Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Literary Namesakes

My sister recently dropped off a book for me to read (along with some llama socks and a Totoro keychain, woot woot) that featured her name in the title.

Me: “Did you pick this up just cuz the main character is named after you?
Her: “Yes.” A pause. “But I think you’ll really like it.”

And to be fair, I’m a little over a fourth of the way into the book, and I do like it. So I give her that.

But it is kind of fun, isn’t it, when you open a book and find a character with your same name? Well, unless the character is a jerk. Or your name is so common that there’s another one everywhere you look. Or you share a name with somebody super famous (can you imagine all the Harry Potters out there?).

At least for me, though, “Kit” isn’t terribly common, so it’s still exciting when another one comes out of the woodwork, but it’s common enough that it does come out occasionally. Though, being a gender neutral name, I did go through a period of time where all the Kits I found were male. Kit Cloudkicker in TaleSpin, a male griffin in The Dark Lord of Derkholm (by Dianna Wynne Jones), etc.

(Not that there aren’t female Kits, of course. There’s an American Girl named Kit, after all, though I will admit to never reading any of those, since she came out after I’d moved off of American Girls. And Kit Tyler from The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which I think was required reading back in elementary school.)

And, like my sister, I will admit to picking up a book if I know the main character is named Kit. I did that with Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan, which is a supernatural story taking place in a boarding school, and with a mystery that I can’t recall the name of where the central mystery revolved around something that could have been solved with a 5-second Google search (the book predated Google, but I was still annoyed that that-Kit couldn’t do some basic research somewhere).

What do you think, squiders? Do you like opening a book and finding your own name staring back at you? Or does it weird you out?

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Working with an Ensemble Cast

I’m to the climax of the space dinosaur book, which is exciting! And also scary, because I’m trying out fencepost outlining for this particular project (basically, you identify the major plot points for your arcs–first plot point, midpoint, second plot point, etc.–and that’s about it) so I’m not 100% sure how this is going down, but sometimes that’s part of the fun!

This book is meant to be the first book of a series, and as it takes place on a spaceship with a crew of about 150 people, there’s a lot of people to deal with. It can be overwhelming. So what are you to do when you’ve got a ton of people to keep track of?

Well, me, I’m taking a page from one of my very favorite science fiction series, Star Trek: the Next Generation. (And arguably other Trek franchises, like Deep Space Nine and Voyager.)

Next Gen had a core cast of characters–Picard, Riker, Data, Geordi, Deanna, Beverly, Worf–as well as several reoccurring characters, such as Barclay, Chief O’Brien, Q, Guinan, that nurse whose name is slipping my mind, Wesley in later seasons, etc. In general, you got a good idea of the scope of the ship without getting overwhelmed by everyone on it.

So when I started setting up my cast, I focused on my core crew, which looks like this:

(Remember what I said about character images from last week.)

(Also, if you can’t read names–I have never claimed to be decent at digital art–it goes Ari, Brian, Chris, Dave, Lin, Robin, Roya, Tom.)

That gave me a good spread across the ship–these people are essentially in charge of different departments. (And, well, space dinosaur.)

However, depending on the type of story you’re writing, eight viewpoints is a lot of viewpoints. A thriller where character is less important and you can have a multiple of viewpoints is one thing. But I wanted to have characters people could identify with, that they’d follow along with for the entire series. That they’d care about. So I decided I’d do three viewpoints per book, with the focus being on who is most involved in the plot for that book. The main plot for this book involves an unknown saboteur who somehow manages to get around all the security measures, so the engineering characters have a lot to do. Other people–medical or science staff, for example–are around, and do contribute, but it doesn’t make sense to give them viewpoints here.

And in writing this book, some of those secondary characters, the ones that make a ship feel like a real, working vessel and not just a backdrop for the officers, have already started to show up. I’m taking note of them so I can use them throughout the series. I don’t know if they’ll ever become viewpoint characters later down the road, but, hey, anything’s possible.

I mean, Chief O’Brien didn’t even get a name for two seasons and went on to be the chief engineer of DS9.

What are your favorite ensemble casts, squiders? Any thoughts on how they’ve been handled, good or bad?

How to Picture Characters

Good news, squiders! I did not have to go to jury duty today! (Obviously.)

