There are two answers to the question: a short answer and a long one.
The short answer:
Kill them. If the writer can’t relate to them, they won’t portray that character as a three-dimensional being and the reader won’t relate to them either.
The long answer:
If the character is your main character, you have a greater problem. You need to work out why your character isn’t working, and fix it. I use a gateaux approach to this problem: layers, upon layers.
Once a month, I host a write-in. This month, a fellow writer suggested I write a series of blogs addressing writerly problems. Today’s topic is knowing your characters.
Most writers know all about creating character profiles and writing GMC (Goal, motivation, conflict). They know that characters need believable backgrounds and both internal and external conflict. Yet I still read books where the writer has mixed up the characters’ names because they can’t remember who’s talking or whose head they’re in.
They don’t know their characters.
As a reader, that’s really irritating. It makes me think the author doesn’t care enough about their characters to know them properly and doesn’t care enough about their book to double check all those things and make sure it’s right. The fact that the book has generally gone through several rounds of editing and no one has picked it up tells me that the characters being confused are too similar to each other.
So how do you know when you know your character well enough that you won’t get them mixed up or forget who they are?
Many years ago, my writer friend attended a workshop run by Gary Crew who said he knew the character when he could hear his voice. Other authors might say they know their characters when they can see their walk or the way their eyes crinkle at the corners when they smile. That last description has been overused in the last three books I’ve read (one series by one author) to describe one of the major characters – a different one in each book.
For me, I rarely know my characters thoroughly enough to finish writing a book until I’ve written at least three chapters. It doesn’t matter if the chapters are from their point of view, or another character’s. What matters is that I learn how my character walks, talks, responds to other people and situations, and how they do those things differently to everyone else in the book.
By the end of three chapters, I’ve begun to think about my characters as real people. Their personalities have settled and their reactions to things that happen in the book match that. By the end of three chapters, I’ve worked out where the holes are in the character profile and how I need to change the character background or plot to account for the way the character responds to situations.
Of course, most of those three chapters end up on the bin, but at least I know who my character is.
One example of this process is Heath in Warrior Pledge. The book opens with Checa sitting on the mountainside watching the sunrise, waiting for Heath to arrive. Heath’s arrival is much anticipated and heralded by nature with as much fanfare as the new day. He bursts onto the scene in a bubble of joy which swings mercurially through hurt to anger. The scene shows Heath’s personality perfectly and lets the reader know exactly who he is and how he might respond to things that happen during the book.
That scene was one of the last scenes I wrote in the first draft.
I needed to write myself into Heath before I could portray him so accurately.
A challenge for you:
With the next book you read, make a note of when you thought you saw the true personality of the main character. Did you see it straight away? Was it revealed in a series of carefully or brilliantly scheduled actions? Were you told what the character was like, but he never lived up to the promise, always feeling two dimensional?
Which of those books did you like best?
I’ve been working on Memory for Loan for quite a while now. The story has changed a lot from it’s inception a few years ago to now, when I’m working solely on it, rather that fitting it in around other projects that felt more important at the time. It’s still evolving.
I’ve written about one third of the story so far and came to yet another dead-end. I have a plan but, while the plan looks good on paper, it doesn’t always work once I start writing scenes.
The change I’ve had to make today is with Milo, Lonnar’s love interest. It wasn’t working. I’d written Milo in because I thought he’d be a good partner for Lonnar, but they just haven’t clicked. They don’t even feel like they could be friends. Milo is coming across, more and more, like the antagonist.
Today, I figured: why fight it.
I’ve made some notes to changed sections in the early chapters so any hint of a true relationship between Milo and Lonnar is shrouded in suspicion. I’ve decided which character is actually better suited to Lonnar as well.
Changing the love interest will mean Milo’s physical appearance will have to change, Freema (the leader of the underground) will have to become Freeman and change his appearance too (as well as his gender). I also have to work out a way to have Freeman appear in the first third of the book. I have some ideas about how to get him onto Lonnar’s ship and what he’s doing there, but I don’t know how to get him off quickly and back to Tolifax before Lonnar meets him in the swamp. I’ll fix that later.
The change is working. Milo writes much more easily as the bad guy, and Lonnar is writing better now I’m not trying to force him into a relationship that’s all wrong for him.
It means editing is going to be an absolute bitch, but that’s par for the course for my books. I had thought forward planning would reduce the editing but my pantser style of writing is stronger than I’d thought.
