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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Post About Killing Characters

Contrary to what I thought, I was indeed able to write a post for this week! It's not super long, what with me getting ready for my writers' workshop and such. But, hopefully, what I lack in wordiness I make up for in content. And, hopefully, after this week at the workshop, I'll have lots of wonderful stuff to share with you all. Hopefully...

Anyway! Now for the part you all came to read...

I recently finished reading a series (which shall remain unnamed since, while I enjoyed it, I’m hesitant to recommend it). In said series, the main character found herself amidst a war of sorts and over the course of the series many, many people die.

Usually, this bothers me. Whenever there is any sort of death in a story I get very upset with the author for doing that to me. I feel manipulated, like the author kill said character simply to create emotions in me. I can still remember talking with one of my sister’s friends about it and telling him quite ardently that I hate it when an author does that to me. That it’s cheap and akin to cheating in my mind.

So I was greatly confused when I was telling Mom about this series and she noted that quite a few people don’t make it to the end. And, that didn’t bother me. I mean, it bothered me as someone who cared about the characters. But I felt none of the emotions I described above.

Which got me to wondering- what did this author do differently? Why didn’t I feel cheated by her? Why did her characters’ deaths feel more natural than other stories? Why did I accept them when I refuse to accept it when other writers do the same thing?

And, after much pondering, it hit me.

Every writer has heard the Star Trek joke. The one about how you know who’s going to die each episode because he’s the random guy who shows up at the beginning and no one cares about him (you know, the guy in the red shirt?). And, every writer, after hearing that joke, has been told to make sure the deaths in their books are meaningful.

So, each and every writer who has ever killed one of their characters carefully plots out which death would have the most impact without ruining the story completely. They usually choose the ally- you know the one, the guy who’s fun-loving, great to be around, always offers the comic relief but also gives great advice when it’s needed. Basically, he’s the guy the hero can’t do without. Or thinks he can’t do without. Until the ally dies and the hero has to go on despite his grief.

You’ve all seen that done before, right? I dare say, if you’re a writer of any sort, you’ve written- or contemplated writing- this sort of thing. And, it’s not a bad theory. Character deaths are a great way to create emotion. And, you should make them meaningful.

But, this is where the series I just finished was different- the author didn’t only make meaningful deaths happen. The main character was in the midst of a war. People were dying around her all the time. And, sometimes those people were dear friends of hers and others were simply the random guy who showed up at the beginning of the chapter and no one- the main characters or the readers- knew them well enough to care.

Which is what made the deaths feel natural- because they were a lot more like life. Sometimes people we care about die and sometimes it’s the man who we used to see sometimes at the grocery store. Not every death in our life is “meaningful.”

So, I would like to challenge you, while planning your next novel and considering who is going to die, put in a meaningful death or two, but also add make sure you add other deaths too. Give your story a more realistic feel instead of simply manipulating your readers’ emotions. Your story will be all the more fulfilling for it. And, maybe I’ll be able to read it without feeling the need to write an angry blog post about why writers shouldn’t kill their characters :P

How about you? How do you usually react when a writer kills off a character? Have you ever felt cheated by a character’s death? 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Outlining Characters

First of all, I would like to apologize for the lateness of this post. It completely slipped my mind... So, again, I'm very sorry.

That said, I would like to talk today about a very important aspect of writing: Outlining Characters.

Over the years, I have discovered a lot of different ways to develop characters. The internet is full of charts and questions and ideas for just such a thing.

But, recently, I created this little thing that has helped me the most. It’s simple and basic, just the bare facts, but, for me, it pretty much captures what I really need to know about my characters before I start writing about them.

So, I thought I would share it with you today. The questions I ask are in bold and then then parts in italics are my explanations. And then, at the end, I have it repeated but with answers instead of explanations.

All right, here goes:

Name: (this one shouldn’t be too hard to figure out :P)

 Age (again, not rocket science)

 Physical Appearance: (This is where I put down everything pertaining to the character’s appearance- hair color, eye color, scars or birthmarks if any, common expressions they wear, normal style of dress, etc.)

 Personality: (Don’t worry about going totally in-depth with this. I just put down the basics- are they introverted or extroverted? Easily stressed or laidback? Are they funny? Serious? What would a friend say about them if they were describing them? But, don’t worry about getting every detail of their personality down.)

 Likes: (This is basically the “my favorite things” game. Just make a list of things they like.)

 Dislikes: (And, this is the opposite of “my favorite things.” This is where you list the things that get on their nerves, the things that irritate them and get under their skin.)

