Monday, September 28, 2009

Lost Data, Lost the TV Show, and Lost Characters

First of all, I just want to say my laptop is working again. Huzzah!!! According to HP the power adaptor hasn’t shipped yet. But we’ll just keep the fact that I got it the end of last week between you and me. Let me also at this point give a big, big, nudge to anyone who doesn’t have all of their important files backed up daily. Do it. Do it now! When my laptop bit the dust I was in the middle of revisions on two books. Both of those books were past deadline. There was no way to get the files off my laptop for over two weeks. But because I had my files backed up every day, I was able to keep right on working. Ask yourself what you would do if all of your files suddenly became inaccessible this very minute—for a day, a week, a month, or forever.

I highly recommend that whatever you use to back up your files be automatic and either cheap or better yet, free. It’s too easy to forget otherwise. There are lots of solutions out there. I use Mozy. You can get 2 gig for free or pay $5 per month for unlimited storage. The thing I like best about this solution is that it’s so easy. It takes about five minutes to set up and then it backs up when you computer is not in use. Easy! And if you use the link above, I get extra storage or something. Win win!

Okay, that’s my advertising pitch, (but really do back up with something starting now if you are not.) So, many of you know I have started watching Lost. Yeah, the series has been going for five years, and yeah I’m only on season one, but I hate watching a series and getting left hanging when the network cancels it halfway through the first year. So anyway, I just finished season one. My grade? B+. (Better than Rob, not as good as Kerry! Just kidding Rob. Kind of. ) In general, I am impressed with the series. I thought it was going to be X-files meets Survivor. While there is some of that, I am really impressed with how much characterization takes place. With as many “main” characters as there are, I feel like I know all of them well enough to care, without a lot of over lapping or “seen that” moments.

Of course, I still feel like there are too many moments that are made weird or left hanging (the numbers, the polar bears, the security system that seems like a monster, the magical healings) just to make the viewer go “Whoa!” But that’s part of network TV. There’s always a little too much soap opera for me. The thing about books and movies is that the is a clear beginning and end. A TV series can just keep milking it without giving the viewer any real closure. But the strength of the characters has definitely pulled me in.

Which brings me to my final point today. Don’t go with your first thought when you are making up characters. Ask yourself questions. Find the character behind the character. Give the minor characters a chance to grow. Often we focus on the “story” to the exclusion of the character. This is the story of a police detective who finds out that someone has stolen the Mona Lisa. Okay, so far so good. But then we concentrate on who stole the painting. We throw in red herrings. We offer clues. All the while, the detective is just a detective. The reporter is just a reporter. The housewife is just a housewife. And at the end of the day, the reader goes, “Meh. The story was okay, but I didn’t care about the characters.” It’s not that we can’t write good characters. It’s that we settle for stereotypes because we are focusing on the plot. Forgetting that if the story is the forest, the characters are the trees. If you create interesting and unusual trees, the forest will build itself.

For example, let’s say you have a main character who is a single. What are the typical reasons she might be single. Husband died. Never married. Divorced. Yeah, that about covers it. So we go with divorced. Why? Husband cheated. Husband was gone all the time. Husband was boring. Do any of these excite you? Do they sound new or original? Maybe you really stretch it and the husband, “mysteriously disappeared.” Wow, groundbreaking! Why do we settle for these, because we aren’t focusing on character. It’s simply a placeholder in the grander scheme of who-done-it.

But what if we took as much time with characters as we did with story? What if the heroine is divorced because she views men as weapons? Tools to be used to help her climb the corporate ladder and then tossed aside. What if she tried to do the same thing with the next man in line only he turns the tables on her? Now I am not suggesting this is the main storyline. I am suggesting that it is a single character in the rest of the story. It is the cumin in an already exciting main course. It is the twist that raises your story to a new level. Going back to Lost, I expected a story that was all plot. But what really made things hum, was the depth of each of the characters. That’s why probably half of the first season was showing us who everyone was.

In my second Farworld book, I knew Marcus and Kyja would meet a man who would send them on a variety of quests. I didn’t know much about the man—or even if he would be a man. But instead of making the character take a back seat to story, I let him reveal his true self before I started writing. Mr. Z, as he introduced himself to me, was not what I expected at all. As a result, he became an integral not only of this book, but I expect books to come. Here’s a little snippet to show you what I mean.

“Quiet, you two,” said a squeaky voice. “Things are about to begin.”

