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The Two Challenges of Writing Complex Characters

good-evil

Regardless of what you may imagine, we writers tend to subconsciously insert bits of our own psychology into our books. Whether it be the main character’s parents dying in almost every novel (guilty), or perhaps you imagine your jerk brother every time you write in a particularly sarcastic character’s point of view (guilty again). Because you will undoubtedly place bits of your own personality (as well as the people around you) into your novel, you should recognize this and surround yourself with these particular individuals as often as you find necessary. Is it a celebrity that has inspired you instead? Or perhaps a fictional character from another book or TV show? Watch that celebrity’s interviews, read that book again and again, or watch episodes of that same TV show a thousand times if you have to. In doing this, you are able to empathize and connect with the character in your mind, allowing you to think alternately to make the character come together in the unique way that you had imagined.

This isn’t always enough, however, and oftentimes we are faced with the trial of creating a character from scratch. As difficult as this can be, there are only two major obstacles that you will have to surpass. This will be the first time that I will use excerpts from the novel I’m currently writing, so forgive the length of this post, but I feel that it is important to give examples with your advice, and so I will show you exactly what I mean while I help you to give depth to your characters.

  1. Describing The Character

Giving a detailed description of any individual that you introduce to the reader is a must. Without this, the reader has very little to go off and, if their imagination isn’t as powerful as yours, they may not be able to put a face to the name. This leads to disinterest, as the reader cannot become fully engaged and connect with the characters, and a lack of interested readers means no demand for a sequel.

How to Do It:

First, don’t bring all of your goodies in one basket. In this sense, I simply mean that you shouldn’t give every detail of a character immediately as they are introduced. Space it out a little. If I were to type out an introduction for my main character, Enora, for example, I would not type all of her physical attributes in one paragraph. That would be boring. Instead, this is how I chose to introduce her as she made her first appearance in chapter 2:

            Enora dipped her scrubbing brush back into the bucket of soapy water before using it once more on the stain. Despite her vigilant scrubbing, the blood remained as dark as it was the night before, and Enora sighed, stopping for a moment to wipe her brow with the back of her arm. The wooden floors were old and a little rough, making the stain nearly impossible to remove. She could scrub and mop all she liked, but the color simply wouldn’t lift.

            “Try it with this.”

            Enora looked up to see her guardian and friend, Maggie, leaning over her and holding out a jar of cloudy liquid. Enora took it, removed the lid, and gave it a good whiff. Her nostrils and throat instantly burned and her blue eyes began to water. Coughing, she quickly moved it away from her face, holding it at arm’s length.

“What is it?” she wheezed.

            “That’s a concoction my mother taught me long ago,” Cleans up any stain, doesn’t matter how deep.” Maggie straightened her small back, but continued to look down at Enora. “You do a good job around here, Enora, and I appreciate the help.”

            “I’m glad to help, Maggie,” Enora said warmly, pushing damp and disheveled blonde bangs from her eyes, “I’ve been here for almost half my life, so I owe you quite a debt. If it weren’t for you, who knows where I’d be now?”

            “Well, you might be better off, you know,” Maggie replied gravely, “I could think of many things that would be better for a young girl than growing up in a brothel. Not every child cleans up after whores and finds herself to be frequently surrounded by dirty-minded old men.”

            Enora chuckled. “I could think of many worse fates,” she contradicted, “I earn my keep is all. And you’ve never asked me to lay with a man, Maggie, so the dirty-minded men are more like drunken uncles to me.”

            “Yeah, if drunken uncles pinch your ass.” Maggie laughed, her beautiful green eyes crinkling at the corners.

Not only did I give you a general depiction of Enora, but I also managed to slip in the description of another character while I was doing it (Maggie). This excerpt is stretched over a couple novel pages, and so the reader will not bogged down with details, nor are those details so spread out that the reader can’t put them together in his or her mind.

