Friday, October 28, 2011

Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice? Not Necessarily

So. Between this post and the last, you've started a story. You're feeling confident, ready to take on the literary world, when you realize. . .

Wait. Where's my main character?

Okay, so maybe it doesn't relate to the question at hand, but the question of who your character is is still an important one.

Well, this is a problem. You're missing the lifeblood of the story. In fact, you wonder how you were able to write such a good beginning without first having a main character. Obviously you must be a very skilled writer. Which is why you are obviously equal to the challenge of creating a main character.

So let's take a look at what makes a main character.

1. What's My Motivation?

When we were kids, our TV and book heroes were perfect. Nothing bad ever happened to them and they didn't have emotionally scarring pasts that motivated them to make the world better. They fought crime because they had time on their hands, and fighting crime was a cool thing to do.

If you're writing for children, then by all means, perpetuate this idea of what heroes should be like. Heaven knows they need better role models than adults.

Everyone knows that politicians are bad role models. And politicians are adults. Adults also fire, sue, slander, insult, degrade, filibuster, pass legislation, declare war on other countries, and worst of all, de-friend each other on Facebook. On the whole, adults are not good role models. 

But if you're writing for an older audience, your main character probably needs a better motivation than that of boredom. They need a reason to exist, to resolve the conflict in the story. This is why we have literary tools like prophecies. When a character doesn't have a reason to do something, you can always throw a prophecy in there, and it's all good. For example:

"Link! You have to go rescue the Princess Zelda!"
"Why me?"
"I dunno. . . You have a pointy green hat and the prophecy says you have to, so I figured. . . . ."
"Oh. Well if the prophecy says so. . ."

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for a main character to do what he/she does. Patrick Jane from The Mentalist is looking for revenge. Shawn Spencer from Psych is actually motivated by boredom. The members of the Fringe team out of Fringe are invested in trying to protect the general populace from the horrors of rogue science. And in Lost. . . well, we still don't know what Lost was about.

The point is, the main character needs a reason to be doing what they're doing. Remember, if you can't come up with a valid motivation, then you can always throw a prophecy in there.

Courtesy of DarkML on deviantART
Image Detail
Remember, prophecies never fail. Redwall and Link are proof of this, though I'm pretty sure Link gets tired of rescuing the princess again. . . and again. . . and again. . . and again. . .

2. Personality

I'm sure you can guess why this is important. Personality dictates how your main character interacts with other characters, and determines the entire tone of the story. And unless you're George Orwell, you probably want people to like, or at least be emotionally invested, in your character.

1984 was a horrible book. I hated it. So did most of my AP Lit. class. Which is exactly why George Orwell's character Winston Smith is a perfect example of what not to make your character.

Personality differs depending on the character's background. Shawn Spencer out of Psych is a high-flying, amiable main character that takes everything way less seriously than it should be taken. Despite being incapable of holding down a job for more than two hours and lacking skills that would be applicable in any field but murder investigations and flirting with girls, he appeals to the audience with his sense of humor and his antics. He's a great main character.

Then you have awesome characters, like Patrick Jane from The Mentalist. Watch more than a few episodes, and you get the feeling that Jane is an irresponsible adult with a penchant for taking serious things (like homicide investigations) lightly, treating them as games or challenges. Okay, you ask: How is Jane any different from Shawn?

Shawn in a fun-loving guy that makes the best of things (even gruesome murders).

Jane acts like he's having fun, but you never quite know what's going on in his head. Perhaps the best part of his character is that he thinks like a serial killer, and you get this sense that if he wasn't working with the police, a serial killer he would be.

What makes him different, young writers, is the fact that Jane is a middle-aged man whose wife and daughter were murdered by a serial killer that only targets girls and women.

I like both The Mentalist and Psych, but both of them appeal to me for different reasons. Psych is a riot. It's the best thing to watch if you're having a bad day. The Mentalist, on the other hand, provides depth and meaning. Why is this? Because Shawn is funny, therefore Psych is funny. Jane is a cross between psychotic and genius, and he's looking for revenge, all while keeping up a carefree facade. Therefore, The Mentalist has depth.

Do you see the connection?

The personality of your character is important. It determines the tone of the story, and in part, defines what the story is about. For all intents and purposes, the main character is the story. And his/her personality determines the mood of the story, be it light-hearted or dark.

3. Past

A character's past is kinda important. I mean, it only shaped them into the person they are in your book, the person that's driving the action and fighting for the salvation of humanity. So with that said, giving a little thought to your character's past is a must for any good writer.

The amount of background you give your main character varies, depending on the character's age. If your character is 9, he or she probably isn't going to have a lot of backstory. 14-22, most likely a bit more backstory. 23-38, more backstory, and so on and so forth. The older your character is, the more experiences he or she's going to have had, so the more background information they'll have.

Nothing makes a character like a bad childhood. The most motivated characters are the ones that had bad childhoods.

