Today’s Question: where does the inspiration come from for the characters that writers create?
Write what you know. That’s pretty common advice, and something that many writers do, even when it comes to creating characters. (Or at least the readers like to look for evidence of it.) Who do you know better than yourself? Basing a character, at least in part, on yourself gives you plenty of fodder for development.
Someone You Know
How many writers do you think base characters, at least in part, on people they know? Probably a lot of them. Just be careful that you don’t copy them too closely, especially if they might read your work and recognize themselves! You sure wouldn’t want Great Aunt Tilly to recongize that sardine jello surprise everyone makes fun of at Thanksgiving dinner, right?
Someone You See
Writers are often quiet creatures–observant, thoughtful, and curious–so with those qualities, it seems natural that a good session of people watching could generate lots of ideas for characters. People watching is one of my favorite activities for looking for character traits, not necessarily just characters themselves. Those odd traits you see that make people interesting are often part of the texture that makes up the fabric of character.
Someone You Wish You Knew
Are you looking for the perfect date? You could go all Weird Science and build one, or you could go all writer and write one. Need a best friend? Give a character all the traits you’d look for in a sidekick, a secret-keeper, a partner in crime. That character may play center stage or may be a secondary character, but the character is sure to be someone you’ll enjoy writing into a scene.
Someone You Wish You Could Be
Many times we find ourselves in our characters, but we find our ideal selves, not our actual selves. We all have skeletons in the closet–dark recesses within ourselves that we long to explore but fear revealing. Character is one cathartic way to explore those pieces of ourselves. We can imbue characters with the traits we’d love to have ourselves. My characters, for example, are often fairly fearless and outgoing (two things that I am not).
Figments of Your Imagination
Dreams, muses, and fantasies are all good fodder for characters. These are the “traditional” characters, the ones that we say talk to us in the night, whispering their stories in our ears, and nudging us toward the keyboard day after day.
But, there are times when we can’t rely on the fickle muse or the stubborn voice whispering in our ear. Sometimes we have to look for characters in other places. So, look around. The world is made up of characters. Pick a few and take their hands. Invite them to join you in your adventure, promise them fame or infamy, or just lie. That works too, especially when you’re crafting a story.
I knew someone long ago who had written a novel he believed would be his breakout. It was crazy-long (300K words, I think?) and had been turned down on that basis more than once. Instead of breaking it into three novels or doing a massive edit to trim the word count, my friend decided to try breaking the rules of submissions. He sent his query to Famous Literary Agent, with the words “Personal and confidential” written on the front of the envelope. Mr Agent’s secretary passed the letter on to her boss uninspected, Mr Agent read the query and contacted my friend, because the story intrigued him. Eventually it was another rejection, but it inspired my friend to keep trying.
A few weeks ago, the news was abuzz with the story about a white male poet who’d submitted a poem to eleventy-four literary journals, all of which said ‘No thanks.’ So instead of trying again with a different poem, or rewriting the rejected one to make it better, our hero submitted the poem again, this time under the name and guise of a Chinese-American writer. (And he even stole the name from a fellow high school student of his – I guess making up a name was too hard, so he flipped through an old annual? But I digress…) Under the new and exotic name, suddenly his poem was accepted and even chosen for inclusion in the Best American Poetry of 2015, in an attempt by the editors to highlight underrepresented populations.
This isn’t the only time I’ve heard of people getting their feet in the publishing doors by bending the rules. It happens often. I’ve talked about this before here on MW, but alas, it never seems to quite go away. I share this tale with you not to convince you that cheating is a good idea, but to remind you that following the rules is always, always your best move. They’re generally in place to make the editor’s life a little simpler. Think about some of the rules you’ve seen in submission guidelines. For example, “Submit in New Times Roman or Courier size 12 font, please.” Most editors are not blessed with hawklike eyesight. Sending a manuscript in a wacky font that leaves me wondering whether that word is “quotidian” or “protidian” or even “jiulidian” will guarantee that I have the beginnings of a stress headache by the time I reach the bottom of the first page. And the size? Please, if I wanted to publish books for Barbie and Ken to read, I’d have said so.
Or how about “Stories must contain some aspect of magic or the supernatural to be considered.” So you send in a coming-of-age story about little Melinda who has run off to join a convent because her grandfather put his hands on her in ways he shouldn’t have. An ordinary girl, in an ordinary world, with ordinary nuns. I don’t even know what to do with that story, but I’m certainly not going to publish it.
