Clever Costuming to Convey Character — September 1, 2011

Clever Costuming to Convey Character

A while back I was watching the movie “Sky High.”  It’s a little cheesy, yes, but I think it’s cute.  I’ve watched this movie several times but this time something blatantly obvious smacked me in the face.

The main character and his love interest are always wearing the same colors.  Not the same as each other, but always the same in different iterations.  If you’ve seen this movie, you know that it’s about a high school for superheroes-in-training (and their sidekicks-in-training) and that the MC’s parents are pretty much the best superheroes there have ever been.  His parents’ colors are the same as the colors he’s always wearing and they are quite often depicted wearing those same colors in their day-to-day lives.

This got me thinking about the subtle ways we can reveal things about our characters.  To go off of the above example, the colors can become sort of an idee fixe.  Their alter egos are so much a part of their lives that it seeps into everything, including their son’s choice in fashion.  On his side of it, we could view it as a manifestation of his want to live up to what’s expected of him, to go into the family business.  It doesn’t have to be so complicated as that, but these are just some ideas.

I never consciously try to put a theme or moral into what I write.  It’s too easy to fall into preaching territory that way.  But we can weave in subtle revelations about our characters and they way they view the world, and one way is through their costuming.

Think about it.  Bella would have come off as a much different person if she’d gone and flat-out refused to abandon her Arizona wardrobe in favor of clothes that would be more appropriate to the Washington climate.

A guy who wears polos and sweaters tied around his shoulders is a very different character than a guy who wears wrinkled t-shirts and cargo shorts.

In the tv show, “Bones,” as another example, there was an interesting subtext played out through clothing.  Booth, the male lead of the show, is an FBI agent.  Wears the suit and tie, all that, looks very buttoned-up and straight-laced.  Except for the flashy ties, large belt buckles and wacky socks.  One season, the FBI sent Booth to therapy after he shot an inanimate object just because it was annoying him.  The therapist was there over a series of episodes (later replaced by another therapist who is now a cast regular) and at one point he made Booth stop wearing the ties, buckles and socks.  Everyone commented on it and after a while the therapist told him to start wearing them again.

The therapist tells him one thing about these items, about why Booth wears them, other characters think other things, but it takes one line of muttered dialogue to really show the truth behind them, but the dialogue isn’t important.  You can take what you want from the clothing, be it they’re his rebellion against the stricter wardrobe guidelines the FBI has in place in the show’s world, his dislike of the “privileged” (read, wealthy and arrogant, the ones who think they’re all that and a bag of pretzels because they were blessed to be born into a rich family), or him just trying to be the winning peacock.  But the clothes say so much without one single word uttered by a character.

We can also use clothing to set up our readers for their expectations to be shattered.  Take the guy who wears the polos and sweaters tied around the shoulders.  Now, he might be the stereotype: wealthy, full of himself, pretentious, and would never be caught dead holding a toilet brush.

Or he could be the world’s greatest superhero living on the lam after being framed for a robbery that was committed by his arch-nemesis.

See?  You can take the guy with the cargo shorts and wrinkled t-shirts and turn him into anything you want if you’re aiming to toss expectation on its head.  You just have to know what sort of character you want.

Have you ever though much about clothing and such as a means of showing readers the sort of character they’re reading about?  I know I have, at least on a secondary level in much of what I write.  Though with Lodestar it plays more of a role than in other works I’ve written.

Studying Characterization — August 5, 2011

Studying Characterization

I’m a very visual learner.  I will admit that right here and now.  Never is that more apparent than when watching a movie or a television show gives me insight into my writing, and into writing in general.

Yesterday I talked about my binge on season 1 of “Haven.”  Well, aside from that special feature where I realized some things about my writing, about how I’m too connected and am letting my work control me too much at times, I got some great great insights into characterization.

I need to start doing this sort of binge to help with dialogue and stuff, too, methinks.  Anyway.

There’s this character on the show.  He’s your typical bad boy character.  But really not so much.  And one thing that I found myself continually doing, and I do this with a couple of my most favorite shows, was analyzing his character.  Those rare times where I had to tear myself away from the DVDs because real life was calling, this character was in my head.  And I was dissecting him, figuratively speaking.

Sometimes I find myself analyzing characters like this if I’m talking about the latest episode with someone else who is also a fan of that show.  But even then it’s hard to remember little nuances, to see patterns.

Watching 13 episodes of a show, almost entirely back to back, really makes those patterns stand out.  And you start to see a character’s tell, that indication that there’s something just under the surface that’s really influencing all their decisions.  Or the thing that shows you the character is falling in love with another one, even if no one sees it.  Just little things.

