Tell Me a Little About Yourself

“Okay… tell me a little about yourself.”

“Um… how am I supposed to do that?”

“Hmm…. good question.”

How does a writer get to know their character? It’s a bit like interviewing someone with amnesia. You have some context, but they know nothing about themselves, so you have to try and fill in the blanks with them.

And yes, with them–because, inevitably, characters will seem to take on a life of their own. I remember coming across an interview one time where J.K. Rowling once said that S.P.E.W. (the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare) was Hermione’s thing. She never intended for the character to be so passionate about elfish rights, but it ended up being a pretty decent plot point, even contributing to her and Ron finally kissing. (*insert awww*)

A character taking a bit more control (read: an idea that a writer has growing more than they intended) is actually a sign of a fleshed-out, complex character. If, the more you write them, the more they grow–sometimes even in ways you don’t imagine–that means you’re doing something right.

But you have to start somewhere. Like I said before: You’ll usually begin with some sort of context. For example, if you’re writing an action/suspense novel, chances are your character will be a bit of a tough customer. Or if you’re writing a coming-of-age story, your character might be a bit awkward and needing to grow into some confidence.

The next step, for me, is to establish some basics: Age, appearance, body type, etc. Again, like the interview example, you start with what you can see, what’s on the surface.

After that, it gets really fun. You start asking questions. First, more superficial stuff: What does your bedroom look like? What’s in your purse/wallet right now?

And from there, as you start to have more material to work with (as your interviewee starts to “remember”). You can now dive into deeper questions: What is your greatest fear? Who do you admire? What do you wish you could change about yourself?

Eventually, you start to have more than just answers. You start to form the actual memories that make this character who they are. For instance, maybe their greatest fear is water. Why? Did they almost drown once? Did someone they care about drown? What was that day like? What emotions did they experience? What emotions are they still experiencing?

Eventually, you have a rough outline of an entire life and you know what makes your character tick.

Now just do that with all the other major characters in your book, and you’re ready to start writing.

Yeah… it can be a lot of work.

Of course… that’s not the only way to develop a character. I’ve found it’s the most useful for me, but every writer (and every story) is different. Sometimes, the best thing to do is just start writing. You may begin a draft writing a character in a certain way, but as the story goes on, realize he or she is coming across too weak, unrealistic, unlikable, etc. So maybe you trash that draft (which always hurts; I once trashed a draft that was 100 pages). And so you start writing again, learning from your past mistakes, and making the character (and your story) more engaging.

I’ve done that before, too: Just dove right in and let the story just unfold and the characters interact naturally. However, I’ve found that when I do that, I tend to end up with unfinished manuscripts.

Of course, you can combine the two techniques: “Interview” a little, but leave some personality open for creative spontaneity.

Interviewing and free-styling, though, are only two techniques. I’ve heard that some writers actually start out by drawing their characters, getting to know them from the outside in as they bring them to life on paper. Others will spend some time actually trying to think and act like their character. Maybe they’ll clean the house or go run errands, all while trying to stay in that character’s mindset. Others will even use actors and actresses as a springboard to imagining their character. “He’s kind of a combination of Chris Hemsworth and Ryan Reynolds…”

There’s no right or wrong way to discover who your character really is. And, like I’ve said before, every writer and every story is different. What works when you’re writing a sci-fi series, might not work for an angsty YA novel. Or what worked when you were writing in college might not “click” when you’re an adult with a full-time job. We change, our stories change, so our methods must also change.

What method works best for you when you’re writing a story? Is there a new method you’ve tried recently that really worked for you? Tell me more in the comments!

When Does Weird Work?

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that the world is weird.

We’ve faced impending doom in the form of murder hornets, carnivorous rats, thieving monkeys, and even UFOs. (I’m just now realizing how much strangeness has been animal-related….) Of course, that’s just the bizarre news… I’m not even counting all of the other headlines that has us wondering if we should invest in panic rooms. (Though the fact that all of this is happening at the same time just adds to the weird factor.)

This year has been proof that fact is stranger than fiction.

