Through His/Her Eyes

As October draws to a close, NaNoWriMo grows ever closer. And with thousands of writers joining the fray, I’m starting to get more and more questions about POV (Point of View). Last week I covered POV Bloat (having so many POV characters it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any of them), today I’ll be talking about how it’s possible to flesh out characters who aren’t POV characters.

Over the past week, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from people who are considering–but aren’t sure about–using first person is: “I feel like first person would make for a stronger narrative, but I’m worried about being able to get in the other characters’ motivations.”

What always worries me about comments like that is the feeling that authors are relying on being inside a character’s head to tell information rather than working on showing events that let the reader learn about the characters organically.

Remember, it is not necessary to be in a character’s head for the reader to learn a lot about them. It’s not even necessary for a POV character to tell readers about him/herself. After all, “I don’t like going to zoos because…” is much less interesting for the reader than a character being dragged to the zoo and then going into fits because of a bad experience that then comes out. So, if you’re trying to build up a character without being in their head, try to:

1. Look for places you can show personalities rather than tell the reader about them. It is possible to bring across quite a bit about a character by showing how they interact with the world rather than relying on an internal monologue. There is an entire trope named “Pet the Dog” where a villain is shown to not be entirely evil by him/her having a scene where he/she is kind to an animal. Perhaps you don’t want to go with that specific example–as it is a bit of a cliché at this point–but character-specific scenes that give insight are always helpful, no matter who the character is.

2. Use dialogue. Sure, you don’t want your character to suddenly drop in and start spouting off his/her life story for no reason, but it is often possible to get characters to naturally talk about themselves here and there at least enough to show deeper motivations without needing to be inside that character’s head (just try not to overdo it or you could end up with the reader wondering why that character is always spouting off long chunks of backstory for no apparent reason).  Note: It is also possible to have other characters discuss the character you need more information about to get a similar effect.

and last but not least:

3. Trust your writing. If you have developed well-rounded, realistic characters, it won’t be necessary to explain that they have more thoughts and motivations than might come across just in the narrative. When characters feel deep, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader they have depth. (If you’re finding you’re having problems making a character feel real in small acts, consider doing more character building before continuing what you’re writing. That will likely come more in handy than just having a character think about who they are).

To everyone participating: happy NaNo planning!

Historical Naming

Interesting question today: “When writing historical fiction, do you have a hard time coming up with names? Is there a list of when particular personal names were first used? I have written some fiction that is historical and I’m worried the use of a name or names that were unknown in that period might put some people off because of the inaccuracy.

I have written before about how names can be astoundingly important to how both authors and readers respond to characters in stories. It makes complete sense that having a “Neveah” and “McKenzie” wandering around Elizabethan England would be a problem.

Luckily writers have a few resources for looking for “historically accurate” names:

1. BehindtheName.com: One of my favorite sites for finding names in general, behindthename.com (and its sister site surnames.behindthename.com) is a great resource when trying to find appropriate names for historical characters. With popularity lists reaching back to 1880 (with John and Mary topping the charts), you can very easily find names that would suit a story based in the Victorian era forward (it even lists just how popular the names were at the time: 8.15% of boys born were named John and 7.24% of girls named Mary, for example).

behindthename.com

behindthename.com

For earlier names, you have to do a little more digging, but by looking up specific names you can find out about the history of a name, including first origin, famous bearers, and popularity charts (see above). For example, for ‘Mary’ you’ll find:

In England [Mary] has been used since the 12th century, and it has been among the most common feminine names since the 16th century.

For a name like ‘Jessica’, however, you’ll find:

This name was first used in this form by Shakespeare in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (1596), where it belongs to the daughter of Shylock … It was not commonly used as a given name until the middle of the 20th century.

So where you would be more than safe naming a character “Mary” in the middle of the War of the Roses, “Jessica” is probably better suited for a character born in the 1980s or 1990s (#1 or #2 for most popular name from 1981 – 1997).

