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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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.

NaNoWriMo Wrap Up

So, I made it again this year. It was a fun book to write, and writing cyberpunk, my computer background put me in good stead, so that instead of making the cyberpunk elements completely akin to magic, with no logical rules on what is and isn’t possible, it follows mostly the logic of internal vs external networks, synchronization, external backups, wireless vs wired, cloud computing, etc.

It’s been a rough month – not sure why. We kept getting together with family, and I was falling behind, even after my week of vacation started. But turtle was over several times through the month, and those were always productive days. For all that it was a stressful month, I finished almost 48 hourse early; which is good – I don’t know how much more November I could have hacked.

Now I have The Eyelet Dove to go back to and finish revising. I’m still passionate about that one, I love the story, and the characters. I think there will probably be a sequel, but I’m not sure how long that will take to come up with. I have a few ideas for characters, but the plot will need time to coalesce before it’s as good a plot as The Eyelet Dove. Nothing else I’ve ever written is as complex. Though, for a sequel, I don’t think I’d re-use any POV characters, I think I’d come up with all new POV characters. Mostly characters from Dove but maybe some new. It’s just, the characters in Dove, they’ve told their stories, and for the level of complexity in the plot that I would hold myself to as a standard, requires years and years of backstory that I couldn’t wedge my old characters into. You can only do so much to a cast of characters, and the new story would deserve new ones. My favourite character, and the one I think readers would really be coming back for, will still be in there though – he was never a viewpoint character.

Not every story’s like that – I have a couple others that, when the sequels are written, will follow the old main characters. This one’s different, and it’s mostly because of the complexity of the plots.

And shortly I will get back to the Utopia posts, since I’ve had more time to think about that.

And once I’m done revising The Eyelet Dove I can give it to beta readers, some of whom have been bugging me for it.

Write something that matters

First, read this; it’s relevant and also entertaining:

http://hollylisle.com/index.php/Workshops/how-to-write-suckitudinous-fiction.html

I have read one book of holly lisle’s and I did very much enjoy it. It was Minerva Wakes, about a woman who gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity when her husband bought their wedding rings; the guy at the ren fair or wherever he bought them mistook him for one of the “weavers” who are the arch enemies of the unweaver – basically force of creation, vs force of destruction, good old fashioned good and evil. So, having these rings, they are supposed to take up the fight against the unweaver and their love and powers of creativity, as I remember, is what’s supposed to help them do it. Or something to that effect. It was a long time ago – but that only goes to show how much of an impact on me that I remember it. Them loving one another was important. Catch is, when the story begins, their marraige is in shambles and she’s considering divorce when they find out what these rings mean. So she gets dumped into a fantasy world where she has to get in touch with her dreams again in order to awaken the weaver powers she’s been oblivious to. And of course there’s the happily ever after in the end, but it was cute, and I liked it.

Anyway, that’s only partly relevant. The relevant part is that it had a purpose and a theme and likable characters with flaws and dreams and goals and things they cared about dearly that drove them, and the story.

Some people, particularly in writing circles, don’t like stories to have an obvious message, because they don’t like being preached at. I never like those sorts of stories. Experimental stories that dance around the fact that it doesn’t give me any compelling reason to read on. Drives me friggin nuts, I’m like ok, why did I read that? What’s the point of a story if it doesn’t have a point? Why write it at all, if there’s no reason to write it?

They say, for entertainment. They just want a story to entertain them and nothing else is allowed to creep into it. These people have never given me a more compelling argument than “I don’t like it.” And yet, these people defend their position vehemently, like a rabid atheist, trying to push others to adopt their position, and warning other authors that if they writing something that expresses their opinion, especially if it’s a political opinion, well, be careful, because there’s no market for that stuff.

Which is just not true, I don’t know what kind of crack they’re on, and they never have any statistics to back them up, unlike arguments to the contrary.

I wondered where this attitude comes from. But then I look around at the world, and at my generation, I think, no wonder they’re writing this blather. My generation is a generation that’s jaded by helplessness. Even if we vote, we’re outnumbered by the earlier generations who have vastly different values and ideals, so that our votes don’t matter. We feel that the old guard hasn’t given up the keys to our world and we can’t make the changes we see need to be made. Because there aren’t enough of us, and it’s too big a fight, too much work, and the guy beside us isn’t going to take up that banner alongside and fight beside us for what they believe in and what they want.

I’m not even going to get into all the things we see wrong with the world; that’s not the point of this particular outburst. The point is that we’ve lost hope.

It’s what they want us to believe. They’ve always wanted us to believe that things are the way they are and there’s nothing you can do to change them. Politicians promise it, but they don’t come through. The people in power don’t want change, and they’ve convinced us that there’s nothing we can do.

The complacence is deadly. We give up on our dreams, take jobs that don’t matter to us, and when we feel unfulfilled, we say, well, that’s life, you have to accept it. And when we can’t accept it any more, we put guns to our heads, because we have no hope for anything better.

I may still be relatively young, but I’ve been through a fair bit, and even been close to losing all hope. But I’ve come back from it. Most recently, my last job was really getting rough and it wasn’t allowing me enough time that I was coherent enough to work, to work on my writing, which is my dream. It took a while but I realized that job was outright stopping me from following my dream.