Watching that many episodes in a row is almost like reading a book.  Every episode is a chapter, and at the end of a season, you get the climax that both concludes that book’s arc and sets up the arc for the next in the series.  (And sometimes it doesn’t set up the external arc, it sets up an internal arc for one or more characters.)

Oh, my, how convenient! — July 19, 2011

Oh, my, how convenient!

Seriously, stupid conveniences bother me in reading and in television/movie viewing.

I was watching a tv show the other day.  I won’t say which so as to not overtly spoil anything.  But there was a character whose estranged spouse conveniently showed up just to make this character’s life more miserable/complicated and to complicate and effect the character’s relationships with other characters.

Really?

I feel like this is a trope seen a lot and I’m a little tired of it.  I’m tired of the characters just having up and left their lives without resolution on that past.  There are so many ways the past can complicate the presence that we don’t need a character who everyone thinks is single and then all of the sudden we find out they’re really not.

Perhaps it’s a symptom of the popularity through the years of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.  Perhaps.  It also may just be a symptom of the lax views of marriage and family that are running rampant in today’s world.  In a world where divorce is easy to obtain and more and more seems to be the first answer rather than a last resort after a couple has tried all they can to repair the marriage, picking up and leaving may seem like the common answer to make a character relatable.

I don’t know if it’s true, but I do know that relationships can be so complicated without this easy answer for character development.

What Does Your Character Want? — June 23, 2011

What Does Your Character Want?

Does your character want something so badly it aches?  Do they want something so desperately they cry thinking about it?

What are they willing to do to get that?

Are they willing to move across the country even if they really can’t afford it?  Are they willing to admit defeat and give up on the dream or desire?

At what point will they settle for second- or fifth-best because the odds against getting what they want are insurmountable?

Are you as the author willing to push them to that point and see if they break?

I’m going through this struggle in my real life right now.  I know the point at which I’ll break.  I sometimes wonder if Heavenly Father wants to see if I break this time or if I can push to a new breaking point and not break.

Right now, I’m looking for a job.  It’s not pretty, the war that rages in my head every time I click through my links of various job boards.  I went to a conference on Saturday that was not a writer’s conference.  This was a religious conference.  One of the workshops I attended was on landing the job you want.  Some 40,000 jobs created last month?  That’s great!  Oh, but 220,000 new job seekers entered the market.  Sigh.

At one point, the man teaching the workshop ran through a bunch of questions all meant to help us figure out what career we want.

Guess what my answers told me?  Well, 2 things.  Writer and agent/editor.

Crazy, right?  But the answers were there plain and simple.  You know what really stinks, though?  The fact that there isn’t a whole lot of publishing industry here where I live.  It exists.  There are some literary agencies and three magazines.

I’m at that point where I know what I want, I want it so desperately I want to cry, and I can’t have it.  The roadblocks are insurmountable.

Are your characters at that point?  Are they headed for that point?

Independent and Strong Female — May 27, 2011

Independent and Strong Female

I’ve been seeing a lot of discussions lately bemoaning the strong female character who really isn’t all that strong or independent.  So I thought I’d take a day to explore what I think makes a woman truly strong or independent.  Maybe someone will take something from what I have to say.

My Mom is the strongest, most independent person I know.

My Dad passed away almost 11 years ago.  He was sick for half of my life, diagnosed with cancer when I was seven, getting Hodgkin’s and Shingles, multiple rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, a bone marrow transplant, two ruptured discs in his back, a heart attack, and ultimately succumbing, not to the cancer cured by the BMT, but to congestive heart failure of a heart damaged by too much chemotherapy and radiation and too little activity after rupturing the discs in his back.

Through those 8 years (he passed when I was 15), my Mom had to make a lot of decisions on her own, especially in the later years.  After he passed, everything fell on her shoulders.  They’d always made financial decisions together, big issues, all of that.  Now he’s not around.  She had two choices: shirk the decisions because they were too hard or step up to the plate and live life.

There have been times where I know she’s struggled.  Where she’s railed against what happened, wishing that my Dad were around.  *coughteachingmetodrivecough*  But then she’s picked up and made the decisions that needed making.

But she’s also always had help in quiet ways.  Talking to her parents, her Bishop, learning from those around her.

In many ways I’ve picked up this same independence and strength.  I can rely on myself to handle what life throws at me.  Sure sometimes I want to cry.  And I do.  But then I blow my nose and make a decision.

