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An interesting life

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has made your life interesting?

Some people might say that they lead a boring life and nothing much happens to them. Yet, I have met very few people that after a few minutes of conversation, I would agree with them. Granted, some people’s lives are more “exciting” than others. But that doesn’t make one life less interesting. Everyone’s life is unique. Even identical twins grow up to be different people. So, what is it that is interesting?

Here’s a little exercise you might enjoy. Pick a famous person that you find interesting. Take some time and write down all of the things that you find interesting about them. Your list may include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc.

Next, pick a family member, relative, friend, co-worker, or neighbor. Someone you know well and find interesting or admire. Make a list of interesting things about them. As before be as complete as you can.

Now the fun begins!

Write your name at the top of a piece of paper. Without judging whether you think it’s interesting or not, complete a list for yourself. Use the same criteria and categories you used for the other two lists. Include appearance, type of work, travels, political views, hobbies, events they participated in, etc. Don’t think about your answers, just write.

When you have finished, compare all three lists. Are there any similarities? What from list number three would someone else think is interesting? Are there any “mundane” things that jump out as interesting on any of the lists.

If you are really brave, ask a close friend or someone else that you trust to be truthful what they find interesting about you. Be prepared for a few surprises.

Now, for those of you who write, think about your characters. Are they a bit flat? What can you add to their back story to make them more interesting? Did they have a job repairing organs while they went to college? Did they travel to the Yucatan during spring break and got lost in the jungle? Do they carve bear figurines out of soapstone to relieve stress?

A few lines of your story mentioning one of these points can add depth to your character that makes them more real.

So, I ask again, “What makes your life interesting?”

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Devil in the Details

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Writing about a culture other than your own can provide more than a few complications. I a pure fantasy setting, the author has more control and, so long as he is consistent, can tweak things a bit and make it work. However, when we use a real culture to base our story on, and where a member of that culture may pick up and read your story, we had better get the details right. Unless…

My protagonist is half-Apache, a native american tribe that lives in the southwestern United States and into Mexico. His father was a tribal holy man and taught my protagonist the ways of spiritual medicine. During this instruction a ritual takes place to help my protagonist find a spiritual guide. The spirit guide helps an individual travel along life’s ever changing path. The spirit guide turns out to be “Snake”. This is where things get dicey.

I had written about three-quarters of the story before I found out how Snake is viewed in the Apache culture. The Apache see Snake as a very negative spirit. Often seen as evil, the Apache people will distance themselves from anything related to Snake. Whether it is the real creature, an image, a vision, or a story, Snake is Very bad medicine.

When I first made this discovery, I began to panic. Thinking I would need to rewrite whole sections to either change the spirit guide to something else, or change his tribe to something that looked favorably on the Snake. Instead of jumping off a cliff, I decided to go ahead and finish the first draft without making huge changes. I tried very hard to not let this knowledge guide the story in any way.

After the required cooling off period once the first draft was finished, I did a quick read through and a second read through where I jotted down the more glaring issues and holes. During the second time through, it hit me that the main character was still a little flat.Along with this I was leaning toward changing his tribal lineage.

Then while I was discussing a similar topic with my brother, it dawned on me that the answer to my flat character was right there. The fact that an Apache shaman has Snake as a spirit guide would add several layers of conflict for the character.

So not counting the major conflicts he faces throughout the plot line, he has to deal with being a half-breed, an Apache with Snake as a guide, and his job makes him walk the line between the normal world and those who use magic.

Now I have a character with more than a little color. Yes, I have to add a few sections to exacerbate and the situation, but it will definitely make for a more memorable character.

This turned out to be one of those details that worked out in the end. However, I am more careful about performing research on areas that I am not 100% sure of.

 
 

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Write what you know?

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“Write what you know!”

Almost every ‘How To’ book on writing preaches this advice. For most non-fiction writers, this is sound advice usually is taken straight forward. Whether it is memoir, historical, How-to or any number of other topics, you should write about things that you know something about, are interested in or even want to know more about. It gives the reader a feeling of comfort knowing that the author isn’t just pulling information out of a hat.The author’s ‘expertise’ adds weight to the written words.

