Character: The First Appearance

Yesterday, I had a great afternoon of writing fiction! All the pent up creative energy flowed out onto the page and my imagination just played, and played, and played. The result: a finished first draft of a story that had been stuck in limbo before. I feel as if I’ve flown free of prison — the prison of fulltime work and not having enough time to think creatively for my fiction. My body has finally become accustomed to the fulltime work schedule during the week, I’m not as behind with mundane chores, and I now have the time and brain and energy to work creatively on weekends.

So, wouldn’t you know it? A new character has popped into my head. She doesn’t yet have a name, although I know it’ll be something unusual. I know she’s middle-aged. I know that she’s a shape-shifter. She is also a Wizard, i.e. a master of magic. I think. Her shape-shifting has nothing to do with her magic, it is her physical form so she is not human. She is a White Wizard, i.e. she uses her magic for good, not evil. The first time she appeared in my mind, it was two very feminine green eyes in what looked like a rough granite wall. She was hiding. Why was she hiding? The granite wall was on an alien planet. At this point, I have no idea where or when, although I’m thinking future.

Maybe the power she has isn’t exactly magic. Wizard was the first thing that came to mind for what she could do. She has the power to move from one point to another instantly. She only has to think it.  Although she’s middle-aged for her kind, she would be quite old in human years. I see her as having a high level of integrity, of honesty, of compassion, and of mischievous humor. She is modest. And oddly, I see her having worked as a diplomat at some point in the past. What universe does she inhabit? What does she want? Is she a protagonist, or is she a POV character and another character is the protagonist?  She inhabits science fiction or fantasy, I think, probably science fiction. Maybe a pivotal character in the story somehow.

While doing some cursory research on “wizard – female” online, I ran across a site that generates wizard names. So for the fun of it, I clicked on “female” to see what would come up. A lot of nothing that grabbed me, but a couple I wrote down because I could think about them and maybe they’d spark other names. They already have, actually. So I’ll be writing down names for a while until one really hits me as the one that fits her.

There’s a lot I don’t know about this character, but I have a strong sense that she’s here to stay. Typically, she’ll get around to telling me more about herself eventually, and I’ll find out who she is, what she’s doing in the granite wall (besides hiding), and what the story is. She’s interesting right now, just as she is.  I can’t wait to find out more.

It’s all in the timing….

This morning, I stumbled across a brief interview with a young Whiting Award-winning writer, Kaitlyn Greenidge, in the September 2017 issue of The Writer. She was asked: “What is the most important thing you’ve learned about writing?” Her response:

I think that it takes a long time. There is no rushing it, and the work exists on its own timetable, outside of your own personal deadlines.

My first thought was, Oh, wow, now I know why I’m having such a hard time finishing that short story I want to finish. And reading on, the next question was “How has this helped you as a writer?” Greenidge’s response: “It is hard to be patient, but that’s what is needed.”

It certainly is hard to be patient in a world of impatience, populated with people who want instant gratification. Including me. As a writer, I know from personal experience that a story cannot be rushed. I know that characters exist in their own universe and their time is not my time. Hard as I try, the characters will do what they will, live as they will, speak as they will.

But I start to feel guilty when I don’t have the time to spend with the characters and their stories. I’ve felt this acute guilt the last 3 months as I’ve been getting used to a new fulltime job and the 5-day-a-week schedule that goes with it. I think about the various projects that await my attention. I read and read and read, which is valuable for a writer in and of itself. The actual writing I’ve been doing during the week has been focused on business writing, not creative writing. The weekend comes and suddenly I’m up to my ears in chores, catching up with e-mail, working on blog posts. I have not written in my journal for 2 years. Every day I get up and think, something’s got to change.

I can only hope that my characters won’t abandon me.  I have not abandoned them. I’d much rather be spending time with them. And I am starting to figure out ways to shift when I do chores, when I do e-mail, etc. My goal is to empty my weekend schedule so that I can spend 2 days writing fiction.

It took me years to write Perceval’s Secret. I thought I knew Evan Quinn after I finished the first draft, but as I delved deeper into researching conducting and conductors, I found I didn’t know as much as I thought. Research will do that. And Evan was slow to trust me with his real story. But once I had the uninterrupted time to spend with him, he began to talk…and talk and talk and talk. He simply would not shut up, and talked out 5 books instead of one. That’s fine. I’m certain that once I’m back in the swing on fiction again, he’ll return with more information so I can finish his story.

