Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Where do Characters come from and what do they want?

Interesting, complex characters are the most important element of any novel. I will tolerate the most cliched of settings and plots if I love the characters. When writing my own fantasy novel, (which involves the very cliched plot of a kidnapped princess) I sought to create a team of fun characters that I wanted to spend time with and see embark on future adventures. Knee-deep into draft three of my novel, Ghets, I’m not thrilled with my word choices (seriously Matt, you’re using ‘luckily’ again?), but I absolutely love my Ghets team. They feel rounded and interesting and play off each other well.

Creating characters is lot like creating worlds to me. There’s a long germination period where I play around with an idea in my head. I usually have some sort of framework to start with when I sit down to write, and generally can’t track the character’s inception point. Reez, my lead, started with some questions like why not make the lead an orc? Why not an orc woman? and grew from there. Elise the Coward’s backstory was a direct reaction to the macho-mythologizing of the Spartans. But other characters, like Jaques, seemed to emerge ex nihilo. I can’t even remember a time when I was work-shopping them.

Characters follow a truth that has become something of mantra for me and writing: everything is perfect, until it’s real. Meaning, when you’re doing the necessary, fun and frantic work of constructing a character in your head they seem dynamic and stuffed with potential. But then when you start arranging them on the page, you realize you don’t know what they’ll say or how they’ll react. No matter how much time you spend thinking about your characters, you don’t know them until you start writing them.

Writing is a process of creation, re-examination, and change (yes, I couldn’t think of a third ‘tion word), characters follow the same process. They start out one way in the early drafts, and then slowly evolve the more time we spend with them, shaping them, coming to understand them. I would even argue that it’s a good idea to just start with a scene, something you never intend to include in your novel, that’s just your characters doing something together or sitting around talking.

I’m a dialogue guy, so I do a lot of scenes of just talking. But when I first started writing I noticed that a lot of my characters sound alike. To try to find their voice I would play with dialogue, create lists of words they could or couldn’t use, tried to reach outside of my own vocabulary and vocal meter. I tend to ramble, so a lot of my characters did too. I tried to reign that in, create characters that said little or nothing and communicated with expressions and gestures or characters that spoke very precisely.

Character voice is important, it’s one of the few things that can help differentiate characters on the page. Ideally you want each character’s voice to be so unique that the reader can tell who’s speaking by voice alone. But what’s even more important than a character’s voice is a character’s desire.

If you want compelling characters you need to know what they want, and what’s keeping them from getting what they want. A lot of times what your character wants is something immaterial: respect, connection, etc. And also, a lot of times the character themselves might not realize, or be resistant to, their own desire. Ideally as the writer, you should know what your characters are after. Good scenes and good character moments are created when we let characters and their desires drive the plot.

If you get your character’s right they will help you understand your own story better, they’ll guide you as much as you guide them. Readers too will stick through a tough or detailed book if they love the cast. So take your time, play around with them, ask them questions. Figure out how they talk and think and most of all what they really want. It’ll help you figure out what you want from them.

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

Sir Namington of Somewhereshire: My struggles with coming up with Fantasy Names

After years of toiling on two drafts of Ghets, my latest novel, I proudly declared on Facebook that I was looking for beta-readers. Friends and family immediately requested copies, showering me with support. I felt loved and ready to share…but then had to stall. There was just one little problem with the latest draft of Ghets, about half the things in it were missing names.

I love worldbuilding: creating towns and creatures, different legends and cultures, but I absolutely hate naming them. It’s not that I can’t think of names, it’s more that I want to get the name absolutely right and nothing will gum up your writing flow quicker than trying to come up with a name on the fly.

My practice for name generation is to brute force it. Open a fresh word doc and start writing down ever name, sound and spelling that comes to mind. I start with existing names and words to build my new name out of, like Elisette, Odvid and the Uldritch Pit Lords. Maelator, my chief antagonist, I got from chopping a bunch of different words up and mashing them together. I was going for a name that sounded like the big bad from a Saturday morning cartoon and I think I nailed it.

Once I created one new name, it led to others. It make sense that people from the same group would sound have similar sounding names. The chief god of my orcs is named ‘Kor’ so there’s a lot of ‘kors’ and ‘or’s in their naming scheme (maybe too many) there’s the fortress of Korragorra, and Kaikor Reez and her brother Kalighor.

My biggest stumbling block to name creation turned out to be Google. I would come up with the perfect name only to google it and find out it was already the name of a small village in India or the last name of some guy in Uruguay or was in use on the World of Warcraft forums (or all three).

It got to the point where I would spend my writing time for that day playing with different names or tweaking the spelling to create something un-google-able. Finally, I had enough. When I came to a person, place or thing that needed a proper name I just wrote ‘BLANK’ in all caps. It was a revolution.

I was back to writing, back to creating. My writing flow was coursing again uninterrupted. The Angular fish people of the Dark Sea were the BLANK, as were the lizard-like citizens of the Underraod who they fought and raided with the help of the BLANK pit lords. Markus’s magic sword BLANK clashed against Maelator’s magic sword the Jaws of BLANK. And then there was the time BLANK grabbed BLANK’s BLANK and bashed BLANK into the walls of BLANK cathedral.

After I finished Draft II I reread the novel and realized that it was unreadable to anyone, but myself. By some miracle I had remembered what all the BLANKs referred too, but it was a mess. I spent several days creating random fantasy names and waded back into the novel replacing BLANKS with names from my list or giving them more generic ones. I’m still at it even now. I have a hundred pages still to go, hunting down the BLANKs.

