Sunday, January 29, 2012

Character Development

This past week, I attended Jude Wilner's "Characterization" workshop, which was hosted by the Alberta Romance Writers' Association. She shared with us her process for developing believable characters. One of her primary tools is a character chart, which is essentially a series of fill-in-the-blank questions.
(Image © Victor Correia | Dreamstime.com)
However, she does not simply throw words and ideas in those blanks, she takes it a step further and asks the questions: Why? Or, why not?

For example: What is your character's name? Why?  "Just because" is not a suitable answer unless you have really pondered the question and you have concluded that for that particular question it is an appropriate answer. This series of questions allows you to explore your character's relationships, their choices, their past, their hang-ups, their fears and their hopes.

In the past I've done character sketches, I've tried interviews, and I've developed a few character charts of my own... but refreshing my writer's toolbox is always exciting. After all, character development is spending time with your characters so you know them before you start writing. Sure, the characters will reveal new previously unknown facets of themselves as you write, but if you can go in with a solid, thoroughly explored foundation, it can only help.

I am looking forward to using Jude's technique for my next story and seeing how it works for me.

*****
ARWA's blog also has a summary of Jude's talk.  Click here to check it out! 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reply to the Toast to the Lassies for Burns Supper held on January 24, 2011


This was my meal...
rather brown, isn't it?
Last year I was asked to give the reply to the toast to the lassies at a Burns supper.  By the end of my speech, I was shaking so badly (the tremors had started in my ankles and worked up) that my wine splashed and sloshed in my glass when I lifted it for the toast - perhaps public speaking is not my forte.  Here is my silly little couplet-filled poem:


Thank you, sir, for the praise in your toast.


It is so nice, and so true! (Though we do hate to boast.)
I guess it is now my turn to take the floor -
Though I'd gladly trade this opportunity to go sit by the door.

You see, one evening last month my Joe to me said,
"Our lodge is having a Burns supper, you're invited."
That's great, I thought, I do like haggis,
And, maybe I'll even get a new dress.

But he wasn't finished talking as I was to learn.
He said, "That toast to the lassies? You'll do the return."
"What!" I screeched and gave my head a shake.
"I have the wrong accent, no tartan - there's been a mistake,"

He grinned and he said, “You'll do fine.
It's only December, you've lots of prep time.”
So I rushed to the internet to search for “replies,”
Confident I'd find something there to advise.

I searched on and on, but try as I might.
Nothing I found seemed quite right.
The advice? Make it light-hearted, maybe rhyme,
Oh, and poke fun at men.  (Something along those lines.)

That's really not helpful I thought in despair,
But, it's all I've got, so let’s see how I fare.
So, here I am about to begin
My few little thoughts on the topic of men:

GPS must have been created by a woman,
Whose man drove in circles never asking for directions.
Oh, but men are great at… household chores!
They take out the garbage and can lay down new floors.

And they can be so handy.  They fix leaking faucets,
Take care of spiders, and steam clean the carpets.
They Bar-B-Que, and they can drive the RV,
And they are really quite skilled at watching sports on TV.

They talk us down when we're furious 
They make us laugh when we're too serious.
They are kind, generous and patient -
Even driving their mothers-in-law to doctor's appointments

Ahhh... there is something about our kilted rogues,
And the package is even better when topped with a Scottish brogue,
The sight of them sets our hearts all a-flutter,
Even when they're pacing, saying “Let's go, we're late,” and other little mutters.

So, ladies, please join me and stand.
Now, take your drink up in your hand.
Let's toast our men, our wonderful treasures,
Who give us such happiness, laughter and pleasures.                              

To the men!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Heroine Vanquishes the Villain... or does she?

(Image: © Photowitch | Dreamstime.com)
Question: How should the hero / heroine deal with the villain at the end of the story? Kill him? Turn him over to the authorities? Let nature wipe him out? Let some other bad guy eliminate him?

My Answer: The hero and heroine should be heroic. This doesn't mean that the hero / heroine shouldn't kill the villain, but it does mean that they shouldn't allow themselves to stoop to the villain's tactics and values - this is what sets them apart and makes them the main characters. This is why you root for them.

So, is killing the villain out of the question? No, I don't think so. In historicals, some eras were bloodier – so would it make sense for your warrior hero (or heroine) to step back and let the courts (such as they were) take care of justice? Maybe, maybe not. Or, in a paranormal, does it make sense for your warrior vampire to step back and let the villain get away alive? Probably not.

