Amy Sterling Casil on Character: Who is in the Story and Why?

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Inspired by a lifelong love of nature, endless curiosity, and a belief in wonderful things, Amy Sterling Casil is a 2002 Nebula Award nominee and recipient of other awards and recognition for her short science fiction and fantasy, which has appeared in publications ranging from The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction to Zoetrope. She is the author of 26 nonfiction books, over a hundred short stories, primarily science fiction and fantasy, two fiction and poetry collections, and three novels. She lives in Aliso Viejo, California with her daughter Meredith and a Jack Russell Terrier named Gambit. Amy is the founder of Pacific Human Capital, a founding member and treasurer of Book View Café author cooperative and former treasurer of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, and teaches writing and composition at Saddleback College, after receiving her MFA from Chapman University in 1999. She is currently engaged in founding a new publishing company for the 21st century, Chameleon Publishing.  Welcome to Magical Words, Amy!

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I recently advised a young writer who’d written a good, workable story about an unlikeable character, “Next time, write about someone you care deeply about.”

Before I say anything else, readers should know that I’m known primarily as a short fiction writer. And character in short fiction is somewhat different from character in novels, especially a series of novels. If you’re going to develop a character that readers will live with over the course of a novel, or series of novels, then the character has to be more multi-layered and wholly-rounded than a character who will only be around for a few scenes or only 5,000 words.amy february 2014 

In short fiction, we’re really working with the type of general or archetypal observations one might see in the typical writing advice: “Go to a café and listen to the conversations around you. Think about types of people you’ve known.”

For a novel, the characters you select would ideally be people you want to live with over a significant period of time. I notice from reading on Magical Words that many of my fellow authors are writing one, two, or three books a year. Even at the most rapid pace, you’ll still be living with the characters you develop for 3-4 months. In this case, “roguish thief” just won’t cut it as far as characterization is concerned. I would personally slap a “roguish thief” in the face after only a few hours of shenanigans. How about “Carefree, magic-wielding wench with ample breasts?” Oh … hm … I left her back at the SyFy Channel. If that analogy isn’t working for you, envision “bad script” and “actors floundering at sea under clueless director with minimal budget” = Sharknado. Sure, they’re “famous” now.

Character is the high-octane fuel upon which our work runs. Without it, we have clockwork mechanisms that may interest the reader. But such work won’t change readers’ hearts, minds and lives.

I think I finally began to understand “character” when I wrote “To Kiss the Star,” which was a story I wrote that was nominated for a Nebula Award. I was inspired to write the story by interacting with my friend Julie M. Jones while I was a student in the MFA Creative Writing program at Chapman University in Southern California. Julie was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), which has led to serious physical disabilities. She uses a wheelchair and has other limits in terms of her mobility, breathing and energy levels and abilities.

In the case of the story, the character inspired by Julie, Mel Armstrong, didn’t have Julie’s loving family or friends. Instead, Mel was shunted into a long term care home by her mother, who favored her drug addict older brother. Mel had lost her sight during her time in the care home, and thus, when she received the chance to travel to the stars and regained her sight during the process, experienced a moment where she saw her face as it appeared after several years of poor care and harsh soap, no haircuts, and no makeup or lipgloss. She had last seen herself as a preteen; now, as an older teen, she looked in the mirror and saw a vision so at odds with what she’d thought about herself that hated herself in those moments.

As I wrote that story, I lived in that chair with Mel for two weeks. I looked in that mirror. It was so harrowing I was not eager to go back.

But going back is what writing is all about. Sitting in that chair, looking in that mirror, being that person – that’s what characterization really is.

How this affects readers is another consideration for writers. The feelings that you, as an author, may have about a character and his or her experience, may be different from the ones the reader experiences. The horror writer and editor Alan Rodgers was my love and my creative partner for a decade. When he read “To Kiss the Star” in manuscript form, he said, “It’s about what it feels like to feel too ugly to be kissed.”

