Posts Tagged ‘characters’

Revision is hell: in which I reveal how crazy I truly am

I’ve hit a rough patch with my novel lately. Part of it is energy and working, and trying to balance a million priorities within the same 24 hours as everyone else. Part of it is that I’m at what I’ve learned is my weak spot in a story (the bit right before the third act turning point.) But it’s really because I am S-T-U-C-K. Stuck! I keep hitting dead ends, reversing tack and trying new things, hitting awesome NEW walls, going into tailspins and, whoa, new incontrovertibly impenetrable dead ends! Isn’t writing just awesome?

Of course, I know this is part of the process — doing hard time in an MFA program got me well acquainted with the ups and downs of long-form writing and revising. It’s still hard when you go through it, though: the doubt, the uncertainty, the cloud of irritation, general spaciness and questionable grooming (non)choices you exist under as you try to slog your way through a bog of narrative issues.

Besides the agonizing issues of “Should my werewolf disappear before or after the mysterious appearance of the clan chieftain?” or “Should I kill off the best friend in view of the protagonist or maybe I should have it discovered by her boyfriend, this precipitating the shapeshifter equivalent of the nervous breakdown?”, the hardest thing is feeling like I’m wasting time going in wrong directions. For this draft of this section, I’ve already burned through 10,000 words that have gone nowhere — investigations and explorations into new threads of stories, expanding moments that I thought were key but now seem secondary, and a whole scene involving an oral report on John Milton’s Paradise Lost that is really an apology and declaration of love. (It sounded good in my head.)

I keep trying to remember that it’s okay to go “nowhere” in stories — that, as Kanye West likes to tweet, #ITSAPROCESS, because your characters, if they’re good, will always have something to reveal when you’re writing. But after awhile, encouraging tweets/mantras only go so far, and soon you’ll resort to doing crazy things like talking to your characters to get through these rough patches.

Which is actually what I did last weekend after a whole week of eking out nonprogress on my book. Five whole days of sitting down for hours at my laptop after whole days of being chained to a computer for my job resulted in nothing but frustration. It really made me want to throw myself under the train. After I couldn’t take it anymore, I went for my daily walk, my head too full of that fog of frustration to really notice that it was the first truly glorious day of spring. (Yet another item to add to my “Why I sometimes hate my novel” list.) I tramped along, stewing over how much I hated myself for being such a fuck-up and Why weren’t my characters behaving?!!

I was loping along when suddenly I had this strange thought: that I was walking exactly like my werewolf prince, sort of hunched over, brow furrowed, preoccupied. (You don’t know how many times I’ve written that he’s furrowed his brow. He’s a brow-furrower. It’s his thing. On him, it’s sexy. On me, it makes me look oddly hungry.) And then — and here’s where I reveal what a lunatic I am — it was as if he was there beside me, both of us just strolling along on a fine spring day. Well, if he’s here, I thought to myself, I may as well ask WTF is going on with him right now. And so we had a chat, and it turns out that even though he was plotting his disappearance from my story, it didn’t mean that I could stop being in touch with his point of view. He kind of glowered about it (he’s kind of broody that way), but he had a good point: characters’ opposing choices often fuel a narrative’s energy. And so for the rest of the walk we talked about what was happening with him, how that affected my protagonist (she joined us at some point but being a cool, independent sort, she had other things to do), and a few other things.

When I was a kid, I used to talk in my head to imaginary people all the time. Everyone assumed that I would outgrow this. Apparently, I have not.

I don’t think I’m the only writer who’s ever chatted in my head with my characters, though I’m pretty aware that it makes me sound certifiable or at least very New Age-y. But sometimes it’s good to get a reminder that 1. it’s important to understand your “antagonist”; 2. it’s good to take walks; and 3. in some subconscious level, you’re not totally in control of the story. And if it takes having long, intense discussions with your characters in your head, well, I’d gladly pay a price of seeming like a literary looneybin in order to zoom forward with 10,000 more words of solid writing that actually does something.


And if all else fails, this TED video was a good reminder that being “wrong” is actually a valuable learning process. (When she gets to 13:26, she goes into the particular way “wrongness” works with stories, via examples of “This American Life.”)

And of course, this old favorite from J.K. Rowling, on the benefits of failure:

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

What Dance Central Taught Me About Creating Characters

Anyone who knows me right now knows what a crazy Dance Central enthusiast I am. You know, the Microsoft Xbox Kinect dancing game where you can get down to songs like “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” or “Poison.” But little did I know that my favorite time-waster could actually give me some lessons in writing — in particular, on the daunting yet fulfilling process of characterization.