  1. Developing Character Personalities

Sometimes we have to make our characters suffer for the greater good. Sometimes they have to witness or take part in things that we would personally avoid like the plague. The reason for these sufferings (and even the joys) that the character experiences are paramount to creating their personality and bringing them closer to the reader. If you can’t think of any troubles for the character to experience that will pertain to the plot line, let me give you a tried and true method of my own: When in doubt, kill it with fire.

For this example, I will actually provide two different excerpts from my book (mainly because they are my favorite scenes that result in crispy critters):

A) He stood there, alone in front of the large mob, tied to a post and surrounded by branches and kindle for his own execution. Looking around him, he recognized several faces in the crowd with a wounded pang; the local butcher, the wise blacksmith, the woman who bought his mother’s magical poultices and herbs… all rallying now for his death. He trembled, beads of sweat and tears sliding down his face as he looked once more to his mother – needing her to comfort him this last time, despite his sins against her.

            But the crowd grew bored with his lack of response to the executioner’s question, and they once again began to shout and clamor for his demise. Before Mandil could react to the hatred that he heard in their voices, however, the executioner had picked up his torch and quickly lit the kindle with one sweeping motion.

The fire spread rapidly, consuming the kindle within seconds. It grew until it found the hem of Mandil’s cloth robe, and then it grew more, climbing up his legs and consuming him in its heat. Mandil screamed so loudly that his voice cracked, but the pain was more than he could bear, and so he screamed louder and louder still until his gasps for air drew in only oily black smoke and his tongue had boiled in his throat. His flesh bubbled and blackened as he wheezed out the garbled remains of his cries and, before the flames had died, Mandil was reduced to nothing more than a crumbling pile of scorched flesh and bone tied to a wooden post.

            His mother screamed then, a long and terrible cry of dismay. She dropped to her knees and sobbed loudly, reaching out to the air before her with both hands for her only son as he continued to smolder in the center of the clearing. The crowd soon began to dissipate, having lost interest once the execution had ended and the flames had died out. The knights, too, had left her to her anguish, having already had their amusement with her while the square had been prepared for her son’s execution.

Soon, she was alone in the clearing. She knelt there, in the dirt, for many hours, watching the smoke rise from her son’s corpse. She didn’t speak a word, but her eyes had hardened from her grief. Her bloodied face, no longer devoid of emotion, had taken on the countenance of one who no longer had anything to lose, but might have found something to gain.

While reading this, the reader may experience feelings of empathy or pity for the mother, as well as dismay and horror for Mandil, bringing them a larger sense of understanding as they watch his mother make her next moves in the novel. If that wasn’t enough to quench your blood thirst, however…

B) (chapters later, and far away from the brothel in my earlier example)

Enora slowly undressed and climbed between her sheets as her groggy mind recalled the niceties of the evening, and she gave a final sigh of contentment before drifting off into a peaceful slumber. Her dreams were nostalgic, and fond memories played through Enora’s mind as she slept, giving her a sense of ease that she hadn’t felt in many years.

            As she slept, however, Enora’s brows suddenly drew together in distress as loud shouting erupted from the courtyard outside her window. She opened her dreary eyes and saw bright orange and red lights dancing along her walls, casting dark shadows that flickered around the large room. The shouting continued as she pushed her blankets away and slowly rose from the bed. She walked to the window to investigate and, looking down onto the courtyard below, she felt her pulse quicken with a dreadful sense of shock.

            A great fire had claimed the better half of the large yard, engulfing the makeshift temple of the Old Religion in its entirety. Part of the structure’s roof had caved in, as well as the entrance, and Enora watched in horror as the building’s inhabitants broke the stained glass windows and began to claw their way over each other, desperately trying to escape the flames that consumed them.

            Men and women of both religions clamored in panic through the yard, desperately trying to make their way to the celebration hall to seek refuge. Guards and volunteers frantically stomped on the grass or threw buckets of water to extinguish the blaze, but the flames roared higher into the black sky, and the rest of the small temple’s roof caved in with a loud snap. Enora reeled away from the window, unable to watch as the shrieking victims were crushed by the impact.

