Sunday, January 26, 2014

Adventures in Fiction Writing! Part One: Characters

Afternoon Darlings!

If you follow me on twitter (and you should! Click here to join my adoring following) you probably already know that last year I wrote the first draft of a YA (that's Young Adult for you non-literary readers) novel called Road to Nowhere. I wrote the first words of the story on June 7th, and the last passage on Christmas Day. Romantic, huh?

The novel grew out of a writing prompt that my boyfriend Brandon picked out for me from a book that's literally FULL of them. He gave me the prompt: Newspaper headline ROAD TO NOWHERE SET FOR REPAVING and I sat down to write on it for 30 minutes. I reported on my initial efforts here. (Check it out!)

I've taken the month of January off from the WIP (that's Work-In_Progress for you non-literary readers. What a vocabulary lesson this is becoming for you!) to clear my head so I can dive into the dreaded Suicidal Second Draft with what I hope will be fresh eyes and a clear perspective. I've also decided, because I love you all so much and because misery loves company (mostly because misery loves company), that I will make the revise/rewrite/edit process a public one, here on my blog. So come along, friends! This should be an interesting ride!! 

My Adventures in Fiction Writing series kicks off with a post about CHARACTERS. What about  characters? We love characters, we hate characters. We write characters, we kill characters. Characters whisper scenes in our heads and yell at us when we write their voices wrong and sometimes change appearances halfway through a story.

Gah. I've turned into one of those annoying writers who talks about characters not only as if they're alive, but as if they're sentient and control me. ...
*Sounds of a scuffle*

This is Cobalt, star of ROAD TO NOWHERE. You will ignore everything Shana wrote about characters above.
poijojnlnljnibweASSDfzsfgfdbfdm   sd;fnsdlkfnsdljfnsfSd...../////
*Thud* *THUMP*

AHEM! This is me again. Cobalt's back where he belongs. Now where was I? Oh yeah: CHARACTERS.

Look, this isn't going to be a writing lesson. I'm not your fucking teacher. I don't have an MFA in creative writing. (That's Masters of Fine Arts. Pay attention please.) I am an educated woman, but everything I know about writing I've learned the hard way, and all of it is probably only true for me.

My truth is my truth and your truth is yours. But MY truth becomes clear when you share YOUR truth with me, and vice versa. That's equally true in fiction as in life. Entiende?

Here's a character chart I drew up when I was about halfway through my novel's first draft.

Notice how sparse it is. See how in the box for Mayor Orange there's only one descriptive term: FAT. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Mayor Orange is fat. Below him , in the box I intended to fill with adjectives that describe Cobalt (introduced above), is one phrase: TOO-LONG BANGS. So, Mayor Orange (first name Princeton) is fat and Cobalt has bangs that fall into his eyes.

What's the deal with this? The thing is, I'm not a visual reader. Therefore, I'm not a visual writer. When I read your characters I don't tend to pay much attention to your description of their appearances, because I almost never remember it, anyway. I'm way more interested in how your characters speak and what they say and especially how they behave.

Of course, there are exceptions. If your character's appearance is an integral part of his/her, well, character, and if you repeat descriptions of it enough times I will remember it. Or if there's an aspect of your character's physical appearance that is an integral part of his/her personhood I'll remember that. For example, Rose the Hat's jaunty top hat in King's Doctor Sleep. Nearly every single time he mentioned Rose he described her hat, perched saucily atop her head at a gravity-defying angle. But you know what? The description never felt overdone. Moreover, it served to describe Rose herself, perched as she was at the top of the True Knot's society, which in turn perched saucily on top of our own society, at a gravity-defying angle.

Pretty deep, huh?

What else did Mr. King say about Rose? She was hot. Was she blonde? Don't think so. What color were her eyes? Don't remember. Don't care. But I'll always remember the hat.

And really I'm that flaky with my own characters, as well. I remember who the badasses are, and the villains. I can tell you which characters start out meek and discover their own strength during the journey. But who's the redhead? Which of the boys has freckles? Are you seriously asking me? I'm supposed to remember? So I made a chart.

I try to give each of my characters some physical trait that describes who they are in the story. I don't know that I'll get around to everyone, but so far I think I've touched each of the main characters.

Mayor (Princeton) Orange is fat, because he represents comfort and plenty. I mean this in both a nice, homey way as well as a selfish way.

Mayor Blue is skeletal and has the parched skin of a mummy because he is Want, and the death of hope.

Fern Viridian has brilliant green eyes and spiky red hair because she is all go, go, go! She has so much curiosity and energy that no one can stop her.

Midnight wears a John Cena tee shirt because she, too, will never give up. She wears a sparkly beaded headband to bring some light into Nowhere. During the story, she is scarred in a very meaningful way.

Navy's head was once shaved. Now his hair is growing back in patches. He wears a hoodie that's way too big for him. His shoes maybe fit two years ago. He cut the toes of the shoes open so his own toes would have some more room. Clearly, this is a neglected young man.

Amarillo Saffron has big, bouncy blonde curls, yellow-green eyes, and a winning smile. She also has spent much of her life trying to please others at the expense of herself. She thinks of herself as a pretty, delicate figurine to be perched someplace: pleasing to the eye but without any inherent strength. She discovers her strength during the story.

Cerulean Saffron has waist-length two-toned hair that she wears in her trademark blonde-and-blue braid that typically hangs over her shoulder. Why the two-toned hair? Duality. She is both of Somewhere and Nowhere. Like her older sister Amarillo, Cerulean is pretty, but in a sturdier, more matronly way.

Azure has blue eyes and strawberry blonde curls and a tiny body. She's 14, but looks more like 11. And that's all I have for her right now. Actually, I don't think this physical description really matches her character. Hmmm...I think I have some work to do with this one.

Denim is large and muscular. DEFINITELY need to work on this guy's physical appearance.

Mr. Scarlet is a main character without much in the way of physical description in the WIP. He doesn't even appear on my character chart. WTF is up with that?

(Yeah, I have a looooong way to go with this WIP. That much is clear.)

There are, of course, more characters than that in ROAD TO NOWHERE. But I think you get the idea. Even better, I've learned some more about my characters during this exercise. So it's a win-win!

And this concludes part one of my ongoing series this year, Adventures in Fiction Writing! Be sure to tune in next time when I write all about the Suicidal Second Draft!


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