Thursday, November 25, 2010

Naming Your Heroes

I thank all of you who dragged yourselves either out of a triptophan-induced coma to read this right after I posted it or for taking the time to check in while you’re in line for a Black Friday sale.

I’ve talked once before about names for characters and ways to come up with them and how much meaning needs (or doesn’t need) to be given to them. I thought it would be a good time to revisit that train of thought, especially since I’ve had two books come out since then. One of which has become unexpectedly popular.

If you've listened to or read any of the different interviews I’ve done over the past year, you know a lot of the characters in Ex-Heroes first came to be back during my grade school years. At the time, my big goal in life was to make comic books, even though I didn’t know the art and the story were done by two different people. I made up tons and tons of characters when I was supposed to be diagramming sentences, and I’d sketch them out in one of the art notebooks my mom would get me. In all fairness, about 70% of them were either crap or completely derivative of existing Marvel or DC characters.

A few had solid ideas behind them, though. So here's how some of their names developed (or just fell) on the page. And because I'm not above self-depricating humor, here are some of the sketches of the characters that eventually, well, grew up into the ones in the book.

By the way, a little warning right up front-- all the images you’re about to see are close to twenty-five years old. They were so faint I had to use my camera because the scanner couldn’t pick up the images. The artwork is not spectacular. Neither is the sense of proportions. The sense of light and shadow is non-existent. God forgive me, much of it is influenced by mid-late ‘80s fashion.

All that being said, unnecessary cruelty will not be tolerated and shall be stomped out post-haste.

St. George got his name a bit circularly. I knew early on I was going to be using a lot of the old characters I’d made up in middle school and junior high, and one of these was the Dragon (originally created as a fresh teenage recruit for Marvel’s New Mutants). I also knew I wanted the post-apocalyptic heroes and civilians to be on a more casual, even level with each other. I figured it wouldn’t be uncommon for many of the heroes to have given up their secret identities. The catch here was that I still felt the Mighty Dragon, as my ‘alpha’ hero, would be a person of great respect in the community.

As it happens, I’ve loved the story of St. George and the Dragon since I was a kid, and this solved a number of issues in one fell swoop. It also didn’t take long to go from there to making his real name George Bailey, just like the lovable martyr Jimmy Stewart played in It’s A Wonderful Life. This helped give St. George a bit more of a “Superman” feel to him (the phenomenally powerful hero with the goofy, clumsy secret identity) and humanized him as a guy trying to deal with the very-recognizable name his parents hung on him. It also immediately tied him to a figure with a solid moral code and strong ethics.

Here’s a fun fact. Stealth was originally a man. He was one of my oldest characters, originally called Night Stalker, first made up in Mr. Berenson’s fifth grade class at York Middle School. That’s kind of an overused name, though, so I played around and came up with Stealth, which is kind of self-explanatory.  At the same time, I was noticing the rarity of female characters in my early oeuvre, and I liked the idea of a woman as the uber badass of the Mount.

I didn’t want to give Stealth’s real name for a few reasons. Her backstory was actually the second one I wrote for the novel, and as I polished it over four or five more drafts it became apparent she was the most obsessed and driven of all of them. She holds herself to such an impossibly high standard and feels like she has to prove something. Considering how she decided to become a hero, it made no sense for her to give up her secret identity, despite the conditions they were all living under. This also firmed up her character even more, because what kind of woman refuses to remove her mask when there’s such a small number of people left in the world?

Zzzap is, by far, the most powerful being in the story, and it’s only his own personal limitations which hold him back. He gets queasy and his mental reactions are a lot slower than what he’s physically capable of doing. I wanted a very plain, average name. Dare I say it, a Joe Six-Pack name.
I also admit I wanted to evoke the sense of a classic comic book secret identity with at least one of my characters. So many of those heroes have alliterative names. Peter Parker. Wally West. Reed Richards. Susan Storm. Bruce Banner. Matt Murdock. Stephen Strange. Heck, people have written essays on Superman’s LL fixation with his supporting cast. So Zzzap became Barry Burke.

