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.)

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.

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!

 

Waldeinsamkeit–In Which We Discuss Finding Peace in the Woods

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I recently discovered a fascinating German word–“Waldeinsamkeit.”  There is not a direct English translation, but generally speaking, it means the peaceful feeling of finding solitude in the woods.  Isn’t it fascinating how we can tell those things which are now or once were valued by a culture based on which things they needed to find words for?  The German people obviously valued their solitude in the woods, as do I.

Looking at that word, I was immediately reminded of the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Published in 1854, Walden chronicles Thoreau’s experiences over the course of two years, two months, and two days in a cabin he built near Walden Pond amidst the part of the forest area owned by his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, near Concord, Massachusetts.

I’ve often thought, as Thoreau did, that there must be something magical in the waters of Walden Pond, formed centuries ago by receding glaciers.  There were too many great writers and thinkers in the near vicinity for it to have been a coincidence.  When I was young, I contemplated going there and bringing away with me a vile of the water, which I would keep with me to spark genius in my own writing.  But was it really the water or was it the peace in the solitude of the surrounding woods which sparked genius?

By immersing himself in nature, Thoreau hoped to gain as understanding of society through personal introspection.  He also aspired to live simply and self-sufficiently, inspired by his transcendental philosophy.  (Although, let’s be honest that the self-sufficiency is somewhat skewed based on the fact that he was living on his friend’s land.)

As Thoreau himself said, he “went to the woods because [he] wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if [he] could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when [he] came to die, discover that [he] had not lived.”  He wanted to “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”  Don’t we all?

I wonder if Thoreau knew this word “waldeinsamkeit” when he went into the woods looking for that very feeling.  I wonder if that’s where Walden pond originally derived its name.  We all look for solitude in our own ways.  Most of us don’t have generous transcendental friends with woodland to lend to us for our solitude.  Many of us live and work in the fast paced cities and technological world around us.  I sometimes long for the quiet and peace of pre-digital days when you could go outside to commune with nature in peace and quiet.

I, for one, have my pond and park where I often go in the spring, summer, and fall to recharge.  I seek my clarity and silence there.  I seem to resonate with the energy of the trees and wildlife around me.  During these dark and gray winter months, I find myself longing for “waldeinsamkeit,” for the peace I can only find in nature and the woods.  My pen feels frozen, and I have to work harder to find inspiration for my writing.

I understand Thoreau, Emerson, Alcott and other transcendentalists (even Emily Dickinson–yes, she was a transcendentalist, but that’s an argument for another day.)  Our lungs ache for the green air.  Our eyes ache for the vibrant colors.  And our ears ache for the silence yet alive with forest sounds.  There is some kind of inspiring life which can only be found in nature.  I know I will get back to nature and my personal Walden again, but spring feels so terribly far away.

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Rewriting: A Blessing and a Curse

Well, it has been a most eventful summer, my friends.   Thus, my absence from this blog. Relationships have come and gone, new horizons have been tackled. But now I have settled into the groove of teaching again this fall semester, and I’m writing again.

As A Light from the Ashes reached a point where I needed space from it before I could continue editing, I started to think what writing projects I wanted to work on next.  I wrote some snippets in my modern literary fiction piece.  I started researching the historical fiction piece.  But nothing was really holding my attention for more than a couple of days here or there.  They weren’t the big projects I wanted to throw my heart into.

I started to think about my first novel, Loving Silence.  I have known for the past couple of years that it needed a rewrite before it would be ready for publishing.  But I was too close to it to be able to objectively approach that, and then I was involved in the intoxicating A Light from the Ashes.  So, Loving Silence  was off my radar.  But the more I thought about responses from agents to both books, the more I started to realize that if I could do it right, Loving Silence had enough of a unique niche to possibly be the one that would be get picked up first.

So, I decided to revisit my old friend.

The Evolution

I began writing Loving Silence as just a fun exercise in a fiction writing class in 2009 during my undergrad studies.  I was kind of fascinated by some things I’d read about Boston Marriages, and thought of a simple idea for a story merely to fulfill an assignment to write and workshop a chapter.  Then I began writing in earnest over the next two years.  And used my unfinished novel as a Master’s Project in my graduate studies.

I finished the first draft in the summer of 2012 and presented it to a committee of professors who then read it and gave me feedback.  I then worked on Draft 2, and wrote a paper about the entire experience.  I felt pretty proud of myself and my work, despite the fact that one of the professors insisted that the story was deeply flawed in some very important places.