But I don’t regret the decision to BLANK myself. When creating drafts, especially rough ones, nothing is more important than just writing. What I do regret is not going with a name more often, no matter how bad or just using one that’s already taken. Everything is already a name, it’s not like Jose Duomarco from Uruguay is every going to read my novel and realize that I used his last name for a port city.

Readers will forgive a good character with a bad name. Besides, it’s only draft II, names can change! And speaking off, anyone have ideas on how to make really good fantasy names? I still have more BLANKS to fill.

A Novel Process

A Novel Process

I started this blog writing about being a failed novelist,( Here.) And I’m proud to say that I’m still very much one. I’m currently working on my next possibly failed project ‘Ghets’ and thought it might be insightful, or at least interesting, to talk a little bit about my novel writing process.

I just got done with my rough draft of Ghets. It took me almost fifteen months from February 15th 2016-April 8th 2017 and clocks in at 162,040 words. Fifteen months is a long time and novel drafts usually don’t take me so long. Dex’s four drafts were each about nine months, but Dex largely took place in the modern world and didn’t require much world building. Ghets takes place in its own world, so there were pauses to settle on cultures and creatures.

When I started writing, rough drafts like ‘Ghets’ were torture. I’d begin with energy and optimism. There’s a thrill in creating something new, like beginning a journey, you have no idea where you’re going. But that’s also its biggest challenge. I’d hit a stride and quickly make it through the first third of the story. But when it was time to shift from the first to the second act I would hit problems.

I would have forgotten to write a vital scene or would realize too late that the surprise I was setting up all first act wasn’t going to work. Like many creators, I suffered from perfectionism. I would go back and add those scenes or fix the surprise and that’s the exact opposite of what you should be doing.

Rough drafts are supposed to be rough. You’re there to throw down all your ideas about the story and keep going. You realize that you need an extra scene to explain something? Pretend you wrote it. You decide your villain should be someone else? He was never the villain, it was always the new guy. The subplot about opening a café isn’t working? Forget it, it didn’t happen, keep writing.

The idea is to run, to not let missed chapters or poor writing stop you. You’re going to be editing this thing for at least the next year you can worry about your mistakes then. Besides you might end up deleting half the story, or going in a completely new direction, don’t get attached. It’s hard a lesson to learn, but it’s vital one.

If you want to be good at anything, then you must first accept that you’re going to be bad at it. No one begins great and very few of us end up great. You must be willing to make mistakes and fail. Writing a rough draft is a great way to do that.

Think of rough drafts like a marathon, how quickly can you make it to the end, while still hitting all your story beats and getting out all the scenes you wanted? It takes grit, but with enough perseverance you’ll get it done. The real complicated stuff happens next.

After I complete the rough draft I reread it. It’s a painful process because now I’m being critical and looking for what doesn’t work. What characters are unnecessary, annoying or otherwise problematic? What scenes are confusing? Where do I lost the thread? I try to nail down themes, figure out with the story is about. I also do my first outline at this point.

When I start a rough draft I have an idea of where I’m starting and where I’m ending. (Always know your endings!) But the parts in between are murky. Once the rough draft is done and I have those parts fleshed out I start to rearrange and evaluate them. Some writers are more orderly, with outlines from the start. But I don’t like things to be too neat going in. I want to surprise myself.

After the reread and outline is done I start the real work and rewrite. This is my new obstacle, were my perfectionism now shows itself. I want to do too much, add too many scenes or do too much editing. The second draft isn’t supposed to be perfect either. It’s just supposed to make your novel workable.

If you were to read ‘Ghets’ right now large portions of it wouldn’t make any sense. There’s a ton of locations or characters with place holders for names. There’s scenes and character arcs that get completely abandoned and one of the villains changes his name mid book. My second draft is meant to clean that gunk up so that someone who isn’t me can actually read the story and give their input.

A second draft shouldn’t be polished, just have the main plot and characters largely formed with as little chaff as possible. The idea is to invite other people to read and have them give big picture critiques. Point out if your plot has too many holes or what they think of your main character. The second draft should have the form of the story, but still some of that nebulousness rough draft in it. Your story might need a major edit, one you can’t see. If enough readers come to you and tell you they love the end of the book but it was slog to get there. You’re going to have a lot you’ll need to cut or change.

After I gather all those critiques I try to digest them. I target the parts that most people hated or found confusing because if just one person hates a story then ‘that’s just like your opinion man’, but if most people do, you’ve got some sort of problem on your hands. I do another reread, or two, chopping off as much as I can and then start draft three.

Draft three is much closer to the finished story. You’ve hopefully fixed most of your plot holes (you’ll never get them all) and have characters that all work and who you understand. Your story should be ‘readable’ at this point. I don’t mean that every sentence is polished and perfect, but that people can read and comprehend what you’re looking to be comprehended.

At this point I hit my beta-readers up for more insights and more granular critiques. After I have that it’s on to draft four which will hopefully be the draft I seek an agent or a publisher for. Even draft four won’t be the end. I’ll still be rereading and editing, chipping away at this or that until I publish it. Or I never stop pecking at it, and leave it to wither out of exhaustion, because art is never finished it’s only abandon.

Either way this has been my process for my last couple of projects. I’ve heard every novel is different and they feel that way. Every writer is different too, some people publish two novels in about the span it takes me to eek out one rough draft (it’s impressive). Regardless, expect to see more posts about Ghets in the future as well as a call for beta-readers in the next 6-9 months!