Writing A Novel: Meet the Cast

Monday, July 18, 2016

Hey, all!  This is the next installment after Plotting It Out.  Today, we're going to talk about how to figure out your characters and how many you  need in a book.

So--how many characters do you need?  More than you may think!
Take a look at some of the well-known books: Harry Potter, The Maze Runner, Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Star Wars...all these books have tons of characters, and while not all of them are expanded upon extensively, they add something to the book that you wouldn't have without them: secondary characters.  The Hunger Games doesn't focus solely on Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark; instead, Suzanne Collins tells us about Cato, Clove, Rue, their parents, etc. In my own book "Welcome Home", I included characters like waiters/waitresses, Lucy and Spencer's coworkers, memories that included fellow soldiers, neighbors, and a pesky person who frequents their place of work; all of them offer something to the story in some small way.  We don't have to know the characters intimately for them to provide something special for the storyline as well.  What's this 'something special'?  The ability to have a book that feels real.  When we think about it, we don't know just one or two people in our lives, do we?  We know family. (Or at least know we have blood relatives, yes?)  We know that cashier at the restaurant we frequent, at least a little bit.  We know people we commute with on the bus, we know people we work with, we know people who frequent our places of work, we know our neighbors and those involved in the same regional activities we participate in!  That's a lot of people, if you think about it.  A ton of secondary characters.  If we don't include many -- or any -- secondary characters, the story feels flat, unrealistic, and a little dry.

Before you can start a "supporting cast", however, you need to know your characters.

Thus: begin a worksheet.  I know, I know...worksheets are synonymous with vulgar words sometimes.  However, they do help sometimes!  Think about, for your lead character(s):

--Favorites...food, color, animal, book genre, music genre, clothes (and a specific set that can be mentioned frequently, perhaps), occupation,....anything they enjoy.  
--Bad traits: biting their lips, chewing loudly, grinding their teeth, that one thing about their appearance, arrogance,...characters aren't, nor should they be, perfect.  This creates a sense of reality as well as the good traits.  You should also have a vice (such as arrogance, selfishness, etc) to overcome throughout character arcs as well.  It gives the reader a little extra something to root for.
--Good traits: Appearance, virtues such as honesty, faithfulness, etc., intelligence...
--Place of work
--Talents (even if they're weird, like being really good at picking up something with one's foot instead of hands)
--Milestones in their history (aka, major events from their past that will contribute, somehow, to the plot)
--What kind of family they have: members, how supportive or abusive, etc.
--Style tendencies
--Place(s) of work
--Place(s) of education
--Where they live (and research this location if necessary)
....You get the gist, right?  If you need help understanding what you need to understand about your characters, think about yourself.  If you were writing a story about your life, how would you present or describe yourself, truthfully, to your audience?  Apply similar questions to your characters.

Lead characters take a staggering amount of work to set up.  You have to know these guys inside out, upside down, and what they'd do or say for each and every situation you may throw at them.  Only then will the story flow smoothly and take off.  This suggests the ability to get into your characters' "headspace", or thinking about how to think/act like your characters.  Essentially, you're going to become an actor/actress...mentally.  Research things about your characters so you know and understand things such as mental conditions/ occupations/events/war/time eras that you aren't familiar with, so you're well-versed.  Think about why your characters chose to be placed in such events as what may go down in your story, too.  They have to have something in their past that causes their decision, whether it be compulsion issues or the exact opposite, or many other psychological contributions.  Go through your favorite books, movies, and especially music, and think about what your lead(s) would like, and then read/watch/listen.  I especially recommend music, because you can listen to it as you write, thus compelling you to stay in character.

Once you know your lead(s) impeccably, you can think about your secondary/other characters.  Does your lead have family?  Friends?  Coworkers?  Do they take an especial note of people with a specific attribute?  These can all be secondary characters, and they're the outer stitches that hold the inner works of the story together. You don't need to go through such rigorous thought processes for these guys, but that doesn't mean they are any less important or are unneeded to stay in character as well.  It may be that one of your secondary characters ends up being pivotal to the plot, just by telling your lead one small sentence.

In conclusion: knowing your characters well and having a medium-to-large net of smaller characters can save your book, especially if your story is an epic, fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, or war novel.  All should offer something to the plot, no matter how small of a contribution, and they can create a more realistic situation (which is crucial especially in these specific genres, but as always, in any genre as well).

So you think you're ready to write now?  Okay!  Let's go on to...The first chapter.  Dreaded by all, we'll be covering this net time I post.  See you later, and may writer's block stay away from you all!

Writing a Novel: Plotting It Out

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Hey everyone!  This is the next installment that goes with Writing a Novel: Finding Your Topic.  Please click that title in order to find the previous post.

So you've got your topic figured out and you're very passionate about it.  Awesome - you can't wait until you can start writing it!  But before you write it, you have to have guidelines.  Let's call them guard rails.  Plots are basically literary guard rails that keep you from going overboard or swerving off in directions that your work should not take.  This way, we can write books that are to the point and tell a story effectively, instead of going off on other topics.  I even have to have a plot worked out for this post, otherwise I'd start talking about figuring out your plot and end up on a rant about how people shouldn't break into other peoples' houses or something.  Or it could be less obvious: I could revert back to the topic end of things or writing chapters out instead of plot.

How do we figure out where we want to put literary guard rails up?