It’s a good thing I don’t get bogged down in trying to make the story work to the plan, because that never works. I have to keep myself open to change, even major change, for the story to be the best it can be.
I finally have Dragon God ready to go to the editor. It’s taken me ages to get the music scored properly and the map drawn the way I want it, but it’s all done now. I worked on the map for most of this morning. I could add more detail, but I don’t think it’s necessary. We just need to see where places are in relation to other places.
This evening, I’ll send it all to the editor then wait and see what I have to do to fix it. I can’t wait until I’m at the stage of applying for an ISBN. That’s when publishing this book will become really exciting for me. I love that process.
Dragon God will be my first self-published eBook. I’ve published print books before (for other people), but never eBooks. I have a lot to learn. I’m deliberately not looking at the conversion and publishing process until I know I’m ready for it. I’ll forget everything I learn before I need it if I do.
I’ve also been working on Memory for Loan this week. I’ve spent quite a lot of time watching videos of shuttle re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. I’ve made the rest of it up, so I hope it hangs together believably. It’ll never fool anyone who knows what they’re talking about but hopefully they’ll forgive any glaring mistakes. I’m going to get my characters actually landed (crashed) before I stop tonight.
I thought I’d finished editing Dragon God and it was ready to send to an editor. I’d worked out the theme, the central idea, the inciting incident, the characters’ motivations and conflicts and made sure they were all consistent. Then a friend of mine casually mentioned some of the things they do while they’re editing, and I thought… shit, I’m nowhere near finished.
That’s where I’ve been the last two weeks. Dragon God has been put through the editing wringers again and come out the other side much stronger. It still needs to go to a professional editor, but I’m much happier with where it is now.
The next step, before sending it to the editor, is to convert the music I’ve composed for one of the legends from .pdf to .jpg, and insert it into the document.
I also need to finish the map. I have the map from Warrior Pledge, but I had to incorporate the eastern side of the continent as well as the Lonely Isles in the south. All I need to do now is to add rivers and towns as well as the major norrgel nests. Then I’ll do some shading to make it look real, and I’ll be good to go.
I might also add a few drawings of sea monsters, just because. I probably don’t need the sea monsters—the next book in the series is set in the desert and to the west—but you never know.
The other exciting thing I’ve been doing with Dragon God is the cover. I finally chose a cover and have it available. I’ll wait until I get a bit closer to publication before making the cover public.
I’m taking today away from Dragon God and I’m going to work on writing new words for my next novel, Memory for Loan. I only have about 15000 words of it so far, but I’ve been working on it for a while. Those 15000 words are in their fourth incarnation. I think the story is beginning to work now so I’ll be able to move forward—just as soon as I crash land on a planet.
I'm writing, so I'm trying to broaden my reading. It stops me unconsciously copying from other authors and also gives me inspiration and ideas to make my writing better. Last week I read science fiction. This week, I’ve been reading poetry. During the week I decided to read Australian poets, regardless of how tempted I’ve been to read Edgar Allen Poe and Wordsworth as they’re two of my favourites. So, Australian poets it’s been.
I started with Oodgeroo Noonuccal, just because. She manages evocative images and emotions with a few spare words, and none of it needs deep analysis unless you want to spend the time with it. Her classic, Son of Mine, with its clear decision to focus forwards and not dwell on past wrongs always wrings the emotions in me. The Last of His Tribe is another favourite: such a casual telling of a life disregarded, but evoking the emotions of an entire race. Of course, as soon as I read Corroboree, I had to slip to We Are Going. Those two are linked like bread and cheese and must be read in that order. From there it was a short slide to Judith Wright’s Bora Ring.
The contrasts between the two poems highlight the contrasts between attitudes. Noonuccal feels the loss personally. Her people are gone; we’ve all lost something precious and we must acknowledge that. Wright feels it as something a little sad that happened to someone else and can’t be changed: Oh well, let’s move on now. Those two poems (three if we count Corroboree) together tell the tale of Australian history, and the attitudes prevailing, still, today.
From there I slipped into some Bruce Dawe and Thomas Shapcott; a different perspective of the country. Their work is known to me as well, still a homecoming. (I met Shapcott a lifetime ago when I first started uni. That was probably my first ‘fan-girl’ crush. It lasted all of three hours – the duration of his lecture, discussion afterwards, and the walk home to my reality.) I’ve been thinking about analysing the political and social environments at the time of their writings to see what correlations I can draw. Just because. It’s not as if I have nothing else to do.