            She snatched her dress up from the floor and hastily pulled it over her head with shaking hands. Not bothering to find her slippers, she ran from her room and took the spiraling steps two at a time before sprinting down the long hallway that led to the main corridors of the temple. She tore around a corner, her bare feet slipping on the carpet, and ran down another hallway. She had nearly reached the doors to the courtyard, eager to help those who fought the fire, but a hand quickly shot out and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her to a sudden stop and almost causing her to fall backwards.

            “There you are.” It was Galain, and Enora was instantly shocked and frightened by the fear that she saw on the warrior’s typically impassive face. “You need to come with me,” he quickly added, keeping a tight grip on her arm. He didn’t wait for her response, but began to walk quickly in the opposite direction, dragging her along behind him.

As you can see, there are multiple ways to experience the same horror. You’ve just mentally watched a man burn in front of his mother, and you also witnessed hundreds of people die in a burning building. Near the end of the book, you will experience the same horror, but through the eyes of the victim, rather than an observer (people seem to love burning other people when religion gets involved, but don’t worry about repetition; these don’t even scratch the surface of the many deaths that take place in this novel, and I assure you that I have been quite creative). The more detail you use, the more of a personal experience the reader will get, and the more they will connect with the characters that are directly involved and/or affected.

So there you have it: how to add depth to your characters’ personality growth, inevitably creating very complex individuals that the reader can love, hate, and understand. I hope that these examples have been helpful and, if you’re writing something of your own, feel free to leave a comment with any questions or advice that you need to help you on your way.

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Posted by on August 21, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Game of Thrones & the 5 Stages of Grief

GOT

                Game of Thrones is an incredibly popular HBO television series that has swept the world away with its violence, thickening plots and, of course, dragons (need I say more?). With every twist and turn there are new characters to fall in love with and old favorites to watch die horrible deaths. In those rougher moments, we are not only forced into having feelings that we’d rather avoid, but these emotions are actually shoved down our throats like alcohol on prom night or religion at a… well, anywhere these days.

To help my fellow fans cope, I’m going to offer a bit of grief counseling that will get us through these difficult times (since being in-between seasons is bad enough without the latent emotional trauma). We have all lost loved ones on this show. In fact, we’ve all probably said goodbye to more than a few favorites but, before you start a riot in the streets to show George R. R. Martin that we mean business, let’s take a look at how we can better manage these confusing feelings. However, before you read on, let me warn you – SPOILERS AHEAD (because somehow you were capable of leaving any part of the series unwatched). Now, back to the subject: Let’s take a moment to understand all of the feelings that you will experience on your path.

1. Denial

 oberyn 2

                The first step to coping with grief and loss is denial. When watching Game of Thrones, denial can be one of the most tempting delusions to slip into. As we watched Eddard Stark lose his beautiful head to that insufferable Joffrey, there were more than a few of us that thought there would be a surprise twist to keep the character (and the actor!) in the series. I, personally, am still in a small state of denial where The Hound, Sandor Clegane, is concerned. I have yet to read the books, but I have been told that The Hound dies somewhere in their pages. The fact that his death was not actually witnessed on the show, however, has allowed me to convince myself that he will make a dramatic comeback. I don’t always root for the underdog (no pun intended), but I picked The Hound as my favorite since day one with his sarcastic comments, gruff exterior, and his eventual soft and nougaty center (he’s really just a teddy bear! A very giant, very angry teddy bear), and so I took an immediate liking to him. But then he got his ass handed to him by Brienne and I watched in utter dismay as he begged through quivering lips for Arya to end his suffering, which she refused to do… so he could come back, right? RIGHT? Probably not, and that pisses me off – which leads us to the next stage.

