Researching Characters- An Example of Diving into the Rabbit Hole

In 2011, I was in a writing program called the Athenaeum through The Attic, a writing school in Portland, Oregon. I focused on my novel Zizkov as my “opus” of the writing mastery program. (If you want to check it out you can go to the category labeled The Novel- Hello from Zizkov, and that will I give you a general idea of the style.) I remember one of my teachers telling me that he never published his first novel. He wrote it. Put it in a drawer, and basically never looked at it again. I had thought at the time, “oh no, that will not be me. This baby’s gonna see the world.” Yet, it turned out to be me, but I think today I understand his point. It’s the lesson of writing. So, why am I writing this now? Well, I have been going through many old blog postings and cleaning house. I came across a post on researching characters for my novel. Since, I have been spending tie here breaking down processes and techniques and methods for writing (particularly creative writing) it seemed that this was a perfect platform for that old post.

It follows many of the points I had made on my blog posts about character development. It’s very detailed, and if I may say, rather impressive. I was surprised with the research I had put into building backstory and characterizations. Admittedly, I do enjoy research, and as some writers have pointed out research can be a distraction or form of resistance to writing your story. So be aware. That said if you read Game of Thrones you know that George R. Martin puts some serious time and research into his characters. Epic amounts of time equals epic stories.

Asking the questions

In the first part of this old post I reflected on some questions I needed to answer about the time and place of the setting (Prague) and what it would have been like to be a young person during that period.

I know a lot about Americans living in Prague since I was one of them, but I have some Czech characters to write, and where do I get the perspective on them? This has posed a challenge in the sense that, sure it has been easy to find a lot of books on Prague, and the Czech Republic which gives one a basic understanding of what it was like to be there between the year’s of 1939 to 1989, but what if you were too young to really know what it was like to live under an oppressive regime? Your parents did; your grandparents did; you know your history; but by the time you became a young adult it had already been 10 years of a new democracy.  The main Czech character is 24, and would have been 13 when the Velvet Revolution took place. My huge question is: what was it like to be a teenager growing up in a new democracy with opportunities? Opportunities your parents and grandparents never had, yet at the same time, experiencing an overwhelming flood of consumerism, and influx of foreigners, and a struggling economy. What would that have been like? (2008)

The Character and the Research

Next I wrote about one of the characters for my book. A character based on a real person I had met the first time I had lived in Prague. This real person’s history gave me a starting place for my first round of research.

My story is fiction, as I mentioned before, but the characters are based on real people. I remembered a conversation with the woman that Zuzana is based on; she had told me that her father was a member of the Czech Philharmonic– this is a very different upbringing from someone whose father worked in an industrial plant (which is where many people worked). So I started with music. I went back through Czech History dating all the way back to the 5th century when Bohemia and Moravia were first formed through separate tribes. No, I do not expect my characters to know this far back into their own history, but I felt that if I wanted to avoid making stock characters of Czech people why not know the birth of those people? I skimmed of course until I got into the 20th century, and along my journey through Czech/Czechoslovakian history I found what I wanted to latch onto- it was called Charter 77 and then something called the Jazz Section. (2008)

Imagining the Characters

At this point I imagined a scene with this character and the history of her life. I even included a little quote from the book that I had written at the time.

As I would go for a walk, I would imagine the main character’s, Annabelle, conversation with Zuzana as they visited a small town outside of Prague. On these walks Zuzana would to speak in my head, and she would tell me the story of her family. As soon as I’d return home I’d sit down and hand write out Zuzana’s family history dating back to her grandparents on both sides: When they were born, how they met and married and the years Zuzana’s parents were born. From there I moved onto her siblings and so on. It was a lush history that took me through 6 decades of Czech History. Will I write any of this history down in my novel? Hardly, but without a doubt I know who Zuzana is and why she is the way she is, and although a small character in the book she is a rich and beautiful character. (2008)

When the women get off the train in the small neighboring town, Zuzana tells Annabelle that when she was a girl her mother moved her and her two brothers to live here.  It was after her father was arrested. She says: My family is of a long line of teachers and musicians. It is almost expected that myself and my brothers will also be teachers or musicians but now that Czech is open, my brothers do not agree. They both have left  the Czech Republic. Which no one has done since before 1930. Even before the war I don’t think anyone had wanted to leave. Not from my family. It is good in Czech to be a teacher or a musician, at least it was.” (2008)

