jennygordon: (Magpie)
I've recently added another question to my FAQ page, and wanted to elaborate a little on it here.

The question was "Do you base characters on people you know?"

This is the question I'm asked most about my writing after, "Where do you get your ideas?" It was when someone asked me again recently that I decided to add it to the FAQs.

As I say in my response, the short answer is "No!" I sometimes steal bits and pieces of inspiration from real people, but I never, ever base characters on people I know. Why would I? I write fiction, and it's far more fun and far more freeing to invent my characters myself.

That said, I know other writers do soemtimes base fictional characters on real people, and there's nothing wrong with that. Back in my early teens, I wrote lots of horrible, horrible stories featuring me and my friends. I imagine a lot of writers do the same at the early stages of their writing career. And while those horrible, horrible stories have long since gone the way of the circular filing drawer (aka the bin!), maybe it was a good way to start. It certainly showed me early on how restrictive basing characters on real people can be. For a start, you've always got the voice of that real person in your ear, either actually or virtually, protesting, 'But I wouldn't behave that way!', or 'How could you do that to me?', or 'Go on, let me hook up with the hot guy!'

My characters need to live a life in the story, not a life that's an extension of their life in reality. And I need the freedom as a writer to use my characters as the story requires.

Now while I don't base my characters on real people, I most certainly steal all kinds of inspiration from real life - not all the time, but occassionally for sure. I think all writers are compulsive people-watchers to some degree. How else do we create believable characters? I've stolen the wiry, owl-eyed little guy on the bus with interesting tattoos on his hands. He helped concrete one of the characters in SeaNovel. Years ago, there was the girl on the bus with glasses perched on top of her curly head of hair, as though she'd forgotten they were there, who was the starting point for the protagonist in one of my short stories ("Still Yesterday"), which ultimately became a novel. What sort of character would look like that? I wondered. What has her so distracted she's forgotten where she put her specs? Come to think of it, bus travel is a great source of inspiration for me!

What about you?
jennygordon: (Water Lily)
I recently commented to [livejournal.com profile] writerjennthat it’s easy to become so engrossed in the plot of your WIP that you lose sight of your characters’ inner journey.  During this pass of SeaNovel, I’m increasingly aware that it’s my characters’ inner journeys that are my primary concern. It’s what is driving most of my decisions as I reshape the story. At each turn, I’m pausing to assess the state of the emotional weather in all of my characters, particularly my two main ones.

·         What are they feeling at this point?

·         What impact has the events of the last scene or chapter had on them?

·         What do they want, and how has that changed?

Inevitably, the more I work on SeaNovel, the better I get to know my characters. I understand L’s fear of abandonment and why this and her essential introvert nature leads her to behave the way she does. I can feel how torn M is, and how he struggles with himself to find the right path. My more minor characters have also come into sharper focus, and I’m mindful of keeping track of their inner weather too, because each of them also has a journey to go on during the course of the novel. It might not be crucial to the story, but it’s equally as important to the book if I want them to come across as thinking, feeling individuals.

I often don’t know — not completely — how a character is feeling until I’m standing in their boots, seeing through their eyes. I trust my deeper self to know my characters in ways I don’t consciously realise, because it’s that deeper instinct which sometimes provides the key to the next thing they do, or the next words they say.

It can be tricky to keep your writerly eye on all aspects of story and character, but it’s fundamentally true that story doesn’t move forward without the characters acting and reacting to events. And characters won’t move forward in honest ways unless those events impact on their inner development. If we do our work in a way that honours both our characters and the story, then by the end of the book, all of them should have undertaken a journey and changed in some way.
jennygordon: (Skywatcher)

I was going to post about something else today, but then an article on the BBC website caught my eye and got me thinking about names again. I say ‘again’ because [livejournal.com profile] j_cheney  was talking about naming characters earlier this week, and it's a topic that's perennially on my mind.

Like most writers, names are important to me; finding the right names for our characters is crucial. [livejournal.com profile] j_cheney  has some useful tips on how to be sure your name is the right one, and I confess I’m very particular when it comes to my own characters’ names.

When it comes to a fantasy context, there’s even more to consider. As well as being right for the character, the name needs to be right in a cultural context (whatever the culture is that I’ve evolved). Which means I spend time thinking about how names work in that culture. Do they use different endings to denote male and female? Are certain letters, or collections of letters, more prevalent? What is their language like, so what should the names sound like?

It bothers me when authors of fantasy novels haven’t thought about their naming conventions. It’s an extra layer of world-building that matters, and can convey so much if it’s given a little attention. Equally, inappropriate names can really jar, and be memorable for all the wrong reasons. (I remember I once had a character called Eleftheria until a friend pointed out that it sounded like an unpleasant disease!)

