A Master Class in Character Development

(Photo owned by CBS)
Although I am currently writing a historical fiction/biographical novel, those who know me will tell you I am almost equally a history nerd and a science fiction nerd. Most notably, I am a Trekker and always have been. I do not write movie, book, or television reviews very often, but with the new Star Trek: Picard, I can’t help myself.

Most of what I learned about character development, I learned from my theater and acting classes in college. Whenever you are onstage, your character has to have motivation for every move they make beyond getting from point A to point B just because you have to be at point B for the next scene. Without inner motivations for every beat of a scene, the character will play as false or contrived onstage. The same is true for the written word. Without clear motivations, back story, etc., characters can come off as two dimensional or contrived.

Another thing that creates a three dimensional rather than a two dimensional character is change. A character must go through some changes and be changed by the events of the story. Why? Because that is what happens in real life. Each one of us is changed by the world, people, and events around us. No one is a static character. However, if a character changes too much over the course of a story, this will also play as false or contrived. A character must be true to the deepest parts of who they are.

Character Changes

RED ALERT: Major SPOILERS ahead

Well, the newest episode of the newest Star Trek series Picard, “Stardust City Rag,” is truly a master class in how to achieve real and meaningful character development in a very short amount of time. Specifically, the character Seven of Nine, a character from Star Trek: Voyager. Seven of Nine is not the main character in this new Star Trek; however, among Trekkers, she is beloved and well-known. So it was important to handle her re-introduction carefully for the sake of those who had already gotten to know Seven over the course of her four years on Voyager. It is important to note that we haven’t seen Seven in 20 years. 

Starfleet and Seven have both gone through vast changes in the intervening years. Starfleet and the Federation seem to have been rotting from the inside out in the last couple of decades. None of the clean lines, high ideals, and sanitized violence of the Next Generation or Voyager years. “Synthetics” are now banned, mostly androids, but I would also assume this has some bearing on Seven with her Borg implants.

However, Seven has become less and less “synthetic” or technological and more and more human since we last saw her. Seven of Nine, Tertiary Adjunct of Unimatrix 01, aka Annika Hansen, is the former Borg turned valued crew member of Voyager. She was a purveyor of deadpan humor with raised eyebrow and tilted head, drinker of unappetizing nutritional supplements, logical thinker to a fault, wearer of tight French twist and impossibly tight spandex jumpsuit, and dampener of all emotions. Now she is feeling all of the emotions; we see evidence of maternal feelings, romantic feelings, compassion, anger, and revenge. She sheds tears without thinking her ocular implant is malfunctioning. She’s drinking bourbon straight and wearing a loose but functional and sexy jacket, pants, and boots outfit. Even her hair is literally and metaphorically let down. No longer is she searching for perfection, but for connection.

Much can change over the course of a 20 year period, as we have seen in the previous four episodes of Picard. Picard, Starfleet, and the Federation itself are very much changed in this new Star Trek world since we last saw them in Star Trek Nemesis. So we have a lot to catch up on in a very short period of time.

To do that, we are subjected to one of the most violent (though necessary) scenes in Star Trek canon, the removal of Borg implants from another beloved character from Voyager, Icheb, Seven’s adopted son. Some of Seven’s most poignant moments on Voyager were with Icheb. She experienced some of her first stirrings of maternal instincts with him. He even saved her life once by giving her his cortical node at risk to his own life.

So when in the first few minutes of Episode 5 we see her have to put him out of his fatal misery with a phaser blast by her own hand while she cradles him in her arms, we are given the reason for the marked changes in her character. The Seven of old is broken in a way that requires her to embrace her humanity to survive. Not only is she mourning Icheb as she sobs over his body, but she is mourning the loss and betrayal that led him there. A former friend (or lover?) of Seven’s used information from Seven to ambush Icheb and strip him for parts.

How to Accomplish Believable Change in a Character

If Seven had just shown up completely different from the way we once knew her without any explanation, that would play as false to the character. Nor would viewers/readers want extensive exposition about the past to explain the changes.

Rather, we are given two short scenes that explain a great deal. One is the flashback with Icheb at the beginning of the episode. The other is the confrontation with Seven and Bjayzl, her former friend and betrayer. With these two scenes, Seven’s motivations for change are made abundantly clear but with dialogue and action rather than straight exposition. Subtext written between the lines of Seven’s dialogue with Bjayzl, specific looks exchanged between them, even the tears that Seven is fighting back as she speaks, all serve to give us the full picture of Seven’s changes. But interspersed within the scenes of the episode, we also see little bits of the old Seven. The head tilt, the raised eyebrow, the deadpan humor delivered with Borg precision, even her determination to fight for the underdog. Some have said that Seven going after Bjayzl for revenge goes against her nature. I would argue against that, however. Seven was always fiercely protective of Icheb, and she still is.