2. Historical Figures: If you are writing historical fiction you have most likely (hopefully) done some research into the time period. While doing that sort of reading, you have likely come across people who were important to the time period. For example, following the Elizabethan/Tudor example, you might see Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Mary I, Edward VI, Katherine Parr, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, Walter Raleigh…and the list goes on and on and on. It is therefore reasonable to assume that you are “time period appropriate” using any of those given names in the time period.

Edward VI--meaning there had already been six other kings with his name by the 1500s.

Edward VI–meaning there had already been five other kings with his name by the 1500s.

If you are interested in genealogy/have done any family research, it is also possible to use your own family tree for inspiration. If you have an ancestor named “Samuel” who fought in the Civil War, you’re likely safe making your 1860’s character’s name ‘Samuel’.

3. Historical Records: Assuming you are writing about a time period that includes a written language/has some “primary source” documents surviving, you are likely to be able to find names off censuses/tax rolls/etc. The more “modern” the time period, the simpler it will be to find these sorts of records (for example, the U.S. Census Bureau released the 1940 Census records in 2012 for interested parties), but it is possible to find things like the 1319 London Subsidy Roll online which will provide you with names such as Johannes (“John”) and Thomas which were both highly popular in London at the time.

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

1850s Census with names galore (assuming you can read cursive)

(Note: Sources I have easily found online do tend to be highly euro-centric, but as long as you are writing about a “record-keeping” society you should be able to find something [i.e. it will be easier to find records from England or China than it will from nomadic groups]).

4. Figure out naming conventions: This is another one your previous research will aid in, but if you are looking for names on Behind the Name (or another similar site) this should help point you in the right direction. It’s just about following trends. For example, naming oneself after royalty/the ruling class has always been popular, thus you will find more children born after the Norman Conquest with French-based names (from watching how many King Henrys and Charleses there are in both England and France early on, you can see the name bleed-over). Similarly, Puritans were big fans of “virtue” names (Charity, Mercy, Remembrance…) by picking a virtue name for your fictional character on the Mayflower, your name will fit in without “copying” a famous name.

(Note: It is also important to pay attention to naming conventions when it comes to things such as surnames and name order. Would your characters have patronymic names (Greta Hansdatter, James FitzJames, Phillip son of Coul) a geographic indicator (Joan of Arc, Leonardo da Vinci), their family name first (as it common in many Asian countries), or no second name at all? Those details help with the authenticity of your characters).

As with everything else in historical fiction, research is your friend. As long as you know the time period you’re using, you shouldn’t have a problem coming up with names.

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The Lawful Good and Chaotic Evil

If you have been on social media for any length of time, you likely have seen a meme that looks something like this:

alignment

And half of them seem to use Game of Thrones character for whatever reason. (http://postitjournal.blogspot.com/2012/03/viewing-life-through-alignment-grids.html)

Long before these charts became “meme worthy”, players of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons were familiar with building characters in a similar way, aligning their characters along a “moral and ethical axis”. A full (very handy) breakdown is available on TV Tropes, but it can basically be broken down into:

alignment_graph_3756

tvtropes.org

Now, these breakdowns don’t always work for fiction writers (as TV Tropes very smartly says, “remember that the vast majority of characters in fiction are not tabletop game characters, and therefore lack a canonical interpretation of alignment“) more and more I have found it helpful to think of characters who fit a “vague alignment”, both when it comes to writing and editing. Why? For the same reason the charts came into fashion for role playing games, I imagine. Because it is a handy way to develop just who your character is.

Personally, looking into alignments arose as part of writing my Broken Line Series. With each book following a different main character (and yet interlocking with each of the others) it became very important to develop each character as their own person, otherwise everything slowly began to get a little too wishy-washy with an ever-growing cast of characters. Thinking of a character in terms of a designation (along with plenty of other character building of course) it can be simpler to think just how they would react when thrown into a tough spot.