Which begs the question: When does fiction become too strange? As Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

But where does that put sci-fi and fantasy? Obviously, we extend our suspensions of disbelief, but at what point do they start to break?

The answer, of course, can be a matter of taste. Someone who prefers nonfiction and documentaries will probably think even well-loved stories like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are too “out there.” Conversely, someone who watches a lot of anime is used to being so far out of the box, they’re not even in its orbit. That dog is also a gun who shoots cannonballs? That’s just a Tuesday.

So while preference will vary from person to person, are there some general guidelines that help make “weird” a bit more accessible? What can a writer with a crazy idea do to make their audiences still love the story… and even love the idea solely for how crazy it is?

There’s no hard and fast answer, of course, but in my time diving into the weird side of stories, here are few takeaways I’ve found.

(1) Build Up To Your Ultimate Weirdness

If your story is going to walk on the weird side, chances are that you’re going to let the audience know right away. Readers/viewers like to know what to expect: What kind of world are we in? What’s normal for the characters and what’s not? However… that doesn’t mean you show you’re entire hand from episode one. It’s a shock to the system to cannonball into cool water–so, instead, you tiptoe your way in. The same is true with storytelling.

Disney’s Gravity Falls, which has gathered a nice little cult following, chronicles a summer that the protagonists Dipper and Mabel Pines spend with their Grunkle (Great-uncle) Stan in his tourist trap called the Mystery Shack. The real mystery, however, is the town Gravity Falls: Grunkle Stan may have fake mysteries in the shack, but all around them is very real weirdness–ghosts, gnomes, unicorns, zombies, etc.

Episode one sets the stage pretty quickly–I won’t give any details, because the twist at the end is pretty funny. But with each episode, the stories get stranger, but also more complex. A deeper mystery is unraveled concerning Grunkle Stan and the entire Pines family. By the end, “Manotaurs” (super manly Minotaurs) seems downright tame when the show’s maniacal, chaos-addicted villain Bill Cypher unleashes “Weirdmageddon” on the town.

But when you reach that point, it simply seems like the next logical step in the story. So instead of shaking your head at the “eye-bats,” you’re just cheering for the heroes.

(2) Stay Grounded with Relatable Characters and Situations

The anime Assassination Classroom is a prime example of weird that works. When I first came across the anime, I was certain I’d be able to count the brain cells popping out of existence as I watched it. A super-powered yellow octopus-thing with a smiley-face-head is a teacher and his students have to try to assassinate him or else he’ll destroy the world?

Okaaaay…..

Except, it doesn’t take long for me to start binging the episodes. And, by the end, I’m sobbing at its heart-rendering conclusion. (No spoilers, I promise.) So how did a show with such a crazy premise leave that much of an impact?

Easy: A complex plot with relatable characters. Koro Sensei is the ideal teacher: He cares about his students and does everything in his power to help each and every one reach their potential. He imparts lessons that reach far beyond the classroom. And he’s had to overcome his own twisted past. Each student is also as equally developed. Plus, the show itself is as much about educational theory–what helps students and what hinders them. For example, we’ve all sat through a particularly difficult test, so we can relate when the show likens it to a Colosseum battle.

In the end, you know you watched something completely insane. But what you remember isn’t how outlandish it was, but what you learned from it. (My personal favorite moment? This quote: “The difference between the novice and the master is that the master has failed more times than the novice has tried.”)

(3) Add Some Humor

This scene pretty much sums up how weird comics can be. (FYI: This is from “Dark Nights Metal” (2018) by Scott Snyder–one of the best comic story arcs I’ve read in a long time!)

It’s a crazy ride. You, as the writer know that. It came from your own imagination, and even you know its crazy. You believe in the story… but how do you make your audience connect with it?

Easy. Make ’em laugh.

But humor is not only a way to form a connection; it’s also a wonderful release. If you can call yourself out on some of the weirdness and let your readers/viewers have a chuckle, then all of the “What the hecks?” that have been building up in their minds can be eased. A good laugh is like turning a valve: It lets out some steam, relieves some pressure.