 Fears: (This is where I go deeper than “dislikes.” What are my characters deepest rooted fears? And, I don’t mean those that pertain to the story. Because, obviously a person would be afraid of whatever quest they had to go on. They would be afraid of the obstacles that come along their way. What I mean here is before your hero even starts their quest, what are they afraid of? Spiders? Darkness? Being alone? Getting kidnapped? People? List them here.)

 Wants: (What does your hero want? And, not just to achieve the story goal, because that’s way too basic. This is more for the other things- the things less important to the story goal but more important to your hero. Is it love? Acceptance? A new house? A puppy? Anything your hero wants at the beginning of the story should be listed here.)

 Plans for the Future: (To me, this is the most important question. It should be answered in such a way as if they hero has no idea about what is going to happen to them over the course of the book. This question is about what they want before everything changed for them. And, while they may change their minds about what they want for the future over the course of the story, I still find that the answer to this question determines nearly every choice my hero makes. Because, a hero would choose differently if are planning to become a knight than a hero who wants to live in their little village, safe and comfortable. While they may have to face the same problems, the way they deal with them will be different.)

And, there you have it! Easy, isn't it?

Now, some examples, from a story idea I had a while back (not sure if I’ll ever write it, but if I do, I’ve got two characters developed :P)

We'll start with Andy:

Name: Andrea “Andy” Michael Starr

Age: 16

Physical Appearance: straight, red-orange hair, shines like copper, always wears it in a tight pony tail, few strands escape and frame her face. Brown eyes- a more romantic girl would call them hazel with gold flecks. Long, elegant stature. Small, rounded face. Petite nose. Glasses- black frames, rectangle with rounded corners. No-nonsense, all business expression. Common dress still pending.

Personality: Take charge, leader type. No-nonsense, likes to get a job done right the first time. Doesn’t believe in second chances. Hard working, determined. Gets the job done by whatever means necessary- an “end justifies the means” type of girl. Introverted, prefers to work alone. Doesn’t take orders well.

Likes: A job well done. The color teal. Owls. Silence. Clothes.  Tea. Working alone. Being alone. Aloness.

Dislikes: Carelessness/ a sloppy job. Music. Disloyalty/ betrayal. People who wear their hearts on their sleeve. People. Taking orders. Unwise health choices. A dead weight.

Fears: Failure. Not measuring up. Crowds. Losing her dad. Needles.

Wants: To succeed. To impress her dad/ to be with him. Love/ acceptance.

Plans for the Future: To rank as TSSEA’s Top Agent and become her dad’s partner.

And then there's Marion:

Name: Marion Redford Abernathy

Age: 17

Physical Appearance: Dark hair, blue eyes. Oval face, small nose, large ears. Natural smile, like he wears it all the time and that’s the expression he’s most comfortable with. Average height/ weight. Typical jeans and tee-shirt clothes.

Personality: Easy-going/ laid back. Always gets the job done, but in his own time without stressing about it. Calm and good-natured. Likes to get to know people, figure out how they tick and why. Extroverted. Can be a follower or a leader, depending on what is needed.

Likes: Sleep. People. Music. A good joke/ a reason to laugh. Food. Coffee. Cooking. Books. More sleeping. More people.

Dislikes: Stress. People who hide their emotions. Dishonesty. The belief that the end justifies the means.

Fears: Pointy things. Not measuring up to his family name. Losing himself to become who everyone wants him to be. Heights. Water. Small spaces. Betrayal.

Wants: The freedom to be himself. Acceptance of who he is. To be brave.

Plans for the Future: To be a TSSEA Agent but on his own terms. He wants to join the family business but not if he has to lose who he is to do that. However, he has no Plan B should he be forced to conform and have to look for other options.

And, that's it. My "kind of simple, but rather in-depth character outline." I would strongly recommend doing this for all of your characters- not just the main ones. Because something I think we tend to forget is that every character things they are the main character. So, it’s important to know how they tick, even if they’re only an ally, or the villain, or mentor, or such. But, of course, you can outline as much or as little as you like. This is merely a suggestion.

Hope that was helpful! And, just on a quick note- I shall be at a writer’s workshop next week, so no blog post. I might post something later this week if I get the time (no promises) just as a bonus since y’all won’t be getting anything next week. Or, otherwise, I’ll see you the following week!! :D

How about you? What’s your favorite way to outline for a character?

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

What Are You Talking About?- The Importance of Theme in Your Novel

This weekend I was finally able to watch Ender’s Game. I’d read good things about it and wanted to watch it because I love sci-fi but it’s so hard to find ones that aren’t weird or don’t have any questionable content. And, Ender’s Game didn’t disappoint.