The Music, The Books, and The Research Links

I ended with sharing what music I was listening to at the time to help influence my writing. I also wrote about who I was reading at the time, again to help influence and inspire my writing. Then I added many links to the research on the history of Czech jazz and music subversion during the communist era. If you have the time allow yourself to fall down the rabbit hole. There’s some fascinating stuff there. Maybe you’ll find yourself inspired to write your own story.

Since I was basing a lot of Zuzana’s family history around the music of Jazz, that was what I decided to listen to while I wrote- so once a again thanks to pandora.com, along with this line of incredible musicians; Charlie Parker, John Hendricks, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Charlie Mingus, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Shorty Rogers, Clifford Brown, Art Blakey, Al McKibbon, Thelonius Monk, Sonny Stitt, Kai Winding, Gerry Mulligan, Lucky Thompson, and  Joshua Redman.

And of course,  always following with Mr. Stephen King’s advice, I’ve been reading. My reading material has been of course from Czech writers. I just finished Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal- it is a perfect book for a lover of books. The main character/narrator compacts trash and has spent his 35 years saving books from the hydrolic press, he has been unwittingly educated. It is a beautifully written book and at some parts disturbing, I’ll leave you with this quote from the book:

“I can be by myself because I am never lonely, I’m simply alone, living in my heavily populated solitude, a harum-scarum of infinity and eternity, and Infinity and Eternity seem to take a liking to the likes of me.” Too Loud a Solitude, Bohumil Hrabal

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link from the NYTimes about the Jazz Section.

Here is a link about the 1986 trial when seven people of the Jazz section were arrested.

An article on the Prague Spring of 1968

A blog with music info (among other things) in Prague specifically and the Provakator a webzine that the blog spot mentions in a post. And lastly an article about the The Plastic People of the Universe another dissident musical group out of the Czech Republic/Czechoslovakia

How ever you go about your writing, taking the time to do some serious development on your characters will make your characters more believable. The degree of that development is up to you, and as you can guess you can get lost in it, but don’t skip it.

Keep writing those stories.

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Journal Writings as A Resource for Inspiration

This is an old post from a blog I wrote back in 2008. It’s interesting to me because I have not been journaling as I had in the past, and only recently I had tried to return to the practice. I’ve been working through my old blogs, and deciding if I’ll keep them and what purpose they serve. This blog is of course all about writing. I decided to repost this one here because it is about an source of inspiration which can be yourself. It was many years ago, but some of the concepts and the feelings behind the post remain. My friend is still dead, the relationship is long over, my cat is long dead, and now I can add my mother to the list of losses, but that is life. These losses are our stories. Go journal. Collect your life. You don’t have to make a book of it, but perhaps you will inspire yourself to be the best of you.

(Originally written and posted, November 24th, 2008)

I’ve been journaling since I was 15. My first journal was given to me by a friend from high school. I’m sure I had “dear diaries” when I was younger, but honestly I doubt I wrote much in them aside from what I was going to name my latest cat. My journaling started with that 15 year old birthday present.

There have been a lot of losses for me lately, and after looking back on my life with a great deal of perspective, I have come to realize that these losses actually count and mean something to me. My friend died, I’d been tangled in a complicated and heartbreaking relationship, and my cat, thankfully still living and appearing comfortable, has been diagnosed with cancer, so although alive, she doesn’t have much time left. These things have weighed, and are weighing heavily on my mind. My sadness is real yet it’s refreshing. It’s something I can deal with: I’m alive.  I find that each thing, among with my general reflections on my life, so far, have given me a value that I had never before noticed. What has all this to do with writing? We’ll for me, everything. As a writer, a portion of my tools are the events that mold and aid to direct my life, they are the essence of where I begin to write. I don’t know why any of this is coming to light to me just now, and it certainly isn’t easy, O’god not easy at all, but I think it has had something to do with love.