For the record, the actual name Zzzap, with three Z’s, was inspired by an old Hulk villain called Zzzax. I read somewhere that writer Steve Englehart wanted someone who’d always come last in any alphabetical listing. So I followed in his footsteps with Zzzap.

Actually, one more fun fact. I was digging through the old sketchbooks for pictures to go with this post and came across this one here with the very tiny picture of “Zap” amidst a swarm of heroes. I seem to remember this as a very early experiment in starting a picture with stick-figures (which I think I learned from Draw Comics The Marvel Way or some such book). If the date on the cover of the sketchbook is to be believed, it means this is probably one of the oldest pictures of any of these heroes, from 1982. So Zzzap predates Return of the Jedi.

When I first came up with the idea for Gorgon, I freely admit it was a prepubescent idea for a character who could touch Rogue from the X-Men without getting zapped. I made him an energy-vampire off the rationale that similar powers would cancel each other out, and once it was optic-based (he hid his eyes behind sunglasses) Gorgon seemed like a pretty straightforward name to use. His vague backstory was created just for the novel, as was the idea of his custom, camera-iris goggles.

For the record, this was long before most people pictured Rogue as Anna Paquin, and even longer before Anna Paquin was getting in on with vampires on a regular basis. That was all just a bit of serendipity.
His real name of Nikolai Bartamian came from a desire to show off a bit of LA’s melting pot. There’s just a ton of different populations here. Mexican. Korean. Armenian. Chinese. Japanese. I didn’t want it to feel like a pile of male white Anglo-Saxon heroes. And Bartamian is the last name of a friend of mine.

In my original collection of sketches and index cards, Cerberus wasn’t so much a suit of armor as a technological weapons array you wore with regular clothes (kind of like Whiplash in Iron Man 2). It even had a cape and flared gloves. The name came from its ability to throw three types of energy beams. And he was a villain (yep, another he-becomes-she), or at least such a dark, zero-tolerance anti-hero/ mercenary-for-hire that he served as a villain in all respects.

For Ex-Heroes, since Cerberus is this huge, powerful, armored machine, the person inside had to be contrasted as much as possible to stand out. Danielle is a great name which even looks feminine on the page. I also liked the idea of a woman who wants to be feminine, for the guys to look at her, but really has no idea how to make that happen. And it doesn’t help that she’s usually wearing this monstrous battlesuit and has a code-name which makes people mistake her for a man. Morris, in all honesty, I just picked out of the air because it sounded good with Danielle.

Cairax Murrain was always a monster, always a villain. Originally he was a cape-and-robed sorcerer (named John Carracks) who turned into the demon through a big long ritual (and a sticky, Alien-esque cocoon). The name Cairax was just a bunch of hard syllables, meant to sound a bit alien. Murrain is an archaic word for plague (anyone who’s sat through a full Seder probably knew that already). Together it’s a pretty good name for a demon. The two part name also hints at a certain level of self-awareness and intelligence, because I wanted it clear that the demon itself wasn’t just some slavering beast. Being a little older, I liked the idea of evil slaved to good through this magical “partnership” and then effectively becoming a villain again because of the ex-virus.

His real name of Maxwell Hale came from two places, so to speak. Max ties back to Cariax, sound-wise, and let me hint the demon isn’t entirely responsible for Max coming across as a bit ruthless and self-centered, no matter how noble his motives were. On the flipside, Hale is a very simple name. It may not be common but it sounds common, which helped ground the guy who was supposed to be this amazing sorcerer and make him a bit more relatable.

And that, I think, covers most of the bases for now. I could go into Regenerator, Midknight, Blockbuster, and dear little Banzai, but this is kind of long already and most of the points I wanted to make have been covered.

Next time, I’ll probably go on for a dozen or two paragraphs about something else.

Until then, have a Happy Thanksgiving. And try to do some writing after the pecan pie.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Do You Feel Real? And If So, I’d Like to Know...

