Emotional Investment: Writing Characters Who Matter

Work on The Quest for the Crystals #2: The Book of Earth is going pretty steadily. The core novel’s been done for a while, since 2014 with a basic rewrite in 2016. I’m ears-deep into further second draft revisions now (yay!) and there’s a lot of fleshing out to do (naaaaay!) in terms of story beats, character development, and overall flow/continuity.

What’s fascinating about this whole process – editing and revising – is just how much the characters are affected. When we discuss good writing, and the classic structure of “The Hero’s Journey”, it’s natural to expect our characters – especially the protagonist – to go through arcs of personal development. They’re different people by the end of the story from who they initially were on page one.

 

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A page out of  the “Book of Earth” section of “The Quest for the Crystals” production log

 

Sure, as a reader, this developmental journey is and should be apparent. It’s expected. All good stories revolve around challenge, struggle, triumph, and failure. All physical things in life are temporary, except for change. Change is constant. But what’s interesting to me as a writer and world-builder is just how much these characters grow and change behind the scenes; how they become different people by the story’s publication from who they initially were in the first draft.

At the risk of coming across patronizing, let me be real. If you’re not an author, writing a book sometimes looks as easy as spitting over a bridge. Coming up with all these great ideas and characters, the flowery sentence structure and (sometimes) perfect dialogue – it’s like we think it up and, snap!, magic happens on the page. A lot of really great authors make it look that easy! And there are some who do pull it off. Lawrence Block, Stephen King, those guys can bang out first drafts like instant Pulitzer winners, and then another three in the same year. It’s crazy amazing. But for the average writer, it’s not that simple.

Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth with a pair of rusty pliers.

Writing relatable, “human”, characters can be a real pain in the ass. Any amateur can write a story about a dystopian future where impoverished kids are forced to kill each other to entertain the rich minority, or a story about a secret magical society where fledgling witches and wizards attend a far-away boarding school of sorcery. But if the characters are flat, speak like they’re completely out of touch with believability, or carry on through the plot without flaw nor obstacle – then, well, no matter how amazing the overall story potential is, the reader is gonna check out and move on to something else hopefully more satisfying. We’ve all done it.

Good stories are made great by fully-fleshed characters. It’s the characters that carry the story, not the other way around. Very rarely does that actually work, and when it does, it’s been achieved in a more visual medium, like film (But that’s a whole other blog post).

I’m what’s called a “pantser”. I write by the seat of my pants. No outline, no story bible, no deep knowledge of who my characters are, or their motives. Just a vague idea, a phoneful of brief notes, and a tall mother fucker of a steeping tea. I generally have the title first. I sort of know where the plot will go and how the story might end. But everything else is up for grabs. Production logs are developed all throughout the drafting/revision process.

If you’re following Regina’s adventures in The Book of Wind over on Wattpad, it’s clear she’s a skunk who’s been dragged through hell to where she currently is – and that journey still isn’t over. Regina is severely flawed in some fundamental psychological ways. She’s sensitive and intrinsically nurturing; she’s got a brilliant mind, and isn’t afraid to voice her opinions —  however, she’s held back by post-traumatic stress. She watched her parents die. Her village burned to the ground. Canines slaughtered her friends and neighbours and Regina was left buried beneath piles of the dead and dying. This all happened her,  a seven-year-old previously sheltered from the dangers of reality, who doesn’t quite understand the world as it truly is. Regina’s fucked up for life.

 

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“Well, you don’t have to be so rude about it.”

 

My biggest struggle writing Regina’s character, however, was getting her to act and respond to the events and environments around her. Things would happen and Regina would react, while the characters standing by would pick up the slack. The world made its decisions for Regina, and she simply went along for the ride, despite how much she protested.

That’s not how a strong protagonist is written, and it’s obviously stated. But at the time, Regina was that way because she was a character struggling to find herself in a world that did her no favours.

She was afraid of change and afraid of standing up for herself. So she became reactionary and stood at the sidelines quivering while the secondary protagonists stole the spotlight out from over her. Yes, in a way Regina’s character was a semi-accurate portrayal of someone who’s never been able to really overcome trauma, and ended up letting it define them. She was passive and afraid, but too afraid to do anything to change her situation.

