Thursday, September 29, 2011
Thursday, September 22, 2011
A character sketch is one of those things that comes up a lot in the storytelling world. Novelists and screenwriters talk about them, but in a variety of ways. Sometimes very indy films are even called “character sketches.” So it’s understandable the term could cause confusion, especially when some folks talk about them as vital, necessary things for a writer to have without really explaining what they are.
In a visual-artistic sense, a sketch usually isn’t a finished work. It’s when you use a few quick lines and textures to suggest an image rather than forming a complete image. It’s inherently incomplete, but implies something more than itself.
In a similar sense, a character sketch shouldn’t be an exhaustive list that covers every possible detail. It’s supposed to give you, the writer, a sense of the character you can refer back to as a guideline. It’s notes about how they talk, how they move, what they like, and what they hate.
Like a fair number of the things I pontificate about here on the ranty blog, a character sketch is going to be something that’s unique to each author. Probably to each character, as well. Some characters may need pages of exhaustive notes. Others may only need a line or two. And with a few, you may never need to write a single note because they’re perfectly in your mind.
In the book I’m working on right now, I sketched out a short paragraph about each character. Most of them got two or three lines, and a few of them got five or six. For the most part, though, I let character elements develop as I went, growing off those initial impressions. I didn’t know Xela was a nudist or Clive was a recovering alcoholic, so neither of these fairly defining traits are in their simple character sketches.
However, there are a number of surprises and reveals in this story. The characters end up reacting to a lot of things. By the third draft, it was clear I needed to know just how everybody would react. Debbie and Clive were pretty clean-cut. Nate, Veek, and Roger, on the other hand, would definitely swear. But how would they swear? After all, profanity’s just as much a part of someone’s speech patterns as whether or not they say pop or soda. So I do know precisely how everyone swears.
Now, on the flipside, I got to talk to filmmaker Stephan Elliot a while back about his film adaptation of Easy Virtue. When I asked about how he developed the character of Furber the butler, Elliot laughed and said one word—“Hate.” That’s it. That was the entire character sketch. Furber completely, openly loathes his employers, and his contempt is clear every moment he’s forced to be on screen with them.
So, what is a character sketch? It’s whatever works for you. I’ve found one of the easiest ways to create one, though, is just to ask questions. Not only does this help you get various answers about someone, it also generally leads to other questions about them that develop the character more.
For example... let’s talk about Phoebe.
For the record, I have never, ever in my life met someone named Phoebe (to the best of my knowledge). That’s why it’s my fallback name for things like this (along with the Warners). If I used a name like Tammy, Stephanie, Becky, Colleen, or half a dozen others when I make these examples, I would catch sooooooooooooo much crap from someone, somewhere. It’s the writer’s curse. If I have a character with the same name as someone I know, I must be talking about them. Heaven forbid I give the character my name, because then I’m just a raging egomaniac. Or, at least, I’m finally admitting it openly.
Anyway... we were talking about Phoebe. Let’s ask a couple questions. Answer as you see fit. You don’t need to write them down, but you can if you want to .
Where did she grow up?
Does she get along with her family?
Did she go to college? Did she live at college?
Did she do any “experimenting” during her college years?
Did she finish college?
Republican or Democrat?
What does she do for a living?
What does she want to be doing for a living?
How much does she spend on her hair each month?
Does she brush and floss regularly?
Does she have any hobbies or collections?
Does she go to church? What church?
Where does she live?
Where does she want to live?
Does she have roommates?
How does she swear? Like a sailor? Like a prude?
Phoebe’s five favorite movies? Books? Bands?
How old was she when she had her first drink?
How often does she go out with friends?
Are most of her friends male or female?
Does she smoke?
Has she ever done drugs?
Does she go to the gym?
What kind of car does she drive?
What kind of car does she want to drive?
Does she have pets?
If you answered half of those questions, that’s a ton of information about Phoebe. Plus, as you’ve probably noticed, a lot of it implies other facets of her personality. Even if you don’t use all of it, it’s going to give you much better insight into how she talks and reacts to the world around her and how she might react to a different world (figurative or actual) if she were to suddenly find herself in one.
Now, let me jump back to the artistic analogy of sketches. There’s another term you’ve probably heard called negative space. It’s when you define shapes by the emptiness around them rather than by the shapes themselves. And sometimes, alas, that’s how some writers try to define their characters.
For example, have you watched any of the GOP debates? You’ll notice the one resounding theme among them—among most politicians—is who they are not. They are not Washington insiders. They are not part of those over-educated elitists trying to create socialism. They sure as hell are not President Obama. They’re nothing like him, and they’ll get angry if you dare hint otherwise.
The question is, though, who are they? They’re so busy establishing what they aren’t, they rarely talk about what they are. In the rush to tell you what doesn’t work and what they won’t do, they never get around to what does work and what they will do.
Now, I’m sure there’s a philosophical argument to be had here. Does a hole punch make 1/4” circles of paper or does it make 1/4” holes in paper? Does it make a difference which it does since both are technically correct?