Three days ago I awoke with a sense of anxiety and I couldn’t figure out why. I felt overwhelmed with the need to get rid of things, like photographs and more importantly journals. My nearly 20 years of journals, my purges of teenage angst, woes, and heartaches, my twenty’s failings, and my newly thirties confusions. I felt that I needed to go through them first to see if there was anything worth keeping. In the beginning my journals were very introspective, but as I grew and became more interested in writing and as I studied the craft of acting, which forced me to view the world more outside of myself, I found that every once in awhile my journals would reflect these changes and occasionally I would write something worth keeping- something to work on later. I threw away so many pages of my past. It wasn’t like a denial of who I was, but more of a conscious decision to not think and react to life the way I had and have in the past. There wasn’t much to save, and this is not to insult myself, this is fine, more to recycle, and less to carry, but there were a couple of meaty gems, and I was able to look at them through new eyes as if I was some random reader that came across some new sentence that I found interesting or powerful. This is a pretty exciting sensation it’s like stepping outside of your body to look at yourself and then to think, hey I’m not that bad, in fact I’m pretty interesting.

There are some journals I haven’t touched. Some are from when I traveled and I have plans for them so until that time they sleep quietly on a shelf. Then there are others that I am not ready to open and don’t know if I ever will. There will probably be new journals to fill. Notebooks to collect my ideas, random images and weird sentences, dialogues and gems from the past- already in three days I’ve gone back to these notebooks and scratched and re-wrote added and subtracted. I feel like I’m working. To me I imagine my notebooks to look like the pages of some artist’s sketch book except instead of lines making images I have words making images. I’m just there to enjoy the process. I wrote in a post, about the disillusionment of parents, that I just wanted to open myself up like a chest and carve all my insides out, or to scream so loud that I shatter my reality into tiny particles of dust, and I think in the past three days that is exactly what I have been doing. As a result, I think my writing has gotten better. When I look back on my posts and previous writings, I feel like my descriptions and voice have become stronger more direct, and it hasn’t mattered so much to me whether anyone reads them as much as whether I am clearly saying what is on my mind.

 

It seems as if I am always looking back with new eyes. Thankfully. 

Dialogue- How to Write it. Some Advice from Old Professors

For some writers writing dialogue is the worst part of writing. they feel like they just are not able to write a believable conversation. This along with all techniques of writing is a practice, practice, practice, and read, read, read, exercise, but a few tips on how to write good dialogue is also useful. As with everything in crafting your writing there are techniques. I taken many writing courses in my past (my present not so much), and I’ve collected and kept most of my notes. I took writing courses in the 90’s at Chico State California University, and in the 2000’s at Portland Community college and Portland State University. Many of these notes on dialogue are taken from various writing courses. I’ve carried these notes with me over the years, and looked back to them from time to time to give me some advice or insight into my writing. Unfortunately, I can’t attribute which part came from which professor as everything slowly over the years mashed together. 

Why use Dialogue?

Dialogue can be used to move the story forward. It serves a purpose, y ou want it to revel tension between characters. Ideally. (But, you can do whatever you want.)

Use dialogue in creative non-fiction if:
A) It focuses on a moment of explicit tension between people-or
B) It focuses on a moment of suppressed tension between people-or
C) The dialogue revels someone’s character, either through expression of what they believe, or through their idiosyncratic way of stating something.

One of the most important things to remember when writing dialogue is to avoid meaningless preamble to a real exchange (unless you feel that it is essential to the story to put in meaningless preamble- kind of like David Lynch putting a white horse, a giant, and a dwarf in Twin Peaks- what was that all about?) For example read the boring exchange written below:

“Hi. It’s me.”
“How are you?”
“All right. How are you?”
“I’m all right.”
“What are you doing?”
BORING
Yes, sure people really do talk like that because let’s face it most of the time we have boring interactions called polite fiction, but no one wants to read it (unless you have a true purpose for it).

Get to the point:
“I want to talk to you about last weekend.”
“Last weekend never happened.”

OOOO Tell us more.

There are three possibilities for how dialogue can be delivered:
A) Summary dialogue, or the brief report.