More pop culture references for the old folks.

Yeah, I’m running late. Very sorry. I hit the home stretch on the first draft of Ex-Patriots and I had to give my attention to that.

Check it out, though. The blog counter passed 10,000 hits. And it did it on a week I didn’t post anything.

Anyway, I haven’t prattled on about characters in a while, so I figure I’m due...

I may have mentioned once or twice before that characters are key to a successful story. Non-stop action with flat stereotypes can be diverting in a film for a little while, but in a book (and in a good movie) characters are your bedrock. If the reader doesn’t have someone they like, someone they can relate to, a story can be dead in the water by page five.

Now, there are three common ways people try to make their characters come to life and become real on the page. I say “try” because all three are based off a simple misunderstanding of why certain aspects of characters work. Let’s go over what they are, the problems with each one, and how you can work around it.

The first method is to describe these characters in amazing detail. The writer introduces us to Phoebe and tells us her hair color, eye color, height, and weight. Then come descriptions of her hairstyle, body type, the shape of her face, and possible tattoos (visible or not). There’s a list of her measurements and shoe size. In the next sentence we get the name of her lipstick, the name of her perfume, the designer for her jewelry, the designer for her shoes, and the style of her manicure. Phoebe gets described to us in such exacting detail there’s no way we can picture her any way except how the writer envisioned her.

The second way is for the writer to give pages of background on the character. We’ll get lengthy flashbacks to Phoebe’s first day of school, her first kiss, her first sophomore English class at Prestigious University. Sometimes she’ll start talking to friends, family, or complete strangers and tell them about the last time she baked cookies with her mom, the awkwardness of losing her virginity in the back of a pick-up truck, or the day she realized she wanted to be an Oscar-winning screenwriter. Sometimes these historical revelations won’t even be a flashback or dialogue, they’ll just be straight prose from the writer.

The barista gave Phoebe her double-whipped half-mocha latte with whipped cream, just the way she liked it, just the way she had it every day. He was a handsome man, and part of her wanted to ask him out. He wore plaid flannel shirts a lot, though. It was a silly thing, she knew, but plaid flannel always made her mind go back to her grandfather’s heart attack. He’d always worn plaid, too, and he’d been wearing it the day she and mom were visiting and he grabbed at his chest and made that awful noise. Young Phoebe had been so determined not to look at his pain-stricken face she’d just stared at the plaid shirt. So for now the barista would just have to stay behind the counter.

The third way, thankfully, is the least common, but it happens enough I feel the need to mention it. Real people have irrational quirks, sometimes do nonsensical things, and often go against their own best interests. Sometimes we even up and die in awful, unexpected ways (statistics say most people do at least once in their life). It’s the way we’re all wired. We’ve all seen people do things like this. We’ve all done things like this.

The logic here is if the writer has the characters act illogically, they’re acting more real. If Phoebe is a bundle of odd behaviors, then she has to be believable. It’s almost a challenge to the reader. Since real people do this, how can anyone say Phoebe isn’t real if she’s doing it? Heck, if Phoebe randomly gets hit by a car in the last few pages, that’s so much like life it almost counts as art, doesn’t it...?

Now, here’s why these three methods usually don’t work. I won’t say they never work, but if you’re the gambling type you should consider the odds here.

The problem with using tons of details to describe your character is it breaks the flow of your story. Events come to a screeching halt while the writer has this infodump. If you look back up there, I bet you started skimming just while reading that list of potential descriptions, didn’t you? If a list of general examples can’t hold your attention, what’s going to happen when it’s a list of specifics two or three times long?

The other catch to this is that a lot of the time readers form their own mental images of what a character looks like. For example, if you look over the past few paragraphs you’ll see I haven’t actually described Phoebe at all, but you’ve probably got some mental image of her when I use the name, don’t you? If you know what this character looks like with no description, then two pages of description is just pointless excess.

