Character Creation for Fiction and White Wolf

A couple years ago, I made a breakthrough with character creation and development, and my beta reader’s reaction to my characters shifted pretty dramatically for the positive. From there it’s developed further, and I’ve started to look at characters a little differently. Of course, I didn’t really look at them at all, before, but I went from not really thinking about it, to very deliberately crafting characters to suit their roles in my stories.

Robert J. Sawyer has a good post on characters, so I won’t repeat what he says, but summarize: good characters aren’t people, they’re carefully assembled robots who do exactly the job the author needs them to do in the story. As in, if the author needs a character to do something, they create a character who can and would do it. You craft them for maximum effect in the story.

What I’ve been observing the last year or so, in my creation of characters, is not so much what to do, but a tool to break down how to do it. Because the best advice is practical and easy to put to use, right?

I’ve played a few different tabletop RPGs, not extensively, but enough to understand how they work and enjoy them. Mainly D&D and White Wolf World of Darkness. D&D, I like the character creation aspect less – I’ve always found World of Darkness character creation to be more engaging, and much more about creating a character rather than creating a dungeon crawling toon. It brings the focus more onto the characters and brings their character traits into the story. The Game Master in World of Darkness tends to be expected more to focus on the character traits the players have chosen and work them into the story.

I didn’t come to the idea of creating characters for novels that way directly. In fact, it likely would have made for dry characters if I had, because the traits in the books are relatively limited, and not necessarily useful for my own fiction. But now that I’ve written more stuff, and seen people react to my characters, I’m realizing how, when I make characters, I don’t conceive of them as whole beings, but as a collection of traits, similar to the merits and flaws of the White Wolf system. So much so, that there have been times when I’ve piled on too many character traits on characters, and had to split the character into two characters. In that case, I looked at all the character traits, and worked out which ones to give to each new character.

Now, as often as not, the characters I’m making up don’t have the magical abilities that encompass much of what the merits and flaws I’m comparing them to in the White Wolf system. But there are some of the merits and flaws even in the WW system that I do use. For example, contacts, or bravery, or cowardice, cleverness, ability to lie convincingly, a temper, mentor (as in, a character has or has had a mentor), allies (character has friends or family they can turn to for help), debts (character has someone they can hit up for a favour, or vice versa), the character might have a chronic illness, missing limb, or just be bat shit crazy, or fanatically religious. Or rich (“resources”).

These things may seem obvious, but I read a fair bit of amateur fiction, and see very little of this sort of thing appearing. Writers come up with a character concept, but often don’t go further than the characters profession, or general station in life (orphan, mercenary, prince/princess, priest/priestess, soldier, tavern wench, etc.) They come up with a single defining characteristic, but it’s often not even a unique one.

I think it’s in watching some of the newer tv shows out there that I’ve seen more character traits added to fill out characters. The best example I can think of is Community. You have your group of characters, the leader, the jock, the token black woman, the womanizing older man, the ditzy hot girl, the more mature, standoffish girl, and the geek. But each of those is much more than that – the leader is a former lawyer who got caught not having actually trained as a lawyer. The jock is a closet geek and doesn’t want to play football anymore. The token black woman is a single mom and deeply christian. The womanizing older man is filthy rich, son of a corporate CEO, and member of a thinly veiled copy of scientology. The ditzy hot girl is a recovering drug addict and jewish. The standoffish girl is an atheist and an activist, but only for attention. And the geek is a muslim with an aspergers diagnosis who wants to be a film director but his father wants him to take over the falafel business. And I’m missing tons of stuff.

It’s a great show besides, but that’s the thing that’s stood out to me to most, as I develop my skills in crafting characters, and then I realized how much it was like the merits and flaws system in White Wolf. I may have fun with this in the future.

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Book Review: Who Fears Death, by Nnedi Okorafor

This is one that caught my eye a long time ago, I think though a blog, and I’ve been meaning to read it. The setting intrigued me, and the book has not disappointed. I bought it  from the Sony Reader Store over my uncle’s wifi, because I was amused at the convenience of being able to buy a book with my new e-reader without having to go home and hook it up to a computer, even to set it up. So, I got it on Christmas Day, when I got the reader, and finished it exactly a week later, on new year’s eve, at a party, huddled in a corner, going OMG there’s only 20 pages left, I can’t stop! Best book I’ve read since The Windup Girl.

What follows may be triggering – the setting is post apocalyptic africa, where the genocides and other activities related to genocides in africa have not stopped. Given that, I should not have to explain what sort of topics this review may contain that may be triggery.

Ok, that’s out of the way.

The story centers around the genocide of an entire people, and how rape is used as a weapon to destroy their spirit. It’s a heartbreaking story, but inspiring, because the main character is so driven. I was interested to see non-erocentric fantasy, and it’s a rich and ugly world that these characters live in. A world where a woman can scream for help to a crowd of onlookers as she’s dragged into an alley to be raped, and the onlookers stand there and watch. They are different people than we are. When Onyesonwu sets out to find her biological father who raped her mother, to stop his bringing his soldiers to rape her people, her mother doesn’t try to stop her, doesn’t try to make her stay home to protect her. No, she looks at her daughter and says, when you find him, kill him.

After some of the recent blog posts complaining about authors dealing with rape poorly, it was good to see it treated as it should be. The author never refers to it as sex, and doesn’t shy away from using the word rape to describe it.

The main character herself is sympathetic, and yet never wallows in sorrow, or if she does, the narrative doesn’t dwell on it. She’s a woman of action, and doesn’t allow herself to indulge in self pity, however lousy her lot. She fights to change it, and I find that the most engaging of character traits.

