Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Generalities… to be Specific

Update FIRST, Blog AFTER.  Right?  Am at 3232 on word count for BuNoWriMo.  That is only 102 words shy of being twice as far as I need to be... WAHOO!  And NOW, back to your regularly scheduled blog...

Write what you know, ja?

We’ve all heard it a bazillion times, and I can’t argue.  It is a thousand times easier to write familiar versus unfamiliar, at least for me and my lack of imagination.  But there are a few problems that I see, at least where familiar characters are concerned.

I normally don’t write people I KNOW—I make up characters, which usually works fine, but some characters need to be a certain TYPE.  I think in hitting the ‘type’, but avoiding the ‘stereotype’ we often look to REAL PEOPLE to make these familiar characters ring true.  But this is risky.  Why?


That’s right—you are getting an ethics lecture from a Tart.  You’ll just have to deal with that.

When we do this… use a real person as our model and insert them into our novel—at least if we really KNOW them, as opposed to making up 90% of it... that is, in a way, theft.  That person created his or her ‘self’, insane stage moms, aside.  We each ought to have a right to ourselves, doncha think?  Add to that the fact that you are probably going to do really ROTTEN things to this person (at least on paper), and that they have friends and family who might recognize them and attribute your plot (fact or fiction) to that person.  It just isn’t okay.

It might be sort of okay if you asked permission… but I would argue you probably need to renew the question each time you submit them to a new plot strand.  You do not get to be Rick Castle manipulating Nicki Heat for your fantasy pleasure.  It’s unethical.

[insert scene here where I personally spank Nathan Fillion] (though I’ve been assured he LIKES this—this is me being NICE. Nice, kindly lesson, tart style *nods*)

(note ALSO that I just broke my ethics rule, writing in a real person for my fantasy pleasure… I love irony)

But I stand by the assertion that real personalities, even with different names, are not our own.  Except maybe... you know... our own… which brings me to my next point.

Next Issue… YAWN

Real life personalities are probably good for one book… possibly a series, if it’s a really great personality.  Then they’re done. Book characters are LARGER THAN LIFE, unless you plan on being REALLY horrible to them, and REALLY HORRIBLE to the same person book after book will not sell.
But back to my point...I  think there are dozens of early novels or works I’ve read where the writer sticks HERSELF in as the MC.  A person who doesn’t know the writer may not notice on a ‘book one’, but we don’t need to read many works before it looks like the author has a pretty darned limited range.

And if people DO know the author, there will be readers *cough*yourstruly*cough* who roll their eyes and recognize this for the literary masturbation that it is.  (see how far I can stick my foot in my mouth?) Sure, we all want to have a scene with the hot guy we made up.  Write a short story.  Get it out of your system.  Heck, if it is in the domain of writing practice and your friends will indulge you, have atter.  But the WORLD will get bored quickly.  Just look at Twilight.  Oh, wait… erm… *shifty*  Okay, so sometimes it works from a commercial perspective to let somebody know just how boring you really are…

And unlike Stephenie Meyer, you are very probably more interesting than ME, but… catch this… I bet you could come up with some FICTIONAL things that would make you even MORE interesting!  TRY HARDER!  Better yet, make UP a character!  Yeah… I know… you’re making up a guy already, but guys are only so complex…

At the very least, I try to write somebody more flawed than I am *cough*

(Have I now alienated my entire readership?)

So What To Do?

How do we go from what we KNOW, through a generalization process that STRIPS the specificity of the person… Un-me-ing our heroine, un-friending our MC, un-enemying our antagonist… so they are no longer recognizable, even though they share key, story-important qualities, and then add back in the details to make them seem real again?
Just like that.  Out.  Then in again.

What makes your BFF appealing enough to star in your story?  What doesn’t matter much?  What can you change to alter the specificity while keeping the spirit you want for your book?  Now add back in DIFFERENT details on the stuff that matters less.

How Bout Some Examples?

The Crazy Person

Without naming names, I confess to having a couple crazy people in my life.  Since I just blogged about my crazy mother, maybe I will leave her out of this particular mix, but I am a veritable nut magnet.  And my crazies are VERY interesting.  However, they are also people I LOVE.  I could NOT display their drama for the reading public.  It would be wrong.
But there are interactions that will make it into my nutty characters.  There are events that will make it.  There are MY THOUGHTS, as someone who loves a nut, that will definitely make it.  There are things I’ve LEARNED through loving these people that my MC may need to learn—painful lessons make for GREAT LITERATURE.

