Saturday, April 30, 2011

The floggings will continue until morale improves

The floggings will continue until morale improves - a time-worn witticism adorning many a workplace, but sometimes it comes a bit too close to reality to be funny.

And when it does, how well do you think that works? How does it feel when people's actions and stated feelings are completely at odds with all the available evidence?

So...*drum roll*...
Why would you try to do that to your characters?

As writers, we are in charge of our worlds. Puppetmasters of our characters. But that doesn't mean we can simply pull their strings and make them act how we like. Not if we want them to be credible. So here's a few tools I've come across to help with...

Outcome - credible motivation

How you act and react in any given situation depends on a complex interplay of motivations. Amongst other things, your motivation for a particular behaviour is grounded in who you are, what you know, what you believe, and what you feel.

Your characters are no different. So if you're to portray them in a credible way, you need to understand their motivation.

This is not a post about actually creating compelling characters. There was a whole blogfest devoted to this a few months ago here, with tons of excellent advice. This post is about organising that information to get inside their heads so you can make them act in a way that won't have your readers going "Huh?"

Who you are

The most obvious tool to nail down your character is the trusty character sheet. This can be as simple or as detailed as you want. Many people use forms or templates to capture things like name, age, appearance etc.

All well and good, but if you want to understand your character you need to think about some deeper aspects of who they are. Things like background, upbringing, religion. I don't mean you need to lay out their life history. For this particular purpose, you are trying to get to events that formed the character, that would influence how she behaves. Did she have a troubled childhood? A domineering parent? A fear of dogs? And how does that show up in present-day attitudes and behaviour?

And what about skills and preferences? Someone with a passion for archaeology is going to have a rather different view of evading pursuers in that labyrinthine Egyptian tomb than someone who believes in the supernatural and is afraid of the dark.

The character sheet can prompt you to think about some standard aspects of your characters, as well as being a handy place to record the facts for later reference, but there are other tools that can help you really get inside their heads.

One that I like to use is the character interview. Here, you pretend to be a journalist, or a TV host, and ask your character questions. You let them respond how they see fit. See here for some examples.

Similar tools involve writing a letter from your character, or an entry in their personal diary. They all work the same way - to dissociate your mind from your author's voice, and let your character's voice shine through. It can be quite revealing hearing things that you never suspected.

Of course, having this information is all very well, but you must remember to use it, too.

Who do you hang out with?

An important part of who you are, is who your friends - and enemies - are.

You may have already noted things like religion in your character sheets, but what about belonging to things like clubs, political parties, secret societies? As with other things on the character sheet, the groups you are interested from a motivational point of view are those that involve sharing in a strong set of beliefs which will guide your character's attitudes and responses to certain situations.

To work out the effects of these influences, I suggest treating these groups as characters in their own right. Develop something like a character sheet for them, to document their history, core beliefs and values, and maybe alliances and enmities. Then, when you label a character as "belonging to the Ancient Order of Compulsive Leg-Waxers", you will have a good idea of all the emotional baggage that label brings with it.

Furthermore, when you look into which groups your various characters are affiliated with, you may uncover new reasons for one character to like or hate another.

If groups of allied characters are important to your story, you might find it helpful to add membership lists to your group descriptions, to keep track of characters who may be expected to act in concert. After all, some groups have efficient communications networks, so what one character learns along the way might find its way to another person's ears in a way that would otherwise be hard to explain.

Of course, individuals form friendships and enmities too, without the need for any group affiliation. These can be tracked on character sheets, but sometimes the dynamics might be better revealed by a stakeholder map.

This is a diagram that shows characters (the "stakeholders") on the page, with lines between them to denote positive or negative relations. Seeing relationships mapped out in this way can suggest alliances or conflicts that you may not have otherwise considered. You can use the same idea to illustrate group dynamics where you have groups that interact with each other rather than just forming passive backdrops for individuals' motivations.

Here is an example I drew when I started on The Ashes of Home. Here, "smiley" marks on lines show friendship, while "frowns" show enmity. Drawing this map brought home to me just how isolated Shayla was, having pissed off a lot of people in Ghosts of Innocence, and this realisation changed the whole tone of the sequel.

What you know

So much for background, how a character acts will also be influenced by what they know at a given point in the story. Here, I'm really concerned about what new knowledge they gain during the story, as opposed to what you've already established in their background.