But Regina is supposed to be the heroine, right?

In retrospect, I feel Regina’s inability to find herself in the world was my own projection of insecurity – what the heck do I do with her?? Every other character felt grounded, going through the motions of their own stories and subplots, and Regina is quite literally dropped into the middle of the overarching narrative. It was like – emptying out a box of jigsaws, nabbing a random piece, and trying to force it into place within an entirely different puzzle board. Even in the initial drafts for Book of Wind, Regina’s story began with her stumbling into someone else’s story. That scene is still in the final book, mind you. It just happens much later.

Regina Lepue wasn’t a fractured skunk who was fully developed, and because of this flaw in writing, The Book of Wind suffered. Beta readers and my editor Jeannette maintained it was still a good book – but without that extra kick – without Regina being forced to make decisions and take action – The Book of Wind fell flat in the places where it needed to take off in order to resonate with readers.

Forcing Regina to step up and take responsibility for herself forced the other characters to meet her halfway and respond, causing a chain reaction that strengthened everyone’s overall personalities and development.

Book of Wind was a novella I wrote and initially e-published in 2012, and subsequent revisions (and drafts including Book of Earth and Book of Water – as well as trying to stay afloat and sane during the final year of college) delayed an updated publication. The “final version” of Wind was supposed to be released in December 2015. Revising Regina’s character (and subsequently adding a number of new scenes and chapters to explore and accommodate her needs and growth) delayed Book of Wind’s publication by another year.

Due to pantsing, I’m kind of a slow writer as it is. I tend to blow through the first draft, and all the really great ideas and jigsaw pieces come together little-by-little during the revision stages. And that takes forever because I’m an over-thinking perfectionist who happens to lack discipline and motivation, and takes constructive criticism and feedback very seriously.

All of Wind’s delays and revisions naturally brought on depression, frustration, resentment – all that fun stuff creative people go through when their WiPs are uncooperative and out to kill them. But the long and daunting slog that was Book of Wind was worth it, because Book of Earth is coming together at a slicker pace.

Because of the extra time and effort, I know the characters better. I have a greater understanding of their personal stories, their motives and desires – who they are and who they are not. I have a greater grasp of the overall plot and the beats the narrative must take in order to get to the end. The characters interact far more naturally than they did in initial drafts, and they carry the plot and unfold new subplots and consequences from their own actions – not because the story needs them to these things.

 

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Artist’s rendition of struggling with delays, circa 2017

 

Lots of folks equate being an author to being godlike – that it’s the author who’s in control of the story at all times. But being an author is more akin to parenthood. As a good parent, you lay the groundwork for your kids, and they hit the ground running, scuffing their knees in the process. You stand by, watching proud and worried as your kids take responsibility for their new lives, carving monumental victories and making damning mistakes along the way. You’re there for your kids when they come back to you needing guidance and advice – when things are dark and start to stall, when everything’s a mess and nothing makes much sense.

And if you’re a good author, you confer with your fellow writers, your beta readers, and your editor, before going back to your kids with the help they’re looking for. Because as parents, we’re too close to the problem at hand. Sometimes we can’t see it from all sides and figure out what our kids really need. Despite the rumours, writing isn’t a solo job. The right advice will set things in motion again, get the wheels back on track.

And when the right advice sticks, we have to step back and let our kids go off to figure out how to use this new information, waiting for the next time they need our help. A good parent guides their children without interfering. Ultimately, this story we give to our kids is theirs alone to tell.

When a good author puts in the extra effort to write good characters, the characters take over. That’s just how it is. Ask any fiction writer, and most of them will tell you the same.

That’s because despite the massive ego trip writing a whole novel or series provides, the truth is it’s the author who’s along for the ride, not the characters. And when an author is impacted by the stories told by their characters – you can be sure the readers who matter will feel emotionally invested the same way.

 

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The Rule of the Playground

Genre: Young Adult | Comic | Comedy |

Kiefer Bloodman is a troubled child. A misfit and social outcast at best, the Rule of the Playground, “survival of the fittest”, has become an ingrained way of life for him. But where lies the balance between “survival” and “schoolyard bully”?