So, if dealing with a number of characters (or simply needing to flesh out a single character further) consider their alignments:

  • Lawful Good: Simply put, the Lawful Good believes that, well, the law is good. Being a good person (which they strongly wish to be) requires upholding the law. This character believes in truth, justice, and other ideals seen as virtuous, but such strong convictions may also prove their undoing (see poor Ned Stark up there). They are so committed to their ideals, they may struggle to uphold them even to their own (or other’s) detriment.
  • Neutral Good: For the Neutral Good, doing the right thing is very important, but the right thing doesn’t always mean the lawful thing. Following their personal morals, doing good is more important than upholding the law, but they also don’t see law as a bad thing. If they are able to do good by playing by the rules, they will.  If they have to break a few laws to save someone, however, they don’t find themselves in an ethical quandary. As TV Tropes puts it, “Just think ‘basically nice person’ and you’ve probably got it.”
  • Chaotic Good: Home to the rebels and free spirits, the Chaotic Good want to help people and do good, but they tend to believe that things like order and discipline get in the way. For all the Whovians out there, my personal favorite picture I’ve seen for Chaotic Good is The Doctor. The man always wants what is best for everyone, but isn’t about to let silly things like laws (even generally good ones) get in the way of achieving good.
  • Lawful Neutral: The Lawful Neutral is “the rule-abiding sort”. Good and evil are all well and good, but not something that keeps them up at night. Law and Order (not the show) are what drives the Lawful Neutral with “justice” not necessarily coming into play. As TV Tropes says, “They’ll arrest a robber or rapist, but may also kick a family out of their home for failing to pay rent” even if the family missed rent for a “good” reason. TV Tropes and I agree probably the best example here is Inspector Javert from Les Mis (stealing bread to feed your starving family is no better than stealing cigarettes to hock to school kids). Any other character who is the same staunch type of Legalist would be a Lawful Neutral (protagonist, antagonist, or anyone in between).
  • True Neutral: True Neutrals are either characters who want to “keep the balance” and thus not interfere (think the Elves staying out of things in Lord of the Rings) or characters that don’t care about just about anything for one reason or another (be it they’re too stupid to realize they should care, have a “calling” they see as above Earthly problems, or just simply want to be left alone).
  • Chaotic Neutral: The Chaotic Neutral is either “the ultimate free spirit” or someone who is just plainly crazy. Chaotic Neutrals don’t wish to harm, but neither do they want to help others. Freedom is their be-all end-all. As long as you don’t try to rein them in, they really couldn’t care less what happens to anyone else.
  • Lawful Evil: Heading into the villains and antiheroes, the Lawful Evil is the “sort of Evil that often ends up in charge.” Lawful Evil don’t care in the slightest about hurting people, but they care a lot of keeping order (whether because they believe it’s intrinsically important or because order is easier to exploit).
  • Neutral Evil: As TV  Tropes so gracefully puts it, “Sometimes known as the Asshole Alignment.” It doesn’t especially matter who gets hurt to the Neutral Evil, and it doesn’t especially matter to them if they play by the rules or not. If the rules suit their purposes, they’ll follow them. If not, they’ll break them. They are often considered more dangerous than the Lawful Evil or Chaotic Evil simply because you never quite know where they’re going to swing next. (For those who have read The Copper Witch/The Copper Rebellion,  this is where I would honestly place our anti-heroine).
  • Chaotic Evil: Just as interested in being a free spirit as the Chaotic Neutral, the Chaotic Evil is all about doing whatever they want, even if it hurts other (for some, especially if it hurts others). Rather than simply being willing to break rules if they don’t agree/they get in their way (like the other Chaotic alignments) Chaotic Evils often take great pleasure in destroying order/causing chaos. Batman’s The Joker is perhaps one of the best examples of Chaotic Evil.

(Need more information before you can place your characters? Read the full descriptions on TV Tropes or click any of the links above for more examples of the specific alignments).

Character Flaws

With the term “Mary Sue” becoming more and more common amongst writers, one question I get asked more and more is how to give characters flaws. After all, one of the major reasons Mary Sues are so annoying are that they’re perfect, and perfect characters are boring at best, unbearable at worst.