I don’t generally act rashly in those situations, so I didn’t quit right that moment, but I started looking for a new job pretty quick, and awesome friends came through for me in helping me find one. Things are way better now. Because I did something.

I could have survived on that old job. I could live in this ghetto apartment indefinitely and raise kids in here that I didn’t have time to see, and never write another novel. Hypothetically, I mean. I’d actually just do what I did because I couldn’t bear giving up progress or at least the hope of progress.

Right around that time, my favourite band released their new album, with a song that hit home just then:

Letters From A Little Boy To Himself As An Adult
Lyrics by Captain Robert

”Robert as boy:”
Dear Mr. Brown,
One day I’ll be you and
Although I’m only eight now,
You need to hear my rules
Never stop playing
Never stop dreaming and
And be careful not to
Turn into what I’d hate

”Robert as adult:”
Dear little boy,
I’m doing my best up here but
It’s a thankless job and
Nobody feels the same
You work long hours
Watch your credit rating
Pay your taxes and
Prepare to die

”Jody Ellen:”
I have tried to keep my soul
I lost the fight to keep a hold
Now I am not awake
Now I’m not awake

”Robert as boy:”
Hey Mr. Brown,
That can’t be what life is like!
I’ve watched some movies,
And I’ve, I’ve read some books
Life should be exciting
And sometimes scary but
What you’re describing doesn’t
Seem worth the time

”Robert as adult:”
Hey little boy,
I think you are always right
I’ve dropped that worthless life and
I’m moving on
Life should be adventure
I’m stealing back my soul
I’ve lost too many years now
I’m awake

”Robert and Jody Ellen:”
You were right
I nearly lost my soul
I will fight to steal back my soul
Now I am awake
Now I’m awake

This became Etienne’s song, and all my feelings about my life then came out in the novel I was writing for national novel writing month. Etienne is a man who led a small uprising against the oppressive monarchy that was put down brutally. He lost friends, spent time in jail and when he got out, he no longer believed it was possible to change the way things were. Eventually someone convinces him to try again, and he dares to hope again.

Then there’s Claire who dreams of flying a fighter aeroplane, and since it’s a man’s world, she has to fight society’s rules tooth and nail to follow her dream. But she does, right to the end. She never gives up on it.

And there’s the admiral; he doesn’t like the way things are, but he accepts it, and doesn’t believe that change is possible, so he tries to make the best of the way things are.

And finally there’s Maddie, the little girl, who is too young to know she shouldn’t hope for better, and inspires it in others too.

I want my writing, and my characters to inspire people. I think people want to believe and to hope, they’re just inundated with apathy, and there needs to be more hope in the world. I want to put more hope in the world, and this is how I’ll do it.

Review: The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

The Forever War

I really expected to like this one – it’s a Hugo and Nebula award winner from back in the golden age of science fiction. Only I didn’t. Glancing at reviews, no one seems to have picked out the greatest flaws in this book.

It was interesting, had it’s moments, and I laughed a couple times as the author’s extrapolations of where we’d be fifty years from now. For example, he figured by the 90’s we’d be way past mars and have a military base on Charon, one of Pluto’s moons. On the other hand, he also anticipated that we’d have electronic money transfers by the year 2115 or something like that. I suppose back then they were hopeful that exploration and human curiosity would be the leading drivers of innovation, rather than convenience.

That wasn’t what disappointed me though. Those things – see, those are the same as H. G. Wells’ man eating orchids and anything else he wrote about that we know can’t exist now. I don’t have a problem with that.

It was the story crafting that lost me. See, the theme of the story is embedded in the setting. The extrapolation of the progress of culture is the point of the novel. The fact that the main character was going away, losing time, and coming back, fifty, a hundred, seven hundred years later, was the macguffin the author used to show the theme. The problem is the plot has almost nothing to do with the theme.

The main plot is the romance between the main character, William, and his fellow soldier, Marygay. The plot does nothing to further the point of the story. Furthermore, the main character is not in a position to affect anything to do with the state of the world, so he’s not exactly the idea candidate for a main character. The only reason William goes back to view the changes that occur in the world each time he returns from a mission is so that he can observe the state of the world now. The theme is wedged into the plot, like an after thought. I was expecting the plot to eventually have some link to the theme, and it never did. There are those that argue that, well, it does, sort of, but should a story’s plot only touch on the point obliquely?

Robert J Sawyer has a great article on how to choose and create an effective main character, here: http://www.sfwriter.com/ow02.htm. He explains that your main character should be the one in the best position to illustrate the purpose of your story. Plot, I believe is the same – you choose a plot to illustrate your point, to make your story a cohesive whole. As I learn more about the craft of writing, I notice these things more, and they annoy me more.

Did it get a Hugo and Nebula because the readers of the time were less discerning? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe it’s simply that what they considered important about the novel was different. There are people who are nuts for Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I didn’t care for that one either. I supposed that’s just not the time period I’m nostalgic for.

Back to H. G. Wells.