(Also, I wanted to note that I put The Wanderer as MG historical in my box of books post, and it is straight MG. Not sure why I thought it was historical.)

I am not the most visual of authors, but I know a lot of people like to use images to “see” their characters. Or other people’s characters (hooray for fanart!). So, if this is you, I thought I’d give you a few resources to use to hunt down characters or build your own if you already know what they look like.

(I find having pictures of my characters useful for showing other people. I typically just need a name to get a fully formed character when actually writing. But everyone’s different, and that’s okay!)

If you know what your characters look like

As I said, I typically just need a name, and then everything else kind of falls into place. Sometimes I will start with a visual (I want them to be this ethnicity, or have this color eyes, or whatever) and then go for a name, but normally they show up and come with their own details.

If you’re artistic, you can try drawing your characters. I do this periodically with mixed results, because I never quite got past a middle school drawing level. (And also I was obsessed with the anime-style drawing at that point and it shows.) Also I don’t know how to color, so I typically get line drawings I’m happy with and then ruin them by digitally coloring them.

If you’re not artistic, never fear! There’s a lot of character generators out there! Some are specifically designed to do forum avatars, and tend to be from the shoulders up. Search “avatar maker” and you’ll find a ton of them. “Character creator” typically works for full-body ones, and here’s a reddit thread about decent ones.

They do tend to be a bit specialized, so you might need to poke around a bit to find one that will work for you. Here’s a picture of my character Ali that I whipped up just for this blog post on HeroMachine. (It’s specifically for making superheroes or other scifi/fantasy characters which makes it not awesome for character like Ali, who is a contemporary high school student, but I’ve used it forever so I’m used to how it works.)

Ali pic

(Alternately, here’s a pic of Briony from City of Hope and Ruin, also using HeroMachine.)

(There’s a lot of bare midriffs for the ladies in HeroMachine land.)

I don’t know what my characters look like and/or I prefer real people

(Or at least more realistic drawings)

Hey, too bad there’s not an entire Internet out there with pictures of things! Here’s some places to look:

  • Pinterest – there’s even a handy-dandy search bar, right at the top!
  • stock photo websites – Again, handy search bars. Harder to find some weirder things. I remember, when we were working on the cover for Shards, it was near impossible to find a guy looking over his shoulder that also had a shirt on. Additionally, if you find a picture you really like, you can normally purchase it (for a fee) and then you can legally use it in promotional material and stuff like that.
  • Portrait-photos.orgLike HeroMachine, I’ve been using this website for literally forever, ever since someone first brought up trying to match characters to real people for use in avatars, practice covers, Nanowrimo banners, etc. You search by keyword (I usually do this by clicking on a keyword under a picture and then replacing it with what I actually want to search for). I like that this website has a wider selection of people than just “pretty, young people.”
  • Flickr
  • deviantArt

A note about copyright: Please do not just steal pictures off the Internet. If you’re making an icon or a banner or even a cover just for fun, it’s probably okay, but if you’re going to be using them for a real cover or promotional materials of any sort, you need to make sure you have permission to use the image. There are some stock photo websites, like pixabay, that specifically host public domain images, and you can purchase images off other ones. Websites like deviantArt and Flickr usually list the copyright information under each picture. A lot of artists use Creative Commons (CC), and some CC copyrights allow for personal use or modifications. Just be aware.

And if you want to see a lot of old drawings, icons, and banners of various book projects…well, here you go.

(Okay, some of the banners aren’t so old.)

(Also, there’s some landsquid.)

What resources do you use to picture characters, squiders?

Language Barriers in Speculative Fiction

Hey hey, so apparently I was going to write this post two years ago, got as far as “WOO” and never went back to it. Good job on focusing, me.

Language barriers are something common that you find in science fiction and fantasy stories. It makes sense, especially if you’ve got cultures that have never met before, and it can make for interesting conflict if characters can’t understand each other. Especially when dealing with alien races, you can even make up new ways of communication that may be impossible for other species to learn.

On the other hand, sometimes you need characters to be able to communicate, even if you’ve set things up so they shouldn’t be able to because of whatever reason.

Let’s go over some of the most common ways to get around language barriers. And feel free to let me know your favorite and least favorite examples of overcoming barriers and what worked (or didn’t) in the comments.