This four-paged character study about childhood societal pressure vs. authentic expression was produced and presented for the online-based course, How to Make a Comic Book, led by artist and mentor, Patrick Yurick (of Making Comics fame).

Click here to start reading.

Art is Pain

Someone I once knew in my old life pushed away friendships that weren’t “emotionally easy”, because she was too afraid to share herself deeper than skin-level. She was quiet and awkward, and intelligent and confident, and caring and angry.

I knew her as well as she’d let me, but at one time I considered her a best friend. We’d met in college and spent the first two years of our friendship getting stoned or drunk and bonding over cheesy ’80s movies, midnight adventures with our dorm-mates out in the campus arboretum, or sitting quietly around her kitchen table, gleefully roasting toothpicks over an open scented candle flame.

She was a person who protected her heart behind sky-cutting walls, but wrote beautiful agony inside her notebooks. Her poems spoke of deep and cryptic musings that flowed from the sorrow of her heart. Death. Love. Hurt. Confusion. Pain.

Very few people were granted access to her poetry. Not even her lovers were allowed inside. Distant and guarded face-to-face, it was clear to me that what she wrote was what helped her heal and to sort things out and try to find perspective in life.

The reason I bring her up now is for the simple fact that she’d come to mind recently.  Thinking of her brought on feelings of pain for myself, grief for what once had been. Thinking of my friend caused me to reflect on my own life up to now, how much pain I’ve faced in thirty-one years. How much pain I’ve run away from in thirty-one years.

Nobody enjoys the experience of pain. Real, heart-wrenching pain.

Loss.

Regret.

Embarrassment.

When given the option, we run from pain like it were a sickness – a common cold, the flu. We mask it with alcohol and drugs, with a bright smile and a gregarious nature – sometimes helping others feel good about themselves. Sometimes, we mask our pain with arrogance, overcompensation in our achievements to attempt to showcase a false perception of emotional perfection, that we have our “shit” together.

Many times, we mask our pain with our credit cards and bank accounts.

We do everything in our power to maintain a fleeting sense of happiness. To not be happy means that there is something wrong with us. That something deep within the woodwork has malfunctioned. And instead of putting on our work gloves and hard hats, ready to search within ourselves to fix the problem, we are expected to be stoic. “Pain is weakness,” people with bravado complexes say. Visual vulnerability within a person is taboo. To be genuine with ourselves is almost blasphemy, invokes feelings of shame and guilt.

But pain is a part of life, as natural as all positive emotion we share on the contrary – even if pain is unpleasant and messy, and sometimes shows us harsh and honest truths we would rather not be privy to.

The fact of the matter is that pain shows us who we really are. If we let it, pain can help us to grow and to help others who are in search for a guiding light.

We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.

~ Brené Brown

As artists, it is our duty to peel away the flesh that keeps all that is safe and secure. Emotion is the birthright of humanity, and our exploration of the deeper self – while in no way an easy task – is what allows us to speak to our audiences. This is because artists are obligated to express themselves honestly. Most of us have something evocative to say, we stand for something that resonates with other people. Therefor, it is our responsibility to speak from a place of soulfulness, worldly experience gleaned from the experience of pain.

Whether or not our audiences realize it, we relate to their pain through our own pain. As my friend displayed, art in and of itself is healing. Music resonates with the teenager going through a world-ending breakup. Television, movies, and video games offer cathartic release to wound up adults after a rough day at the office. Books and comics fuel hungry imaginations, and often inspire change.

Art heals, because art is art is pain – and pain is honesty. This is how some of the greatest works in the world, including our own, are created. [Tweet this!]

I started writing this article out of a sense of pain. Grief has been heavy on my heart over the last year, and thoughts of anger, regret, sadness, and ultimate confusion and loss threw me headlong into a hurricane of wavering depression. Some days I have an all right grasp – others, not so much.

Truth of the matter is, the friend from my old life is no longer my friend. We were too different. Needed different things than what the other was willing to offer or compromise for.

We always said our friendship was the type that “you could go years without speaking, and reconnect like nothing separated us.” I believed that.

But I had to move on.