In an earlier post, I suggested keeping a knowledge map - simply a swimlane diagram that charts knowledge acquired at different points in the story.

What you believe

This is similar to what you know, but add the layer of interpretation (which might also be influenced by what you knew or believed previously).

For example, Lady Dolores enters the library to see Lord Pantyhose lying dead on the floor. She catches a glimpse of Hugh Gormless-Twitterer leaving hastily through the door at the far end of the room. Only an hour earlier, she had glimpsed Hugh taking His Lordship's pistol from a drawer in his desk. So what does she conclude?

What she knows, is that His Lordship is dead, and that Hugh was recently in the same room. What she believes is that Hugh shot Lord Pantyhose. It is the latter that will colour her subsequent actions.

These subtleties can be captured on your knowledge map by simple annotations to distinguish facts from interpretation.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The planets align!

I was preparing another post on writing tools, but have some news to report on the pirate ship instead.

I blogged last week about things co-incidentally going right all at once, but yesterday was an exceptional example of this.

Things didn't start off too promising. Weekly grocery shop OK, except for duck breasts. Nothing on the shelf at my usual store. Popped over to the butcher at Brentwood. Nope. Came home and unloaded, then set off in the other direction to Sidney. First attempt, no luck.

Oh dear!

But on the off-chance (and on a totally unrelated mission) I stopped in at a boating store nearby. This is the kind of place where you have to rummage through heaps of odds & ends to find what you want. And I found a ship's wheel. Right size (although I was worried it might be a few inches too big) and reasonably priced.

Flushed with that success, I tried one more store for duck and found exactly what I was looking for.

Now I'm on a roll!

Got home and started building a pedestal to mount the wheel on. Finished that in record time, and realised I still had time to get to the builders yard for some hardware to attach it. While there, lo and behold, they had the rope back in stock that I've been looking for since October.

So today I finished off the rigging and the wheel. The last two planned items on my list. Anything else now is just incidental. The ship is officially finished!

Oh, and to round off a beautiful day (yes, it was sunny as well) we all drove downtown to Boston Pizza and had a delicious meal. Ali and I shared Thai chicken bites to start - sweet and hot - then both chose the most meltingly mouth-watering pork ribs, with fries and salad. Mmmmm.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nearly there!

With the sun finally out this unseasonally cold Spring, I was able to get out my paintbrush for some finishing touches. Cannon hatches and windows now complete, and some photos, as promised.

I still have to sort out a wheel. It definitely needs one. As I'm pessimistic about being able to buy anything suitable, I am having a go at making one. Not an easy task. We'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

And then again...

I got up early this morning so I could cycle to work.

It was difficult. I struggled to wake up, and it was cold. But I did it.

I got dressed, ate a hasty breakfast, collecting my things and said goodbye to everyone. With a one hour cycle ahead, it's quite a rush to get out of the house in time so I can still be showered, dressed, and at my desk by 8:30.

But now I was awake, more or less, I was looking forward to it. It was a beautiful morning.

Except I found I had a flat tyre. Not soft. Completely pancaked, which means a puncture.

Scrap all thoughts of cycling. I had time to get the wheel off and inspect the damage, but no time to repair and still get to work in time. It was a puncture that I'd patched last summer. One side of the patch had come adrift, but the other side was firmly welded to the inner tube. Not much chance of repair. I needed to visit the cycle shop on the way home from work.

So I did.

Uh-oh, the windows were dark and empty. This looked ominous.

Signs on the windows - we've moved. New address is ... five kilometres back in the direction I just came from.

So I went there. Still not quite 5 o'clock, I should be in time.

Uh-oh. There's the new store, but it still looks dark. What's going on?

Sign on the door. Closing at 4:30. Just today, mind you, they normally close at 5:30.

Fate is conspiring to keep me off my bike!

I got home and told Ali.

And we laughed!

'Cos it's still a beautiful day outside. And I've just finished the windows on the pirate ship and they look great. So there.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On the move again

Isn't it funny how often either nothing seems to go right, or everything seems to tick along nicely? I know the human mind is always on the lookout for patterns, but those kinds of periods in life always seem to stick in the mind.

Last week at work was way less frenetic than any other time this year. There's lots going on, but I found time to breathe, time to think. Yesterday, especially, I was able to sit down and apply some uninterrupted thought to some of the problems facing the team. Whether any of that thinking was worthwhile or not is still to be seen, but it was a refreshing change. Something I have badly missed.