Common Language

The idea here is that there’s a common language that different species all learn so they can communicate with each other, even if they have their own language otherwise. This is your “Galactic Standard,” as it were. Of course, for this to work, your various species need to similar enough that it makes sense that they’d all be able to make the same linguistic sounds, etc.

One Person Understands

This is where you have a character that speaks its own language which is incomprehensible to the reader/viewer, but luckily there’s that one other character who knows that language and can translate or have one-sided conversations that essentially get the meaning across. Han Solo with Chewbacca, for example, or Rocket with Groot.

Universal Translator

These are magic devices that automatically translate any language it comes in contact with, as long as said language has been encountered before (to add some leeway for when you want a plot that hinges on miscommunication). A lot of the time, these can also pick up new languages after a few minutes of listening. A LOT of science fiction uses this idea, though you do occasionally come across the fantasy equivalent (such as a spell of understanding).

Telepathy

Maybe characters can’t understand each other, but hey, using telepathy can help even the most disparate of species communicate! (Assuming, of course, that their patterns of thought are at all similar.) This mode can often rely a lot on visuals and emotions rather than words.

Immersion/Building Understanding Over Time

For a more realistic approach, if your cultures aren’t meeting for the first time, you can assume they have had interactions for a while and might have started to pick up each other’s language. (Some people show this through some characters/species speaking with an odd grammar, though be aware this can get tedious to read.) Alternately, people can pick up languages through immersion, which is where you’re immersed in another language for a long period of time. This forces you to learn the language through everyday interactions, and also helps you learn how to convey ideas when you don’t have the vocabulary yet.

Of course, both of these methods require time, and if you need two characters to be able to interact to stop the universe from imploding in the next week, well.

Do you have a method I’ve left out, Squiders? Examples, good or bad? Thoughts on storytelling that relies on disparate characters being able to understand each other?

Character Change as a Catalyst for Conflict

A few weeks ago, my sister finally convinced me to join Pottermore and get sorted into a house. Now, I was 14 when I started reading the Harry Potter books, and over the years I have taken a lot of sorting quizzes. The good majority of those came up about 50/50 Gryffindor (due to a sometimes ill-advised tendency to jump to people’s rescue without thinking things through) and Ravenclaw (because I am a giant nerd and love puzzles). Once I got Slytherin, which was a bit thrilling, because I went through a phase where I was really into Slytherin (much like I went through a phase where I was really into the Empire a few years before), but even I had to admit that was probably a fluke.

I was expecting Ravenclaw from Pottermore. I got Hufflepuff.

“Hufflepuff?” I said to my sister, who had sat with me on the phone while I went through the quiz. “I have never been a Hufflepuff. Aren’t Hufflepuffs nice? And like other people?”

My sister is also a Hufflepuff, but she is, like, stereotypically Hufflepuff. If she’d taken those gazillion of quizzes back in the day, they all would have said Hufflepuff.

My sister said, “I think most parents are probably Hufflepuff.”

Which I’ve been thinking about, because that’s what I do. And I think she’s right. It’s not that I no longer have the qualities that marked me as a Gryffindor, it’s that I have to stop and think about what I do before I do something, to think about how it will affect my family. And it’s not that I’m not still a giant nerd or no longer love puzzles, but when presented with a choice between working on a devilishly hard Sudoku puzzle or having a tea party with the small, mobile ones, the latter tends to win out.

People change. It’s what they do. And characters also change, at least if you want them to remain realistic. There are always thread to who they were, sure, but people are affected by life. Good things, bad things. A character raised out of poverty to a life of luxury is not going to be the same person they were when they were living in a cardboard box. A character who has lost their spouse to cancer is going to be affected by that, one way or another. Characters make choices–choices that force them to reevaluate their priorities, to face the darker parts of themselves (or not to), to pick where they want to go and what they want out of life.

And that, dear Squiders, can be a wonderful catalyst for conflict within a story. It can drive internal conflict. Maybe a character knows they need to do something–for themselves, for their family, for their soul–but can’t bring themselves to separate from a part of their selves that they feel is essential. Maybe their goals are hurting them, but they’re not willing to let go. Or they know what they need to do, the change that needs to be made, but feel like it’s out of their reach.