Onyesonwu also has a relationship with a young man, and it’s a rare one – a healthy one. It’s not that there is never any conflict between the two – not at all, there’s plenty of angst. It’s just not angst that tears them apart. They may argue passionately, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t need each other, or that they aren’t right for each other. It’s refreshing to see such a believable couple.

As for the main conflict, nothing is black and white there. As I said, it’s an ugly world, and an ugly war. There can be no victor in such a war. Neither side is innocent, and the story goes into child soldiers, even.

And it will take a miracle to stop it. That’s the sad thing. Much as I liked the book, it makes me sad to think that even in fiction, the author couldn’t find a way to end such atrocities without resorting to magic, which is something that we can’t hope for in real life.

It’s a book that really goes there. It’s very dark, but it’s beautifully written, and paced precisely. I feel like I’ve learned something about being human, that I’m ashamed to know.

On the resolution to read more female authors: recommendations welcome

I have  a huge to-be-read list. I don’t have the actual books; I mostly buy the book once I’m ready to read it, and I’ll do that even more now that I have the new Sony e-reader I got for christmas. The fact that I can buy a book anywhere I have wifi, means that it’s easy enough to buy a book that I don’t feel the need to stock up on books to be ready when I finish one.

Anyway, I want to make sure I get myself caught up on what’s going on with awesome female authors these days. It seems, when I go to grab a book, it always seems to be the male authors that I pick up. I’m not sure if that’s because the male author is more hyped, or the covers tend to be more action oriented, and covers of books by female authors seem like they’re going to be about catty women, or what it is. Even though I know that there are lots of awesome female writers out there. I don’t really know why this happens.

Anyway, I want to change my own habits, because, as I said, there’s a bunch of authors I’ve been wanting to read, so I have a list so far:

  • Who Fear’s Death, by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
  • Something by Holly Lisle
  • Something by Elizabeth Bear
  • Shadow Magic, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett
  • His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Honestly, that would likely get me most of the way through the year – I don’t read fast these days, I’m too busy writing. But if anyone has suggestions on others that should be on this list*, please make them. I’d like to catch some of the new rising stars in fantasy and science fiction.

(I picked up Who Fears Death, though, on christmas day, and sadly it did not last into 2012, as I devoured it obsessively and finished it on new years eve while at a party, because omg, I can’t think about anything but this story and there’s only 20 pages left….)

*Keeping in mind I hate superheroes, and don’t read sword and sorcery or urban fantasy. Epic fantasy is a possibility, but tends to go to the bottom of the pile in favour of shorter, more succinct books.

The Eyelet Dove – Teaser Posted!

I’ve been working on this revision a while, and this novel has gone through at least six different opening scenes. Two different ones for the original short story version that was too long to be a short story, and then one for the first attempt at novelization, and three different ones for this novelization. Finally, now, I have an opening scene that I’m really happy with. And that other people like too. I’ve edited the opening, and had a number of reviewers I trust to be honest, as they’ve been honest before when my work sucked :p and I think it’s ready to give people an official sneak peek at what I’ve been working on for the last six months.

This story was originally a short, about five years ago, and ballooned out to a novelette, at which point, there was this side character Michel, and he had so much more story to tell than could be fit into a short. Joshua Palmatier read it on the OWW, and gave me some feedback, saying if if needed to be a novel, let it be a novel. So I did. I plotted and got ready, and in 2008, I tried to write it as a novel, and failed miserably. Partly because I was trying to do nano while planning my December wedding, and partly because I tried to stuff a love story in where it didn’t belong.

Then two years later, in 2010, I tried again, this time with new viewpoint characters, and no love plot except a somewhat casual relationship of convenience between a pair of jaded middle aged characters, and a female soldier falling a bit in love with a male prostitute in a gender reversal. I trashed almost all of the 2008 version. I came up with Claire about a month before I started writing it, so she was a late addition, but mainly because I couldn’t decide what kind of character to fill her role.

This time it took, and while it came out roughly the way I wanted it, roughly is the operative term. There were two entire scenes that didn’t have enough setting description to figure out where they took place. (I assure you, however, that this will be repaired in the revision.)

It’s a Dieselpunk secondary world novel, set in country of Avalice, from it’s decadent floating castles and aeroplanes armed with gattling guns, right down to the orphan kids living in the sewers. And the poor people on the ground are getting restless.

Years ago, Etienne started a union, but it was put down brutally by the King’s forces. Now, pardoned for the sake of his valuable skills, Etienne serves in the air corps as a machinist, but when  the stirrings of revolution begin again, Etienne is the first one anyone points fingers at, even though he knows nothing about who’s behind it.

Claire is a young woman with dreams of being the first woman fighter pilot. But in this world, women do needlework and bake, and Claire will have to fight to make a place for herself alongside the men in the air corps. When revolution strikes, her loyalty and courage will be put to the test.

Roland, the Admiral of the Air, has enough trouble keeping his bastard son, ace pilot Michel from ruling the roost on the floating aircraft carrier Omnipotent. His life gets more complicated when he gets word that there is a saboteur planted on his ship, and he must identify him before full scale revolution starts, and the Eyelet Dove strikes.

As conflict heats up in the city, their lives intertwine, but when the rebels’ plans begin to fall to pieces, the Eyelet Dove may be the only one who can bring the revolution to victory.

So, without further ado, The Eyelet Dove, Chapter 1.