She didn’t understand what I was trying to do, I told myself.  I was the misunderstood artist.  And I started sending out the first few chapters to literary agents.  Although several asked for more pages, and sometimes the entire manuscript, ultimately, the novel was rejected by all.  So, I put it aside until 2016.

I did a minor editing job on it, still not addressing the deeply flawed portions, and started sending it out to agents again.  The same thing happened…initial interest, eventual rejection.

Why Rewrite?

Fast forward  two years.  In that time my personal life, which had always held too strong of a sway over the story, did a complete 180 degree turn around, and suddenly I could see the flaws my professor had commented on years ago.  Also in that time, I had learned the most valuable lesson of allowing my characters to make choices for themselves and live their own lives, rather than trying to impose upon them my own agenda.

Beyond that, I made the most difficult decision, which was that I felt the story needed to have two first person narrators rather than one third person omniscient narrator.  What this effectively means is that I will have to rewrite every blessed word of this novel, rather than just doing a cut/paste job on what’s there.

While this isn’t always the best way to approach every rewrite, for this project, it was what needed to happen, and I believe it is the only thing that could bring these characters to life for me again.

Some significant changes are happening with character and plot as well.  I’m revisiting my research and getting excited all over again about how to bring these characters to life in the best way for the story.  I’m no longer imposing my will on them or trying to fit them into the same box I was trying to force myself into.  And through that process, they are becoming three dimensional characters.

What’s the Blessing?

When we first finish a writing project, especially a long one, in many ways, we are married to that piece, for better or worse, in sickness and in health.  We’re in the honeymoon stage, and we can’t imagine that our love, our baby is anything but beautiful and perfect the way it is.  We can’t see the flaws, and maybe even get defensive if anyone else mentions them.

Distance is often necessary for writers to be able to objectively look at their work, and the only thing that can accomplish that distance is time away.  For me, six years was how long it took me to become objective about this first novel.  (I can’t imagine that length of time will always be necessary.)  Six years, and a great deal of growing and changing in my personal life.

But now that I’m back in the trenches with this novel, I feel like I’m having a reunion with old friends.  I’m having the time of my life with these characters as I’m getting to know them again.  And I truly believe the story will be better for it.  In some ways, it will be truer to my original idea than I ever thought possible.

As writers, and as humans, we have to learn to embrace change, embrace the unknown, and to let go, even a little bit, of some of the control we try so desperately to hold onto.

 

 

Secrets from the Writing Desk

Have you ever had the visual in your head of a writer sitting down at a typewriter or computer with the words just flowing with brilliance and eloquence in one never ending string of beauty?

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Well, I have a hard truth for you.  Are you ready?  Writing isn’t like that.  That’s a fiction created for movies and TV.  The uncomfortable truth is that writing is hard.  It will frustrate you as much as it gives you a high unlike any you’ve ever felt.  There will be days when you just want to chuck and all and stick with your day job.  That’s the difference between reality and fiction.  Reality is messy and ugly sometimes, often more than it is beautiful.  Fiction can take all of the ugly things and put them into a neater and more palatable package.

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Sometimes the only thing that can keep you on the writing path through all of the hard times, the writer’s block, the frustration, the slogging through a million words is your passion for those words.  If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, if you get annoyed with other things in your life because they take away from your writing time, if the you couldn’t stop the words from flowing out of you if you tried, you may be a writer.

Wordsworth writing But is that all that’s required to be a writer?

Sadly, no.  Because once you’ve “filled your paper with the breathings of your heart,” then comes the editing.  The hard work of organizing, tightening, clarifying, cutting, and adding.  The job of a writer is communication, and if your reader can’t understand what you’re trying to communicate, then what’s the point?  If all you want to do is spill your guts on the page, then perhaps a journal would be the right venue.  But if you want to share your writing with others, it’s your job to help them understand.

There are hundreds, even thousands of people who have put their thoughts down on paper.  But the numbers are much smaller for those who have taken the necessary next steps to bring a coherent piece to other readers.  That is the line that separates a professional from an amateur, in my opinion.  A professional keeps pushing through past the catharsis of getting their words on paper, past the blocks, the frustration, the criticism.  A professional is always learning, always trying to improve the work.

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Anyone can wish and dream, but it takes hard work to turn a wish into reality.