Two large piles of books slid aside on the desk, and Kyja found herself looking at a tiny man with a blob of a nose and enormous red ears. The man was wearing a pair of gold-framed glasses too big for his face, a long, black coat, and a battered felt hat that looked dangerously close to falling off his head. He perched at the top of a tower of books that wobbled every time he moved.

As she watched, the man reached into the pocket of his purple vest and pulled out a horn no bigger than his pinkie. He put it to his lips and blew a surprisingly loud trumpet.

“Isn’t this exciting?” the man said, putting the horn back into his vest and clapping his hands. “Ullr the challenger is a fine specimen, fleet and strong. But the champion, Váli, is a veteran of many battles, wily and trickilicious.” Resting his chin in his hands, he set his elbows on the desk and stared at its wooden surface.

Marcus looked to Kyja, but she had no more idea than he did what was going on. Stepping carefully around the books, she and Marcus approached the desk. “What are you talking about?” she asked timidly.

“Hmm?” the man replied without looking up. “Sport, of course. Man against man. Beast against beast. Strength versus speed. Mind over muscle.”

Marcus leaned across the desk to see two brown shapes no bigger than walnuts. “Are those snails?”

“Yes, yes.” the man chirped. “Look at them go!”

Kyja glanced from one snail to the other. “They don’t seem to be moving.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” the little man said, tapping the side of his head and nearly knocking off his hat. “They’re sizing each other up, probing for weaknesses. It’s a thinking man’s sport.”

“And what sport would that be?” Marcus asked. As far as Kyja could see, the snails hadn’t moved at all. In fact, she suspected at least one of them might be dead.

“Snail jousting, of course!” the man snapped. “The sport of kings and noblemen.”

“Seriously?” Marcus leaned across the desk until the tip of his nose was almost touching the snails. “I don’t see any lances.”

“Lances?” the man leaned backward so abruptly his pile of books swayed like a tall tree in a high wind. He rubbed his glasses furiously with the sleeve of his coat and glared at Marcus as though he were crazy. “Do you have any idea what a lance would do to these beautiful shells? What do you take me for, a barbarian?”

“I thought if they were jousting . . .”

“Lances.” The man said, giving Marcus a stern shake of his head before returning to his snails.

“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” Kyja said. “Could you tell us who you are? I’m not sure we’re in the right place.”

“Who am I?” the man said, as though asking himself. “When most people ask who you are, they really want to know what you are. Are you famous? Are you powerful? Are you wealthy? Are you someone who can help them get what they want, do you stand in their way, or can you be dismissed out of hand?”

He looked left and right from one snail to the other as though watching an especially exciting tennis match. “Titles are quite useful that way, aren’t they? How about Commander of the Fleet? No, too forceful. Master of All Things Inconsequential and General in Nature? Too stuffy. Merciful and Benevolent Ruler? Too self-serving. High Executioner? No.” He shivered. “That won’t do. How about Her Majesty the Queen? I’ve always favored that one.”

Marcus twirled a finger beside his head, but Kyja gave him a quick elbow in the ribs.

“Actually, I was just wondering what to call you,” she said. “I’m Kyja, and this is Marcus.”

“You want a name? How unusual.” The man scratched a thatch of sparse, gray hair. This time, he actually did knock off his hat. But as it rolled from his head, he caught it with the tip of his left shoe and kicked it into the air, landing the hat right where it had been. “How about Zithspithesbazith? It’s actually quite fun to say and allows you to spit freely on whoever you say it to.”

“I don’t think I could pronounce that,” Kyja said, unable to stifle a giggle.

“No? Why don’t we stick with Z then? It has a certain letter-like quality to it.”

Of course not all of your characters will be this odd, but if you take at least as much time with your characters as you do with your story, you will find the story becomes that much stronger.


Erin G. said...

I'm so happy you're back! :D

Thanks for the great tips on characters. I have to admit that sometimes my characters aren't completely thought out when I start writing them. But I try and use personality quizzes and such to get to know them better, which is really helpful to me.

Anyway, glad you're back!

P.S. Loved the excerpt! I can't wait for Land Keep! :D

The Scarlet Tart said...

Thanks for the direction, advice and so on! It's always extremely helpful.

Mindy said...

If we were lucky enough to receive an ARC for Water Keep, do we get one for Land Keep, or was it one time thing? :)

River said...

Yes. That is the reason i watched lost!!! Its the characters!!!
heh heh heh Mr. Z is weird!!
Thanks for the tips