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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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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The Art of Vulnerability

Image credit: “Face Time Canvas 05, 2015”, by Studio Various & Gould

Last November, we talked about the art of self forgiveness, taking ownership over the life-long decisions you make as an artist. Claiming responsibility for most everything that happens to us isn’t an easy task – most notably when doing so bares the ugly truth that we aren’t as golden-gleaming as our delusional mind and memories would like us to believe.

Coming to terms with our own faults and assumptions and seemingly colossal fuck-ups isn’t easy, either. But finding room in our hearts for self forgiveness is one of the single most important lessons we as artists – and human beings – can take away from the universe.

Maybe as a student you once romanticized your chosen industry, and the stress of post-secondary education caused you to abandon your dreams and go into a field that just seemed “easier”.

Maybe as a child you had a grandiose idea that should have reached millions of fans, but now you’re a resentful middle-aged barista, brewing lattes for young purpose-driven millennials, with nothing to show for your rampant imagination but a few dusty-moldy sketch books in a box somewhere in your parents’ basement.

Or maybe a minor disagreement between you and your business partner blew totally out of proportion, and now the dread of dangling bridge ropes haunts you from the other side of a great emotional chasm.

You’ve allowed your heart to recognize the sober realization of your situation, and now it’s time to move on. You want to move on. You want to take control of your situation and try again. But you might feel lost. Afraid that the same mistakes will trip you along the way. You might have a vague idea of what you’re supposed to do, where to go – but the path looks long and winding, dark with uncertainty, and overwhelming.

But you’re not alone. In fact, there are people out there who want to help you – who want to see you succeed. These are our supports. These are our mentors.

Part Two: The Art of Vulnerability

“Learn from everyone. Follow no one. Watch for patterns. Work like hell.”

-Scott McCloud

What do Walt Disney, George Lucas, Stan Lee, J.K. Rowling, and Dr. Dre all have in common?

If you said they were some of the richest people in their industries – well, yeah, you’d be right! But what else? Sure they worked hard, yes, they never let the world beat them into the ground. But steadfast determination can only go so far. Come on, you read the title of the article! You already know the answer!

Vulnerability. Vulnerability to let go of control, to open your heart to those around you who are like-minded and wish to see you succeed.

That’s the key.

It is nigh impossible for anybody to strike success all on their own. Many amateur artists are convinced that the journey of their craft is a lonely one, but by pure nature in and of itself, human beings are social beings. Very rarely does the lone wolf make it on his own. It is through cooperative teamwork that success is born.

As artists, we need a team of people to push our limits and keep us accountable. People who will help us, be they your podunk town’s little painter’s circle, or business associates involved with your influential social media blog. By letting these people into our lives, sharing our work with them, and vice versa, brings not only strategic feedback, but also invaluable perspectives that will broaden your own.

To put it bluntly, you can’t spell “art” without “heart”. Yes, you read that correctly – it wasn’t a punch-drunken typo. Listen, we get so absorbed by our work that it’s easy to miss the obvious (and sometimes glaring) flaws. Your support group is your second pair of eyes. They are the “pre-release” consumer, if that makes sense. The beta market. The test audience. The “DaVinci’s Inquestors”.

It’s downright scary to be so wide open when it comes to sharing our art. Everything we create bears a glowing piece of our souls (like a horcrux!). However, by shutting yourself away, hoarding your art from the world convinced of a “one-man army” mentality is an honest disservice. Your art will not grow, and neither will you.

In conclusion, Dr. Brene Brown says it best: “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen. … Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity.”

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Is My Talent Actually Worth It?

It’s difficult to be a creative person in this day and age, I think. I constantly hear the old phrase, “nothing is original,” and as a struggling creative writer who is always on the lookout for inspiration, it can be quite tough to draw quality ideas. So then when it comes time to sit at my computer, ready and willing to unzip the confines of my imagination, I often find myself instead stuck – scared shitless of contrived drivel, and instead deviate to a relentless Google search on how to organically progress in an unfinished story that doesn’t seem to go anywhere.
And then I begin to doubt myself.

I begin to doubt my ability as a creative writer, and even though my work is mostly praised by those who take the time to read, and I’ve always loved the craft, and have known since I was four years old that the life of a professional author is what God had in store for me from day one, I can’t help but become inundated with a lack of confidence.

Is my talent actually worth it?

Am I actually talented at all?

I’m not the only one who goes through these states of self doubt. Everybody does, not just exclusive to the life of an artist. The world of Western Civilization thrives off of the negative auras of people, and leaves levels of unwarranted self-centredness of my generation twofold: I am too fat. I am not a good enough spouse. I am the worst parent. I’m not good enough to live. I can’t do anything right. I am nothing but a giant disappointment to my family.

And, as an aside, it’s such a terrible shame that amazing resources like counselling and therapy are so stigmatized, and are not available for free. But in the case of the artist, what is it that continues to bury the hatchet into any form of creative accomplishment? Personally speaking, I have a lot of great ideas for novels, but so many of my works go incomplete. Is it because I feel a lack of creativity, or is it because I feel that an invisible audience that isn’t actually there will pick apart my work and call me a talentless hack?

Obviously there is a faulty sense of narcissism there – that I worry and care so much about bullshit opinions about something I haven’t even shared with anybody yet.