Yes, the scene where Mel looks in the mirror and sees the young face that has been ruined by her years in the care home, that’s about her feeling too ugly to be kissed. But the rest of the story is hardly about that. It’s about how Mel chooses to be the person she was born to be. Mel is far from too ugly too be kissed. She is eminently kissable. That comment was about Alan, not about Mel, and not about my choices as the author.

I see a lot of books these days that fit into the expected patterns and norms. What is to differentiate one from the other, but character? That may sound harsh, but it’s the way I feel.

I can give writers one tip, the same as I gave the young writer the other day, “Write about someone you care deeply about.”

like-fire-betaIn my case, it began as a personal challenge or a sort of casual game. It became something so much more. I cast the book I finished January 1, Like Fire, with my family and friends. As well as a character inspired by … me. Boom! Instant stakes, and a unique approach to the story and plot. This is not to say that certain chapters weren’t a challenge to write. I had to nail a chapter written in the point of view of a character inspired by my own daughter, in order to continue and finish the book. And as I approached the end of the book, I realized that the least-developed character at that point was the one inspired by me. So again, I had to dig deep to find the honest voice for that character.

I’d like to encourage writers to focus on “character” as it pertains to characterization – an interesting thought. What sort of character do the characters in the story have? What is their inner nature? What are they willing to do under pressure, and what will they not do? Be realistic. Just about everybody can be pressured or “bought” under certain circumstances. Put yourself, and the characters, in the realistic context of the story (time, place and circumstance). And do yourself and readers a favor. Make these characters people you not only know well, but that you love and care about. Good things can only come as a result.

 
 
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23 comments to Amy Sterling Casil on Character: Who is in the Story and Why?

  • Cool post, and the story resonates with me on a personal level. I have been that person looking in the mirror after a perforated bowel and battling peritonitis in the hospital until I was around 86 pounds of nothing and a bag hanging from my waist. There were two ways I coulda gone. I chose up. It made me angry to see that. It made me want to fight. And I did. To the point where, when I finally went in to get things put back together 6 months later, the doctors and nurses all said I was the healthiest and fit they’d ever seen someone coming back for that surgery. And I know what it’s like to be stabbed (a silly tale of not using the right tool for the job) or have an intestinal wound. Or, at least the level of pain involved. 😉

    Anyway, enough of that. I’ve always been told I write realistic characters. I’ve also been told I’m very empathetic. I use my experiences with both, adding those nuances of emotion into my characters. I also like to add the little subconscious bits that we all do every day. Rubbing the back of the neck or temple when stressed, folding arms over chest when defensive or uncomfortable, bouncing a knee when nervous, etc. I am definitely a people watcher (a good thing I have excellent peripheral vision or I mighta gotten into trouble a time or two 😉 ).

    That said, I’m evidently not as good at writing short works as I am at novels/novellas. I don’t seem to be able to pull the same depth out of the characters in that short a time. One of those things I still need to work on. Although, I seem to be able to do well writing film scripts. Which brings me to my close. Heh!

    I hear ya on the bad script front. I’ve worked in indie film locally and have done edits on screenplays. Ugh…

  • Wow, thank you Amy. I am definitely going to channel that emotion, including the emotions I’ve felt in various situations, and how I felt at one point with regards to my own chronic health issues. This I can do. Being self aware makes me think about how I process my emotions, and makes me pick apart exactly what I’m feeling and why, and also why I react in certain ways. I can apply that to my characters. And this is one of the cases where being a bleeding heart (caring and empathetic to a fault sometimes) is something useful I can channel into feeling what my characters feel. Yay!

  • Daniel, it grieves me to hear you went through so much – but I’m so glad to hear you’re better! And Laura, also – health issues are so draining.

    Thank you both of you for reading and responding. Channel those feelings as much as you can! I know that’s what readers really connect to and it’s what keeps them engaged.