However, by the end of the movie, I realized that this was no ordinary sci-fi movie. In fact, I would go so far as to say it was the best sci-fi movie I have ever seen in my entire life. It was deep, powerful, and thought-provoking.

And, it got me thinking about YA fiction (doesn’t everything? :P)

Part of the reason Ender’s Game is so good is the fact that its message is clear and well portrayed. It has a theme that the author obviously holds very deeply. What makes it so powerful, is the fact that the message is a passion of the author’s. He had something to say, he wasn’t just going along with what everyone else in sci-fi was.

Which leads me to dystopian fiction. Being part of a young writers’ forum, I get to see hundreds of novels and story ideas in the making. And, by far one of the most common thing I see in ideas is a totalitarian government trying to control everyone and a group of people who refuse to be controlled.

Which is all well and good, I suppose. But, are people writing that because they actually hold that to be an issue they feel needs addressing? Or, are they simply going along with what everyone else is writing.

Dystopian simply means the opposite of Utopian. It doesn’t say anything about totalitarian governments or rebels. There are so many other options out there. Are we as writers limiting ourselves because we fall into the trap of what is popular?

I know I have fallen prey to this. I write what I see around me even if it’s not necessarily what I believe. I don’t actually think the government is going to take over in the way it is portrayed in ninety percent of dystopian novels. But, that doesn’t stop me from writing it.

The other problem I see, is that young writers are afraid of preaching so they shy away from having a theme in their story. Ender’s Game wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful if it didn’t have a theme. I think most of the popular YA novels are so popular because the author isn’t just telling a story, they’re also trying to say something.

Whether you’re writing dystopian or not, are you truly writing about things dear to your heart? Or are you writing what you think people want you to? Are you unintentionally copying someone else’s idea or writing about an idea you feel is a real issue?

Because, people who say a book doesn’t need a message are wrong. A story might not have one solid theme throughout, but it still has to have a message. The reader needs something to take away. Even if it’s just something simple like “never give up.”

Writers are losing ground as shapers of humanity. And, it’s our own fault. We’re so focused on the story that we forget about the message. We unintentionally go with the flow of popular writing until we sacrifice the voices our writing has given us.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure you are giving your readers something to take away. YA fiction is so full of stories that end hopeless. And that is wrong. As a writer, it is our job to give our readers hope. We need to tell them something.

People turn to books for answers, whether they know it or not. Even when they say they are just looking for entertainment, there is a part of them that wants to walk away with something. Readers want to be changed by the stories they read.

And we, as writers, have a responsibility to make sure we are giving our readers that chance.

So, next time you’re outlining a new story idea, don’t forget to make sure you have something to say. Oh, and make sure you watch Ender’s Game.

How about you? Do you make a point of adding themes to your stories or tend to write what is popular? What is the theme of your favorite novel or movie?

Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Review- The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail

Greetings, faithful readers!

I’d like to apologize for not posting last week. I totally forgot with the holiday and then something happened and I was kind of an emotional mess. So, yeah. But, I’m back with another book review!

First of all, I think I should start by saying I’m not sure if I’m qualified to review this book. It’s very much in the children’s genre, while I read mostly YA these days. However, I had to read it for book club with week so last night I breezed through it.

The Mouse with the Question Mark Tail by Richard Peck is the story of a mouse who doesn’t know who he is. Like his tail, his life is punctuated by question marks about who he is, where he’s going, and what the purpose of his life is. He’s shipped off to school by his “aunt”- the woman who found him under a cabbage leaf as a baby and brought him home- and there he proceeds to learn- from important things like his numbers all the way to twelve and everything about the French Revolution to things like how to pick a fight and get your eye blackened by mice three or four times your size.

But then, our little mouse friend breaks two rules- when one would do- and he’s suddenly on the run, trying to find a place in the world that he can call his own. From the Royal Mews to Buckingham Palace, this mouse embarks on the adventure of a lifetime.

This book is told in very simplistic terms. Our mouse friend narrates as if he’s looking back on things and telling us how it all went down. There isn’t much action and the author has a nasty habit of telling us what is going to happen before it does- Little did I know my career was to last no longer than this day now ending.

However, in the end, this isn’t about how the story is told, it’s about the story- which is a simple little tale about someone trying to figure out who they are, where they’re going, and what the purpose of his life is. They’re questions I think we all face in life and while our answers never come as conveniently as this little mouse’s do, they’re questions children can relate to all the same.

While I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, I would definitely recommend it to younger readers looking for something easy to pass the time with. In, hopefully they’ll walk away with something more than just a bit of fun.

But, if they don’t, that’s okay too. Because a bit of good, clean fun is sometimes just what we need.

How about you? Have you heard of this book or others like it? What is your preferred age range to read?