Yes, we live in an unfortunate age of relentless, over-analytical nitpicking by a vast majority that has forgotten how to enjoy something for the sheer pleasure of simple, mindless, entertainment. Everything these days must have a theme. Everything must have some deep, philosophical, message. Every ending must have a happy, red, bow around it, with all loose ends addressed.
That is not how life works. And I understand most people look to the entertainment industry for an escape from life. But as a creative writer, I want to take risks. I want to churn the butter of emotion, possibly make a reader yell angrily and throw the book across the room when a favourite character dies without rhyme or reason.

Because that’s how I know I’ve made an impact somehow. Positive or negative, I’ve made an impact that will last with a true audience, for more than a few minutes.

I want to write with a tone of realism, even underneath the cloak of fantastical elements. Life is one big plot hole. When we die, life leaves many loose ends not dealt with, and many questions unanswered.

But the invisible audience – my inner critic – it scoffs, and it objects, and it picks apart, down to the last trivial detail.

Whatever happened to the sheer literary high of immersing oneself in the shoes of the characters we read about? Kids don’t care or worry so much about bullshit subtext. As an eight-year-old, I never read R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps for the sole purpose of picking out themes and references to his favourite 1950s monster movies. From my standpoint, Goosebumps, just like Animorphs, Encyclopedia Brown, The Babysitters Club, etc., were stories written for the pure sake of entertaining a captivated audience. Sure, yes, the inclusion of deeper subtext can make a story that more satisfying in the end (especially upon multiple readings), but I wonder if there is too much emphasis on such a thing these days.

Does the fact that I wish to toss away pretentious ideas such as subtext and interpretation for the sake of the elicitation of a raw, page-turning, emotion from a reader make me a hack?
Or … am I just over-thinking the whole thing?

Many – countless – books are printed each year. Many – countless – books reach the best seller’s list, and many – countless – books are total pieces of white dog shit.

Twilight, Fifty Shades … how are books like these so publishable? What is it that real talentless hacks have that a wide variety of readers want?

Even deeply-revered authors, considered literary masters of their time, such as C.S. Lewis and John Tolkien, (in my opinion) are not really very great at the craft either – but, like Stephanie Meyers and E.L. James, have somehow captured the emotions and imaginations of countless readers.

All right, all right – comparing schlocky, ill-researched bondage erotica and shiny control-freak vampire boyfriends to the religious, high-fantasy sagas of Narnia and Middle-earth is a bit extreme. But the point I’m trying to get across can be summarized in something Stephen King once wrote: “Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.”

Stephen King is one of my greatest influences as an aspiring author – but I would be lying blind if I said he himself was God’s gift to talent agencies. Obviously this is attributed to many debilitating factors in his personal life (drug abuse, alcoholism, and getting hit by a car), and although I don’t agree with all of his opinions, I still deeply respect the man as a hard-working, dedicated, writer. As awful as some of his works are, how can you not respect a guy who is so diligent to the craft, that he is able to easily pump out approximately two full-length manuscripts on an almost annual basis?

Whenever I feel like a total shit about myself, and want to set my word processer on fire, I can always rely on a quote related to writing by Stephen King to drag me up through the muck.

David Eddings is another inspiration of mine, and he is constantly ridiculed by dedicated fantasy readers as a hack. It’s true. After the failure of his first novel, High Hunt, and a string of unpublished works, Eddings walked into a book store and was flabbergasted at the fact that Lord of the Rings was in its twenty-eighth reprint. From that point on, Eddings based his future career in the profit sword and sorcery, as he figured that was what sold most at the time.

Regardless of the nature of which Eddings became a well-read fantasy author, the two things he has taught me about the creative venture of pen-to-paper was the importance of dialogue and character development.

But at 1,533 words and counting, what is the point I am trying to make? That due diligence surpasses the importance of talent and meticulous detail? No matter how much I write on the topic of talent, lack of talent, and people who inspire me … the question of whether or not my own talent – as a writer – is still worth anything sticks like peanut butter to the roof of my mouth.

To shut out my invisible audience – my inner critic – and just write whatever comes to mind with literary abandon is easier said than done. Does that make this my downfall? That I think too hard and act far less?

From the ages of four to thirteen, I wrote and illustrated countless short stories and comic books. From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I wrote a total of five full-length novels. To nobody’s surprise, most, if not all, of the stories I wrote as an adolescent and teenager were total garbage.
But they still matter. They still hold an important place in my growth as a self-published novelist, and I will never, ever, regret their place in my life. For each and every conception, I didn’t care how good or bad the stories were. I found myself deeply involved with the characters and the plots, drawing inspiration from video games and backyard adventures. I enjoyed my craft. And that was what mattered.

As my thirties loom darkly overhead, I feel with each year that passes, inspiration dwindles, and imagination fleets. I am too hung up on structure, on grammar, on finding each which way to avoid the dreaded “ing” and “ly” suffixes … hammered into my head over, and over again by pretentious professors, begrudged editors, and “writers” with nothing to show for it, during my experiences in countless English classes, literary courses, and community writer’s circles.
There is no room for creativity to bloom when one holds himself back by nonsensical rules and regulations of the trade. Rules, as the cliché always goes, are meant to be broken, but I feel they must be broken with intelligent intent.

The first draft is a first draft for a reason. And although I am self aware of the fact that I’m far stronger writer when it comes to revisions … to bash my head wide open over the stress of structuring initial description will be the death of me, and the death of my talent.

It does not matter if I write 1,000 words a day, or 500 words a week. It does not matter what my inner critic says, or what pretentious internet critics say. If I am as dedicated to the life of a progressive writer as I wish to be, that is all that matters, and with that in mind, all I can do is continue to reassure myself and keep the lighter fluid away from the laptop.