2. Anger

Durguns

                Despite popular belief, anger is a healthy emotion. This feisty little feeling is what helps us physically decide when we believe that something is truly wrong. It goes beyond your fickle “gut” feeling, slides right by your conscience, and really revs your engines to make you pay attention. Unfortunately, anger also seems to be permanently attached to a dainty little hair trigger, and this emotion is one twitchy little bugger. Because this is a common feeling in life (and because it’s the next stop on our inevitable road of anguish), you may often feel angry while watching Game of Thrones. In fact, GOT is an intense roller coaster of emotional mayhem, and so anger is sure to come around a time or twelve, at least. I found that Joffrey caused my mind the most turmoil, and I welcomed his gruesome death with open arms. Well, until the scene became so disturbing that I almost felt sorry for him. In fact, not unlike Arya Stark, I have formed a little hit list of my own. I don’t recite it at night before I go to bed, however, but I add to it the more I watch.

3. Bargaining

bargain

                Bargaining is right in the middle from where we’ve been to where we’re going on this journey of grief. You felt Catelyn’s agony as she watched the slaughtering of her eldest son, you were absolutely traumatized when Oberyn’s head exploded all over the fine china, and you shook your fist in the air with me when The Hound met his untimely end. After all of this anger and all of the feverishly written letters that you’ve sent to George, his family, and even his dog, you suddenly realize that this hasn’t solved anything… and you get desperate. You start wondering what you could do to convince someone, anyone, to make your world right again. Let the dragons out of their dark prison! Take the Starks off the Endangered Species list! Bring The Hound back in all of his towering and crispy-fried glory! Do this for me, George, and I will do ANYTHING! I will buy every season, every t-shirt, and will shout the good word of GOT from every street corner! But does this work? Of course not, and that makes you sad.

4. Depression

jaime

                That’s it. You’ve officially tried everything, and still George R. R. Martin takes away your favorite toys, forcing you stand idly by while the other children on the playground have more fun than you. Why, George, why? You have no more energy to fight. Your knees are too sore to keep begging and you’ve lost the will to write anymore letters or start another defiant Facebook page. You would quit watching altogether, but this show has become a drug in your veins at this point, and you don’t think you’d survive the withdrawals. So week after week, you get your GOT fix and go to bed defeated afterward. Why get up at all? You’ll just be forced to watch your beloved and fiery Ygritte take an arrow to the knee… er, back.

5. Acceptance

acceptance

                And finally, after many long days (or possibly weeks. Who was keeping track?), you finally crawl out from your cocoon of depression and step out into the light of the day star. It hurts your eyes, and you squint as you shield your face with your hand. The world around you looks different. Greener, perhaps? You realize with elation that you’re going to be ok. The sadness hasn’t left you completely, and it still hurts a little every time you think of Daenerys burning the soul-less husk of her Sun and Stars, Khal Drogo, but you have a feeling that everything will be alright from here on out. You embrace the new day and look forward to continuing the series with a fresh outlook. You go inside and prepare all your tasty treats for the season finale. It will start any minute, and you’re so happy to be excited about it once again! As you sit down and begin to watch the episode, you are happily gripped by the plot.

You feel for Tyrion, wishing him freedom, and are overjoyed when he escapes from his cell. He traverses the castle and you hold your breath as he finds Shae in his father’s room (what was he doing in there anyway? Doesn’t he realize how close he is to freedom? He must have gotten lost). You are a little saddened as the loveable dwarf murders the woman he loves (but she deserved it, so you bounce back relatively fast), and now he’s off again, travelling through the corridors with a crossbow that is almost as big as he is. Then he comes across his father, Tywin. Finally, a come-to-Jesus meeting between father and son, long overdue. You have always admired Tywin. He symbolizes every expectation that you ever held for yourself, and he is the one who makes you want to become something better – to form a legacy of your own. Hopefully this will give him the opportunity he needs to really acknowledge his son.