So, here are some parameters I've come up with:
  1. The hero or heroine (or ideally both) must deal with the threat. The actions they take, their skills, their wits, and their confrontation with the bad guy come together to either eliminate or contain the threat. In a paranormal, the main character's special skills or paranormal gifts must be used to achieve the outcome.
  2. The hero / heroine must be heroic (I know I've said that already, but it is really important). I do not want to the hero / heroine to be vindictive. He / She may be vindictive when the story starts, but by the end of the story their lover's faith and love will have the hero re-evaluate their priorities.  Revenge is not heroic. As a reader, I do not want the hero / heroine's actions to make me feel uncomfortable with their decisions. I want to respect the people I've been supporting.
  3. The hero and heroine can protect one another... but only killing the bad guy when there is absolutely no other choice. The writer needs to build the expectation of a possible / impending deadly outcome early, so that the death of the villain is justifiable and understandable. I want to know that this was the only solution. The author needs to prepare me for that outcome and show me why the death is necessary or inevitable.
  4. Some other force, whether nature or another person, should never sweep into the story at the climax and deal with the threat. The hero or heroine need to have things under control, then if nature or someone else comes in after that... well, so be it. But, the reader needs to know that the good guys won by their own smarts, actions and skills.
Do you have other ideas or opinions?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Introducing Your Story's World

(Image: © Spaceheater |
Dreamstime.com)
When you write a book, there will be social expectations and taboos in your characters’ world that inform their attitudes, actions and ideas.  In Regency Romances, for example, the characters must behave according to a strict set of rules that are very different from our contemporary world.  Once you’ve read a handful of Regencies, you understand the rules. 

However, if you set your story in an unusual place, time or world, the reader won’t immediately know the rules - so you, the writer, need to tell the reader what they are (without seeming like you are telling the reader). 

Here are a few different ways to introduce your story’s “world” to your readers. 
  1. Information Dump: Don’t do this!  There is nothing quite as boring as the author going on and on about what’s happened before the story starts.  There is no action.  There is no conflict or tension. It is just background blah-ness. Thankfully, I don't have an example of this. 
  2. Prologue with Narrative: In this case, there is a prologue where the world parameters are explained in a scene.  Cherry Adair uses this in her book Black Magic.  In her prologue, one character educates the other about the mythologies of their world.  The risk is that it may feel like an info dump, which can make your readers' eyes glaze over before they even get to Chapter One. Don’t structure this type of scene around a dialogue where one character explains or reminds the other character of what they should already know if they exist in that world.  Make sure there is action and tension.  Also, keep the information restricted to what will be important for the story at that time - the reader doesn’t need all the information all at once.  And, unless it is critical to the plot and character development, the reader doesn't need to know all the little intricate details you dreamed up when you built your world.  Lastly, the scene needs to introduce current information too, not just the past or the mythology.  However, be aware that although some readers will read every word you give them, many skip over the prologue - so, the world needs to make sense even if the reader starts at Chapter One.
  3. Short Explanation in lieu of Prologue: In this case, a short description of the world is provided.  Jayne Castle uses this approach in her future paranormal books, such as Ghost Hunter. In “A Note from Jayne,” which is essentially a one-page letter to the reader, she explains the basic premise of the world.  The specific details aren’t described – after all, there has to be something for the reader to discover within the novel. The drawback of this method is that the reader meets the author before they meet the characters.
  4. Introduce the Reader to the World as the Character is Introduced to It: This is a handy technique, but only works when the world is new to one of the characters.  Take a vampire novel: both the reader and the character will have some previous knowledge of what or who vampires are, however each author has their own spin, their own lore.  Do the vampires sparkle in sunlight or disintegrate?  Does silver burn them or kill them?  Do crosses make these vampires cringe or do they attend church regularly?  The character will make assumptions, their assumptions will be confirmed or refuted, and, through this, the character discovers the truth about the world they’ve fallen into.  The reader learns as the character learns.  An example of this is Jeaniene Frost’s Eternal Kiss of Darkness
  5. Jump in and Expect the Reader to Catch Up: If the world is a variation of a mythology your reader already understands, it is simple for readers to pick up the differences.  In this case, the characters exist and function in their world right at page one.  The reader can usually catch up quickly.  (Readers are smart.)  Blood Magic by Jennifer Lyon is structured this way.  
  6. Provide Information If/When the Reader Needs It: Similar to the last example, Chapter One starts with the characters living their lives in their world.  There is no “explanation” prologue.  There is no information dump.  However, if the world is complex or the lingo is specific to this world, the reader may need a little help, which could be provided in the form of a glossary.  This technique is also used where one character says phrases in another language.  The reader can often determine the meaning based on the context.  However, some readers will want to know (and would get annoyed by having to search for definitions on the internet), and will find a glossary helpful.  Glossaries are often found at the end of the novel.  This approach can also help with world building.  J.R. Ward provides a “Glossary of Terms and Proper Nouns” at the beginning of her Black Dagger Brotherhood novels, such as Lover Awakened (*Have I mentioned that I love Zsadist*).  If the reader wanted, they could read the glossary first (like a prologue, albeit a dull one) and understand the nuances of the world before they start reading the story, or they could just refer to it if or when they need.
Do you have another approach or technique?