However, this advice can be very interesting advice when given to a fantasy fiction writer. Few of us routinely wield a sword or cast a magic spell. Fewer still have actually passed through a portal to find themselves in another realm where dragons, elves, wizards, and goblins walk the land. Most of the individuals that I have met who have taken the aforementioned journey are either sitting quietly in a catatonic state because they have left their material bodies behind. Or, they are unable to write about their journey because the medication they are given makes writing anything except their name difficult. So, how does a modern author use this advice and write about what they know?

Fantasy is created in one’s imagination. So, having a vivid imagination is a standard prerequisite. Those of us whose teachers wrote on our report cards that we spent too much time staring out the windows daydreaming were pretty good candidates. However, to draw a reader into your fantasy story, there has to be some measure of reality. Something familiar. Maybe it’s making a campfire, baking a loaf of bread, riding a horse, dressing a wound, or bartering with a merchant at the local farmer’s market. These types of skills obtained in modern society, can be easily converted to a fantasy story and in doing so, bring a sense of realism to the reader, drawing them into your world. If you are lucky enough to have hobbies like, archery, martial arts, herbalist, camping, astronomy, Chemistry, or being some form of entertainer, you have real expertise in areas that can easily be incorporated into a fantasy setting.  Your knowledge will, if used moderately and with skill, add authenticity to your world,

Another excellent source of knowledge for the fantasy writer is to have been immersed in a culture foreign to their own. Dealing with language, customs, food, clothing, and belief differences gives the writer unique insights and tolls to use when describing their world to the reader. Not only the differences themselves, but the feelings of having to deal with a foreign culture is a form of expertise that can be invaluable to the author.

If you still are not sure that you ‘know’ anything, here is an exercise to help you. Get a pad of paper and a pen, Give yourself 30 minutes to and hour of uninterrupted time. Write down things that you know about. Leave nothing out whether you think they can be related to your story or not. Start with your education. What did your like or do well at in school? What sports or social activities did you participate in? What did you do after school for fun? How did you fill your time during summer vacation? What did you do on the weekends? What do you do to relax, What do you do for fun? List places you have traveled to. What did you do there? What experiences did you have? What was the food like? Music? Dress? How did you feel being the outsider? What do you do for employment? Be specific and list tasks you perform. What are your hobbies? What are your chores around the house? By now you should be getting a very long list of things where you have some level of knowledge. Maybe even expertise. Keep this list handy and refer to it often to remind yourself that you do know something!

A very short list of my interests and knowledge base, that I use regularly when writing, includes: Cats, Native American Spirituality, Archery, knife-making, emergency medicine, herbal remedies, gardening, contingency planning, woodsmanship and fishing. My actual list filled two pages of a legal pad.

Now that you have determined that you do know something, look at the list and think about how you knowledge can be used to help strengthen your story. Maybe you need to add skills to one or more of your characters. Maybe you should add detail to your descriptions of scene.

NOTE: A word of caution! Adding too much detail about mundane tasks is a sure way to lose your reader. Remember that not everyone cares how many coals are required to bake peach cobbler in a cast iron dutch oven. (I seem to recall it was eleven on the bottom and seven on top. it has been a long time.)

Add just enough detail to add realism. If the details are important to your story then you have a little more leeway. Your beta readers or writing group can help you with how much is the right amount.

So, don’t be shy. Write about what you know. You know a great deal!

Let me know what you know. I’d love to hear it.

 
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Posted by on April 6, 2015 in Thoughts on Writing

 

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Quote of the Day! 8/20/14

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Many years ago, during an interview, musician Stevie Ray Vaughn was asked what he learned during his most recent stay in rehab. His reply:

“Life is a game to be played, not a puzzle to be figured out!”

Amen to that!

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Musings and Odd Thoughts

 

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What’s in Character – Now What!

Okay. We have finished your character’s creation. during the preceding What’s in Character blog posts. You’ve been following this blog and building a character along the way. I can here you now. “Great Dennis. I have twenty-two pages of information on each of my characters. My character notebook is a novel unto itself. I know more about them than I do about my own family. What do I do with all of it?” My standard response to all questions is, “That depends.”

1)  If you don’t have a plot in mind for your story, dive into your character’s lives and find something that would come into great conflict with your protagonist. Hopefully, you can also find something about you protagonist that would pose a great conflict for your antagonist. Ta Da, you have an initial plot conflict.

2)  What if you have a plot in mind? Look for new potential character arcs. Ways in which your characters can change based on the plot line. Trust me that the information you have generated during the previous posts is full of potential.

