something that I find is often very true for me as both a reader and a writer: characters are crucial.  Do not create stock characters, stereotypes, and meaningless minions.  Characters aren’t just there to walk through the story.  We are people and so we want to engage with real people when we read (or watch) a story.  Yes, the plot does matter.  The plot matters a lot.  But the characters are the ones to whom the plot happens, who make the decisions, who experience the adventures and intrigues, the ones we root for or can’t wait to see fail. We have to be able to like them or dislike them.  We have to be able to remember them.

If we don’t care about the characters, we won’t care about the plot.  The story will lose its impact, no matter how clever (or not!) it actually is.

So make the characters count.

The narrative significance of the body (part 1)

One of the most important, and trickiest, parts of telling a good story is figuring out how much detail ought to be given to physical descriptions of the characters, and, if so, what those descriptions ought to be like.  This is doubly tricky in our age – for we live in an age of body idolaters and body indifferentists.  If we follow the former, we may describe our characters’ physical characteristics in some detail, but those descriptions will go no deeper than the skin.  If we follow the latter, we will be Gnostics.

That isn’t to say that we must include detailed physical descriptions of characters, or be Gnostics.  The New Testament authors, for example, are quite emphatic that Jesus was and is a real Man, with real flesh, and that He trod upon and did not float over, the real earth (except on the rare occasions that He walked on water).  Yet nowhere in the New Testament do we get a physical portrait of Him.  The only physical detail of significance we get is a curious detail about the risen Jesus: He retained the five wounds of His passion.  That physical detail, though, has considerable narrative significance.  It demonstrates that the Man who walked out of the tomb Sunday morning was the same Man whose marked and lifeless body was laid to rest in the tomb on Friday afternoon.  The Man’s story was graven upon His hands, feet, and side.

We see that kind of sparing physical detail throughout the New Testament.  The only other instances of physical descriptions I can think of in the entire New Testament (excepting the Revelation) are the descriptions of Jesus at the transfiguration, and Luke’s statement in the Acts of the Apostles that in the moments immediately preceding St. Stephen’s martyrdom, his face “was like the face of an angel.”  And Stephen would soon be among the angels.

When we turn to the Old Testament, we get little more.  Meeting young David for the first time we hear three things about his appearance:  First, that he’s less impressive, physically, than his older brothers – for the Lord looks on the heart, not the outward appearance; second, that he’s ruddy from keeping the sheep; and third, that he has beautiful eyes.  The author does not explain that last detail in terms of the color, shape, or set of David’s eyes.  Yet it is significant that the author specially notes the eyes – the part of the outward appearance where the heart is most visible.

The point is that there are physical features that have peculiar narrative significance.  Some of these are common features: eyes and smiles[1], features common to all, have stories written all over them.  Some of the features of narrative importance are more unique: marks from pregnancies, scars from battle, surgical scars.  In marking these features out for particular attention, we avoid both body idolatry and Gnosticism.  Noting them, we preserve the evocative things written upon flesh that make characters.[2]


[1] As to smiles:

So much reads straight in a smile’s crooked lines:
One betrays care, fear of the enemy –
tough, big, or swindler — crouching at the door;
Another knows where the enemy hides,
And, that presently the bastard will be
Knocked out cold upon the doorstep.
If you smile, friend, follow that second line;
The first is to cast your pearls before swine.

[2] Character is a word of Greek origin.  In biblical usage, it may refer to an instrument used to make a mark upon something, or the mark impressed upon something by such an instrument.  It’s the word used of Christ by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews – that he bore the “express image” of God.

Speaker for the Dead: The Story Card Actually Wanted to Tell

Hello everyone! I’m back on rotation and have a lot of things to talk about. A while back I talked about how Orson Scott Card’s character Ender was a great example of writing someone who has realistic limits and flaws, thus avoiding the crippling HHH disorder. I also talked about how I was somewhat hamstrung in my analysis of his character because I had not read Speaker for the Dead, the second book of the series which has Ender grown up. Well, I’ve since read (actually, listened to) the book and can say that my estimation of Card’s writing of Ender has only increased. I’d like to deconstruct a few things about how Card handled the book, but first I’ll start with some background, specifically on what “Speaker for the Dead” actually means.