The problem with thinking of weaknesses as something you have to throw in to balance out strengths, however, is that it is entirely missing the point. Giving a character weaknesses isn’t about balancing some cosmic Mary Sue scale (Good singer +3 Sue, Clumsy -1) it’s about making your character seem real

And so, if your character seems annoying perfect, throwing in a few “weaknesses” isn’t going to help all that much. A saintly character who is sweet, and smart, and entirely angelic is not going to become any more interesting because sometimes she’s a little absentminded or naive.

When trying to flesh out characters, don’t worry about the strengths and weaknesses lists, worry about building a believable character. While a lack of weaknesses is a warning sign for Mary Sues, the bigger problem is they simply aren’t believable. They’re perfect and special and the world around them changes to accommodate them because they are so perfect and special. Any amount of random weaknesses isn’t going to change that.

So, how do you build a believable character:

1. Separate yourself from your character.

Every author puts a little bit of themselves into their characters. One character might like the music you like. Another might have your sarcasm. That isn’t a problem.  What you don’t want to do is make a character your wish-fulfillment. A character that is you as you wish you could be isn’t going to be realistic. Even a character you just really, really care about might not be. Caring about your characters is fine, just don’t let your love for them cloud your judgment when it comes to building their personalities.

2. Think of personality as more than just a pro/con list.

As stated above, it isn’t possible to balance out a Mary Sue by countering their +3 awesomeness with -2 clumsiness. Instead of coming up with a list of all that is good about your character and then trying to think of an equal number of weaknesses, come up with traits. People are a balance of good and bad traits in real life, but many times what is positive and what is negative come from the same trait. Being outgoing, for example, is generally a good thing. It can become negative, however, if the character doesn’t know when to keep quiet or can’t keep secrets simply because they love to talk to people. Again, being a straight-A student would likely go on the “strength” side of the list, but what comes with that as far as weaknesses go? Perhaps they’re stressed, feeling they need to be perfect. Maybe they’re overly competitive or think school is the only thing that’s important. Consider each trait and what it means for your character’s personality, not just if it goes in the strengths or weaknesses category.

3. Change your character based on your world, don’t change your world for your character.

Everyone has a past. Whether you drop in when your character is 5, 15, or 50, it doesn’t matter. They have things that have happened that have shaped who they are. While the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know everyone’s back story, it’s important for the author to, and to think about how growing up as the character did affected them. Someone who grows up dirt poor in rural New Mexico. is going to be a different person than someone who grew up being groomed for the galactic senate. Don’t change the world you have built to suit your character (the real world doesn’t change to suit us), figure out how your character fits into the world you have built.

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Character Questionnaire

By popular demand, here is a sample of a Character Questionnaire (like the ones I mentioned in yesterday’s post). You can find the original questionnaire here, or many other wonderful questions on the web (some with over 100 questions, which I think will give you just about anything you ever wanted to know about your characters).

1. What is your character’s full name?

2. When were they born?

3. What are their parent’s names?

4. Do they have any brothers or sisters?

5. What kind of eyes do they have?

6. What kind of hair do they have?

7. What is their complexion like?

8. What body type are they?

9. What is listening to their voice like?

10. Do they have a favourite quote?

11. What sort of music do they enjoy?

12. Have they ever cheated on a partner?

13. Have they ever lost someone close to them?

14. What is their favourite sound?

15. What is their opinion on euthanasia?

16. Are they judgmental of others?

17. Have they ever been drunk?

18. What are they like when they stay up all night?

19. Have they ever been arrested?

20. What colour evokes strong memories for them?

21. What do they do on rainy days?

22. What religion are they?

23. What word do they overuse the most?

24. What do they wear to bed?

25. Do they have any tattoos or piercings?

26. What type of clothing are they most comfortable in?

27. What is their most disliked saying?

28. Do they have any enemies?

29. What does their writing look like?

30. What disgusts them?