3)  I have a plot. I have character arcs. I have all the conflicts the reader could hope to want in a story. What else can I use this tome for?  COLOR! The whole point of this exercise was to create characters that are real to the reader. Use this material to add realism. Have you character twirl her hair while she talks to the police detective. The officer doesn’t know this is a tell that she is lying bu,t you can let the reader know it is with a few well-chosen words of description embedded in the dialogue. Add bits and sprinkles of your character’s likes and dislikes or tags and traits into dialogue to break it up and make it grab the reader. After a critical scene, your character may need to reflect on the situation. Have them grab their favorite drink, find their favorite comfortable spot and reflect away. The added details can be found in you Tome of Characters. Have fun with it but, don’t over do it. The information about your character that you relate to thee reader should be there for a reason.

It was my intention to give you details as to how my “Yursi” character was created. However, my character file is at 23 pages and growing. that’s too much for this blog. You will just have to read my short story,  Good Night’s Sleep, and the novel to follow to find out more about the raven-haired witch with twin magical daggers that is searching for a lost relative and her own identity while being hunted down by her own family. 🙂 That project is slated for 2014.

Let me know how your characters turn out. 

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2013 in What's in Character

 

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What’s in Character – Experience

In previous What’s in Character posts, we have been creating a character full of interest and realism. We have discussed core personalities, physical appearances, and external influences. Five more layers to add and our creation will come to life.

The next layer is pretty straight forward but no less important. What age is the character? Sure the story line may dictate certain ages for your main characters. However, you should still consider the ramifications of the character being older or younger. Could the “Mentor” in your story be a sixteen year old computer prodigy instead of a seventy year old. How would that affect the way the character reacts? Try different ages for each of your characters and see how the dynamics of the story changes.

Another internal trait that can completely change a character is self-esteem. Variations in self-esteem can affect different core personalities in a variety of ways. A leader with poor self-esteem may look to his advisers to make critical decisions. A self-absorbed engineer may ignore the advice of the architect and take shortcuts when building a skyscraper, just to come in on time and under budget. He could care less that the building is unsafe. Self-esteem issues are very high on the list of reasons people seek counselling. Why does the character see themselves the way they do?

That brings us to major events that have affected the character. Most of us can look back over our lives and point to few events that changed our lives. Our lives were changed not only by the events themselves, but by the way we reacted to the events. Sometimes these events are global and affect thousands of people. Natural disasters, war, and plague are a few that come to mind. Other times they are personal and may seem insignificant to an outsider. For example, a family member dies or is buried on a holiday or a parent ridicules a child in front of his friends. The event doesn’t have to be negative. Setting a state record in a sporting event, receiving the acceptance letter to a highly respected school, or winning the lottery could all be life altering events. Now take into account that core personality. Each personality type may react differently to the same event.

Closely related to major events are the passions that each person has. it may be writing, or running, or chess, or programming computers, or politics, or working with statistics. What ever it is, a character should have one or more things that they are passionate about. These are the things the character does when they are not working for a living. They may be related to the story line or they may be used as  a divergence to slow down the pace of a story. Either way, they make the character deeper. the reader can relate better to someone if they know what the character loves to do.

Okay. You are almost there. You should have a dozen or so pages, at least, of notes about your character. by now you should know the character well enough that you could sit down and have an interview with a reporter as your character and never miss a question. So…

Time to open an internet browser or your file cabinet and locate a “Character Questionnaire”. There are hundreds of them available. I’m sure you’ve seem them and you may have already used them. That’s fine. However, even if you used one before, you now have a fleshed out character that can actually answer the questions in a meaningful way. You have a background and experiences to relate to that will help you answer the questions. Take your time here. These questionnaires can provide a wealth of detail that you can use to draw the reader into your story and make them love/hate your characters.

There you are. If you have followed along and added all of the layers we have discussed, you have a fully fleshed out character that is ready to be thrown to the wolves of your story conflict. You will know how the character will react, most of the time, to most of the situations where you may place them. Why is he hedging you may ask? That’s because, no matter how well you develop a character outside of the story plot, some characters find a way to do what they want even though the writer doesn’t want them to. If this happens, my advice is to go with it. The character may know better than you.

Those of you who have been creating a character using this technique, I would love to hear from you on how it worked out, or not.