Additionally, a bad childhood is always good material. The psychological and emotional damage creates amazing potential for great moments between characters. You'll notice that a good number of TV characters had bad childhoods, ranging from Olivia from Fringe to Agent Lisbon from The Mentalist. Both of these characters are driven, carry around baggage, and are guaranteed to have emotional meltdowns every two seasons or so. Their pasts also allow them to have great moments with other characters, and build relationships.

4. And a Last Note About Stereotypes

It's a fact. Stereotypes exist in writing. There's really no way to avoid it. A good writer, though, will put a new spin on an existing stereotype. And that's the key to giving your readers a character they can enjoy. It provides them with something familiar, while giving it a feel of novelty.

Since stereotypes are such a prevalent feature in writing and in literature, it's okay for your character to fall into one of those stereotypical categories. Of course, you want to avoid making your main character too stereotypical. Take, for example, James Cameron's Avatar. Who is the main character? A crippled soldier given the chance to shine. Not only have we seen this formula before, it has some glaring problems:

Everyone will agree that Avatar was a work of art. Unfortunately, the main character would make most respectable writers want to puke. The saving grace of this movie is the CGI and the exotically violent battle scenes.

1. No depth. At all. The guy is completely predictable. Because of that, I knew how the movie was going to end two and a half hours before it actually ended.

2. The main character was unsophisticated, rebellious. . . essentially a teenager in a blue body. This is a problem, because of the fact is that he's a twenty-something and should be far more mature, given the fact that he was disabled in war. Instead of being able to emotionally invest myself in this character, I found myself irked by the do-what-I-want-and-get-away-with-it attitude.

3. The movie was essentially a high-tech remake of Dances With Wolves. Look beneath the over-the-top CGI and the explosively epic battle scenes that make you want to bleed from the eyes, and you'll see Dances With Wolves. . . circa 2009. Sure, Cameron put a new spin on it. . . but it felt empty and far less meaningful than the original. Let's put it this way: Dances With Wolves is a home-grown dinner. It means something to you. On the other hand, Avatar is a pack of Ramen. A very shiny, eye-catching pack of Ramen, but still Ramen.

So to sum it up, don't invest too heavily in stereotypes. Cameron created a character he thought everybody would like by stereotyping him to your average everyday disabled twenty-something veteran. It worked; people liked him. But those of us hoping for a deep, engaging character were extremely disappointed. It's a lesson all young writers should take from Avatar: your characters can fall within stereotype categories, but adding a few unique details to give them an edge goes a long way.

So those are just a few tips on the basic details that make up a main character. Equipped with this knowledge, you're now ready to craft that deep, engaging character so deserving of the awesome beginning you've already written.

On a different note, I find it quite saddening that Halloween has fallen victim to one of the greatest of predators.

Image Detail
Halloween falls on a Monday this year.   -_-

Happy Halloween!

Monday, October 24, 2011

5 Ways to Start A Story

So a friend of mine has professed having trouble with starting stories. This seems to be a problem common to all writers, because beginnings are really rather important in a story. A story without a beginning is like getting the main course without an appetizer to precede it. It's just not complete.

Courtesy of SweetSurrender13 on deviantART

Of course, some of you would argue that appetizers are really unnecessary and that you're paying for something that'll fill you up before you even get the main course. I can't argue with that because it's true. Just pretend, for the sake of the post, that we live in a world where appetizers are an absolute necessity before the main course.

Just as you can order different appetizers, there are different ways you can start a story. I've gone back through my work to take a look at how I've started different stories, and realized that I've used a variety of techniques. So I took it into mind to go through and categorize them, starting with. . .

1. Questions

"Do your parents drag you off to England periodically?"

The answer is obviously no, unless your parents do in fact periodically drag you off to England (if so, let me know in the comments below). Beginning a story with a question is a pretty safe way to start a story, because it automatically engages the reader with the narrator. Your average reader will want to know why the question is relevant, and will have, at some level, automatically answered the question even as they read it. 

Beginning a story with a question also allows you to give some pretext for what the story's about. Obviously England is an important part of the story, or else the writer wouldn't be asking the reader about it. So as a general rule, if you're going to ask the reader a question, make it relevant to the story. There's no use in asking about something that's not in the story.

2. Doing Something

"He wandered the sidewalks, a remnant of an old world. Around him, a city rose in glittering splendor. . . . ."

. . . blah blah blah blah. It might just be me, but most stories begin with someone doing something. And that's perfectly fine; stories are, after all, about things that are being done. The problem with beginnings like these is getting the reader to care about what the character is doing. If the character or characters aren't doing anything to warrant attention, then. . . well, they're not going to get any attention.

Let me put it this way. You order a small salad for your appetizer. You get the salad. . . without dressing. If you're a vegan and a health nut, this is perfectly acceptable. However, the rest of us usually prefer our salads with some sort of flavoring. Why? Because salad, on its own, usually doesn't taste that good.

Ever tried eating plain salad? It doesn't taste good. It doesn't taste like much of anything but lettuce.