In a similar vein, a writer can add in a hundred pages of biographical facts and anecdotes and it’s still not going to make a character seem real. More likely, the story’s going to suffer from the same expositional infodump I mentioned above, and it’s going to come to a crashing halt again. The problem is relevance. While there’s no question these past events shaped Phoebe’s life and the person she is today, the reader’s going to wonder what do they have to do with this story. No matter how good a particular element is, if it doesn’t relate to the story the writer’s telling it’s just bulk filler.

The other problem here is no matter how much raw data you pour out on the page, there’s always more which isn’t out there. There are shaping events we forgot or didn’t want to mention. There are people we probably never realized how influential they were to our lives.

Consider Angelina Jolie or Barack Obama. Here are two people who’ve had their entire lives put under a microscope and studied by the whole world. And the whole world’s continuing to study them today. Thing is, though, there’s still tons of stuff we don’t know about both of them. Common sense tells you that. I’m not talking about that birth certificate nonsense or any of that. I mean simple things. No matter how much you know about someone--about anyone--there’s always more you don’t know.

(Yes, I needed a picture of something to break up the wall of text, so we've got Tomb Raider. There it is.)

The problem with the third method, randomness, is that fiction is held to a higher standard than real life. Nonsensical, illogical, unbelievable things happen in real life all the time, but life isn’t scripted. When I pick up a book, I know John or Jane Doe is the writer behind it. There is no randomness, because every word on the page was deliberately chosen. And that means any apparent randomness has to be serving the purposes of the story. Because if it’s not, well... why is it there?

So, with all that being said, is there any way to make these three methods work?

If not, this hasn’t been terribly informative, has it? Hardly worth the two-week wait. I should probably come up with something...

Okay, the big trick to all of these, as I mentioned above, is relevance. Like adjectives or adverbs, if character elements aren’t serving a purpose they shouldn’t be there. Strip away all the noise and clutter and just give the reader what they need.

For example...

Let me tell you an ugly secret. Phoebe lives in a fleabag apartment infested with rats and roaches, always buys her bread from the day-old rack, and eats peanut butter sandwiches for lunch every day of the week. She always has immaculate hair and designer clothes, though, especially on the weekends. I’ve just told you something about her, haven’t I? More than just the words on the page, too. You’ve got a sense of who Phoebe is and where her priorities are. Maybe even a mental image of her. All in just a hair over three lines.

See, I don’t need a lot of details, just the right details. Did I need to tell you about Phoebe’s anklet or her lipstick or how tall she is for that little character sketch to work? I just need to pick the right details to create the image and imply the person I wanted you to see.

Here’s another example for you. When I was just a ten year old kid I used to walk a mile-long paper route in the snow seven days a week, usually four or five months out of the year. No, seriously, I did. I grew up in Maine-- of course it snowed a good chunk of the time.

What does this have to do with what I’m getting at?


However, once a week I would also walk almost three miles down into York Beach to Garfield’s Newsstand. Wednesday was the day new comics came in, so from about age eight on I would trudge down there-- rain, sleet or snow-- and work through the wire racks looking for new issues of Spider-Man, ROM, Star Wars, Hulk, and more. If it was really cold and I needed more time to warm up, I’d go through the tiny section of genre paperbacks in the back of the store. That’s how I first came to know John Carter of Mars and the old Han Solo novels. And it wasn’t too long before I was copying all of these tales on one level or another.

Y’see, Timmy, the backstory of me delivering newspapers is crap. I’m also not going to waste time retelling the story of my dog Flip and my dislike of ketchup. None of them have anything to do with anything here.

The second story, though, shows some of those first seeds of me becoming a writer. It’s relevant to me as the person behind the ranty blog, so it’s especially worth mentioning in this little rant. If you’re going to add in stories about a character’s past, they should somehow relate to what’s going on in the “now” of your story. Or your blog post.