So that was the comfort zone. Now it’s time for something a little different. I want to read some things by Luke Beesley and Kim Chen Boey. It’s not as simple as doing a search and downloading onto my ereader for them. I’ll have to buy an actual paper book to read them. I’ve searched the local independent and chain bookstores online. A couple of them have one or two books by Beesley, nothing by Boey. The only book I’ve been able to find by Boey is a travel memoir. Otherwise, I have one poem from a mixed anthology. Just one.
It'll be enough for me to read many different words, many different ways of putting those words together and many different ways of making readers think and feel differently. Some of it might even rub off on my writing. I can hope.
I began reading science fiction when I was four. I used to sit on my father’s lap as he read, and learned to read along with him. If he was reading E. E. (Doc) Smith or L. Ron Hubbard, he’d change books and we’d read Asimov or Arthur C. Clarke instead. I’m not sure if he considered the content of Smith’s and Hubbard’s books unsuitable for a four year old or if he thought the language was too difficult for me to read. It could have been something as simple as the size of the type.
Either way, science fiction was my first love and, while I read other things, I always return to it. It’s my comfort zone, my safe place.
I’m currently writing a science fiction novel as I do Year of the Novel through QWC. One of the questions I have to answer this month is what comparable books/writers there are to my story. If this was a romance story, I could easily find an answer because romance follows the same tropes. While there are differences with each story, there are always similarities too. Finding a comparable book would be a simple as finding another author with a similar voice or style. Science fiction isn’t that easy.
I don’t write hard science fiction. I don’t have the depth of science background to do it justice so I don’t even try. I also like fantasy stories so my SF, as well as being soft SF, often has fantasy elements. I love space operas, so I often write entire stories where most of the action is aboard ship, with planetary landings being rare and brief. When you add in the romance as well, it’s difficult to find something comparable.
I don’t know of anything similar to my new story, Memory for Loan, and couldn’t find any that combine similar SF features with romance. Some Steampunk novels touch on similar aspects of Victorian England culture and pollution as seen on Tolifax but Memory for Loan isn’t steampunk. I couldn’t find a romantic space opera that had similar elements although the writing of some hard SF authors (Greg Bear, Ralph Kern, Elizabeth Moon) resonates even though the majority of their writing (that I’ve read) is set on-planet.
The inspiration for Memory for Loan came from The Martian (Andy Weir), mixed with Victorian England slums, a concern over global warming and pollution and their affects on the environment, an interest in the idea of terraforming dead planets to make them habitable, melded with a personal background of Star Trek, Dr Who, Isaac Asimov, E. E. (Doc) Smith and Arthur C. Clarke.
The premise of the series is that the planet, Tolifax, has been used as a dump for centuries. The powers on Earth have dumped everything unwanted there, including human beings (especially hardened criminals). The communities on Tolifax are finally beginning to work together and revolt but how can that be successful when the people have no power and the ecology of the planet has been all but destroyed? The rebels set up camp, stage left, taking chunks out of the Galactic Government, centre stage, which fights dirty and for keeps. Enter, stage right, the planet whisperers, and you have the set-up for Memory for Loan.
They say to write what you know. That will give your writing greater depth and believability. It’ll be real. But how far should an author go in the pursuit of authenticity? We can’t all experience every emotion, or every action. For the experiences we haven’t had personally, we can read newspapers, journal articles, research papers. We can talk to people; friends and strangers. One thing we shouldn’t do is groom vulnerable people, make them trust us, then betray them.
It takes a lot of courage for someone who has been hurt to trust again, and even more courage to speak openly about the pain they’ve suffered. For someone to come along and use that courage and vulnerability for their own ends, without permission, is reprehensible.
I don’t usually comment on these things, and certainly not in the heat of the moment. I wait until I calm down and understand clearly what I’m thinking and feeling. I haven’t calmed down with this one; not at all. I am outraged and filled with a deep, all-consuming sorrow.
You don’t need to use and betray others to achieve a feeling of authenticity in your writing. You only need to have compassion and empathy. You only need to respect others and understand their lives are not yours. If you can’t do that, perhaps you’re writing in the wrong genre. If you can’t imagine it, perhaps you’re in the wrong business.
The Year of the Novel continues. I’m half way through the first month and should have 3000 words written by now. I have written about 1000. Not as much as I need, but better than I have been doing so I have to be happy with that.
I’m still struggling with where the story is going but I’ve decided I need to just write something and trust that, eventually, the story will sort itself out. I’ve done as much planning as I can without planning myself to death and never writing anything.