And one more that’s happened recently (and been done by more than one person) “If you’re new to us, send us a writing sample of the first five pages of your published work.” And instead, you send us a link to your website. Sure, that website may have oodles of your work on it, but you just showed us that you can’t follow simple instructions. Why would I believe I should work with you?
The point of all this is to make sure you guys who DO follow the rules and who DO read the guidelines carefully know that we on the other end of those guidelines appreciate the effort you take. We may not open our next letter to you with the words “I see that you followed our guidelines” but you can just bet that you’re even hearing from us because you did. And one other thing to remember…publishing is a tightly-knit business. If you behave in a jerkish manner, breaking rules and skipping guidelines for one editor, don’t be surprised when another editor seems uninterested in working with you. Word gets around.
We’re pleased to welcome a guest and friend of Magical Words, A C Thompson, who’s here today to talk about her recently released anthology of paranormal Sherlock Holmes stories, An Improbable Truth! 14 authors of horror and mystery have come together to create a unique anthology that sets Holmes on some of his most terrifying adventures. A pair of sisters willing to sacrifice young girls to an ancient demon for a taste of success, a sinister device that can manipulate time itself, and a madman that can raise corpses from the dead are just a few among the grisly tales that can be found within these pages. Take it away, AC!
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Do not adjust your monitors, its true— the Southern Belle from Hell herself is guesting today at Magical Words. (Really, I just think your regular poster, Misty Massey, was desperate to not write this week.) But its okay, I’m glad to be her huckleberry.
At first I wasn’t too sure what to write about. I mean, sure I wanted to give a nice plug for the anthology I’ve edited that’s just come out, An Improbable Truth: The Paranormal Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but I also wanted to be sure I was living up to the great writing advice that’s always present here at Magical Words. So I thought I’d tell you all a little bit about what I’ve learned editing an anthology. The truth is, editing this anthology has probably taught me more about writing than I could ever have imagined.
Anthologies and short stories are kind of the meat and drink of a fiction writer. Stephen King (all hail Uncle Stevie) says that, “A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” Those of you that have read my work as Alexandra Christian know how I love a kiss in the dark from a stranger. But seriously, constructing a good short story is not easy, but it’s a cross that every good fiction writer must bear. Participating in an anthology or having your story published in a magazine is probably not going to break your bank account, but it is essential to expose your work to new audiences and make connections with other authors.
I’ve been a part of several anthologies as an author but An Improbable Truth is the first time that I’ve been on the other side of the editorial desk. Yes, my evil alter-ego, A.C. Thompson is the editor of this collection. And lemme tell you, kittens– it’s been a learning experience. It’s had its ups and downs but I like to think the process has been pretty smooth for all those involved. But now that I have something to compare it to, here are some things that I’ve learned.
1. Have a schedule in place. This is actually good advice for most endeavors, but it’s really essential if you’re going to take responsibility of other people’s work. Before the call ever goes out, you should have a clear timeline in your head of not just when the release date is but other important things like: when will the submission window close, when will everyone’s stories be accepted or rejected, how are you going to let them know, when do contracts go out, when do you project having your first round of edits done, by what date should your authors turn those edits in, when is the deadline for cover art, etc. Now these dates don’t need to be set in stone, but you should have some idea. No one should be floundering at the last minute.
2. Be a professional. Let me say that again. *In her best Christian Bale voice* BE A PROFESSIONAL! Ahem, that felt good. Anyway, remember kittens– this is not the church bake sale. This is someone’s hard work that you’re screwing around with here. These people are not donating their work to your cause. They’re giving you something for publication that they will hopefully make a little money from. That means that you cannot keep their work indefinitely in limbo, never telling them whether their story was accepted or never sending them a contract. Authors should NOT find out that their story wasn’t accepted by reading the release announcement. It’s rude, it’s confusing, and it keeps an author’s story on the hook for ages when they could be submitting it to someone that might accept it. Rejections are the most un-fun part of the process, but they’re just as necessary as the acceptances.
3. If you don’t have a grasp of language in your own writing, you probably shouldn’t be an editor. Sadly, this is an epidemic in the self-pubbing/ indie world. We scream that we want to be taken seriously, but kids– big time publishing is never going to take us seriously until we hold our authors to the same standard as they do. And that means good writing and professional editing. Yes, knowing grammar and spelling is important to being a writer. Basic writing skills are NOT what your editor is for.