I’m currently reading Storm Constantine’s iconic ‘Wraeththu’ series for the first time in, oh, twenty-some years. In a future Earth where mankind is in the twilight of its existence, and a new race (the hermaphroditic Wraeththu) is emerging, the names Constantine chooses feel right to me. The fledgling Wraeththu are in many ways a kind of edgy street gang with a feel of ‘80s Goths about them, and the names manage to capture this as well as th strangeness of the new race. What strikes me more than anything is that, despite the time elapsed since I last read the novels, in the recesses of my brain, I’ve remembered the names, and that speaks volumes of their success for me.

So anyway, the article that’s prompted these ramblings makes for fascinating reading. It’s also great inspiration for fantasy authors because it talks about countries where names are regulated and restricted by the Powers That Be. Who knew? If you’re interested, it’s here.

jennygordon: (Angel)
My sister has recently had her first baby and, rather wonderfully, waited a whole two weeks before settling on a name, because she wanted to be certain of giving him absolutely the right one.

I don't have children myself, but as a writer, I understand the vital importance of names. Sometimes, I know from the outset what a character is called; at other times, I angst through several drafts of a novel before they finally 'fess up and tell me their true name. Until they do, it's hard to get to know them properly; it's as though, without their true name, it's tricky to truly get under their skin. The characters act up; I keep getting distracted by the essential wrongness of their name, and we all end up in a non-productive stew.

SeaNovel, however, is the first novel in which all but four of the characters have changed names over the course of its eight (so far) drafts, some of them in small ways, others completely. Perhaps it reflects the journey this novel has taken, with its core fundamently altering along the way.

How about you? How do you go about discovering the names of your characters?
jennygordon: (Bluebells)

That man, Joss Whedon, ‘e’s a flipping’ genius, ‘e is. 

I’ve recently embarked on a re-watch of Season One of “Dollhouse”, and, as well as apparently making me come over all Cockney, it’s renewed my appreciation for all things Whedon. 

Yet another of his TV series to fall foul of scheduling cock-ups and poor decision-making on the part of the studio, “Dollhouse” only ran to two seasons, but they’re little gems, both of them. Not least because of the fact that, since Whedon had good notice of the series’ cancellation, he was able to wrap up the story in a way that gave a fair indication of where he had intended to go with the series had it run for longer. 

But, I’m getting ahead of myself, especially as I’m only a couple of episodes in at the moment, and they’re the ones I wanted to talk about in the context of Joss Whedon = genius. 

Within two 45 minute episodes, and even within the first one alone, Whedon has skilfully succeeded in immersing us in the world and characters of “Dollhouse”. 

I feel a list coming on. 

  • With a light touch, he’s introduced the concept of the organisation known as the “Dollhouse”, explained the set-up and what they do
  • Each of the two self-contained plots of the episodes is complete and satisfying in itself, while
  • Also laying building blocks concerning the greater over-arching plot
  • Since this is a series re-watch, I can see where, even from the very beginning, he is seeding clues and events significant to the greater plot
  • Whedon’s primary strength has always lain in his characterisation, and in these initial two episodes, he has already introduced all of the main players. We may only have had glimpses of them, but they’re already established in the setting. And that’s no small achievement, since there area at least 10 of them. Developed to varying degrees, given the small amount of screen time to date, something memorable about each character has already been introduced
  • The premise of “Dollhouse” is unsettling enough, and knowing Whedon, you trust him to do something intriguing with it. Already, he’s giving us fragments of a Bigger Picture and a Greater Threat
  • And even on a first viewing, it’s all so effortlessly interesting and intriguing. 

Phew! That’s such a lot to get into two little episodes, and yet it’s all so masterfully managed that it’s never info dump and is never overwhelming. 

For me, “Dollhouse” really shows a (screen) writer at the top of his game, all of his tools in peak condition and being skilfully employed. 

If you’re a Joss Whedon fan, what do you reckon? Do you have a favourite show of his? I’d love to hear what, which and why. I’m also hearing good things about his new film, “The Cabin in the Woods”; has anyone seen it?  

In the meantime, I’m off to do some more worshipping at the Great Man’s altar.

jennygordon: (Gargoyle)
I was planning to write something half-way coherent about viewpoints today, but instead, I find myself in a bit of a writing funk, and all I can seem to do is heave heavy sighs.  I'm sure I've been here with other books, and managed to find my way out again, but each time I find myself back in The Grey Place, it's easy to forget rational thought and simply wallow in the bleakness.

You see, I've been fiddling with my new book for a few months now, allowing it to grow slowly, getting excited over the characters and the world building, feeling my way with plot ideas.  I've even chucked down a chapter or several - purely winging it to see how things wanted to turn out.  This weekend, inspired by
[info]jmeadows's advice on starting a synopsis, I sat down with all my notes and typed them up, getting it all into some sort of order.  That was certainly helpful, only it seems to have thrown up more problems than it has progress - nasty drafty holes in the plot, half-developed notions of my world, and characters who are more cardboard cut-out than real.