  • Amy, it’s wonderful to have you with us at Magical Words. Thank you for being here today, and for sharing with us this lovely, powerful post. I think this identifies for me an issue I’ve had with my own short fiction. I’ve written mostly novels in my career, and have found that my most successful shorts are those I write as background work for my novels. And I think you’ve explained to me why this is. I want to write about the characters I love, the ones I know intimately. And I find it hard to discover such characters in 5k or 7k words. But when I am writing about a character from one of my books — perhaps describing an episode from earlier in his/her life — that love and care is already in place. I’m just tapping into new plot lines in this person’s life. I’m not sure I’m explaining this well, but it’s clear in my own head, and that’s largely due to what you’ve written here today. So thank you! Looking forward to your next post.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello! and thank you for a very thoughtful post. For myself as a reader, my requirement is that I need to be able to respect the character, and, yeah, that’s a central tenant of my personal relationships, too. For my first book I really struggled with one of the characters because I just couldn’t identify with the actions that had landed her in her predicament, and she seemed far too ‘woe is me’. Eventually I got her to actively choose the harder path forward, and that gave her back both some agency and respectability, so things got much better. 😀 And, you give me hope for one of my other MCs too, who I really love but who I worry might come across as too much of a goody-two-shoes.

  • Welcome, and thanks for this post. I love this: “Character is the high-octane fuel upon which our work runs. Without it, we have clockwork mechanisms that may interest the reader.” I know that’s how I feel as a reader, and what I believe as a writer. I work hard to understand and care about all of my characters–not saying I always get there, but that is always the goal!

  • This is so amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond, David, Hepseba and SiSi. Apropos of all this, I am progressing with my business plan for the publishing company Chameleon. One key part of the company is that it will not be “siloed” as so many organizations and businesses are. In this respect, I see that we are not “silo-ing” as writers. I have learned from each of you! I expressed something similar to your experience, David, but I like so much the way you’ve discussed how short fiction can enrich your novels.

    I completed a short story last month and thought, “I just feel so cold about it.” It’s not that I didn’t care about the characters, but more like I felt like I was reassembling a watch. I know it’s one of those perfect little mechanisms. Now I am working on a longer story that does have some connection to my personal life and to the book I just finished. I’m debating whether or not to include two characters from my book in it – I think perhaps alternate universe versions of them.

    By the way, I had a clean beta read of Like Fire from a “regular reader” (who doesn’t read that much or often – so not a diehard hundreds-of-books consumer). She said, “This is a combination of Harry Potter and Gone With the Wind.” A high concept I sure would never have thought of!

  • Razziecat

    Amy, thank you for this post. I always thought maybe I cared TOO MUCH about my characters. Sometime I don’t know where their impulses and emotions come from, but they’re always something I can identify with in some way, whether positive or negative. I’ve learned things about my characters that I never intended to put in there, which of course comes back to, “what part of me did that come from?” In the last year or so I’ve been writing backstory for new characters; like David, I learn about the characters this way, become familiar with them (somewhat) and prepare the ground for what’s to come in the novel. And, I love writing short stories, so who knows what might come of this? 😀 Thanks again for a great post!

  • Hi Razzie – after going through the process I did to write this book, and comparing times I wrote when I didn’t care much – I have to say I don’t think it’s possible to care too much, and that for you to have such intense feelings and involvement means your work will be very strong.

  • PS as an aside, my friend Elizabeth Moon once noted that when she went back and read over work she’d written where she was very involved, and other pages/chapters where she didn’t feel so involved, she could not herself tell a quality difference. So there is a different take on the matter.

  • Hi, Amy, and Welcome! Great post on character. I am, like you, primarily a short story writer, and I think a lot of that is because I ~can~ get to know a character (or three) – and relay that – in 5K words or less. I find it more difficult to craft longer pieces of fiction, in part, because there are ~so~ many more cast-members that have to be more than foils against which my main characters rub. I’m working on it, though! Thanks for kicking the gears back into motion with this!

  • Lyn, thank you for your support and I am thrilled to have been welcomed here to Magical Words. Have you used or do you use Scrivener? It helped me keep my big cast of characters in order. Now I look and see the little “notecards” that show each and it’s very satisfying. And helps keep them in order, and places too. And I’m far from the “master” Scrivener user.