So that’s what I’ll focus on this week—getting words on paper, whether they’re good words or absolute rubbish. At least I’ll have something to work with.
As a teaser, I’ll give you the beginning of my new story, Memory for Loan. This is probably the fourth beginning, and probably won’t be the last one, but I think I’m getting closer to something I’m happy with.
Now to work on the second half of the first chapter. I want that finished before the end of next weekend, so I can move forward with the story.
One man hears the whisper
Lonnar pressed his hand against the sensor to open the lift door, pausing the action. He’d been on board the Augustus for six months, the captain in charge of nearly 3000 crew. It was his job, what he’d trained for since he was fifteen, yet it felt alien. Like he was living someone else’s life.
What else could he do though? This was what he’d always wanted. He pressed his fingertips against the pain that flared in his temples every time he thought about leaving his position. The pain was getting worse; sharp stabs behind his eyes, like pokers jabbing at him. He didn’t have a tumor; his last medical was only a few weeks ago and the pain had begun well before then.
Perhaps he should see a psych-med and… No. Any hint of mental illness with the captain would put the entire mission in jeopardy. Every order, every action, would be questioned and refuted. They’d come too far for that to happen.
And he was fine.
Lonnar took his hand away from his face, straightened his shoulders and punched the door release. The door slid open with a refined hiss and he stepped out, onto the bridge. The subdued murmur of ‘busy’ dulled his recent sensitivity, and the view of neverending stars washed over him like a balm.
Space. This was where he belonged.
“Report,” he said quietly.
His 3IC punched a few buttons on the arm control panel of the captain’s chair then stood. “All quiet, sir. The full report is now in your inbox. I’ll be in the rec room if you have any questions.” The Thrick always took over during Lonnar’s sleep period. His 2IC, the Tick, took over during Lonnar’s rest time.
“Thank you Thrick.” Lonnar sat, grimacing at the warmth of his seat. Shared. Not his. He opened the report from the previous session and began to read. The bridge was quiet, with only a few murmured comments or instructions between the crew. Lonnar liked the quiet, but it felt unnatural with twenty people around him.
The hours passed. Lonnar was superfluous.
“Captain, we’ve received a hail from the Caesar. Commander Milosovitz is ready to transfer to the Augustus.”
Lonnar didn’t both lifting his head to look at the comms officer. They wouldn’t be looking at him. “Notify receiving. Take the commander directly to his quarters. Inform me when he’s settled.” Lonnar continued reading the reports that continually landed in his feed. Through them he could monitor every activity onboard. Every few minutes he glanced at the pilot, his hands itching to take over the controls. That was flying.
“Professor Milosovitz is aboard and in his quarters, sir.” Lonnar tapped a button on his console that indicated he was still on duty but away from the bridge. He gazed around the bridge at his crew as he stood. They, just like the ‘sir’, were part of the package; part of the life that had become his after the completion of his last mission, and the promotion that followed his injury. A promotion and injury he didn’t remember. Maybe. Sometimes he thought he remembered it. His head buzzed with it every time he tried to get the facts straight, like a search array gone wrong. Stuck in a loop. Circling and circling for days until he thought he’d go mad with it. The medics thought it would always be like that, said it was normal in the face of trauma, said he would adjust to it soon. Lonnar wanted to believe them.
I love writing courses, especially face-to-face ones. I always meet such interesting people and am exposed to amazing minds and incredible ideas. It stretches my mind and forces me to try new things with my writing. I always come out writing better, writing happier.
Last week, I began The Year of the Novel with Venero Armanno. Week one was the overview. We touched on a lot of things such as writing habits, structure, and voice. We began looking at character, their background and conflicts.
We were given homework!
I don’t know if it makes me a nerd or not—I live on the edge of nerdness anyway (or perhaps not so much on the edge)—but I love homework. It’s a great way to see if I’ve understood the conversations during the day and to try it out on my own, and to find out how it works best for me. So far I haven't reached my set goal of 3000 a week. I'll need to write more than that to finish the book by my self-imposed deadline, but it's a good number to start with.
I’ll admit I’m still struggling with my story—so much so I can’t decide where to start it or what the first ten pages should show. In my head the idea is a good one, but every time I write a few thousand words, it reads like a stereotyped space opera. The uniqueness of the idea isn’t showing through.
I’ve thought about giving up a number of times. I’ve put this story away to think about, a number of times. This time, I want to get it written. I’m not giving up. I’ll find the way to make this story work.
E E Montgomery
About writing, life, and random thoughts.
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