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 to . 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!
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.
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.”
In 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.