4. I am your editor, not your mama!! Therefore, it is not my job to teach you to write or completely re-write your first draft. I actually overheard an author tell someone, “It doesn’t matter if I can write. That’s what the editor is for.” WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!! It is your job as the writer to write a great story, polish it up (DO NOT SEND YOUR FIRST DRAFT), and edit– not write a ten page dissertation on why the editor is wrong and you’re right. The editor is an unbiased third party whose only interest is in making your story the best it can be. Don’t fight them every step of the way. If you disagree with something, discuss it. Don’t stomp your feet like a toddler and refuse to change it. Or make up some silly excuse as to WHY you can’t edit. It is worth noting that I did NOT have this problem on the Sherlock anthology. Every single author I have is the picture of professionalism and talent. I may be slightly biased, but seriously… those guys and gals rock!
5. Have a plan for promotion. This is particularly for the editors of anthologies. Now you might say, “That’s not my division.” Well Lestrade, yes it is. If you’re editing an anthology for a small press it IS your division. Finding as many places to get the word out about your authors and your book is part of your job description. You don’t just send these things out into the world and expect them to swim on their own! You have to be creative. Think outside the box. While you’re sitting here reading this ridiculously long diatribe, five anthologies just hit the shelves. You have to make your book stand out. Why should people buy YOUR anthology and not the other one. And don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Your publisher and all those lovely people who contributed to the anthology are there to help you. They should have a plan for what they’re going to do as well. And you’ll, hopefully, all succeed together.
So that’s it. That’s what I’ve learned so far and trust me– it’s a process. I don’t know it all and probably never will. And of course, these are all just my opinions. Only time will tell if it actually worked.
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A.C. Thompson is the alter-ego of novelist Alexandra Christian. Lexxx is a native South Carolinian who lives with an epileptic wiener dog and a pet ghost hunter. She has published several novels, novellas and short stories with Ellora’s Cave, Purple Sword Publications, and Mocha Memoirs Press. Her long-term aspirations are to one day be a best-selling authoress and part-time pinup girl. Questions, comments and complaints are most welcome at her website: http://lexxxchristian.wordpress.com/
Mocha Memoirs: http://mochamemoirspress.com/store/
So, we’ve done a couple weeks of “sure! I’ll look at that!,” and they went well, so we’re doing it again, in a slightly different way. At Con Carolinas and other Cons, the founding MW authors (Faith Hunter, David Coe, Mindy Massey, and AJ Hartley) ran a panel called “Live Action Slush.” Volunteers would have their opening page of a WIP (a novel or a short story) read aloud and each author would raise her or his hand as soon as she or he would stop reading.
So, that’s what we’re going to do.
- We’re only doing short-story intros. Both of us have worked as editors of short stories and have both submitted and selected them. Plus, there are some great opportunities for short stories out there now!
- We will be looking at the first page of a short story (double spaced). (If it is flash–1000 words or less–send the whole thing).
- We will post the page without any author information, and explain where we would stop reading and why. The authors can “out themselves” if they would like. We will not put real names or MW handles in our posts.
How to play:
- On Tuesday (today), post a comment saying that you want to participate.
- On Tuesday before three pm, I will choose 3 at random (if there are more than 3)
- Once I have chosen, I will list the selections in the comments, and the authors will email her.
- On Tuesday at nine pm, Melissa will choose 3 at random.
- Once she has chosen, she will list the selections in the comments, and the authors will email her.
- On Wednesday at midnight we will choose one more story at random.
- The last selection will be posted in the comments Wednesday morning.
- Tuesday afternoon I will post the first selection and my response.
- Thereafter, every day, Melissa or I will post another critique.
- Next Tuesday, should this go well and if there is interest, we will do it all again!
So, if you’re interested, tell us so in the comments! Also, if you’ve got any questions, ask away!
Have you ever bought a book that everyone said was wonderful? I don’t mean a few of your friends recommended it. I’m talking about the book that is being hailed by all the big review sites and most of the smaller ones, raved about up one side of Facebook and down the other side of Twitter, and has a #5 sales rating on Amazon. Everyone from your local librarian to your favorite author has bought and loved this book, so you fork over your hard-earned cash and buy yourself a copy, only to discover that… you hate it. Suddenly you’re holding a book you can’t even bear to finish, wondering what on earth is wrong with you. So many people shouted their love for this book for all the world to hear, and there you sit, unable to stomach another chapter.