Some of the accomplishments of this episode are due to the brilliant writing of Kirsten Beyer. Some to the fantastic direction by Jonathan Frakes (that’s right, Will “leg over the chair” Riker). But a huge shout out has to go to Jeri Ryan for her re-embodiment of Seven, not relying on old tricks of the character, but allowing her to have fully grown and changed in the past 20 years. She gave one of the best performances I’ve ever seen as Seven.

As a post script, I think there should definitely be a Seven of Nine series spin off. This episode alone proves that it would be welcomed by Star Trek fans.

Review the Highlights of Character Development

  • Allow your characters to change while staying true to who they are at the core.
  • Give them motivation for the changes.
  • Show the changes in dialogue and action rather than exposition.
  • Keep some touch stones that mark who the character is (quirks, characteristics, etc.)

A Christmas Post

Well, it’s that time of year. Holiday posts, songs, stories, and events abound. This holiday season has been harder than some for me, but not as hard as others. Every year is different, I suppose. And no matter how many traditions we try to keep, there are no two Christmases alike. I don’t have much wisdom to impart here, but I did want to share a new song and story with all of you. I hope you enjoy! Happy holidays, and a happy new year!

To NaNo or Not to NaNo

Creativity is everywhere. I’m feeling it almost palpably all around me, almost as if the whole universe is on fire. I can’t remember the last time I experienced the gift of this level of constant creative flow, but it’s been a long, long time. I’ve just completed writing the songs that will be made into a soundtrack album for A Light from the Ashes. That was a definite surprise to me and absolutely a labor of love. You can go check out some of the songs HERE.

Next, I’m jumping straight from that into the actual writing process for my Maude Adams book (tentatively titled This Way But Once.) Maude has been sadly neglected in the past couple of months, although I’ve tried to keep up on organizing my notes, plotting new scenes, and outlining. It almost felt like missing a friend on the days I didn’t work on her book.

Well, friends, it is November, and therefore, officially National Novel Writing Month. I had not originally planned on participating this year as I am knee deep in promotion and marketing for A Light from the Ashes. But neglecting Maude was making me sad. So, at the very last minute, I decided to join a NaNoWriMo challenge.

Is it for me?

There are lots of things to consider before embarking on a NaNoWrimo challenge. The first of which is MOTIVATION with a capital M. Not every author works the same way. Some are “planners,” needing notes, general outlines, detailed outlines, plot arcs, character arcs, etc. before they can begin writing the chapter. Some are “pantsers,” preferring to wing it by the seat of their pants and just write off the cuff.

Who is to say which way works better? Motivation is a key factor in both scenarios. It takes motivation to sit down in front of a blank page (or screen) and put words down. It takes motivation to take the time in the first place. It takes motivation to be consistent enough to finish what you start. For most writers, the motivation is intrinsic, meaning it comes from inside us, and not from any promise of outside reward. We write because we can’t imagine ourselves doing anything else. We write because we have stories inside us screaming to come out.

Personally, I am a planner (especially when writing historical fiction or biographical fiction, as I am now). I have to organize plots and characters, etc. so that when I sit down to actually write the chapters, I can focus on things like literary devices and crafting beautiful sentences, rather than trying to figure out what’s going to happen next. It makes my editing process a lot less messy and the writing process more fun.

The purpose of NaNoWrimo for me is to increase my motivation by adding an outside source. I need deadlines to keep me on track. I need clear-cut goals. Also, if I publicly announce my goals, I am more likely to try harder to keep them and not give myself excuses.

How to do it?

So, you’ve decided to join NaNoWrimo, now what? First of all, remember this is YOUR goal, not someone else’s. It is there to encourage you, not to become a stick with which to beat yourself. You don’t have to follow anyone else’s goals. Some people say the goal is to write an entire novel in a month. (Well, I’m here to say that’s nearly impossible.) Some people say the goal is to write 50,000 words in a month and that should be the length of a novel. That too is up to you and is contingent on a lot of things, including the genre you’re writing in. For me, 50,000 words would equal about a third of my normal length of novels. The point is, you get to set your own goal.

Maybe your goal will be just a certain number of words a day. (This will be less daunting if you figure out how many words are on a typical page of your writing. i.e. A general guideline is that one page double spaced is approximately 250 words, although that varies.)

Maybe your goal will be a certain amount of time spent writing every day.

The main point, though, is to help establish discipline, consistency, and a solid habit of writing. If you really want to finish writing your book, you have to treat it like a job and show up consistently every day, whether you are feeling inspired or not.