What I need to do is draw my character sketch from core qualities, then change the details and apply different experiences to this altered person (this person I love, so I KNOW how they'd respond.  There is enough there to make a really vivid character.  And yes, my loved ones may recognize something familiar, but if I’ve done my job, others won’t—even others who also know them, because there will be details that are too different.

Personal Makeover

Let’s say, in my infinite delusion (stranger things have happened) that I decided to write myself into a book, just for that fabulous sex scene…

What is the ‘essential me’?  I’m independent, rebellious, a little ‘out there’… those are good character qualities, ne?  What DOESN’T matter as much?  Does it matter that I’m sloppy?  Neglectful?  Hard working?  Probably depends on the story.  I’m not a traditional beauty (which for a story is good) but nothing annoys me more than an MC who looks like the author… gotta change that up a little… so I want my character to be physically flawed, but with DIFFERENT physical flaws than I have…

What about history?  Are there things from family of origin that matter?  Politics?  Religion?  Again, depends on the story… Life philosophy?  Depends.

One thing I DO tend to draw on my history for is career—I don’t really want to devote a ton of research time to being an expert at something I’m not interested in, so my MCs tend to have studied things I’ve studied, or worked in fields I’ve worked in.  That isn’t as conforming as you might think—Confluence has an academic (science guy) and a PR Freelancer.  My trilogy has an academic (but poli-sci) and a newspaper sales rep (and a bunch of art thieves and spies *cough*).  Deniability has a psychiatrist and a spy.

So the SPY thing is interesting enough to research, but all my regular Joes have professions related to academia, media or psychology—my fields, past and present—public health works, as does social work (my WiP will have psych and health types).  Maybe I will venture into other fields at some point, but this would be such a minefield to trip me up—writing a career that I don’t know CONTENT wise, or, more importantly, how a ‘day’ goes…

I guess though, to get back to my point, if you spend enough time thinking about someone (yourself included) as a character, and tweaking this or that detail, you can create DOZENS of different and unrecognizable characters.  Maybe you take the personality and add a tragic event in the past, and alter the person as it would change them… maybe you change their family and see how they change as a result.

Just remember, you want repeat readers, so no matter HOW interesting you are, you are probably going to need to shake it up if you want to keep appearing in your own book… And you are going to have to change up your friends before you alienate all of them... even crazy people like their privacy.


Cruella Collett said...

Sooo... Just so we're clear, am I one of the crazy people in your book? Because if I start hearing about giraffe-and-slug loving history freaks with a nack for digressions I am not going to believe this was just something you came up with out of nowhere... *snort*
Great post, as always :)

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great post! Yes, I like taking amalgams of different people I know, creating a kind of hybrid character, and using them. That way you get the solidity and ease of description when you write (because you know these people...and can use traits from several) and you've still got someone completely new.

Rayna M. Iyer said...

Now, I had a post for today, but after reading yours, I wonder if I should do soemthing else today, and schedule that for later.
Or maybe not- we are twins after all.

Mari- I would love to see you in a book

Watery Tart said...

Mari-the slug-loving, historian has nothing to do with you *shifty*

Elizabeth--yes--mixing a couple is a great way to go about it!

Natasha--Are you talking character then? Even if we head different directions, there is still a connection!

gae polisner said...

In my women's fiction, my characters have, thus far, always sprung from me, then take on a life of their own. They are deeply flawed, as am I, but they are more deeply flawed. *cough* And they do things I only dream of doing in my sleep. *cough, cough.* Still, this is a great post, and a great reminder to make sure they're also not boring. Since I have no deal on my women's fiction yet... *cough, cough, cough, cough, cough...*

Clarissa Draper said...

I often take some of my characters from mixed persons. A little of this and a little of that. Blend well and tada! I have crazy character one. I find it interesting to see how my characters develop on their own. In the end, they're not who I created at all.


Watery Tart said...

Gae- my characters seem to do that too--take on lives of their own! And I think women's fiction can take more realistic characters than a lot of books, because the POINT is more sort of... the hero we all can be, or something... And absolutely more flawed than us!