The randomness issue is the easiest one to deal with. It’s okay for seemingly random things to happen in a story--key word seemingly. At the end of the day, the writer is in charge and the events in this story are happening for a reason which benefits this story. I can tell you, from a narrative point of view, why Duke Perkins dies at the beginning of Under the Dome, why the unnamed comedian’s wife dies in The Killing Joke, and why Ben Kenobi dies in Star Wars. All of these are seemingly random events... but they’re not random, are they? Each one drives the plot and character development in a certain way and in a specific direction. That’s the kind of “randomness” which should be in a story-- the kind that serves the writer’s purpose.

So make your characters. But really make them real.

Next Thursday is Thanksgiving. Wow, this year has flown by. I think I may put a name to something I’m thankful for.

Until then, go write.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Why You Didn't Win

This week’s rant is a bit screenwriter-centric, but it really applies to any sort of submission anywhere. The following words are going to be a bit harsh (even for me), so if you’ve got thin skin... well, next week I was going to talk about characters a bit. If you’re quick to offend, maybe you should just go check out John August’s blog for now and come back here next week.

So, last night I was at the Nicholl Fellowship dinner to see the five new folks get awarded their fellowships. I couldn’t help but notice a lot of you weren’t there. In fact, lets be honest... most of you reading this weren’t there. I’d even be willing to bet a few bucks none of you were there.

Granted, I’m betting not all of you entered the Nicholl this year, but I’m pretty sure a couple of you did. And you weren’t there last night, were you?

A shame really. The steak was fantastic. I mean, seriously, it was amazing. Three of the best meals I’ve ever had have been at Nicholl dinners.

But I digress...

First off, let’s get one thing straight. Nobody deserves to win a contest. Just because all your friends won doesn’t mean you get to as well. It’s never your turn, it’s never about time, and luck has very, very little to do with it. We’re not talking about statistics. A screenplay contest (or any writing submission) is not a lottery.

With that being said, the ugly truth is, most of you reading this don’t deserve to win a contest anyway. Especially not one as prestigious as the Nicholl. That’s all there is to it. You can argue all you like but that’s the way it is.

Let me explain.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say I’ve decided to hold a contest for horror screenplays. One grand prize, with four lesser prizes. Everyone who subscribes to the ranty blog enters, and let’s say some folks past that, too. By fortunate coincidence, I end up with 100 entries.

Let’s look at those 100 scripts (or short stories, or novels, or whatever it is sitting in a big pile in front of me).

Well, first off, there’s the 50% rule. Out of these 100 screenplays, odds are half of them are going to go right out the window. Figure some people submitted comedies or dramas that features zombies, but they figured it wouldn’t hurt to try. Some of them probably didn’t even have a horror element--they were just straight romcoms or fantasy or sci-fi. I’ll probably recognize their genius and give them an award anyway, though, won’t I?

Plus a few of them will be short stories, not screenplays, and probably a few that are in stage play format, too. One or two will be novels that were very poorly converted into a screenplay template (I mean, it’s all essentially the same thing, right?).

And some will just be God-awful. No other way to say it. Twenty blatant typos on page one. Characters so flat they could slide under a door. Dialogue that makes it sound like English is everyone’s second (or third) language. A plot that sounds a lot like a five year old explaining where dinosaurs came from.

So right there, 50% gone from my horror screenplay contest with almost no effort on my part. Maybe as few as 40. Perhaps as many as 60. In my experience, though, 50% is a great rule of thumb.

The next level of cuts will be those scripts that just don’t measure up. They’ve got an interesting premise, maybe a very clever take on an old idea, but they just didn’t do enough with it. Maybe the writer didn’t work on the screenplay enough because they took the lottery mentality and tried to enter four or five scripts that all could’ve used another two or three drafts. Or maybe it was just one script and it really just needed one more polish.

True story. A few years back I entered a contest that kept their own message boards up so people could talk. One guy proudly stated on these boards that he’d entered over a dozen screenplays. He also directed people to his website, where he had loglines for the three dozen or so scripts he’d written in the past two or three years. When none of his scripts placed, it was all the proof he needed that this contest was obviously a scam.