WARNING: Spoilers are not intended, but somewhat unavoidable. I have avoided important plot points from both Speaker for the Dead and Ender’s Game, but I can’t really talk much about Ender without letting a few things slip!

Ender as Speaker

Even those of you who have read Ender’s Game might not be fully clear on what a Speaker for the Dead coverSpeaker is. It’s covered in the end of the story, after the events of the war, in which Ender plays a direct role in the wiping out of the Formic race (referred to as “The Buggers”). But Ender discovers that the entire war was a tragic mistake, and takes it on himself to try to help humanity understand this in hopes of keeping it from ever happening again. Ender goes from world to world as humanity expands to new colonies, telling the story of the Buggers, and starts a tradition of telling the story of the dead. People would speak at a person’s funeral, focusing on the truth of how the person lived and thought so that the ones left behind can better understand them. This creates something of a secular priesthood, called Speakers, who make it their lives to travel and perform these ceremonies as impartial third parties, doing as much investigative work as possible to make sure the truth about the deceased is told, regardless of the pain or embarrassment anyone may feel.

Ender is 35 by the beginning of Speaker for the Dead, but that’s just by time-dilated space travel standards. To the people on the ground, it’s been 3000 years since the Bugger War. This creates an interesting distance between Ender’s character in the first book and the second that gives Card a lot of room to work in. Not only is Ender now physically an adult (even if he acted rather like an adult as a child anyway), now everyone else sees him (or at least, his figure in history) as Ender the Xenocide, the one man responsible for the death of an entire sentient race. Thanks to Ender’s own work, over the course of 3000 years, humanity has decided that his act of self defense on behalf of Earth was actually murder. Thus he travels the colonies under the name Andrew, and while no one ever knows he is the infamous villain (everyone naturally assumes he died thousands of years ago), he still hears everyone continually cursing his name.

Perhaps surprisingly, this doesn’t actually change that much about who Ender is. His ability to empathize with people (human or not) from the first book is only heightened by his work as Speaker, and although his natural cynicism deepens it does not devolve into

Speaker for the Dead graphic novel cover
There is also a graphic novel, although I think personally that its a bit melodramatic and I don’t like its depictions of the Pequeninos

nihilism. But the changes he sees in humanity do affect his view of life and dampen his hope for his mission. While humanity seems to have generally gotten the point that it was really a bad thing that the war had to be fought and a tragedy that a mere lack of being able to communicate resulted in so much death, the human race continues to be reactive and fearful of the idea of other intelligent life. It also sure seems like having literally every human being in existence grow up believing you were Galactic Hitler would be cause for a pity-party, but Ender doesn’t react that way. This is where the young Ender from book one definitely shines through: Ender decides that he can endure his own suffering if it means the mistake of his war with the Buggers doesn’t happen again, and as long as he is alive, he will work to change humanity’s impulse from fear to love for all sentient life.

The difference of Ender between the books is underplayed by the physical changes and distance of time, but Card did a masterful job of showing just how Ender came from the little boy of the first book to the man we see in the second. Ender never feels like a different person, but he has very clearly matured and developed. Not all of his growth is positive, and the same character flaws that we saw before rear themselves here, but these flaws are very human, and while Ender is definitely an extraordinary person, we can still relate to his pain and desires, and admire his goodness and honesty.

But that’s enough for today! I definitely recommend Speaker for the Dead, but only after reading Ender’s Game, of course! The understanding of Ender’s role as speaker is integral to the plot, and I hope I haven’t spoiled too much here for you. Next week I’d like to talk about another part of this book, Card’s brilliant design for the second alien race of his world, affectionately dubbed “the Piggies”. Until then, have you read Speaker of the Dead? Let me know what you think in the comments below!