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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Bringing Life to your Characters (ConCarolinas 2012 Writing Panel Notes)

"There's a Cat in There" © 2012 Laura Sheana Taylor. Charlie loves to hide beneath our Christmas tree. Through the branches you can barely see the face of a cat.


Slow-clap time. Yup, more way-belated notes from ConCarolinas 2012. And yaaay, I'm going to ConCarolinas 2013! I honestly wasn't sure if I could ... but hey. Nothing like being in a car that was rear-ended and finally getting an insurance settlement for it, six months later. Yeah. Sigh. Okay, I got off easy. But I still haven't made it back to sword class ...

So. I've been busy revising-following-agent-requests-at-SIWC, beta-reading (for one must give in order to also receive), and suffering through the latest nasty plague going around. But I survived, just in time for the holidays. At the start of the month, well before I came down with that awful cold, I made new discoveries on how to ensure a smooth tiger butter. I'll be sharing those fun facts shortly. Promise. No, really, I mean it ...

But first, enjoy these notes.

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Bringing Life to Your Characters
Edmund Schubert, James Maxey, Faith Hunter, Terry W. Erwin II, 
A.J. Hartley, Teresa Frohock, John G. Hartness
Moderator: David B. Coe

Bringing life to living characters who are alive, creating believable characters

DBC: What is your biggest challenge?
TF: Keeping the focus on the main character, the protagonist
JM: The character has to be constantly learning from their experiences. A lot of that goes into the foundation of any character you create. What was their childhood like? What shaped them as they grew into an adult? What shaped them? Healthy well-adjusted people are not his typical character. His typical character are broken, not necessarily great people.
JH: Information hoarding – not telling the reader what the main charaacters’ dirty little secrets are, except bit by bit (1 or 2 a book). Little pieces here and there, backstory in dribs and drabs.
FH: Outlines her books – the conflict thoroughly. Every *thing*. Just doesn’t know exactly how the characters are going to react to things.
AJ: Middlegrade/YA vs adult; When dealing with younger chars, they don’t have as much backstory, haven’t had time to accumulate baggage; the biggest thing was that there’s such little difference otherwise. RL Stein: “Most things that scare kids are the same that scare adults. People are afraid of the dark, the unknown, things with lots of legs, etc.” Shift in mindset was to stop worrying about it. Easier to just think of them as people he could write. With Macbeth, someone else’s character, he takes his experience in theatre, sees it in theatres and treats it accordingly. Even though these chars are familiar, in some ways they’re blank slates. Took them as his protagonists. Made his characters people.

DBC: What do you look for in a character?
ES: (What does he look for in character)? There are so many things that don’t work. What does work: What makes him want to spend time with a char is  one entertaining and surprising at the same time. Not theatrical, but interesting to be around. By getting to see all the different sides of them. Tries to make the protags dirty as possible while keeping them likable, antagonists who are doing horrible things for the best reasons possible.  Compressing compelling chars into a short story? It’s challenging. So much harder to write great short story. Short stories have to be laser-like in focus. One or two key details to tell the reader what he needs to know. Katniss in The Hunger Games – you get the sense she’s trying to take care of her sister and mother, but she loves her sister so she lets the awful cat stay. Efficient, effective opening In the first 5 pages, worth studying.

DBC: Are there elements to writing comedic vs. serious characters?
JH: What really helps define a character: choice of dialogue. Also background in theatre. Reading dialogue, being able to dial in your dialogue really does help. You set the tone for a char. Has to catch himself when writing the straight guy. Being serious is a challenge. Also steals from the classic tropes of comedy.

DBC (to JM): Did you have a different approach in your superhero books vs. your Dragon Forge books?
JM: Uses a lot of tropes in action. Protagonist has the burden of changing, but the comic relief are tropes. In his action novels he has the character type he’d call the badass. He doesn’t need all of them to have a lot of internal conflict. But can’t wirte a book with just these tpes of chars. Needs someone who’s weak. Someone who’s changes. Also, we want to know what a character’s intentions are. What they want to accomplish.

TF: You don’t always want to insert 21st century attitudes into historical characters.  As much as we’d like to think that we’d do better, she wants them to act and react realistically. She needs to be conscious of their thought processes. “Your story is your character’s emotional growth  Your plot is how you get him there. And all the things that happen to the character will enhance the story and promote that emotional growth.”

DBC: What about point of view?

TE: What’s the best way to tell the story to the reader? Which POV works best? E.g. 1st person – can be useful, can be tricky. The reader learns as the character learns. Still some mystery about that character.

FH: Beast and Jane – first person point of view. Must include all parts of them. The multiple personalities. Editor made sure 2 first person voices are different.  POV is whoever body they’re in. The most important POV is whichever body they’re in.

AJ: ACT OF WILL – First person. DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT: Third person. In case of Will, when you tell a story in first person the story becomes about the character. Everything’s mediated by the character. Every sense, every impression. Middle grade third person, very limited to just Darwen, you see nothing the character isn’t present for. This is a standard for middle grade right now. Close enough to him that we’re never really outside of his conscious.

DBC: Audience question: Sherlock's not a sympathetic character, but that’s why Watson’s there. What have you done with your non-sympathetic characters?

DBC: Yes, the main character in the Winds of the Forelands wasn’t sympathetic, but his supporting cast was. Hard not just because he was mean, spoiled, and obnoxious, but because these other chars affected him and he grew.

FH: Jane Yellowrock isn’t likeable herself, but she has those around her to love, which makes her easier to like

ES: Even if we don’t like a character, we can respect him.

AJ: Will is not likeable, but he’s charming.

Audience Question: What about characters with Otherness?

JH: You can’t relate to the other, unless you find a way to write the other so they’re something you understand.

JM: Dragons and Vampires can explain themselves, if they can talk, but if your story is about the difficulty of communicating with an alien/other mind,that itself can be a major part of the story.

AJ: Even if it’s just people from a different period, you lose the reader.
DBC: The inscrutability brings terror. But if you want them to have emotions.

Audience Question: Can you write any good heroes anymore, outside of YA, just the good guy who’s a good guy?

AJ: Yes if he’s also crap at a lot of stuff.

TE: Make him relateable. Who tries to do the right thing but doesn’t always succeed. Just keep them human. Not perfect.

ES: Whatever you do, your char must have some flaws, things to overcome. An internal struggle as well as an external struggle.

JH: You can play a paladin, just make him a paladin with a dexterity of 4.

Audience chime-in: Put the character in situations where he can't uphold his moral code.

JH: Torture your characters – half the fun of being a writer (torturing your readers the other half)

DBC (on villains): The degree of which you can make sympathetic villains, and the blending of flawed and good for both characters, is also important. Not just evil for evil’s sake. Every character is the hero of their own story. Even the villains.