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.

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.