  • Julie Marie Jones

    At that age (mid-20’s, I think?), it wasn’t that I felt “unkissable,” as Alan suggested. (In fact, I had plenty of offers, which doesn’t surprise Amy at all. Lol.) It was more that I was – and have always been – acutely aware of the “cost” of living with a catastrophic disability. I’m not talking about finances here; economic costs of disability are a whole other discussion. I’m talking about the personal sacrifices that others must make in order to keep me healthy and allow me to thrive in the work I do as a writer. My struggles at that age – and now, to a certain extent – have always been about a feeling of “worthiness” or “deserving” of the sacrifices of others. This is the same conflict in Mel’s heart that Amy captured so well. Like Mel, I’m always asking, “what choice serves the greater good?” I’m no saint, but this incarnation has taught me that the greatest happiness comes from caring for others before self. Life is not all about me; human beings are interconnected and interdependent, and it frustrates the hell out of me to encounter individuals who can’t see past their own little world. That’s Mel in a nutshell, and Amy wrote “To Kiss the Star” before she knew me as well as she does now. (Empath, much? LOL!)

    The novella I’m working on right now offers up a rather unsavory character who exemplifies the “me first” myopathy I just described. Writing the story is perhaps a way for me to examine those kinds of people from all angles and figure out what makes them tick. It started as a short story, but Amy is absolutely right that you can’t fully explore the layers of a well-rounded character in a short story – which is why this little tale of mine turned into a novella. I will argue, though, that you don’t have to LOVE all of your characters, or give them 90% good qualities; you can learn to love – or at least somewhat LIKE – an evil character if you pull back enough layers. The character carrying my whole story is a sociopathic narcissist, but the key for this piece has been to give him just enough redeeming qualities to make his character growth at the end feel plausible.

  • Oh Julie – you are the level best! I cannot wait to read your novella … can not wait!! Guys, this is the real Mel from “To Kiss the Star.” I just realized that the promotional copy of the story is still available for free at Book View Cafe, which we put during our launch five years ago:

    http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/To-Kiss-the-Star-by-Amy-Sterling-Casil

  • Julie Marie Jones

    Back at ya, Amy. 😉 I hope to finish the first draft this weekend, if not before. I will definitely need your comments before I revise!

  • I’ve tinkered with Scrivener, Amy – but the truth is, working 11+ hour days lately, and then trying to build my sister’s company’s web page – I’m just not up to trying to learn another piece of software. I’ll get there. Right now I’m doing it the old fashioned way (no – not post it notes… an excel file!)

  • Lyn – it can be challenging. I admit I barely use it decently. Book View Cafe member wrote a post about it just the other day as a guest on Mary Rosenblum’s blog:

    http://www.newwritersinterface.com/scrivener-101

    But … Word and Excel work!!

  • Razziecat

    Julie – you sound like an amazing person! As for your MC, trust me, I can find sympathy even for a sociopathic narcissist. I may be one of the few people who read Sarah Monette’s “Doctrine of Labyrinths” series who preferred Felix over his brother Mildmay. Felix is NOT a nice person, but his backstory explains why in excruciating detail. Given the right information, and a well-written story, a reader can find herself relating to a MC who is not at all a good person.

  • What a wonderful post, Amy–and the followup comments have been awesome!

    I have to feel passion for what I’m writing, and it’s hard for me to read anything if I don’t feel connected on some emotional level. This all resonates so much with me. And aren’t we the fortunate ones, being able to channel our deep emotional pains into emotional depth for our characters? I can’t imagine any way to let go of it that would be as effective, not to mention fulfilling.

  • Pooks! Wow it is awesome to see you here! I definitely see these qualities in your work. And Razzie, I’m very intrigued about your comments about Felix in Doctrine of Labyrinths – can you think of other characters that weren’t nice, but were compelling to you? One that rings a bell with me would be Jaime from Game of Thrones/George R.R. Martin’s books.

  • When it comes to Game of Thrones, I absolutely adore Tyrion. He’s such a likeable little bastard!

  • Oh Tyrion is my favorite as well! But he’s not bad at all – he’s a great man. I guess that’s the brilliance of his character. He’s got a true lion’s heart in a small body. He’s all those names they call him and ten times the man his father … was .