As you watch their confrontation, you are moved. This is an epic moment of coming together. There will be tears and hugs, and Tyrion will finally get to… What the hell! He just shot Tywin with the crossbow! Why did he do that? Tywin can still live, though, right? He’s one of your last favorites! Surely he’ll make it! It’s only one small bolt of wood, after all, and George Martin wouldn’t be so cruel… would he? WHAT? Did Tyrion seriously just shoot him again? No! Tywin can’t die! This is preposterous! He’s one of the leading characters! The outrage! Please, George, don’t kill him too! If only you hadn’t started watching again. If only you’d sent more letters! Oh what’s the point anymore? Nothing is ever going to get better on this show. Everyone you love dies. You might as well go back to the cocoon and pray for an end to all existence while you caress your bottle of Prozac and wait for the pain to stop.

The moral of the story? I lied. There is no making it through Game of Thrones with a cheery outlook. In fact, when it’s all over, you’ll be lucky if you’re the same person you were when you started watching the series in the first place! We’re all doomed, and if you think you’re getting out of the fire, you’re wrong. We’re going to burn in this eternal hell of awe and torment, and you’re burning with us, so you’d better get cozy and bring your marshmallows.

fun

 
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Posted by on August 2, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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How Dungeons & Dragons Will Make You a Better Writer

Dice

For those of you who don’t know, Dungeons & Dragons is a fantasy game that is mostly played via word of mouth – with nothing more than the use of your imagination. Sounds lame, right? Well, it isn’t. In fact, if you ever decide to give it a try, you just may find that it’s the best, most addictive game you’ve ever played. The best part about D&D is that it’s almost completely free to play! All you need is a set of dice (yep, the weird-looking ones with all the sides), a piece of paper (or the real character sheets if your Dungeon Master is feeling fancy), a  love for fantasy, a few friends, and an experienced nerd.

Once you have what you need, your Dungeon Master (who was hopefully awesome enough to make his own campaign story) will now lead you on an epic journey of twists, turns, monstrous creatures and moral choices, all tied nicely together with a healthy dose of controlled chaos. Your job as an adventurer is to decide all the actions and dialogue that your character makes in response to everything and everyone that crosses your path and, depending on your luck with dice, this will shape your character’s destiny either miraculously or terribly. You’ll never again feel the same joy as when you rolled that 20 while shooting an ogre with your bow, killing him with one hit! But you’ll also never know shame like that time you rolled a 1 and shot your healer in the eye (or whatever other terrible punishment your sadistic DM can think of). So, now that I’ve explained Dungeons & Dragons to you, my dear readers, let me explain how this game has shaped my own own perspective and how it will help you achieve greatness in writing.

The first time I ever heard of Dungeons & Dragons, I was nothing more than a young teenage girl. I had already developed quite the imagination and was often found tucked away in a corner with my nose in a book, but I had yet to dabble in the fine art of playing any kind of game that wasn’t presented on a TV screen (Super Mario Bros. anyone?). However, due to my teenage obsession with being accepted, coupled with the negative attention that was given to those who played the game (mostly from school bullies), I didn’t have the nerve to try it for many years. After finally leaving home as a fresh adult, I eventually met a few friendly people in my new apartment building and, after several months of good friendship, it was finally brought to my attention that my new friends were… well, nerds! Among many things, these wonderful people taught me how to fix my own computer, how to program certain software and, you guessed it, how to play Dungeons & Dragons.

From the first several minutes of playing this game with my friends, I was hooked. Not only did I get to create my own character essentially from scratch, but through this character I was able to experience virtually anything that the DM could throw at me. My friends and I fought dragons, found treasures, made friends along the road that later betrayed us, and even paid for a prostitute or two in a brothel (always use protection!). The adventures were long, usually lasting months, and eventually my character (if he/she survived very long) became so bad-ass that I couldn’t help but feel like I’d officially reached pro-status.