Often times, though, I have to ask for help.  I have to accept the fact that no one can get through this life completely on their own.  Part of strength and independence, to me, is knowing when to ask for help.  It’s hard, but it’s true.  It’s a lesson I’m taught nearly monthly sometimes it seems.

True independence and strength is knowing that you have the power to operate on your own but recognizing that you can’t always do so and need the support, help, and strength of others to get what you want or need in this life.

Maybe if we start thinking of it this way, our female characters won’t come off as total pains and alienate our readers.

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Today marks the 400th post here at Chronicles of a Novice Writer.  And to top it off, next Wednesday will be the unofficial 2-year anniversary of my blog.  I say unofficial because this blog was technically opened in October of 2008, but between then and June 1, 2009, there were maybe 3 posts.  June 1 was when I began to blog consistently and with a vague purpose in mind.  Over the years that purpose has shifted, as has the content, but I’m still here.  I’m still talking.  And maybe I’m talking to no one, but that’s okay I guess.

So, in honor of both of these milestones, I’m holding a contest.  The rules are simple: To be entered, simply tweet me your best mashup title between a classic and your favorite or least favorite book in the genre you read/write in the most.  My twitter handle is @StephanieLMcGee and please use the hashtag #400posts2yrsmashup

Only the first tweet will be entered in the contest but tweet as many as come to mind.  One title per tweet, please.

Don’t have a Twitter account?  (Get thee to Twitter!)  That’s okay.  Leave your best title mashup here in the comments and I’ll be sure you’re entered.

The contest will be open from the time of this post going live until 11:59 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time on Tuesday, May 31.  I’ll announce the two winners (you read that right, two winners!) in my post on June 1.

What’s the prize?  Oh, I suppose I should tell you that if you really want to know.  I’ll be giving away two full manuscript critiques.  Two.  I’ll allow adult, YA, MG, or anything in-between.  Keep it clean and mild on the heat level.  Acceptable genres are steampunk, science fiction, fantasy, and romance.  If you really want the crit and you’re in a different genre, leave a comment and I’ll call it from there.

Owning Your Work — March 8, 2011

Owning Your Work

I posted a while ago about reconciling differences.  As an author, I have my own personal beliefs about a variety of situations that characters could face, ways that characters might think, etc.  (You can find that original post here.)

Now, as I sit down and really look at my story When the Star Fell (formerly titled Lodestar), I find myself faced with a question.
Do I want this work to be associated with me?
It brings to mind Warren Buffett’s advice from that school visit I talked about before on the blog.  (Find those posts here, here, and here.)  In the video, he’s asked, “How do you instill ethical leadership through your corporation? How do you know the management below you is making parallel decisions?”
His reply was the newspaper test.  Imagine that the decision you’re making is going to be reported on the next day by a less-than-friendly newspaper reporter.  All your friends and family are going to see it.  Are you good with the decision, imagining that scenario?  If not, make a different decision.
Am I comfortable with what’s in the story?  Am I, being an active member of my church, comfortable with the situations I’ve put my characters through?  Am I comfortable with the fact that I’ve written dialogue with the occasional (very occasional) curse word?  Am I comfortable with every word on those pages?
And I’m not so sure I am.
Are you comfortable with your words as a representation of you?
(To be fair, I do realize that my book isn’t me.  But people can get judgmental sometimes.  And I know that we have to be true to the characters, but doesn’t that also mean we can create characters that don’t behave in those ways that make us most uncomfortable?)
Complicating Characters Revisited — November 16, 2010

Complicating Characters Revisited

This post originally appeared on the blog back in September of last year.

Just over a week ago (September 1) my mom and I were watching “Warehouse 13.” (Yes, I’m a nerd and proud to admit it.) For the entire debut season there’s been this lurking storyline. One of the characters lost their lover in Warehouse 13’s Act 0. (I will borrow here from my first professor of Shakespeare.) It’s pretty much the only significant thing they’ve ever indicated has happened to this character. Now, I realize that it would be no fun if they gave us her entire life story in one go. But, characters are more than just one shaping event from Act 0. Especially adult characters who have lived in the worlds we as authors create.

So, how do we complicate our characters, make them more than just one shaping event? For me, while each character does have one or two life-shattering events in their history, I try to map out changes around them. These changes can be corollary to event prime or unrelated. Then I fill in gaps. Small events, like whether they broke a bone, usually spring from the moment unless a past injury becomes an event prime and then I definitely plan it out ahead of time. I figure that I can let those little things spring from the well as I let the words flow because they aren’t crucial to story but they make a character real.