The hardest part is facing everyone who loved the book once you realize how you feel. They’re all excited and ready to talk about the great book, and you have to paste a fake smile on your face, express a vague opinion you hope they don’t investigate too closely and work to swing the subject around to something less terrifying, like roller derby injuries or recipes from the 1950s that involve suspending vegetables and canned fish in lime Jello.
So what does a person do?
Seriously, I’m asking, because I’m in that situation right now. A friend recently suggested a book to me because he’d loved it. His description was intriguing, so I ordered a copy through the interlibrary loan system. It came in last week and I snuggled down into the bed covers to immerse myself in the first of what was supposed to be a fantastic series. I got three or four chapters in before I concluded that it was following the same sort of formula that almost every other book of its genre follows, I could nearly predict what would happen in each chapter and I didn’t understand why any of the characters were doing what they were doing. I forced myself to finish the book, hoping I’d get to the cool, original part, but it never happened. I was unhappy the whole time.
To be honest, admitting I didn’t like a book everyone else loved isn’t really my problem. What’s truly bugging me is a more philosophic question. I generally want my books to be different from anything I’ve read before, or at least different enough that I’m not predicting the outcome before I’ve reached page 50. I fear that I’m in the minority, though. It seems that so very many readers these days are demanding the same basic story in every series they read, just with names and locations changed. This is discouraging, because it means that writers are being forced to throw aside their truly original ideas in favor of doing the same old thing. I don’t want to write according to a formula, which means I’ll never achieve the kind of readership of someone like Laurel K Hamilton or James Patterson.
I don’t really know what my solution is, or if there really is one. I do know that I’m going to keep writing what makes me happy, reading what feeds my soul, and trying my best to convince my book-reccing friends that sure, the book was great but what I really, really want to talk about right this second is Lemony Salmon Jello Towers.
Once more, we are pleased to bring you Laura Anne Gilman, author of Silver on the Road (Book 1 of The Devil’s West), a marvelous adventure set in an American West that isn’t quite the one you know, and featuring Isobel, the Devil’s Left Hand who is “the quick knife in the darkness, the cold eye and the final word.” Laura Anne is here today to talk about the research involved in writing an alternate-world fantasy.
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One of the biggest lies (along with “this won’t hurt a bit” and “the check is in the mail”) is “writing fantasy is easy – you just make shit up.”
You already know that’s a lie, so I won’t bother to rant about that. But what you may not know is that. It. Never. Ends. It literally, never ends. You think you’ve gotten everything nailed down nicely, you’ve sent fact-checking emails, you’ve visited the site itself, if applicable, and taken backup photos, you’ve asked your best buddy who knows everything about that topic (if you don’t have a best buddy with that knowledge, find them and make them your best buddy.)
And then you look up one last thing, and discover, whoops, you need to do more, because you didn’t actually nail that one thing down as well as you’d thought.
Rinse and repeat until frothing.
And if you’re writing something set in the actual known world? The frothing will be a given, because as much as history sometimes seems to exist to give you unexpected gifts (“wait, he was alive and doing that, then? Fitting exactly with my made-up thing happening there and then? Awesome!”) it also likes to yank those gifts away.
Here’s a perfect example: In the world of the Devil’s West, there is an area where not many people go. It becomes relevant in book 2, but I had to know about it in SILVER ON THE ROAD, for, well, Reasons. And on the Actual Map, it has a Native name, a name that’s been in consistent use since forever, that’s a perfect fit for the use I wanted to put it to in Book 2. So yay! I can…
Oh. Wait. The name was given to it by a tribe that yes, is local to the area now, but was forced to relocate to that area in…wait for it… the 1830’s. Thirty years after my story takes place. That name, that language, was nowhere near that location, in 1801.
In knitting there’s a phrase – frogging. It means to rip out (“ribbit”) lines of stitches until you get back to where you made the error. I’ve gleefully appropriated this term, mainly because yelling out “ribbit!” is more socially acceptable than the swearwords I really want to say….
But there it is: research leads to research, all the way down. And no matter how much you do, there’s always going to be more you need to know, to get that one scene, that one detail, perfect.
Knowing where to stop can be… problematic.
“You can just fudge that tiny detail. Nobody will know,” a friend told me.
And yeah – maybe most readers won’t know (or care) that that the waterproof jacket wasn’t invented until 1830, or that canned food wasn’t a thing until 1811. But these are relevant to the worldbuilding, and when the writer knows that it’s a false note, everything that rests on it is also off-kilter. And you know that if you get it wrong, the flood of corrective emails will be unleashed on your inbox….
The solution? Oh, I was hoping you had one, actually.