Clarissa--shaken, not stirred, yes? Real life people DO have strands of personality that can be FABULOUS, and it is fun to mix up people we know a little and then see what they do!

Will Burke said...

In my WiP, I'm trying to mimic a friendship I had, but I need to differentiate the "characters" more...

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Really great post. The plot can be outta this world but if the characters fall flat so does the story. Which is why I challenge mine constantly (to the point they have taken on a life all their own in my real life). One of my MC's (disgruntled because of my lack of speed and imagination)comes right off the page and in his own right is a tad nutty, most of my characters are at wits end and it's starting to show. All very "swan song" jaded. ALL but one, my other MC female. She is falling flat *grumble* and I can't figure out how to flaw her in the beginning, but she is about to be put in three very tragic scenes nearly back to back. So maybe she'll speak up then *quarter smile*. She is the one who does end up growing/changing the most but she isn't horribly flawed in the beginning.

Watery Tart said...

Will-I can totally see that--how good friends ACTUALLY have a lot in common, but in a book need to be more different.

Erica--I am cracking up at your character mutiny! HURRY UP AND WRITE! If I have a flat character, I often will write up an important scene EARLY to get what makes them tick. YES--usually has to be totally rewritten or even scrapped, but the sense of character helps the other stuff flow.

Smackenicious said...

So you're not sticking to the "marvelous" character like Stephanie Meyer did? Cause she's my hero I want to be like her .. an excellent writer!! (please do notice the irony and sarcasm of my words.)

Helena Soister said...

Somtimes I worry that I've created my main characters to serve the plot. So it's a relief when they start doing things and having reactions I never intended -- that's when I know they're coming to life. On the other hand, when they really start talking and acting on their own, it's kinda freaky, like I'm suffering from literary schizophrenia.

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Yes, I have a cast of characters in wait. I know you check this and email but sending it both ways to you, I have a fellow Chimera who decided today (she knows she's a day late) that she wants to join the BuNo. I told her I would get in touch with you to see if she can still start today and what she needs to do. The rest I will email to you :)

Watery Tart said...

Ana *face butts* *rubs forehead* I hear you.

Helena-it IS freaky, isn't it?! Blasted characters thinking for themselves!

Erica-OF COURSE she is welcome! We're sort of fast and loose, so far as rules go... she can either just write a little faster, or end a little later.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So far I've not written myself into a book. I'm nothing like either of my two main characters in CassaStar. In fact, I don't know anyone like them.

And I just want Meyer's fame and fortune. She can keep the glitter vamps.

Tahereh said...



there is a naked BUTT in this post.

great post!

(and i mean that with no reference to the butt.)

Helen Ginger said...

I've heard it said that you can take someone you know and make them the bad guy or crazy lady or annoying friend or (fill in the blank) and that person will never think it's him or her.

Straight From Hel

Watery Tart said...

Alex--yeah, there is some of that success envy for Meyer... I don't begrudge it to most authors though... And good for you for original characters!

Taherah-WELCOME! Yes... butts are a regular feature on the Tart's blog... I considered Tweeting directly to Fillion to see if I could bring him here... I think he might really LIKE the spanking, but then I chickened out... *snicker*

Helen-what a crack up! I bet you're right though! None of us believes we are as obnoxious as we are! Well, I guess I SORTA know, but that doesn't mean I would think the insane nudist woman in somebody's book was ME! *shifty*

Ezmirelda said...

I know whatcha mean. My characters are all the complete opposite of me, and I do it on purpose. One of my charcters from the last book I wrote was good at playing an insrument but if anyone ever put an instrument in my hand...well, let's just say they wouldn't hear the same again. :)

Ellie said...

Great post; I love how we need to blur the lines, enough, if we use bits and pieces of people we know. Character development is the basis and it needs to be authentic or the reader will know!
The building blocks that lead to the allure of the work. Thanks Hart!
I am behind, but hope to catch up tomorrow on my writing~ My mind went in a different direction...waiting to see how this plays out.

Watery Tart said...

teehee--Ezmirelda-I prefer to give my characters some talents I don't have too (when I used to sing to my daughter, she would cover my mouth--babies can be so critical!)

Ellie--wandering minds can take you interesting places, don't fight it! Just keep plugging away!