I also look beyond event prime to circumstances of birth. Did they have a birth defect? A neurological disorder? Poor? Rich? Nobility? Disgraced nobility? Fully human? (Fantasy worlds, after all, don’t necessarily preclude a no answer to that question.) The little details like that are what helps me to complicated my characters so they’re more than just Act 0 Event Prime.

Nowadays (meaning here in November of 2010) when I’m charactering, I think long and hard about those circumstances of birth and how they were raised.  I look at the character’s parents’ modes of thinking, personal beliefs, etc, that might factor into how my character will react to things.  Or from which the internal conflict might spring.


With my latest WiP, I’ve taken to letting the character’s decisions work backward from what I know is the decision she has to make at the end of the story.  What decisions and events would lead my character, from the way she formed at the beginning, to the decisions and actions that come at the end?


It’s when I know these reactions, and they feel natural and not forced out, that I know I’ve come close to creating a full-fledged character, near to a real human being as I’m currently capable.

Footloose and Fancy-free Friday 11/12 — November 12, 2010

Footloose and Fancy-free Friday 11/12

Sorry for vanishing, everyone.  Busy busy week.  With lots of fun things happening.

Someone asked me recently how I know my characters are developed enough.  I gave my answer, but now I want to know yours.

How do you know when your characters are fully fleshed out and real?  How do you know they’ve become individuals capable of carrying the story that needs to be told?

Character Names — November 9, 2010

Character Names

Even in fantasy, names of people and places should sound consistent and believable. While this may come easy to someone like J.R.R. Tolkien who was a linguist and knew dozens of languages, to use mere mortals it’s a far more daunting task.

In my contemporary fiction that I’ve written, the names have generally come easy. First names that is. If I ever needed a last name, I’d simply flip open to a random page ofThe Dictionary of Surnames, and scan for a name that appealed.

Fantasy becomes a much uglier beast. I have a spreadsheet on my computer to keep track of the significant name changes to either person or place. In one fell swoop, one day, I re-named several of the important side characters and every major location name for the country it all takes place in. Including the country’s name!

My general strategy for coming up with names is to either get on baby naming websites and go through the database willy-nilly or to open baby name books to random pages and look for a name to jump out. On occasion I do go to fantasy name generator sites and look for names that way.

So what are your strategies?


*In celebration of my blog’s 2nd birthday, I’ll be re-posting some old favorites from the archives during the month of November.  The original post from July 9 2009 can be found here.

Change — September 16, 2010

Change

Some say that people can’t change.  They say that any change a person encounters is really a turn to what they’d tried to hide before.  Others might say that the change is more self-discovery than anything.  Really, any number of excuses might be thought of.

Hogwash, I say.

People can change.  They can do hard things, soften their hard-headed ways, come out the successors in a hard-won fight.

I grew up a notoriously picky eater.  99% of the foodstuffs out there I would never touch with a ten foot pole.  Over the years I’ve softened, branched out here and there.  And I’ve fallen in love with cuisines my 10-year-old, even my 18-year-old, self would not have tried.

And now I’ve entered culinary school.  The one place where I can’t be a picky eater.

It’s my litmus test for life I suppose.  I’ve been fortunate enough to end up on the dining rotation this first nine days of the trimester.  There are two dining room classes every culinary student takes.  Beginning and advanced.  Their classroom is where we eat.  They serve whatever gets made in the kitchen right off the dining room.

This go around it’s classical French cuisine.  Five courses, one hour.  I’ll just name one or two dishes for each day.

Day 1?  Escargot.

Day 2?  Oysters florentine.

Day 3?  Some sort of salmon dish.

Day 4?  Scallops.

Day 5?  Stuffed mushrooms.  Poached pears.

Day 6?  Crepes Suzette.  Lamb.

Day 7?  Crab-stuffed crepes.  Lobster.

What’s my point with all of this?  Not one of those dishes is something I’d touch growing up.  Salmon was something I didn’t try until I was a senior in college.  (I adore salmon when prepared well.)  But I tried almost every one of these dishes in the short time I’ve been in school.  (I passed on the oysters because I wasn’t feeling brave enough to find out right then if I was allergic.  Turns out, mildly allergic to scallops, no reaction to the crab or lobster.)

I’ve made a change.  Am I liking it?  I enjoyed the salmon, the poached pears, and the crepes suzette.  The rest?  I’ll still order a good filet mignon over lamb or lobster but at least now I’ve changed my ways and won’t be so mule-headed.

Have you thought about something like this for your characters?  What is something that they’ve stubbornly refused to do, or not do, that you could plot a way to get them to do it?  Would it be believable if they made that change?  Will it deepen your story?  Think about it.  And join me in eating some plain yogurt and a walk on the treadmill.