Y’see, Timmy, the problem with defining by negatives is that it’s like trying to prove a negative. That kind of definition leaves too many variables for it to be clear. If I tell you the shirt I’m wearing right now isn’t red, does that really tell you anything about the color of my shirt?
Sure, say some folks—we know it isn’t red. Okay, so what is it? Is it blue? Green? Black? Tan? White? Gray? Striped? Plaid? If I tell you to picture a not-red shirt, everyone here’s going to picture something different. And if all you know about someone is that they’re not Obama... well, that narrows it down to about five billion people. You need positives to define characters—even unlikable characters and flat-out villains.
Finally, one last point I brushed against up above and I also mentioned last week. Just because you come up with stuff for a character sketch doesn’t mean you need to use it in your work. Oh, you’ll use all of it in that greater “grand tapestry” sense, but just because I came up with a background element doesn’t mean I need to use it.
Y’see, Timmy (yep, two Y’see Timmys in one post), an all-too-common mistake is when people come up with lush backstories and then feel the need to shoehorn every single line of them into their manuscript. Again, a character sketch is for the writer, not the reader. It’s good for me to know Malavika’s a third-generation Indian who graduated high school a year early and had her first sexual experience at age twenty... but none of this is really relevant to the story I’m telling now.
So I didn’t bother to put any of it in.
And neither should you.
Next week, we take care of the bad guys once and for all. Hopefully.
Until then, go write.
Thursday, September 15, 2011
That leads nicely into...
Just give enough description so the character stands out from any other character. Really, if you’ve got more that two sentences of character description you’ve got too much. Yeah, you may have tons more, but remember—the script is about right now. Everything else about your character will come out in the course of the story through their dialogue and actions. If it doesn’t, my problem is not that I only got two sentences of character description.
Thursday, September 8, 2011
There will, however, be mocking. And some shameless plugging.
Ex-Patriots is now out in both paper and ebook formats, available pretty much anywhere fine books are sold. Mysterious Galaxy, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Bord... well, okay, not Borders. But I got to see Ex-Heroes there a few times, at least. Please feel free to pick up a copy.
Anyway, let’s talk about the Oxford English Dictionary. Or Webster’s, if you prefer. I’m actually a dictionary traitor. One of my college professors was on the OED board and I have a huge Webster’s dictionary on my desk.
But I digress... again.
Remember last week’s little rant about tools? Those folks who insist on carrying their tools around one at a time even though it makes the job take ten times as long? Well as bad as it is to be the person showing up on the jobsite with only one tool at a time, imagine if someone showed up with a basic tool they didn’t know how to use?
Seriously--what would you do if you were the foreman and one of your workers--someone who claimed they were a skilled, professional carpenter--admitted they had no idea how to use a hammer? Their excuse? “Well, y’know... I always work with Wakko, and he does all the hammering. So, really, I don’t need to know how to use one.”
Would this guy still have a job at the end of the day?
And yet, it’s stunning how many would-be-writers—people trying to convince publishers that they’re skilled professionals—don’t know how to spell. Their excuse? They’ve got a spellchecker on their computer. It already knows how to spell, so why should they learn how?
Words are our tools, and knowing what they are and how to use them is the most basic skill any of us has to have if we want people to take us seriously as writers. If you don’t know how to use them it is painfully obvious to someone who does.
Let’s go over a little list of words and see how many definitions you can get.
pour, poor, and pore - only one of these means to read intently
confirm and conform – one of these means to become similar
faze and phase – only one of these deals with a blow to the head
role and roll – only one of these is a list of names
further and farther – one of these usually refers to physical distance
glutton and gluten – only one of these words is a person
desert and dessert – only one of these comes after supper
barely and barley – one of these is a food source... almost
satin and satan – one of these is a silky fabric
lightning and lightening – only one of these is an atmospheric event
conscience and conscious – one means being awake
Done with the list? Good.
Now, I’m sure two or three of these made you laugh. Satan and satin? Really? I mean, they’re so obviously different words only a complete idiot would mess them up, right?
Bad news, everyone.
Your spellcheck program is a complete idiot. It’s the worst writing partner you could possibly ask to have. As far as it knows, your main character is supposed to be making a gluten of himself by shoving barely down his throat for desert.
Y’see, Timmy, whenever I make these lists they’re from words I’ve seen misspelled in manuscripts or screenplays I’ve been given to read. Not once or twice in a hundred pages but consistently. These are all mistakes made by people who were trying to convince me (or, through me, someone higher up) that they know how to write. People claiming to be professionals.
One story I recently read had someone trying to resist the temptations of Satin all the way through it (which makes it sound like a very different story, believe me). The power of Satin, get behind me Satin, resisting the will of Satin, all that. If the writer hadn’t asked an idiot to check the whole thing for them, they wouldn’t’ve had that problem. And my opinion of the story wouldn’t’ve dropped every single time I came across it.