A lot of mistakes were made on both sides. A lot of regret. It hurts like a son of a bitch, even a year later, but when I’m being honest with myself, I know letting  go and thinking on the good memories was the best decision – for the both of us. I hold no anger. No animosity. She was good to me, the best she could be. I am grateful for what we had.

But it still hurts. A fuck ton. I sat down and started to write this article in an attempt to help aid my pain to heal. And this soon became an article about developing your inner pain into art.

It’s important to do something creative and constructive when you’re feeling emotional. It’s healthy. It’s therapeutic. My friend knew this, and so do many artistic geniuses. What I especially love about this process that I feel like the reins are being given back. The emotions have relinquished their control and something tangible, shareable, is carved and fired into existence.

Our emotions are part of who we are as living, breathing, entities of this universe. When we push away our emotions and try to mask our pain with distraction, nothing is solved. On the contrary, our pain will only manifest deeper within our souls, and over time – if we don’t release it somehow – our bodies and mind will be caught in the crossfire and will pay the price in the end.

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Let your path unfold around you.

Take a deep breath.

Feel the pressure – feel it, deep in your expanding lungs.

Let it rest there awhile.

Know the pressure. Understand the pressure.

Visualize the pressure within the expanse of your lungs as the stress of 2016.

When you are ready, exhale. Let all of your stress built up from this previous year spill from your lips and your nostrils, the invisible force that it is, as your lungs rest back to their natural shape.

Take another deep breath. And this time, pay attention to the muscles in your arms, in your thighs, all of the muscles in your body.

Feel the tenseness – feel it, deep beneath your clothes, beneath your very flesh.

Know the tenseness. Understand the tenseness.

Visualize the tenseness in your muscles the stress of your artistic craft. All of your “shoulds”, all of your “wants”, all of your regrets, and all of your failures.

Exhale, and with your exhalation, feel your muscles relax.

Relax, and know that a brand new slate surrounds you. You can do anything you put your mind to. You can do anything, so long as you put in the effort, and care for yourself in the best way you are capable of.

It is a new year. It is a new now. Self pity does not serve your soul; it serves the ego.

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and let yourself go.

Art. Art is what serves your soul. Art is what drives you. Do not close your heart this day, this month, this year, to the wonders of creativity, to the desire of your artful mind.

It is who you are. It is what you are. So stop reading this, and go make something.

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QUEST FOR THE CRYSTALS Behind the Scenes #1: Sgt. Rudolph Aruto

So, as promised in my last post, I wanted to show off some of the production work that has gone into the creation of my upcoming YA fantasy series. Here’s a sketch I did a while ago of one of the characters, Rudolph Aruto.

Aruto
Aruto is a sergeant within the ranks of “Quest” ‘s in-world army, called “The Alliance”. He is one of four hand-picked platoon commanders sent off to find Elemental Crystals used to keep the planet’s controlled climate state in check. Not going to spoil what the Alliance wants to do with the Crystals – but I can assure you, it’s not for what you think.

I’m really happy with how this piece turned out. Admittedly, Aruto’s design is vaguely inspired by the art of Troy Howell, who illustrated the U.S. publication covers for Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels. I’ve never actually read the Redwall series (on purpose. Don’t want to be unconsciously inspired, out of respect to the legacy of Mr. Jacques), but I was a fan of the cartoon, growing up. I don’t remember much of it, except for some throw away line, “I’ll use your skull for skittles”, which always baffled my 11-year-old self who enjoyed the candy of the same name.

I didn’t want these characters to be “animals with human proportions” which is often seen in the world of “furry fandom”. I really wanted to challenge myself as an artist and work towards allowing the characters to retain as much of their “real-world” attributes and proportions as possible, which is why I researched Howell’s art (and subsequent R.W. fan art on Deviantart).

Overall, I think I did a pretty good job with Aruto. I’m looking forward to drawing him again.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into the novel’s visual-artistic side. If there is anything in particular you as a reader, follower, and fan, would love to see in regards to the “behind the scenes” of Quest for the Crystals, please feel free to drop a request in the comments section. There is plenty of art, history, and inspiration with this series, and I’d love to share.