Today, in a rare break in the un-Spring-like weather this year, I got out the paint and started some finishing touches on the pirate ship. Photos to follow when I have more progress to show.

And also today, I finally got around to submitting more novel chapters to Critique Circle. I've resigned myself to the fact that revisions are going to lag way behind the critiques, and decided to push more through the queue. This is going to be a long process, and right now it's standing in between me and some real writing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Eye witness

Counsel for the Prosecution, Sir Hugh Beady-Scrimshaw QC (hereinafter referred to as The Prosecution):  
Sooo...Mr. your statement to the police, you claim to have seen your wife, Mrs. Edith Flatulent, enter your house at 4:33 precisely, thereby proving that she could not have been at the High Street Jewellers at the same time conducting a robbery with a sawn-off shotgun.

Mr. Clement Flatulent, 33 Bullshit Place, Dorking, Surrey (hereinafter referred to as The Witness):  
That's right, guv'nor. I was watching telly at the time, see? And the Generation Game was on an' I 'ave a clear view into the hall from my settee. She just came in the door, went into the front room, and left a few minutes later. But, like I said to the rozzers, if she was 'ere, she couldn't 'ave been there as well, innit?

The Prosecution: (with a theatrical flourish pulls a drawing from the voluminous folds of his gown, and acknowledges applause from the gallery with a graceful inclination of his head) I present to the court a plan of Mr. Flatulent's house...
...From this plan, it is quite plain that if Mr. Flatulent was indeed sitting on his settee as he claims, then he had no sight of the front door, nor of the door to the front room. I put it to you, Mr. Flatulent, that you did not see who entered your house and cannot be sure that it was your wife.

The Witness: Oh 'eck.

Mrs. Edith Flatulent: (sobbing) It's a fair cop.

Substitute "The Author" for "The Witness", and "The Reader" for "The Prosecution", and you have a situation all too easy to get caught in. I know I often get carried away writing scenes and making assumptions about who can see what, only to have to come back and rewrite parts where I realise that what I've put on the page drives a bulldozer through the laws of physics and spatial consistency.

Anywhere that line of sight becomes important, I find it essential to draw a picture. Plans and diagrams are invaluable tools in the writer's armoury for dealing with spatial consistency.

The most common tools here are simple top-view maps and plans to establish the spatial configuration of a setting. I use floor plans of buildings and ships, and maps of various scales for towns, regions, and whole planets.
Often, these end up only partially filled in because I usually only do enough for my purpose.
These drawings help me to anchor myself in a scene (which is the subject of another post) and help to sort out questions such as line of sight (as in the opening example). Can my character realistically see what is happening down the hall? Or is the Town Hall visible from the kitchen window?

Less obvious uses are to establish realistic travel times between A and B, whether from one room of a mansion to another, or one town to the next.

Of importance in action scenes is to confirm that the action you are describing has room to take place. Does anyone remember cartoons like Tom & Jerry, where chases took place down endless hallways that would require a house the size of Buckingham Palace to accommodate? You don't want your treasured WIP to end up like that, do you?

Finally, don't neglect the third dimension, particularly for line of sight questions. Can you really see from the bedroom window into the neighbour's yard? If in doubt, draw a vertical section to scale to see if you have line of sight over that eight-foot-high wall.

Or what about seeing from the top of that hill into the valley below? Anyone remember drawing contour sections in geography class? Your poetic description of the car chase the hero watches from the trig point might be all for naught if you haven't confirmed your line of sight. Often all you can see from the top of a hill are the tops of other hills!

Of course, you could just stick with what you've written. After all, nobody will notice.

Will they?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fair Dinkum award

I knew there was something nagging at the back of my mind.

I had a drastic clear-out of my inbox at work and sent responses and groveling apologies to many people whose requests had lain buried for weeks waiting to be rescued. But I suddenly remembered things at home that have been waiting for attention too.

Many weeks ago, the delightful Stefanie, at Across the Border, handed me the Fair Dinkum award.

Now I need to return suitable abject groveling for tardiness above and beyond the call of duty, and respond to the requirements of said award, namely...

To reveal five things about myself:

1. I seem to be the odd one out in the writing world. Most people I come across in critique forums and blogs have been making up stories since they could say "story arc". But not me. I disliked writing. I excelled at mathematics because it involved no writing. Then one day an idea for a story popped into my head and I started trying to write.

I'm still trying.