I’ve said many times before that people need to buy a dictionary, and more than once I’ve gotten a chuckle from folks over it. After all, the computer does that sort of thing for us, right? Silly dinosaur, telling people to resort to books. Modern writers don’t need such antiquated tools.
As the above list proves, though... a sizeable percentage do.
Using a dictionary doesn’t just mean looking up how a word is spelled. It also means you’re going to look up what the word means. These two things are inherently bound together in a dictionary and they’re not in a spellcheck program. I look up barely and realize it’s not a grain, it’s an adverb. I also just learned that baresark is another form of berserker, which I can probably file away and use sometime later.
But the spellchecker? It looks at barely, grins, and gives you a big thumbs up. “Looks cool—send it off to a publisher.”
Plus, when you use a dictionary, odds are you’ll learn something and not need the dictionary next time. My mechanic’s worked on my car a few times, but I didn’t learn anything about auto repair because I wasn’t the one doing the actual work. I’ve also gone out to eat several times, but having someone else cook for me didn’t teach me anything about cooking. If your writing partner’s doing all that vocabulary work--idiot or not--how do you expect to learn anything?
I’m about to start my fifth novel. Not my fifth attempt at a novel. Not my fifth manuscript to sit in a drawer. My fifth already-got-a-contract-and-deposited-a-nice-advance novel. And I still reach for the dictionary at least once a day to make sure I’m spelling a word correctly or that I’m using it correctly. Using the dictionary doesn’t make me a lesser writer. It makes me a better writer. I’m the guy who shows up at the jobsite with all his tools and who knows how to use them. I don’t need anyone else to do the work for me. Which is why I’m the guy the foreman hires again and again.
If the foreman didn’t hire you... maybe it’s because you’ve got an idiot for a partner.
Not sure what I’m going to rant on about next week. I’ve got a half-formed post of random screenwriting tips. Also got one on villains. And the bare bones of one about motivations...
Any of those sound interesting? Let me know.
Until then, go write.
Friday, September 2, 2011
First off, my apologies for running late. Lots of work on the new book.
Second off, a bit of shameful self-promotion. If you haven’t picked up my “debut novel” Ex-Heroes, the publisher’s put the ebook version on a fantastic sale right now. $2.99 for the next week (starting today). Kindle, Nook, Kobo, whatever. If you haven’t grabbed it, now’s a great chance. If you’ve been pushing a friend to get it, tell them about it now. Or just buy it for them. After all, the sequel’s out in about four weeks.
And now, with that ugly bit of capitalism out of the way...
If you’re a big fan of Doctor Who (like me), you know the sonic screwdriver is about the most useful tool ever invented. It opens and closes locks, takes readings, repairs barbed wire, gives phones universal roaming, acts as a TARDIS remote control, and hundreds of other things. Put simply, it’s the greatest all-in-one tool that has ever existed.
Alas, most of us just have to buy a whole tool box
Let’s say your significant other comes home from the market and says “Hey, the flux capacitor on the car isn’t fluxxing. You might want to check it out.”
So you go out to the car and see you need a screwdriver to open the housing on the flux capacitor. So you go back inside, dig your toolbox out of the cabinet under the sink, and get a screwdriver out. Then you go back out to the garage and discover you needed a Phillips head screwdriver, not a flathead. Head back in, grab a Phillips, back out to the garage.
You get the housing open on the flux
I’m sure you can all see what’s going wrong here. It’s not that we’re trying to fix the plutonium intake when the problem’s clearly in the flux dispersal array. The problem is that we’re attacking this project piecemeal, trying to solve it a single element at a time, and in doing so things are dragging out far longer than they need to. Unless you’ve actually got a sonic screwdriver, you can’t grab one tool out of your toolbox and go see what the problem is. You also don’t go check the problem, walk back, and grab the next item you need at this particular stage.
No, you take the whole toolbox. You bring everything. Because it’s worth the little extra effort to have it all handy and there to work with if you need it. Yeah, you’re not going to use every single tool you brought out there, but the amount of time you save is worth that initial extra effort.
For the record, my friend Laura got me a sonic screwdriver for my birthday.
But that’s not important right now.
How many of you have figured out the point of this little scenario...?
A lot of people take forever when they write. Years and years. Sometimes it’s basic procrastination, yes, but sometimes it’s just that they’re trying to get every single element right
Now, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get things right. That’s the whole point of feedback and editing and doing multiple drafts. Thing is, you can’t do a second draft
When I sat down with my new project, -14-, I spewed out pages and pages of stuff over three months, and soooooooo much of it got cut in later drafts. A lot of it got reworded and some of it got completely rewritten. But I was able to keep working because I had stuff to work with.
Y’see, Timmy, it’s always better to have something to work with than to have nothing to work with. Don’t be scared to put everything in your first draft. Bring it all. Don’t hold back because you think you might not need something or it might not work. Write bits you know you’re going to cut and characters you know are going to be trimmed out. Because you can’t edit or rewrite a paragraph that doesn’t exist.
Next week, unless I get a really cool request or suggestion, a little free verse love poem about the Oxford English Dictionary.
Until then, go write.