Always remember, the muse is more likely to join you in your writing if she knows the two of you have a standing date and she’s not worried that you’ll stand her up for some other distraction.

So, what are your creative goals this month? Comment below.

Going Where the Path Leads

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

Confucious

It’s a cold and rainy day, so what better time to snuggle in for a good writing session? I’ve made myself a cozy warm green tea with ginger, and scooched down under a fuzzy blanket. So, I’m ready to go. Now what?

It’s been made clear to me lately that things don’t always go according to plan, either in real life or in writing. I had so many plans for this weekend. I had even made a dictatorial to do list full or bullet points and bravado of all the things I was going to accomplish this weekend. But then the thunderstorms came in, which inevitably means at least a day of debilitating headaches for me. (Oh, the life of living with chronic illness.) At times like that, it would be easy to feel sorry for myself and cry and whine about all the things I could do if I didn’t have a chronic illness, but that wouldn’t help me or anyone else for that matter. So, what’s the point? The only thing to do when life changes your planned course is to follow the path as it winds and twists and turns and falls out from under you.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m all about forging new paths, creating roads where none ever existed, slashing through forests of obstacles to reach your goals. But every now and then, the fight is more destructive to you than it is to the obstacles. So, in times like those, the only thing to do is become zen with your surroundings and let the path lead you wherever it will.

A Writing Obstacle

I am reminded of a writing obstacle that came up for me recently, one that possibly could have derailed my whole publishing project if I had chosen to fight it rather than following the path.

Not long after I found a publisher and editor, we realized that I had referenced in my novel a significant number or books and songs. I didn’t have a strong grasp of copyright law while I was originally writing the story, and I mistakenly thought if the authors/songwriters were no longer alive, then I was safe to use a line here or there from their works as long as I gave credit in the back of the book. That was certainly not the case.

Fight or Change Course?

So, I had a choice before me: I could cling to my story as it was written, including all book and song references, and pay a possibly exorbitant amount in licensing fees, OR I could rewrite certain sections, change the references or take them out completely. For the most part, you are safe to use works whose authors have been dead for 50 years or more, the cut off publication dates from 2019 being anything before 1924. (In 2020, it will be 1925, and so on.) Of course there are exceptions to those rules if copyrights have been renewed or purchased by others, or as in the case of Peter Pan, the copyright has been granted to a children’s hospital in England by Parliament until the end of time. So, what was I going to do?

I decided to let the path dictate my direction rather than tenaciously clinging to my original ideas. So, I went through and changed all of the books referenced by my characters, which was a considerable amount. Then it came to the songs. There were two songs which were integral to the story, were emotional touch stones for my characters, and connected several generations. What was I going to do about those? The meanings of the songs I had chosen and the feel of the music were important. So, what else was there to do, but to write my own songs?

A New Creative Opportunity

The lyrics came fairly easy, but then I thought, “I need to know what the song sounds like to be able to describe it.” I’ve also always been that person who when coming across lyrics to a song I don’t know in a book, was driven crazy by not knowing how it sounds. Have you ever seen lyrics in a book and wondered what the song really sounded like?

Then it occurred to me that we live in a world of technology and mixed media where text, video, pictures, and music interact with each other all the time. Think of Instagram posts and stories with music or memes, just to name a couple of examples.

So, I decided to write and produce some of the music to go along with A Light from the Ashes to help my readers fully immerse themselves in the world and the story. I consulted my niece Elisabeth Grace, my resident expert on Garage Band, then I just started playing around with it. I had never tried to make music with anything other than my piano and my own voice before, so this was all new territory. But what a wonderful experience it has been! I’ve learned new things, made something completely new that never would have existed without the original obstacle, and let my new path lead me where it would.

What About You?

Have there been times in your life where you were faced with a daunting obstacle? How did you face it or get around it?

The next time you are faced with an obstacle, either in life or in your creative world, ask yourself: Is it time to fight the obstacle or let the path lead me in a new direction? You may be surprised at the new world you find.

Check out the songs from A Light from the Ashes here or on Soundcloud.

Writing in Different Genres

Well, I have been promising this post for over a month, but the summer got away from me, as summers seem to do.  So, here I am finally fulfilling my promise.

Writing is not a simple action, nor is it the same for every author or for every genre.  Everyone’s process is different.  But to complicate matters even more, everyone’s process can be different as they engage in writing different genres.  I noticed this the most when I was looking over my notebooks for my current historical fiction project as compared to my dystopian novel.  The dystopian novel had two notebooks full of ideas.  But for my historical fiction project, I just began my fourth notebook, and I am sure it will be filled as well.