So, I’m learning patience with myself and my work schedule, and learning how to shift things around to accommodate my writing. It’s a slow process. But I have to think that characters also need to be patient with their writers, i.e. my characters patient with me.

Are you a patient writer?  How long does it take your stories to emerge? Have your characters been patient with you?

How to Develop Ideas for Stories

Most writers have been asked how they come up with their stories, where do they get their ideas, or some variation on that theme. No one ever asks how the ideas actually become the stories.  After all, ideas are only the beginning, and stories do not drop out of the brain fully formed and ready to publish. My experience with ideas boils down to this: about three-fourths of them are not viable, i.e. they cannot be developed into a full story with conflicts and resolution, character development and a coherent structure. Those ideas usually are great beginnings that never go anywhere.

The other quarter? They need to be rigorously tested and developed, twisted and pulled, shaped and trimmed until they prove themselves to be the stories they promised to be. In other words, prepare to work those ideas.  How?

My process seems to change with each new idea, i.e. the idea itself dictates how to develop it. For Perceval’s Secret, the original idea was actually a character. So, I began by first writing a description of that character and what he was doing when he came into my consciousness from my imagination. My next step was to ask the character questions, but not direct questions like who are you? I started a conversation with him as if he were the guy sitting next to me at a bar. How’s life treatin’ you? The music in this bar stinks, doesn’t it? Just get off work? You live here?  Stuff like that. I’m writing this all down, free associating off the answers that pop into my head from the character. With Evan, I wanted to also find out why he was conducting the empty stage in Vienna’s Musikverein concert hall. He started talking to me about his friend Paul Caine and something that had happened to the two of them as kids walking home from school one summer day. I used that as the beginning of what I thought was a short story.

My ideas for stories usually come as a character or characters and I need to figure out who they are and what they want me to know. It sounds kind of weird to talk to myself when I’m talking to the characters, but that’s been the most effective way to do it. I know that the character’s story is viable when I can see that he or she really wants something and there are all sorts of obstacles in the way of getting it. So if you are looking at an idea’s viability in terms of, say, 3-act dramatic structure, the idea needs to evolve beyond the first act into the second conflict act. If I can do that with the idea, I know the idea is viable. At that point, I start to have fun with it.

One idea that came to me as a situation first, i.e. a general experience that a lot of people have but what if the outcome was more science fiction? I’ve been struggling with this story for a couple years now because the experience didn’t have a character connected to it. The first version ended up being a dead end even though structurally it worked. So I decided to start over, changed the main character and made the experience in the past rather than something she was going through during the story. This approach clicked and all sorts of ideas for development came to me. At this point, I knew what the character wanted and I had a good idea what kind of obstacles would be in her way.

So, what I’ve learned over the years is to be open to all possibilities when working with an idea. I’ll need to figure out the main character, then what that character wants in the story, and if there are obstacles in the character’s way. Try analyzing some of your favorite stories to see how this structure works.

How do you develop story ideas? Do you write plot-driven or character-driven stories?

Character: Power

 

The July/August issue of The Atlantic offers a fascinating article by Jerry Useem about how having power actually changes the human brain. The mental abilities that enable someone to rise in society into a powerful position end up disappearing once the person has gained power. The example Useem begins his article with is of former CEO of Wells Fargo John Stumpf’s performance at a congressional hearing last fall — his utter failure to “read the room.” Useem goes on to cite study after study that show how having power damages the parts of the brain that enable humans to relate to other humans and to have empathy.

 

The lust for power has motivated many a character in fiction. Power fascinates me as well as how we define power. While researching Post Traumatic Stress for Perceval’s Secret, I stumbled onto the Pandora’s box of Power, i.e. external power, or having power and/or control over other people. I learned that the people most likely to seek external power feel powerless but are not self-aware enough to recognize how they are really feeling. All they know is that having power makes them feel better. There is another kind of power: internal power. This is the individual’s self power, i.e. he feels powerful in being himself rather than feeling powerless.  This person will not seek external power over others. He simply doesn’t need it.