Dark Nights Metal is a stellar comic arc–as much fun as it is heart-pounding. One of these days, I’ll go into the pure genius of it during one of my “nerdy” posts. But it’s also very strange. The best way I can describe it actually brings me back to a quote from Gravity Falls. The super-chill teenager Wendy describes “Weirdmageddon:” “End of the world…. Those death metal album covers got it shockingly right.”

Of course, that right there brings a chuckle. (Gravity Falls knows how to use humor, too, as does Assassination Classroom.) The same is true in comics.

Of course, weirdness works the best when all three of these elements are carefully utilized. Dark Nights Metal, Assassination Classroom, and Gravity Falls, all not only know how to use humor, but also how to create engaging characters, and how to pace the story.

When these three elements are balanced together, you get a weird story that’s a wild ride but also captivating. Rather than rolling your eyes, you end up getting lost in the strange, outrageous world.

And, let’s be honest. We all like to live in a little bit of weird now and again–if for no other reason then to escape the weirdness of the real world.

But there’s one more attraction of weird stories. They dare to ask that tantalizing question: What if?

And we love that question. Not just because it sends us on fantastic adventures in fiction, but because it reminds us of all that is possible. We might not have to fight extra-dimensional monsters (*knocks on wood because, you know… 2020*), but we do have little battles every day, little doubts. But if we can ask “what if,” then we can keep moving forward.

So never stop asking that all-too-important question. And never stopping reading and watching the stories that remind us to ask it.

Stay weird, people.

Let’s Say You’re Going on a Trip….

A question:

You’re going on a trip. (I know that’s hard to imagine in 2020, but just do your best.) What do you do?

(A) Check out every book from the library on your destination. Search the web for tips and reviews. Map out your exact route and come up with an itinerary of “must-dos.” Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, after all.

(B) Do a quick Google search, get a few ideas of what to expect and what to do. Put the address into your GPS, but keep an eye out for interesting side roads. The fun is in the journey, right?

So… which are you? And what does this have to do with writing? Simple: If you answered (A), you’re probably an outliner. (B), more likely a fan of free-writing.

Which is better? Does a chapter-by-chapter blueprint take the spontaneity out of the creative process? Or does failing to have a proper plan lead to frustration and unfinished manuscripts?

There is no definitive answer. Every writer writes differently. And, sometimes, every story requires a different approach. I have one manuscript where I outlined every detail of every chapter, even sometimes including parts of conversations. Another story, I just had general headings–this needs to happen in chapter three, or this location is the setting of chapter twelve.

Now here is the real dilemma: How do you know which method is right for you and your story?

I wish there was some conclusive answer: If you’re writing in third-person, then no need to outline. Or: You’re writing a fantasy? You’d better get a new notebook for all the outlining you’ll be doing.

But it’s not that simple. So many factors affect whether or not outlining is right: The writer’s personality; his/her schedule; whether there are distractions; if a story has a multitude of characters; if it’s a general idea or a mental movie, complete with beginning, middle, and end. The list can go on and on.

But here is what I’ve found: An outline is not a list of commandments. If you deviate, you’re not going to be sent to the Writer’s Underworld.

Personally, I find that a map is helpful. I work a full-time job and have a lot of commitments. If weeks pass between writing sessions, an outline jogs my memory, reminding me where I’ve been and where I’m going. That doesn’t mean, however, that, once I get writing, I can’t let my characters take over. More than once, I’ve been surprised where a story has gone. Characters that I planned to be in the background assert themselves and are suddenly indispensable.

So, yeah, I admit that, overall, I am type (A) from the choices above. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t veer off on an interesting road. It is possible to plan and also enjoy the journey.

It’s Good to be Bad: Why We Love Antiheroes

Earlier this week, I wrote about the most famous “Boy Scout” there is–Superman. In case you’ve never heard that descriptor before, “Boy Scouts” are characters whose moral compass always point true north. They know right from wrong and they never waver. They epitomize hope and valor, and you know that, no matter what the odds, they will manage to save the day. If literature’s main goal is to hold up a mirror to humanity, then these characters show us what we can–and should–be.