Now, the rational part of me knows that's all par for the course at this stage, despite the other voices wailing at deafening volume,

"Give it up now - you know it's a pile of crap.  Who're you kidding?  You know you just don't have it in you."

But the biggest problem I have, and really the main thing that's plunged me into The Grey Realm of Rampaging Doubt is that my MC doesn't really know who she is.  I know what I need her to do, but she's still looking at me in that doubtful way I mentioned in my last post.  Some of my lovely LJ friends shared great tips in their replies to this post (thank you so much), and I'm feeling a bit more motivated to push ahead with it now, but that doesn't entirely silence my Rampaging Doubts.  And a sure sign that those doubts are dragging on my coat-tails is the fact that an idea for another novel popped into my head yesterday, and my muse is nudging at me, urging,

"Go on, do this one instead.  It's much better, you know."

Hmm.  My muse, or the Daemon of Self Doubt?  Sometimes it's hard to be sure.  What I'm pretty certain of, however, is that for now I need to ignore the whole lot of them - muse, doubt and lingering bleakness - and sit down for a really good chat with my MC.  That, and stop distracting myself with blogging ...

jennygordon: (Blue Butterfly)
Sometimes characters walk onto the stage fully formed and ready for action, as though they’ve already been living their lives elsewhere, somewhere in the back of your mind, waiting for it to be time to emerge from behind the curtain.

Sometimes they wander into view all ghostly – present, yet undeveloped and hazy.  You know something of who they are, and parts of what you want them to do, but they’re looking at you doubtfully, as though they’re not sure they have it in them yet.

At other times, it’s the story that arrives first, and you need to set up auditions to find the right characters to populate it. 

However they decide to show up, and I have variations on all these themes at this early stage of my Fledgling WIP, there are numerous ways in which you can get to grips with the characters who are hopefully going to be whispering in your ear as you write your story.  “How To ...” books and the Interwebs at large are full of advice about how to discover and clothe your casts.  Collecting some of the more interesting memes that do the rounds and getting your characters to fill them out is a new option for me - it's not something I've tried, but it's an interesting idea.  There's some good no-nonsense advice in this article by Holly Lisle.  And if you're stuck for that all important name, then you could try this site for Victorian era names, or this one and this one for names from a whole swathe of historical eras (thanks to [livejournal.com profile] marycatellifor the latter).

Whether they're lingering coyly in the dressing room, still searching for their knickers, or whether they're chattering away so rapidly you can't type fast enough to get it all down, I hope you're having fun with your cast of players.  If you have any tips on how you've got to know your current characters, I'd love to hear.

jennygordon: (Default)
Once upon a time, there was a writer who created a really nasty viewpoint character.  The character was selfish, socially inept, spiteful and bloodthirsty, not to mention all-round screwed-up and with dubious morals.  This writer saw it as a kind of challenge - was it even possible to base a book around a character who wasn't - let's face it - particularly likeable?  Okay, okay, so the writer was me and the character is the central figure in the Nasty Dark Fantasy I'm currently re-writing.  And guess what?  A big part of what I'm reworking is that character, trying to make her more sympathetic while avoiding fundamentally undermining her.  Which means I've been doing a fair amount of thinking about characterisation.

I'm (obviously) not the first person to tackle writing an arse-pain of a main character.  I've recently read Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory with his sadistic and murderous 'hero', who is nevertheless disconcertingly funny.  On the fantasy front, Tanith Lee has made a career of writing nasty heroes (and heroines - I'm using the word 'heroes' to encompass both sexes because I just don't care).  I'm also currently reading a book by Stacia Kane in which she creates sympathetic and entertaining heroes in basically unlikeable people.  In his excellent 'How to' book, Immediate Fiction, Jerry Cleaver points out that even creating a likeable character is a challenge.  "Identifying is liking" he says, and he's right.  And that's the key to creating sympathetic, yet unlikeable characters too.

Maggie Stiefvater has blogged about how, for her, creating effective characterisation is about opposites: complementary opposites, just like in art.  So, the contrasting qualities of her central characters show each other's personality traits to better effect.  She demonstrates the theory very cleverly in her latest novel, Linger, in which each of the 4 viewpoint characters reveal aspects of the others simply by not being like them.

Elsewhere, I've read about the effectiveness of testing your character at his/her weak spot.  So, if she's vain, put her in a situation where the objects of her vanity are forceably removed; if he's proud of his physical prowess, have him get sick or break a leg so he can't rely on it.  If she's impatient by nature, put her in a situation where the need for patience is everything.

The thing is, tips for characterisation like these and numerous others apply to all of the characters you create, likeable or not.  You don't have to like a spiteful character to want to read their story; you don't need to be able to relate to a character's drug addiction to care about them.  Nor is it necessary to be a fellow selfish, socially-inept, screwed-up bitch with a fetish for drinking blood to want to read the Nasty Dark Fantasy -  if I do my job right and draw the reader in regardless.  Therein lies my challenge.

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jennygordon

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