Here's the really funny part. I enjoy writing when I know what it is I want to write, but I still have huge difficulty making up stories.

2. I paint and draw as well as write. I've done that since I could hold a pencil.

3. I have lots of favourite foods. Curry, pasta, pizza, bacon sandwiches, maltesers. I love variety.

4. I studied mathematics at Oxford University.

5. My kids drive me crazy half the time, but I couldn't imagine life without them.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Picture this...

I realize I've been a bit slack on the writing tools front. This is the last foray down one of the side roads of logical consistency, all about building your own diagramming tools to help untangle logical and logistical nightmares.

Previous posts in this mini-series:
Helping ze little grey cells
Grow your own
The diagrammer's Lego set

This post asks some of the kinds of questions you might wrestle with in the course of plotting. The idea is to make these diagramming concepts more understandable through examples.

Help! I can't get things in the right order

So, Legless the Elf is battling the loathsome Ballrag. He puts down his sword so he can get out the Emerald of Everlasting Cleanliness. He needs to do this before he can dazzle the Ballrag with the Emerald, and the Ballrag's cry of pain can distract the surrounding hoard of Porks. But the Porks need to be distracted before he can put down his sword for a moment.


These kind of circular dependencies are easily exposed in a network diagram, like I've talked about in previous posts. These diagrams won't tell you how to resolve the dilemma, but they will make it clear where the problem lies and should make it easier to visualise possible solutions.

Could the vicar really get to London to commit the murder and back in time for dinner?

We can get so caught up in the events happening in our story, that we can easily lose track of the time it takes for some things to happen, especially if we have several things going on at once. If you're in this position, you can map out events on a time line so you can see exactly how much time to allow. Where you have more than one sequence of events going on, lay them out alongside each other so you can make sure important points coincide. This is what I did for Ghosts of Innocence...
This approach is also great for keeping backstory straight, except your units of time are more likely to be in years, rather than days or hours. This can help sort out questions like...

How old was Great Aunt Jessica when Crawford Bolger founded the Bolger Cookie Company?


If Captain Throgmorton is eighty-seven in the story, could he really have fought at Gallipoli like he mentioned at dinner on the night of the murder?

Of course, those are easy to answer individually with some very simple mental arithmetic, but once again a diagram comes into its own when things get more complex. If, for example, you are trying to establish the history of the Bolger Cookie Company, whose fortunes are at stake after the dastardly murder, then maybe you need to track the company's history alongside Capt. Throgmorton's wartime escapades and make sure that he really could have been in the right place at the right time to be the father of Uncle Herbert.

Trouble sorting out who is where, at what time?

A lot of mysteries depend on where people are, who else is in the same room together...or passing by the door and ready to overhear the argument between the recently-deceased Lord Pantyhose and his prodigal nephew. If you're faced with this kind of orchestration nightmare then the important features are person, place, and time.

All my earlier examples have put events front and centre in the diagram. A while ago, I promised some examples where other things go into the boxes. Here, I suggest a swimlane diagram where the lanes are assigned to key locations in your setting and the boxes denote people. You can label them with the character's name, but it is also a good idea to colour them so you can easily track a character's movements from place to place. Arrows from one box to the next show when the character is moving around. This can be important if a journey takes a time that would be significant on the scale you are using.


Hold up, did Jeeves know about the missing cruet set when he entered the Flamingo Drawing Room or didn't he?

In a complex plot, it can get tricky to keep track of who knows what at each stage. And knowledge is important in establishing motivations for subsequent actions. Here, I suggest a different swimlane diagram. This uses a swimlane for each character, and plots key events along the other axis. Boxes in swimlanes show which characters were involved, and they show what new knowledge the character gained. This makes it easy to scan back up a swimlane to check what a character knows about at any given moment.
If you have a few very key pieces of knowledge, you can colour-code the boxes where that item is disseminated to help track the spread of information.

A couple of final thoughts...

Firstly, this is not an exhaustive list, just a few illustrations to get you going and thinking for yourselves how to apply the toolkit I introduced last time. There are so many ways to expose the innards of your story, so many variations to play with. Think about what aspect you are grappling with and devise your own tool to show it. See a need, fill a need.

Speaking of needs, the second thought is that your use of tools like this should be driven by need. Not by how cool it looks, and certainly not by feeling you ought to be using it just because venerable author Ivor Booker-Winner happens to use it.

Make sure that what you use works for you.
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