Obviously, I’m a fan of Superman and characters like him. But there’s another type of character that, while on the complete other side of the spectrum, is just as important when holding up a mirror to humanity.

I’m talking about the antihero.

As much as I love my Boy Scouts, I’m a sucker for a good antihero. Characters you hate as often as you love. Characters that leave you shaking your head over their decisions. Characters that inspire cheers when they become better and groans when they backtrack to their old ways.

But why are these characters important? Well, the mirror they hold isn’t about ideals. It’s a bit more realistic. How? Well, for starters….

Severus Snape (Harry Potter)

From Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2005)

Snape, Snape… Severus Snape. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) But where do I even begin with this character? Loved by some, hated by others, he’s everyone’s worst nightmare of a teacher. While seemingly villainous on the outside, he spent years secretly protecting Harry and fighting against Voldemort. Snape was fueled by guilt and unrequited love. Does such motivation make him a good person? Were his actions ultimately heroic, if they did in fact help lead to the defeat of the Dark Lord? Honestly, there’s a lot of debate in the “Potterhead” community, and Snape is one the most polarizing characters. But here’s one thing I do know: Whatever else he might be, from the day he realized that all of his choices had led to nothing but destruction and despair (the day that Lily Potter was murdered)–from that day forward, whatever his motivations… his actions were always better. Not always nice. Far from perfect–but better. He fought for the light, rather than dark.

In short: The choices of your past do not determine your choices in your future.

Sherlock Holmes

From “The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1993)

Good old Sherlock Holmes. How many times has this character been revisited and interpreted throughout the decades. (My favorite is Benedict Cumberbatch’s “high-functioning sociopath.”) Whatever incarnation you prefer, however, one thing remains: Sherlock isn’t just a detective; he’s a mystery himself. Aloof and consciously separate from the rest of humanity, Sherlock is never quite able to relate to others. He could be a conniving mastermind, but instead… he solves mysteries. He finds justice.

Basically: You don’t have to be like everyone else to still help everyone else.

Red Hood (DC Comics)

From “Red Hood and the Outlaws, Vol. 1: Dark Trinity” (2017)

Since I’m the one writing this blog, you know a comic book character had to be coming, right? Red Hood: Jason Todd, the second Robin who came back from the grave with revenge in his heart. Who couldn’t understand why Batman hadn’t killed the Joker–why the clown was still alive when Batman knew that there was no chance of reform within his heart–and, worse, why he was still alive when he had beaten the teenage Jason to death. Jason is one of those characters who is constantly evolving: He began as an antagonist and has grown into an antihero. While he and Batman have very different philosophies, Jason still strives to protect the innocent and punish corruption. Batman refuses to kill; Jason on the other hand…. not so much. To paraphrase what he tells Batman: He takes out the ones who aren’t afraid. That’s not to say, however, that he always goes with that option. Often, he finds a way that doesn’t involve killing–usually letting his “I’m even worse than Batman” reputation precede him. He’s even started to come back into the Bat Family fold. In short: He may be the black sheep, but he’ll still always be there for back-up.

So: There is always opportunity–and ability–to grow and change.

These, of course, are only a tiny sampling of the wonderful world of antiheroes. Other characters that force us to look at the shades of gray, both in the world and within ourselves, are: Robin Hood, Gru, Holden Caulfiled, Jay Gatsby, Captain Jack Sparrow, Han Solo, Wolverine (one of my favorites!), Artemis Fowl, Deadpool…. The list can go on and on–just like these characters! Somehow, despite their mistakes and flaws; despite the worst that the world can throw at them; despite everyone telling them “no,” again and again–they keep going and going and going….

From classic literature to television hits, from heartwarming children’s movies to edgy comics–we can’t escape antiheroes.

And why would we want to? Sure, it’s exciting when a knight in shining armor wins the day, but there’s something about watching someone fall and get back up–someone who is far from perfect but who is at least trying–that is undeniably relatable. We all have a little bit of antihero in us (and, if we’re being honest, a bit of Boy Scout, too).