First, I will walk you through my writing process in general.  Then, I will go through the differences between writing a dystopian novel and writing a historical fiction novel.

General Writing Process

  • The original seed–The seed of an idea usually comes to me in the form of my main character and one scene.  From there, the plot building process begins.  Basically, just playing with ideas in my head and letting my imagination run free.  There is a lot of thinking time in this stage, jotting down ideas here and there.
  • Research–Next, I start researching, either about the time period or the world in which my story will take place.  I also begin putting together a playlist of songs that put me in the mood for the individual story so I can fully immerse myself. This phase can last through the duration of the project.  I never feel like I have enough information, but eventually we do have to start actually writing.
  • Simmering–This phase can co-exist with the research phase.  This is where the plot is starting to take shape, characters are making themselves known to me, and dialogue starts to flow.  During this time, I am writing daily notes of scenes, descriptions, dialogue, plots, etc. I always carry a notebook with me, and have a running note on my notebook app on my phone, so I never miss an idea when it comes.  These notes are a disorganized jumble of anything that pops into my head story related.
  • Organization–Next, I begin to type my random hand-written notes into a cohesive document in the general order that they will be used in the book.  I may create documents specifically for narration/descriptions and specifically for scenes. I will also create a document for each main character to flesh out characteristics, back story, etc.
  • Outlining–First, I start with a general outline with plot arc, etc.  Here I make decisions about timeline, whether or not the story will be told chronologically, point of view, and narrator.
  • Detailed Outlining–After the general outline, I begin putting together chapter outlines.  On these documents, I cut and paste scenes, dialogue, and descriptions from my notes documents.
  • Writing the chapters–When I write my chapters, I use my chapter outline as a jumping off place, and then I just let it flow.  I sometimes find in this phase that characters decide to insert themselves into scenes where I hadn’t originally planned them, but I let that happen organically.  I have found that it’s best not to make characters do what you want them to do. I think of it as them telling me their stories and I am just writing them down. At times when I have tried to force it, the writing came out stilted and stiff.

This is my writing process on the front end.  It is by no means complete, as a major part of the writing process is editing and rewriting.  But that is a blog post all itself.

Genre Differences

  • Research
    • When I was writing my dystopian novel, there was a lot of technical, scientific, and political research to help me begin to build the world in which my characters would live.  The research phase for that project was very short.
    • For my current historical fiction novel, I have found the research process to be extremely long and detailed, not just into the life of my main character, but into the numerous lives who surrounded hers.  It is important for me to know what things in their lives would influence their decisions and relationships, the driving forces and motivations in all of the main and secondary characters lives.  The more information I have, the better.
  • World-Building
    • In science fiction, it’s called world-building.  In other fiction, it’s simply referred to as setting.  World-building for a dystopian novel was at once freeing and daunting.  There was the freedom to make my world whatever I wanted it to be and whatever made sense for my characters.  But at the same time, it can feel like there is a tyranny in too many choices, making it difficult to leave the world-building stage and jump into writing the story.  Let me encourage you to be as basic as you can in the world-building at first.  Leave your characters free and organic enough that they can move around unencumbered.  Then you can fill in with more specifics about the world later.  In the beginning focus only on those things that will affect plot and character.
    • For historical fiction, setting is very much connected to your research and making sure you are accurate in your depiction of the time period.  This means not just in physical aspects, but also in non-tangible things such as ideas, mindset, language, etc.  You don’t want someone in the late 19th century, for example, to have a modern day mindset about or way of talking about ideas that would only be in modern day.  Research for setting the scene should include language, popular phrases, and idioms.
  • What drives the story?
    • In dystopian fiction (and several other sub-genres of fiction), you can basically let the story and characters drive themselves.  You are free to let your imagination run wild.  A new character not originally conceived can present himself midway through the writing of the novel.  There is a freedom there that is almost unparalleled.
    • In historical fiction, your story is driven by historical facts, dates, and places, with only some creative license allowed for changing what happened.  Depending on whether your main characters are real people or fictional characters, the reins may be tighter or looser here.  I wrote one story with fictional main characters placed in actual historical events.  This gave me a little more freedom to change their stories as the plot or characters dictated.  However, right now I am writing a story about a real person, in essence a non-fiction novel, and her story is interesting enough on its own that it doesn’t need much embellishment or creative license from me beyond the dramatization of actual events.  My job in this case is to fill in the gaps that history left.  But the story is very much driven by the actual events of her life.

These are just some of my thoughts on my experiences of writing in multiple genres.  There are things I love about both.  What are some of your experiences with different genres?

Don’t forget to pre-order the Kindle version of my debut novel A Light from the Ashes on Amazon, release date September 30!