Despite all of the laughter, fun, and even occasional outrage, the one thing I picked up on while playing this game was its complete and total flexibility… almost as if the boundaries of the game were meant to be manipulated. You could literally do anything! If you were clever enough to make it sound legit, and if you were mildly lucky with your dice, there wasn’t a thing that couldn’t be done. Cornered on the edge of a cliff by a giant ogre? Well, remember that time your friends laughed at you for choosing the ability to create a gallon of water anywhere? You thought you’d need it in case your character got stranded in a thirsty desert, but who’s to say that gallon wouldn’t best be located inside the skull of that giant ogre? Roll a good number and enjoy your Dungeon Master’s fury when his precious goblin’s head explodes without even swinging his over-sized club.

The first thing a game like Dungeons & Dragons will teach you is how to always think outside the box. For example, a well-placed Mage Fist to an enemy’s unfortunate testicles can give you a much needed advantage and end a battle much quicker than regular attacks that simply drain health points. The craftier you become, the more you challenge your DM to keep your character in check and, in the end, the campaign may simply turn into several adventuring friends trying to drive their diligent Dungeon Master clinically insane. Because of this, the game can get quite competitive, but if your DM isn’t clever enough to explain why you can’t flood his ogre’s brains with water, at least without creating new rules or worldly guidelines, then you have free reign!

In writing, this concept is often the same. I have had many people approach me with a constant concern: “There’s a huge hole in my plot and I can’t make it work without starting over.” Here’s my advice: Play a few hours of D&D with your friends. If you don’t feel clever enough to stretch or manipulate your plot to make something work, then you aren’t exercising your imagination, which is almost a muscle in itself. Just as writing regularly will actually improve your grammar and literacy (without even taking a class), so, too, will your imagination improve when forcing it to think outside the box. As with all things, practice, practice, practice, and watch the plot of that epic novel start to wrap itself together nicely without you even breaking a sweat.

However, I must warn you: don’t think you can take a shortcut and play a video game instead, as it’s highly unlikely that you will achieve the same result. With video games, there is too much structure and, therefore, less options. If your character in Assassin’s Creed is in a tight spot against a big boss, you can’t think to yourself, “I’ll just throw dirt in his eyes! That will distract him while I take out his minions.” Instead, you are stuck with the abilities your character has and the small map around you. No room for imagination, and no DM to piss off when you thwart his best attempts to kill you.

An added bonus to playing this game is that, because you’re playing with actual people, you learn what other adventurers would think and worry about along the way. Your sister is playing the healer? How sweet. But she’s getting real sick of you meandering away from the group and getting yourself caught in traps – probably because she has to use her vital resources to keep you alive after she finds you bleeding out on some spikes. The lesson: the healer in your novel probably feels the same way, and this may give you a small idea for something to add to your chapter, or even a bit of personality depth to give to that character. That’s right! If you want to have true insight into your characters, you have to listen to your buddies rant and rave while you journey through the amazing world of Dungeons & Dragons. Observe the roles they’re playing and how those characters interact with each other – this is literally your free ticket into the minds of real people while they journey through a fantasy world! Sounds like a good cheat sheet to keep nearby if you want the characters in your novel to be more realistic! Take inspiration from the different personalities around you and flex that imagination by getting yourself out of tough situations (or into them, if you’re hungry for adventure!). Unless your dice are cursed (and we know this happens), there should be no reason you can’t have an amazing experience. Not to mention, if you have a good Dungeon Master, you just may learn a thing or two about creating breathtaking worlds, giving life to various villains and heroes, and even discovering and using loopholes to your advantage. With the game of Dungeons & Dragons, and especially with your writing, the only limits you have are the ones you place on your own mind.

So go and find that dusty basement full of nerds, throw on that Lord of the Rings soundtrack, and make sure you brought your best set of dice (yes, the sparkly ones!) because you’ve got adventures to go on and that book’s not going to write itself!

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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