As someone whose been essentially trained as a writer and filmmaker to believe “CHARACTER IS EVERYTHING” in terms of writing a story, it’s fascinating to see how other disciplines work with character building — especially fields like gaming, which have become more and more narrative-focused. On an industrial level, it’s weird but cool to see how gaming breaks up aspects of the process — characters get a sketch artist, maybe a head writer conceptualizes it, and someone else might pull together a game’s narrative, which is fascinating especially when you come from an “auteurist” one-genius-does-it-all perspective.

Dance Central has been putting out a series of sketchbook blog entries giving a behind-the-scenes on the process of how it crafted and voiced its main characters. The game itself isn’t a narrative, but the characters are definitely distinctive, with strong personae. I play Dance Central a lot with my sisters and niece (still trying to get five stars on the Hard level of “Drop It Like It’s Hot”!) and we all have strong reactions to and even discussions on the avatars: my niece loves Miss Aubrey (I can’t stand her, she’s so snotty and girly!), I like Emilia and Oblio (she’s tough, and he’s so mysterious, like a ninja!) but my nephew likes Mo. Characters really are often the locus of emotional attachment to an entertainment, be it novel or game or film, and DC is no different. I found the behind-the-scenes to be interesting as a fan, but also as a writer, giving me some points to think about when it comes to pulling characters together.


“Knowing characters” in terms of fiction and film is often highly psychological and focused on the inner life. While there’s no doubt that this is highly necessary, it’s interesting how gaming often focuses on the externals of a character: appearance, costume, hair. And it’s true, these visuals are kind of a shorthand, no matter what medium it’s in. I found it interesting that the game creators did a lot of research into dance music scenes and their fashion trends, and then extrapolated characters that would be part of those worlds from them.

I worked often as a costume and wardrobe designer in film, and what was most fascinating to me was how actors used costume to approach character — thinking about externals like clothes allowed them to think through what their characters’ daily lives were, what their histories and attachments were, how their aspirations were coded in their choices, and what the gulf was between how they presented themselves and who they really were in the story. I’ve always been interested in clothes and fashion, so it’s a natural bridge for me to think about how they would dress and why they wear what they wear. I’d imagine it be worth it for many writers to think through the questions of what their characters wear and why. Approaching the question of characterization from the outside in could yield some interesting insights, not to mention be fun to research.


I was really intrigued by the idea of a character questionnaire filled out by the Dance Central creators as they conceptualized their characters. On the one hand, the artiste in me is like “So reductive!” (I can also hear a few of my screenwriting teachers sneering in the background as well.) But on the other hand…what better, simpler way to get an initial handle on your character than a simple slate of questions?

Sometimes I wonder if we make our story preparation dense and complicated as a way to stave off anxiety about writing a story, by making prep almost as hard as actual work. The idea of a questionnaire seems almost like cheating. But I actually had a screenwriting prof who reduced the movement of a story into a set of questions that could be applied to each sequence of a screenplay…there were no super-complicated beat sheets or step outlines, no crazy treatments to draft. And curiously enough, it made for a clearer, more vital first draft than the most heavily outlined stories beforehand, at least for me. There’s something to be said about simplicity and clarity.


One of the fun things about games are the “hidden treats” that game creators build into them. Called “Easter eggs,” I got a big kick about learning more about Dance Central’s “pink ninja” character, who you get if you type in some special code and unlock certain achievements. The element of surprise is always important in a story, especially a longer-form narrative, and I like to imagine what the “Easter eggs” of a story are. For films, I think, they’re often strange little detours of a story — I just saw Hanna this weekend, and the trip she takes to Morocco is unexpected for the film, but yields so much emotional payoff that it’s vital. But characters need “Easter eggs,” too, no? Strange affections, odd enthusiasms, mannerisms — it’s these bits that keep them from becoming predictable or easy to peg. Also, plant them wisely and they grow into unexpectedly rich veins of story. I just watched Never Let Me Go, and there’s a strange incident where the main character riffles through some porn magazines, paging through them methodically and impatiently. It’s an odd moment, but forms the basis of a major connection later in the film. It’s worth thinking through characters’ eccentricities, secret behavior and hidden characteristics — and seeing what directions they can lead stories.

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