It can drive interpersonal conflict as well. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “He’s not the man I married.” When people change, it can affect how they interact with the people closest to them. People react to pressure or success in different ways, ways that not be compatible with those of their loved ones. Someone can make a change for the better only to find their old friends trying to pull them back down, or someone can feel that someone else is leaving them behind.

Don’t forget change, Squiders. People response to outside stimulus, good or bad–and characters should too.

I think I’ll skip Thursday, but I should be back to post on Friday, unless I get swallowed by family things. (All state parks have free admission on Friday to try and combat the Black Friday phenomena, and that’s hard to say no to.) If I don’t see you then, have a happy Thanksgiving, American Squiders, and a great weekend, global Squiders.

Oh, and thank you to everyone who’s picked up To Rule the StarsWe’re sticking up pretty decently in our Amazon categories, hooray! The ebook version is still on sale for $.99, and the paperback is now available as well, so pick it up while you can if you haven’t yet!

Why We Love Reoccurring Characters

Amazon’s put Doctor Who (except for Season 9) back onto Prime, so I’ve been catching up. (I continue to have a “this show makes no sense and I’m not sure why I continue to watch it, yet there must be something because I keep watching” relationship with DW.) One of the recent episodes I watched had an occasional reoccurring character that happens to be a favorite of mine, and I may have gotten unnecessarily excited when she showed up.

That got me to thinking about reoccuring characters in general. It seems–and this may be generalizing–that people feel more strongly about their affection for reoccurring characters than main characters, in many cases. Everyone has that character that, when they happen to grace a show, book, movie, etc. with their presence, makes their day.

(Or, alternately, it could be a character that they love to hate. Or just really hate. I’m looking at you, Kai Winn.)

Why do we react stronger to characters we don’t see that often?

Well, my going theory is that we get used to characters we see all the time, so while we relate to them and may feel closer to them (or, for characters we don’t particularly like, just kind of accept that they’re there and deal with it). They lose their impact, to some degree. It’s like the friend you see every day. You’re comfortable with them, you love them, but they’re not necessarily exciting.

Reoccurring characters are like the friend you haven’t seen in a year. It’s an event when they come and visit! It’s something you look forward to. And even better if it’s a surprise, and you open the door one day to find them sitting on their porch (assuming they don’t think they’re staying with you unannounced).

It’s not that they’re better, per se. It’s just the absence makes the heart grow fonder.

I do find it interesting that when a reoccurring character becomes a main or side character for a period of time, it can go really well or really poorly. It really shows how complete of a character that character is when some of that shiny-ness wears off.

Who are your favorite reoccurring characters, Squiders? Any examples of a reoccurring character turned regular that went spectacularly well (or not)? Any experience with your own reoccurring characters?

Making Sure Your Characters Fit Their Community

This morning I went to yoga at my church. As far as yoga goes, this is pretty non-intensive–more for relaxation and stretching than anything else. I’m the youngest person who goes. Afterwards, everyone gets together to chat for a while and, since several people who come know me or my husband or the small, mobile ones, I often have several people come and talk to me for a while. Meanwhile, I’m thinking about how I need to go and what I need to get done and what order I should do it in, and I find the practice somewhat stressful.

(Also? Introvert.)

Part of that is personality, and part of it is generational.

But I do know how to play my part, because this is a part of the society I was raised in and I know its rules. Which is something we should always remember about our characters as well.

Characters, like people, are a product of their environments and upbringing. Societies have rules, and even people who are outcasts or uncomfortable with the people around them know those rules and respond to them in some manner. And if you remove a character from their base environment and place them somewhere else, even if those new rules fit them better as a person, there’s still going to be a transitional period for that character.

Authors can fall into the trap of creating a character outside of their environment pretty easily. It’s not hard to give your character modern ideals and then plant them in a society which goes against all of them. It’s one thing to have a character against the injustices of their society, but it’s another to put them there without any logical reason. People raised in comfort tend to not see issues until directly confronted with them. People raised in poverty or other hard circumstances often have a hard time seeing the way out.

Authentic characters feel that way because they feel complete. Readers can see where they came from and how they got there. Someone serving as a political mouthpiece for the author might have important things to say, but they don’t feel real.

What do you think, Squiders? Have any examples, good or bad, where a character doesn’t echo their environment?