It’s efficient and suggests conversation, but doesn’t give much of a sense of how things were said:

Mary said that she had never seen Star Wars and she was happy about that decision.
Mark said he was destroyed.

Literally destroyed, but not literally because then he would be dead and wouldn’t be able to say anything.

B) Indirect dialogue, which is more detailed than summarizing but is not directly quoted:

Mary said that she despised Star Wars and everything it represented so much that she had destroyed Mark’s entire video collection, and he deserved it. After all, he had begun to call out for Luke Skywalker when they made love, (what?) and why should she put up with that? Mark said he was crushed; he had no idea she was so upset, and saying he called out for Luke Skywalker was a slanderous lie.

(Yeah, he didn’t call out for Luke Skywalker while they were making love he called out for Han Solo)

Video collection probably gives an idea of how old these notes are.

C) Direct dialogue, the most dramatic form, happens in real time as opposed to the other forms:

“I’m so sick of your love affair with Star Wars I could scream,” Mary screamed.
“I’m so sick of you!” Mark screamed back.

You can intermix the three types, with good effect.

Some extra notes on dialogue:

The writer Jerome Stern says that adverbs in speech tags sound corny.

For example: “she said kittenishly; he responded sneeringly; she hissed angrily.” If the dialogue is well chosen, the feelings of the character will be clear. If it isn’t no amount of adverbs will help the reader feel the character.

So listen to Jerome Stern unless you are writing a detective or a romance novel then keep the adverbs because it just wouldn’t be the same with out them. Here’s a nice blog post that high lights some of his views on dialogue. You can also read one of his books on writing. 

A good way to “tag” dialogue so you don’t have to say “she said/he said” is to follow the lines with an action or a thought by the speaker:

“Did you really think I’d be willing to spend my life with a Star Wars freak?” Mary pulled off her engagement ring and threw it across the room.

Or you can write like James Joyce and really confuse the hell out of your readers as to who is really talking. “Is this the narrator or the speaker?”:

Stephen looked down on a wide headless caubeen, hung on his ashplanthandle over his knee. My casque and sword. Touch lightly two index fingers. Aristotle’s experiment. One or two? Necessity is that in virtue of which it is impossible that one can be otherwise. Argai, one hat is one hat. -Ulysses,pg. 192

But you should probably know what you are doing before you make the readers work so hard.

Point of View-What is it? How Do I Pick it?

What is a point of view? He said, She said? It’s all about perspective. You have to pick a point of view from which to tell your story. 

A) First person point of view happens when the person narrating the story is also a character in the story. “I woke up. I had this feeling. I am telling this story.”

B) Second person point of view happens when the writer chooses to refer to the main character as you. “You wake up. You have this feeling. You are telling a story.”

c) Third person point of view happens when the characters are reported on by a narrator who is not present in the story. Characters are described, and are called by names or he/she. “He woke up. She had a feeling. Sara wrote this story.”

  • Omniscient third person means that the narrator sees and knows all of the characters thoughts and actions in a god-like way. Sara woke up with a feeling of unusual dread. This was not the first time she rose with anxiety. Pete pretended to sleep as he felt her shifting beside him. He was tired of her anxiety attacks. He didn’t know how to deal with them. It was better for him to not respond. Sara watched him sleeping. She wondered why he no longer woke up with her like he used to. He used to be there for her. 
  • Partial omniscient (limited) third person means that the narrator tells about the thoughts of only one character. There are some things this narrator doesn’t know. Sara woke up with a feeling of unusual dread. This was not the first time she rose with anxiety. Pete remained asleep beside her. She stared at him as he slept. She wondered why he no longer woke up with her like he used to. He used to be there for her.
  • Objective third person narration means that the narrator does not allow himself/herself access to any thoughts or feelings, but describes only actions including dialogue. This is sometimes referred to as minimalism. Sara rose quickly from her bed. She was visibly shaken and put her arms around herself as if to comfort herself. She sat still for a moment and then looked at Pete who was still sleeping. She stared at him for a moment. “Are you awake?” She whispered. He didn’t move or make any sound. “Do you hear me anymore?” She whispered. She sighed softly. Then looked slowly around the bedroom.