Firstly, you need to decide what age range you're writing towards.  For example, if you were writing a book about someone who was abused on a deep or very personal level, you wouldn't want to aim it towards children.  Or if you did want to touch on abuse to teach children that it isn't nice to hit people or anything, you'd set some boundaries for yourself so you didn't go too deep for the age range.  You can get a feel towards what age range you're going to appeal towards by looking at your topic and why you want to write about it.

Once you have your age range figured out, then you can take a look at how you can get from point A to point...Z.  Writing a novel does not typically mean "Okay, so we start out good in point A, but when we get to point B, we saw a squirrel so we had to follow it...and then at point F we tried to get on topic again, but then we ran out of gas for our car and we met this cute person at the gas station, then at point W, we came across someone with a similar problem as what we do, and didn't know how to help because we lost track of our problems...and at point Z everything came together and fell into place".  Writing a novel means that each and every piece of information you place in the chapters means something, contributes something, to the ultimate picture.  We can't get too obsessed over the details and lose track of the ultimate finish -- although details are important as well, just not at this stage.

Therefore, we have to start thinking about our characters: their traits and flaws, what kind of redemption or character arcs you want them to go through in the story...and what shouldn't happen.  You can write a 100% turnaround for your characters, but it's rather unrealistic, so that's why we set up guard rails.  We can go to a certain point, but not too far so as to make it absolutely fake.  This is another reason why our guard rails are important: to keep the story within realistic boundaries, or to keep fantasy stories from getting too realistic.

Once you have an idea of what character arcs you want your characters to have, you'll want to  brainstorm a bunch of ideas: how can I get this character to this point, but that character to the other point, etc..  Simple outings, major events, etc--anything that can lead them to where you want them to go.  Even a simple everyday object that starts an epiphany for them is worthy of writing down!  As you decide how quickly or how slowly you want to take things, your plot may very well just fall into place on its own.  You can even play around with arcs and see how the story functions with certain characters speeding up or slowing down: this is best done when you've got your first draft completed, however.

However, this leads me to another point: again, don't force it.  If your plot seems to work unnaturally or you find that the more you write, the further the characters seem like they just take the plot and do what they want with it...don't be afraid to see what happens.  If you try to force it, the story will seem stiff and less able to be related to.  Again, as J.R.R. Tolkien once said, he oftentimes let the story go in its own direction and was surprised at the routes it took.  If the characters bust out of a guard rail, see what "rules" they broke and, if it's worthy of reconsidering your age range...maybe you could!  This is the only time that breaking such guards: if it would be beneficial to the plot.

It's easy to write out your plot on paper and try your hardest to follow it, but sometimes as you write, you realize that such-and-such should happen then instead of now.  This is pretty typical: it means you're getting a better 'feel' for your characters...how they act, how they would react, etc. and know that your original plot will not work.  This is why you have to, on occasion, rip apart an entire book in order to weave in other parts that will make it better.  If this happens, don't be discouraged: you're making your story better in doing so.  Just keep this in mind!

Alright; so in summary: plots are kind of tricky.  Long story short, you should have a solid idea of what needs to happen, but at the same time, not be so stuck on certain ideas that you are unwilling to sacrifice an idea for the betterment of the plot.  Does anyone else have other ideas for plots? Again, these tips are only my opinion, so if anyone else has ideas, feel free to comment them as well!

The next post will likely be about getting to know your characters and figuring out how many characters you need in a book.  For now -- may the plots be ever in your favor.  I'm out to work on a plot for a new book myself!

Introducing My First Book!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On top of everything else that was going on this weekend (I won't go into detail because that would take all day), I managed to get my first book published for the universe to see (or, at least those within the Amazon.com range).

Introducing: "Welcome Home", book one of the Faith, Hope, and Love collection.  If you haven't guessed yet, it's based off of 1 Corinthians 13 (hence the collection name), so it is a Christian romance.  It is available now from Amazon.com or CreateSpace.com: $7.99 print and $3.99 digital.  (Honestly, this is the day it was released and I'm so tired of saying that price blurb already...oops!)
Here is the description I provided to Amazon: "Lucy is an eternal optimist who keeps her heart safe in its bone prison. Spencer's had a hard life that didn't get any better after he came home a soldier. What could God do with such broken souls, and what broke them in the first place? Will they be safe, even after monsters from the past come and rip apart their newly placed roots in small-town, New York? Find out in "Welcome Home", the first book in the Faith, Hope, and Love collection." 

There you have it.  If you want to check it out, the book for the print form is right HERE and the Kindle format is HERE.

I expect to have part two of the "Writing a Novel" blog-series up (or at least a draft begun) in the next day or two.  I'm excited to get it started, so I'll talk to you soon!  If anyone decides they're crazy enough to buy my first book, it would be immensely appreciated if you could review it on Amazon (reviews boost its popularity listing, from what I understand) or even just tell someone about it.  Self-publishing is a lonely place, especially for marketing.  I may or may not even look into doing a giveaway for it on here, just let me know if you'd be interested in something like that.

Happy 4th of July!

Monday, July 4, 2016

Hello, all!
I hope everyone has a wonderful and safe Independence Day!  I'll be posting another how-to for writing again soon, I hope.  I also plan on putting up an update (or, rather, the first post about it, I guess) the book I'm on a fast-track-train-wreck-course headed for self-publishing:  the first book in the Faith, Hope, and Love collection: Welcome Home.  I'm so excited to tell you guys about it!
For now, though, get outside and enjoy the day!