So what do we do with all of this? As writers, we create characters that people can relate to: Whether because they’re what we want to be or because we understand their struggles. As readers… well, as readers we hold on tight to see what’s coming next. Life is rarely predictable… and that is especially true in any story starring an antihero.

So, buckle up, buttercup. We’re in for a wild ride.


Sources:

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. USA, Arthur A. Levine Books, 2005.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. United States of America, The Reader’s Digest Association, 1993.

Lobdell, Scott. Red Hood and the Outlaws, Vol. 1: Dark Trinity. Burbank, CA, DC Comics, 2017.

One More Chapter, One More Snooze (Just Don’t Make Me Write!)

Alright, let’s get real.

Writing is either the easiest thing or the hardest.

Either you’re sitting at your computer and your fingers are flying over the keys in a cacophony of clacking as ideas literally pour from your brain onto the screen.

Or you’re staring at said screen, as it taunts you with its blankness, the blinking cursor little more than a bully chiding you with an incessant “neener neener.”

Or worse… you don’t even approach the blank screen. If it’s a bully, then you’re a scared kid, faking a temperature to stay home from school.

In other words: You fall victim to distractions. Because sometimes it’s easier to do something else (read: blame something else) than it is to actually write.

Fellow writers–we’re all guilty of it. Some more than others. This last week… me more than most.

So, like I said. Let’s get real. You can’t grow if you don’t recognize what stands in your way… and sometimes that obstacle is yourself.

These are five of my biggest obstacles. Anyone on there share these? Or do you have some special distractions of your own?

Here we go:

(5) Napping

Pros: Who doesn’t love a nap? They’re recharging. They’re relaxing. They’re a great way to beat stress. And maybe you’ll even have a dream that will inspire the next bestseller.

Con: Once you lay down, the pillows and blankets claim you as their own. You cannot leave, even after the alarm goes off and you’ve hit snooze three times, because if you desert them, you may lose their trust. Also, you never actually write down your dreams, so….

(4) To-Do Lists

Pro: Life is busy. Lists make the stress manageable, because, if you write it down, then you don’t have to worry about remembering the billion things you have to do. Also, being an adult is hard: Cleaning, working, paying bills, keeping up with friends and family, exercising, eating right…. All of that plus you still want to write! Making a to-do list can help ensure that you carve out the time you need to get creative.

Con: Huh… how did writing end up at number 75? Is rearranging my desk drawer really more important than that? Oh well, if that’s the list….

(3) Reading

Pro: To quote Stephen King: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Con: One more chapter. *Two hours later* Okay, for real, this is the last chapter for today. *Two hours later* I’m almost done, might as well finish…. *Two hours later* Wow, what a great book… wait there’s a sequel?!

(2) The Notorious Inner Editor

Pro: All those years of English classes will help make your writing succinct, clear, and grammatically correct.

Con: This sentence I just wrote sucks. *Delete* Ugh, that’s not any better! *Delete* That’s cliche… and I ended with a preposition! *Delete, then more typing, then more deleting.* I’ve been at this for an hour and barely have a paragraph!!!

(1) Self-Doubt

Pro: Um… huh… skip?

Con: What if my writing isn’t any good? Just because I like it doesn’t mean other people will, too. What if the idea is stupid? What if people get upset at some the themes? What if…

What if.

How ironic that the two favorite words of any author–the little phrase that kick-starts every story–is also capable of holding us back.

It is both fuel for creative fire and the water that drowns it.

But here’s the thing to remember: We are in control of the “What Ifs.” We can decide whether they weigh us down (“What if I never get published….?) or inspire us (“What if this turns out to be a bestseller!”)

Never forget we have so much control over our own lives. It’s easy to think that we don’t, especially during stressful times. But there are things we can decide, actions that we can take, that determine our future.

Even if it’s just something as simple as actually getting out of bed when the alarm goes off and forgoing the snooze button.

Of course, some things are harder–namely silencing the naysayers in your own head.

No one ever say writing was always going to be easy. But when it is… what if you’re in the process of writing someone’s new favorite book?

So keep writing! And when those distractions come… maybe really only read just one more chapter. (Or two… but that’s it!)