See the previous What’s in Character posts at: Core Personality, Physical, Natural Environment

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2013 in What's in Character

 

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What’s in Character – Natural Environment

We started with the heart of the character, that being their core personality type. Then we added the skin which is made up of physical appearance. Now we need to start adding the bones and muscle that will make our character move and breathe.

Natural environmental factors such as birth order, family issues, education, talents, love language, and self-esteem are critical aspects to consider when you are creating a character with depth. As we look at each of these new layers, remember to go back to the core personality and see how this individual would be affected by the new layer.

Let’s start with birth order. Volumes of books have been written on the subject of family dynamics and the personalities of specific birthing order. Suffice to say that there are well-documented personality characteristics based on when a character joins the family unit. The oldest child tends to mirror the parents. Some call these children the golden children. The middle children tend to be adaptable and are considered the diplomats. I call them spies and instigators. The “babies of the family” tend to be overly indulged but are usually charming and … unusually handsome. 😉 Sorry, couldn’t help myself. These are very broad statements and are not carved in stone. However, they can be used to assist in developing how a character reacts to authority or a subordinate.

What kind of family dynamic the character was brought up in can have a huge impact on their abilities to cope with outside influences. Was the character an only child of a drug addict mother and an abusive father? Or, was it fourth out of ten kids with a family that was close-knit and fully supportive of each other? Remember to consider the character’s core personality. How would each of these family situations affect the personality you chose for your character.

How would the Twilight saga have changed if Bella Swan, the protagonist, had been the youngest of three children in a family that did everything together? Would she still have felt like she was born to be a vampire? Perhaps and perhaps not. However, the story would have been quite different, don’t you think?

How much formal education does the character possess? Did they graduate from the sixth grade or do they have several PhD’s from MIT. Perhaps the character dropped out of eighth grade and has been living on the streets of a major city until the age of twenty. They probably have street smarts galore instead of being book smart. This could have its advantages. Once again, look back to the core personality. What is the effect on the character.

Does your character have any special talents? These can be story related or not. An assassin who is also a cello virtuoso. Or, a coal miner who paints portraits. Or, from real life, a homeless man with the perfect radio personality voice. Talents can be obvious or hidden. They can be a driving force in the story or a side note. However, a special talent can and usually does have some impact on character development. For example, the shy stutterer that becomes the country music superstar when he learns that doesn’t stutter when he sings. You’re a writer, use your imagination. This alone can be the genesis of a story. For our purposes though, a talent adds depth and realism to a character.

A while ago, I was reading “Plot versus Character” by Jeff Gerke. In the section on character building he talked about a layer called Love Language. This one was new to me, but after reading this section a light bulb came on for me. I saw how it would affect my characters, but also how I am affected. Mr. Gerke referenced Dr. Gary Chapman’s theory that there are five love languages. They are: “Words of affirmation”, “Quality time”, “Receiving gifts”, “Acts of service”, and “Physical touch”. Each person has preferences as to how they give love and receive love. A quick definition is in order.

Words of affirmation – These people say the words. the feeling of love is spoken.

Quality time – These people show love by providing complete and undivided attention. They set aside special times to be with those they love.

Receiving gifts – These people show their affection by giving thoughtful gifts.

Acts of service – These people show love by doing things that they feel help their loved ones. Such as, cleaning the dishes, vehicle maintenance, watching the kids.

Physical touch – These are the huggers, the touchy feeley people. You know someone who always touches your arm when they talk to you or hug you hello and good-bye versus and wave or a handshake.

People can use any and all of these to send and receive feelings. However, each of us has a preferred method to send and a preferred method to receive affection. They are not always the same. Mixing and matching these can be fun. I am thinking of the lumberjack who gives everyone he meets a bear hug, being introduced to the British Queen. That would be interesting to watch.

Each of the layers we have discussed can affect and be affected by the core personality. Each of them will have an affect of the character’s self-esteem. How the character sees themselves may be very different from how others see them. Do they like themselves? Do they feel incomplete? Do they loathe who they are but feel unable to change? Very powerful stuff here. Take your time and think this through.

If you’ve been taking notes about your character as we go, you should have a number of pages filled with ideas. Your character is beginning to take shape, move, and breath. Next time we will add layers relating to life experiences and the external environment.

 
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Posted by on March 17, 2013 in What's in Character

 

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