So, which individual is the character you’ve created? How does she perceive the world? In a way that signals her sense of powerlessness such as constantly ingratiating herself to another character? How does he respond to people? Is he manipulative? Narcissistic? Focused only on what will benefit him? Or is your character empathetic, genuinely caring of others, and not in need of control or motivated by fear? Having a bloated sense of self-worth, a common symptom of narcissism, can also mask a person’s sense of powerlessness. A character with power issues, especially one who isn’t self-aware, can end up being a villain or a victim, or ironically, both.

When you have a character that feels powerless, it’s important to figure out why that character feels powerless. Whether or not you put that part of his backstory into your story, you, the writer, need to know the reason. His powerlessness will come through in his behavior toward himself as well as other people, through his desires, professional goals, and even in how he dresses and takes care of himself. For example, he may choose a profession in which he exerts power and control over others in some way — corporate CEO, a surgeon, a government bureaucrat, or even a symphony orchestra conductor. My favorite is the co-worker who believes that she’s entitled to be the head of the company and will do anything to get there. Criminals also tend to possess a sense of powerlessness and their criminality gives them a sense of power whether it’s beating the system or taking a life.

Deep-seated fear often goes with a sense of powerlessness, and the desire for power is also a desire to be safe and secure. When the powerless gain the external power that they seek, they are most often likely to abuse that power, also. How all this manifests in human behavior can be unique to the individual and her background, and the same is true for a fictional character.  You don’t have to be a psychologist yourself in order to write a fully dimensional character who behaves in plausible ways. Be open to the possibilities.  Let your character act, speak, and think as he does and be the observer. Respect the character.  Allow the character to be himself. He’ll most likely give you his story if you’re open to all the possibilities.

Power definitely motivates characters in ways unique to each of them. Whether or not your character obtains the power he seeks could be the story your character wants to tell you.  Are you listening?

 

Writers and Actors: Daniel Day-Lewis

SANTA MONICA, CA – JANUARY 10: Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, winner of Best Actor for “Lincoln,” poses in the press room at the 18th Annual Critics’ Choice Movie Awards held at Barker Hangar on January 10, 2013 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)

This past week, Summer began and Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he was retiring from acting. At first, I thought it was one of those internet jokes that pop up all the time.  But no. This news was real. So, I sought out the article to get the details, and I hoped, a reason. But no, no reason. Only that it was a private decision and there would be no further comment. In other words, it’s none of our business why.

I was terribly sad about this. Day-Lewis is an actor I’ve been following since 1986 with a mixture of amazement and profound respect. I’ve written at this blog how his performance in Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans taught me to focus on character and helped me to push through a major writer’s block. His performances make me feel human, creative, joyful, and eager to write. I’ll miss him, miss the anticipation and wonder of what he’ll do next.  His last movie, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson who directed him in There Will be Blood, is supposed to be in theaters in December of this year.  That will be an event.

He has a Wikipedia page that I found informative. I had not known that he’s now a “Sir,” having been knighted in 2014. Or that he lives primarily in Ireland where he can be a private citizen, more or less, and raise his family in peace. He’s also 60 years old. So it’s not like he’s retiring when he’s 35. But I can’t help feeling that his retirement is a tremendous loss for acting as well as for writers.

In Variety online, Owen Gleiberman writes about the impact of Day-Lewis’ retirement, reviewing the history of acting in the last century: the Olivier School vs. the Brando School. What Day-Lewis did was to combine the two, not only paying close attention to the external details of a character — hair, gestures, facial expressions, voice, etc. — but also to the details of the character’s personality and emotional states. Day-Lewis acted 3-dimensionally. It had to be exhausting at times. Gleiberman ends his article with this:

“He didn’t just want to show up in a movie as some version of himself; he wanted to transcend himself — to literally make acting into an out-of-body experience. The question going forward isn’t whether Day-Lewis is really retiring. It’s whether the spirit of transformation that he represents has come to seem like a mountain that actors no longer need, or even want, to climb.”

For me, Daniel Day-Lewis the actor will always be an inspiration, a guiding light, that I’ll turn to when I need to be reminded about what is truly important in writing. For that, I will be forever grateful.