Choosing a point of view also involves determining which characters in the story you want to tell has the most interesting vantage point, in your opinion. Sometimes, you can only find the viewpoint after telling it from numerous characters’ viewpoints. I once wrote an entire story in first person POV then switched to third and then back to first. That was a nightmare. Maybe don’t write the entire novel before you decide the POV is all wrong.

With the view point you have to choose your tense. The basic choices are past and present tense. Past is the most common and useful tense but present can add immediacy and excitement to a story. So what point of view will you pick, and how do you know if it’s right?

It’s all about how you want to tell the story, and how you want the readers to receive your story and feel about your characters. Do you want them to know they are reading a book or do you want them to forget they are reading a book? Do you want your voice to be heard or do you want to create a new voice as a narrator? Who is driving the story? Who is telling the story?

There are many resources from which to read for ideas as to how you should approach the point of view, but at the end of all the research you are ultimately the one to decide. Below I’ve added some links to blogs/articles that say much of the same things I am saying but also elaborate in other areas of the subject.

At this Writer’s Digest post if you scroll to the end of the article they have some nice tips on how to choose your perspective. They also use the terms 3rd person close and 3rd person distant, but those are the same as omniscient and objective. Different terms for the same things.

At Ink and Quills she goes into a couple other terms I had not heard of before in my old days of University. These include Deep Point of View and Multiple View (although I have heard of multiple just not deep).

On The Balance Careers blog you can find a nice writing exercise to use to play around with POV. It suggests you use something you’ve read which is great, but you can also use something you’ve already wrote. Write it in a new POV and see what you think.

 

See ya!

 

Student Ideas for New Stories

 

In my final year at Portland State University, I took an advanced writing class with  Mary Rechner.  In the class we brainstormed some ideas for generating characters, or stories of poems. It’s been many year’s since my time at PSU, but luckily I have my ever growing student loan to remind me that I was there.

What I’ve written in this post are copies from the notes of that class. I put the name of the student who came up with the prompt.

Pretend that you are an inanimate object and write from that voice. -Naomi

I actually did that once! I wrote a story (very short story) from the voice of a pitchfork and a shovel. I wrote it so long ago it’s hard to know if I still have it somewhere in my papers. There are a few novels out there that have inanimate objects as the characters look at Tom Robbins book Skinny Legs and All.

Use a stranger with whom you have recently had a brief encounter as the main character in a scene.-Julia

Maybe that strange guy on the bus that always wears the yellow rain coat even if it isn’t raining, and he carries his little lunch box everyday as he pushes past people yelling- “I need to get off! I need to get off!” Once he is off the bus he does a little sideways run to his next stop. What’s his story? You can write it.

Imagine the least likely end to your day-Gretchen

Like, I’m sitting here on my bed writing this blog and all of a sudden my cat turns to me and starts talking- telling me about her day- how she really thinks I ought to try a new type of litter and why am I never around. I just look at her, like this is normal for my cat to talk- and I say I’m on it. I didn’t think you cared for the litter you made it kinda obvious-And then she tucks me in bed. Now that’s an unlikely ending to a day.

Write a scene where there is food but no one eats it, and there is both internal and external dialogue- Ashlee

This one is interesting. There are so many whys for you as the writer to answer.

Write a story where everything that’s better is bigger and vice versa for smaller. Lame I know. I really wanted to do something about the Lumberjack Song from Monty Python because I had that stuck in my head all morning.I figured that wouldn’t be fair though, since not everyone has seen the Monty Python shows.-Jeremiah

I just thought that was funny. I don’t remember the guy, but I somehow saved his quote.

Once you have an idea and you’ve maybe sketched it out and let your imagination run wild you might want to take it further really explore where this idea can take you-could it be a story?

A Final (but not truly final) Note on Characters

Many years’ ago I took a screenwriting class. Amazingly enough I still have some of the notes. These notes focus on asking yourself development questions. It was a screenwriting class, but the genre doesn’t matter. These notes can still apply to any other writing format.