The salad, metaphorically, is your beginning. The dressing can be any number of things, but it gives the beginning its flavor. It could be suspense. Action. A secret. It might be clipped sentences, terse dialogue. Or it could be something more subtle, like the gradual epiphany of a character as he/she sips their tea in the local Starbucks. Whatever it is, the dressing makes the salad an engaging experience. Likewise, readers want an engaging experience when they start a story. 

So next time you try to start a story with somebody doing something, make sure you give your reader something more than just a plain salad. There's merit in dressing up a beginning to make it stand out.

3. Dialogue

“Really, I’ve got to know.” I began as I stared at Lyric across the table. “What kind of connections does a farmhand from Denmark have in order to get a private jet, on demand, headed for England?”

Dialogue can be a good way to open up a story. It takes your reader right into the story, right into the interactions between the characters. That being said, it can also be risky.

If you're just starting a new story and you begin with dialogue, you have to consider the fact that the reader knows nothing about the characters having the conversation. Basically, it's not the characters that are holding the reader's attention. It's the conversation. And if the conversation is boring, the characters (which the reader is just now meeting) will come across as boring. It's a crime of association: boring conversation = boring characters.

Image Detail
If you're a famous writer with a strong following of diehards, you can get away with pretty much anything, just so long as you please the diehards. (Stephanie Meyer, we're staring at you.)

The dialogue rule is different for sequels and prequels. The reader has already read the previous books and therefore knows the characters, is emotionally invested in them, and understands what the ongoing conversation means to the characters. In sequels, opening with dialogue can be a smooth segue into the story.

4. Description

"There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . ."

- Opening paragraph of Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Opening a story with description is all about catching the reader's attention. Something needs to stand out and basically be worth talking about. Whatever you're describing should in some way be relevant to the story, otherwise the reader's going to ask "Okay. . . so what was that all about?"

In other words. . . take something from your story, capitalize on it in an interesting way, and use that to move into the story. If we go back to the appetizer metaphor, then a bad descriptive beginning is like ordering a cube of tofu for your appetizer. 

Bad descriptive beginnings are like straight tofu: they taste weird, and you can't imagine what would motivate someone to eat it.

And ordering a cube of tofu for an appetizer is, at best, questionable.

By contrast, a good descriptive beginning is like the cinnamon breadsticks from Pizza Hut with the white icing you can dip them in. It's delectable, it draws the reader in with little details that catch the attention, tastes satanically good, and most importantly, leaves you craving more.

In short, it's really not that hard. Most people enjoy warm cinnamon breadsticks with icing over tofu. Likewise, most readers enjoy a descriptive beginning that tickles their senses and engages them over a beginning that doesn't do those things.

5. Let Me Tell You About. . . Me.

This opening technique will either have the reader hopelessly in love with your character. . . or moving onto the next book on the shelf. One great example of a successful "Let me tell you about me" opening can be found not in a book, but in a movie. If any of you have seen Megamind, then you know that the main character opens the movie with a killer summarization of his life to date. He tells it in such a way that the audience is emotionally invested in him (despite him being an evil genius).

Image Detail

And then there's the stories that begin with "Call me Ishmael. . ."

It's definitely a challenge. How long can you stay awake?

Don't get me wrong, Moby Dick's a classic. It's so much of a classic that countless people have copied the opening format and worn it into the ground. In a "Let me tell you about me" opening, you need your character to stand out, or you've lost the reader. That doesn't mean your character has to be quirky or plain off-the-rails crazy. It just means that they need to be different. . . which granted, is difficult in today's book industry.

So there's five ways to start a story. Each one has its perks and pitfalls, and I've tried to point those out so you can better write a beginning to what will undoubtedly be the next bestseller. Of course, there are other ways to start a story, and you're free to use those. 

So good luck writing. Until the next post. . . I'll leave you with a bold statement on what we should do with most of our elected officials (most of them probably deserve this).

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Jumping in the Pool

 "Blogging: Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few."

-Despair, Inc.

I'm sure the quote explains itself. Nevertheless, we blog - and psychologists have failed to find a reason why (I'm sure they're working on it, though). So in spite of the utter futility of blogging, I've decided, quite irrationally, to blog. Most likely it's due to the fact that I'm a college student with time on his hands.

Image Detail

Indeed it is the question. And I have answered that question with a vigorous "Meh. Sure. I don't have anything better to do."

Image Detail

Of course, the purpose of blogging is hopefully to add some sort of useful insight to the world, and I'll try (sometimes not very hard) to do that. On top of that, you'll notice that the name of my blog is Inkfingers, and that's for a reason. I'm a writer, an artist, a poet, a musician, and a master procrastinator. Sometimes I'll be posting work by friends, colleagues, or yours truly; other times I'll be complaining about a wide variety of topics, ranging from my roommates to the inadequacies of government. And let's be honest, guys: blogging is basically a platform for complaining about things.

So that said, there's your introduction to Inkfingers. If it catches your attention, then by all means. . . tune in for more.