(I came in third. Got a free copy of Final Draft and a nice certificate.)

If this is the first draft of your script, it’s not going to win a contest. A lot of you may argue that there's always a chance, I shouldn't be negative, you may be a truly gifted amateur, blah blah blah, yadda yadda yadda. This is true. It’s also true, by every known law of physics, that random atoms in the air could come together in just the right way as to form an ounce of pure gold that drops right into your lap. True, and statistically possible, but the odds of it happening are so insanely, ridiculously low that you might as well say it’s impossible.

Please note, this doesn’t mean the script is bad or the writing is inherently flawed. It just means it isn’t polished enough. Despite what you may believe, there are actually tons of diamonds in the world. Literally, tons of them. They’re not all gem-quality, though, and not all of the ones that are get cut and polished correctly. That’s why engagement rings cost half a year’s pay.

So, that kills almost 2/3 of the scripts that are left. They're good, but they aren't great. Now we’re down to seventeen entries (rounding up, because I’m feeling generous).

Next is the rough one. It’s the human factor, and it pervades every single level of the judging process to a small degree. Readers are human beings doing a job. They have good days and bad days. They can get distracted or they can focus on the wrong thing. Think of your day job-- are you 100% focused on it every minute you’re there? Or does your mind wander to your holiday shopping, your personal life, wondering about the cute temp’s personal life, wondering if your boss is that clueless or that brilliant...?

Well, readers do the same things. And, alas, they do it while reading your script.

There’s plusses and minuses to this. On the downside, your sci-fi romance screenplay might land on John’s desktop. John hates sci-fi and he just found out Phoebe’s dumping him for someone else. So today, well... today it might be a little tough for him to be impartial. You’re probably going to lose a point or three from him, and those points are crucial.

Or it might land on Wakko’s desk. Wakko loves sci-fi. Lives and breathes it. He’s got an Enterprise telephone and a TARDIS cell phone charm. Plus, he had his third date with Phoebe last night and... well, the third date went very, very well. So he’s thrilled to get your script and he’s almost definitely going to pass it on to the next level, even if maybe it doesn’t really deserve to make the cut..

Then again, it could go to Dot. She’s okay with some sci-fi, doesn’t mind it, but your script will get a fair shake with her. But little indy character dramas with no plot? Man, she loathes those things...

Maybe you’ll luck out. Maybe you won’t. Alas, statistically, the human factor is more likely to hurt than help. Y’see, Timmy, a good script that gets shot down stays shot down. A so-so script that doesn’t get shot down now most likely will get shot down later and then stay shot down. So if the human factor has a permanent effect, it’ll be a bad one.

At the most though, as I said, we’re only going to lose a few scripts to this. Let’s say three.

Now we’re down to fourteen out of the original hundred. See how quick they go away?

Last but not least...not everyone wins. When it comes down to it, contests have only so many slots for winners, and they can't hand out prizes to every script that may deserve them. I’m giving away five prizes. That’s it. You can write a spectacular script and still come in second. Or even eighth.

That's not just math, it’s life.

Keep in mind, while not winning is heartbreaking, it doesn't have to be the end. Many contests offer feedback and judges’ comments on entries, so losing can still get you valuable information about how your script was perceived. You can use these responses to hone and polish your script even further, so the next time it goes out it will be stronger than ever.

It’s also worth noting that several producers, agents, and managers who keep track of contests look at the semi-finalists and finalists with just as much interest as the actual winners. James V. Simpson was a finalist for the 2006 Nicholl Fellowship. He didn't get the fellowship, but his screenplay, Armored, still ended up selling for almost half a million dollars and got released earlier this year with a star-studded cast.

You will not win every contest, but--as special-snowflake as it sounds-- you can try to make every one a positive experience.

Next time around, I want to talk about character. Because good characters rule.

Until then go write. And don’t get discouraged just because you didn’t win this time.