  • Whose the main Character? Why? What so great about them that they get to be main character?
  • What’s the character look like? Who are they what are they like to the other characters in the story what are they like to the readers? To the narrator? What’s their history?
  • What do they want and and what’s in their way? What do they need to do to get what they want? I was watching the Last Lecture by Randy Pausch which he gave at Carnegie Mellon and he talked about things that we dream about. Things that we want out of our life. He described obstacles as the brick wall- Randy said, the brick walls are there for a reason- they are there to see if you want it enough- they separate those who do from those who don’t. You can break down, climb over, do whatever as long as you get over that wall. What is your character’s brick wall, and do they want it enough? My teacher expressed this idea as the “spine” in a film story. Actors use this too- it’s the ultimate goal, what drives the character.
  • What are the conflicts? They have a problem but they can’t just solve it easily, there are all these tiny obstacles that lead up to the main obstacle- the devils in the details, right? Try to think of it from every angle, think of the idea prompt- the most unlikely thing to happen. Make a list-a list can turn to a scene in a film a scene in a book and scene on a stage.
  • How do the characters change? How do they grow? This is something I’ve asked myself and oddly struggled with, I’d write something and then ask myself, but did they change? How? This is where you can build structure. What happens along the way to move the character towards change? Again my teacher had described the structuring of events as what builds the plot- and yes there are stories without plots or where the plot isn’t the main driving point, but most stories have plots. What’s it all about?
  • What is the dramatic situation that sits at the center of the story, around which your plot will form? So I took that one word for word from my notes. Those are my teacher’s words. The dramatic situation is the set of circumstances around the plot that are the events that affect the character as they try to achieve their goal- like what are the circumstances involved in the characters life at the moment that something happens? What does he/she want and what brought him/her to the place where they are now?
  • How does the character affect the dramatic situation- if the character wasn’t the way he/she is then how could things be different? What is so unique to this character to this circumstance that this story is being told?

Why tell your story? Because you must.

What drives us? What’s our obstacles? – And of course there is the eternal why? WHY? Why is it this way or that? Why am I living? Why are any of us living? Most of the time there isn’t even an answer in our own lives, but this is your story, your character, your world. You can see the purpose and the outcome and it’s up to you to let us know if we should see it or not. Isn’t that exciting?
Go be exciting.

Character Development 2

We are returning to some ways to build a great character, a believable character. In the last post I wrote about some ways to brainstorm for your characters. Questions to ask about your characters, and of course the always important, researching your characters.

Now what about the deep inner life of your characters? Do you really need that? Sure, you’re building human beings (and other creatures) out of words. You want your readers to be lost in a world that you created. You want them to put down your book, and forget where they are for a few seconds as they adjust back to their own reality. You want them to believe your characters. One way to do that is to give your characters inner life, dreams, a backstory, and supporting characters that are just as real.

The inner workings, relationships, supporting characters and backstory

The inner workings of your character

  1. Were there any traumatic incidents in your characters past that may affect their present behavior? Are there good influences from the past that may affect their present behavior?
  2. What are the unconscious forces that are driving your character? How do those forces affect their motivations, actions and goals?
  3. Is your character too nice, too bland, too normal, too bad? Is there anything abnormal about them? How do their abnormalities cause conflict with other characters?

Character Relations

  1. Is there conflict between the characters? Is the conflict shown through the action, attitudes or values?
  2. Is there contrasts between the characters? What is different between them?
  3. Do they have the potential to transform each other?
  4. Will the reader understand why they would be together? Is the attraction clear? Is the impact they have on each other clear?

The Supporting Characters

  1. Do the characters have a function in the story? What is the function? What is the theme of the story? How do the supporting characters help the theme?
  2. How did I create my minor characters did I give them enough attention? If I used types did I avoid the stereotypes?
  3. Do I have contrasting characters? Do they add texture to the story?
  4. How have I defined the supporting characters and the minor characters?
  5. Do I have villains? What are their backstories? What drives them? Is there a good that they pursue but use evil actions to get that good?

Backstory

  1. Is my work with backstory a process of discovery?
  2. Does the backstory unfold in the story?
  3. When giving backstory am I only giving information that is relevant to the story?
  4. Am I writing the backstory in short sentences that can reveal within the action of the story or am I heading off into tangents?

 

That should give you enough to work with.