Tag Archives: characters

Writer vs Author

Last week, I made a solemn vow not to talk about characters again today. And so, despite the fact that Tamara Paulin made a fantastic comment on Anthony Lee Collins’ blog about making sure every character is one that an actor would want to play, I’m not going to talk about characters at all.

Instead, I’m going to revisit the old Writer vs Author question.

This was originally prompted by a post from Emerald Barnes about what you expect from your writing. I said in my comment that I wanted publication, and I wanted to be able to call myself an author. That got me to thinking: What’s the difference between a writer and an author, anyway?

The most obvious definition of a writer is: someone who writes. So it stands to reason that an author is: someone who auths.

Hmmm. Time to consult a dictionary.*

Writer: 1. One who expresses ideas in writing. 2. One whose occupation is writing (such as a journalist of an author).

Author: 1. Someone who writes a novel, poem, essay etc; the composer of a literary work. 2. The originator, beginner or creator of anything.

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that anyone can claim to be a writer, but an author has super-powers, writes at lightning speed, kills bad plot bunnies with nothing but a red pen, and rescues kittens before breakfast. But the dictionary definitions seem to actually reverse those roles: An author is someone who writes, whereas a writer is someone who does so for money.

That’s interesting. But then you have this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche:

The best author will be the one who is ashamed to be a writer.

What does that even mean? No, seriously. If you can unravel the mysteries of that sentence, I’d be most grateful.

According to the dictionary, the fact that I’ve written about a zillion short stories, many bad poems, and the first draft of one novel and part of a second, qualifies me as an author. But somehow… well, it just feels wrong. So how about I examine my own ideas of what turns a writer into an author.

1. An author has written a completed, saleable novel.

Really? Does that mean that short story writers and poets aren’t authors? No, thought not.

2. An author has been published.

Great. I’ve had short stories published. Does that make me an author? No, I’d still feel weird writing ‘author’ as my occupation on an official document.

3. An author has had their novel published.

See number 1. Also, with vanity published being the industry that it is, I could take my first-draft novel and have it published for only a small fee. Does that make me an author?

4. An author has had their novel published through the mysterious process of traditional publishing.

Still go back to number 1. And what about those self-published writers with brilliant books, who created a fabulous product and decided to go the self-pub route for various good reasons? Surely they deserve to be given the title of author. Yes, I thought so.

5. You’re an author when you feel like you’re an author, and not one moment before.

Yep, that seems about right.

 

This hasn’t really cleared up my confusion at all, so I’m calling on the expertise of everyone reading this post. What are your thoughts? When do you qualify as an author? What are some of the super-powers an author has that a writer doesn’t? Which would you prefer to be? And what did Nietzsche mean, anyway?

* Definitions are from the Macquarie Concise Dictionary 3rd Edition

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Crafting Characters – Writing What You Almost Know

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been writing about characterisation. I’ve talked about using an interview process to help craft a personality for your character, and last week I talked about making sure your character has a realistic backstory.

Last week’s article in particular prompted a great deal of discussion, both in the comments of my post, and over at Anthony Lee Collins blog where he wrote a response. I highly recommend heading over and having a read of all the comments there as well. In the end, I believe that we agreed that characters always need to act in character, and they must have a story arc that makes rational sense. However, that story doesn’t necessarily have to be plotted in advance, or even revealed to the reader during the course of the story.

This (probably) last post about crafting characters has been prompted by a discussion at Laura Stanfill’s blog, about writing what you don’t know.

“Write what you know” is one of those phrases you hear all the time. It’s often interpreted to mean that you should only write about places, events, and situations that you’ve experienced. But there are many areas of writing where that interpretation is not only limiting, it’s completely impractical. If writers only wrote about things they knew from experience, there would be a lot less crime fiction out there, for one thing. Or a lot more serial-killing authors. Take your pick. I won’t even go into the difficulties inherent in writing sci-fi and fantasy. (Although, on the positive side, there would be no Twilight…)

When it comes to writing characters, you’ll definitely be writing what you don’t know. And that’s okay. You don’t need to have been a cop to write a police procedural. You don’t need to know how to dance to write about a ballet company. You don’t need to have pointy ears to write about an elf. You just need to do your research.

But there’s one thing you do need to know, and that’s the emotional state you’re writing about. You you need to have something to draw upon and extrapolate. If the emotions of your character don’t seem real, it’s hard for a reader to believe that anything else is real.

You don’t have to experience the same events as your character, but you do need to channel the right emotion. Most of us can find emotional correlations in our own lives if we try hard enough. (And if you can’t, maybe it’s not an emotion you should be writing about. Have you ever gone back to read some of your “highly emotional” writing from when you were a pre-teen? Point proved.)

For example:

A serial killer is on the loose, and your character thinks he may have killed her parents. Cast your mind back to that time you got lost in the shopping centre when you were 7, and you thought you were never going to see your parents again. Remember how SCARED you felt.

Your character has to betray one trust to keep another. Cast your mind back to that time you stole a pack of gum to impress your friends, and then lay awake in bed that night thinking about it. Remember how GUILTY you felt.

A tidbit of information falls into your character’s lap and she desperately wants to investigate, even though she knows it’s dangerous. Cast your mind back to when you were a child looking at the gifts under the Christmas tree, and all you wanted in the world was to take a peek inside and find out what they were. Remember how CURIOUS you felt.

You’ll have your own memories to draw upon. Usually we do it automatically when we’re writing, without even thinking about where we get the inspiration to write about grief, pain, heartache, excitement, or surprise. But if you’re having trouble describing the emotional state of your character, try doing this exercise consciously.

Do you use this method? What other ideas do you have to get your characters in the mood?

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Fictional Characters I Wanted to be When I Grew Up

Back when you were 10-13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up? If you’re anything like me, you were heavily influenced by a series of fictional characters. So I got to wondering: Did I grew up to be like any of my fictional role models? 

Here are the Top 5 Fictional Characters I wanted to be when I grew up, listed in chronological order of influence.

Jupiter Jones – Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators Series, created by Robert Arthur

Jupiter Jones is the self-proclaimed leader of the Three Investigators. He’s invariably the one to solve the mystery, although the Pete and Bob often bring him clues. Jupe is a supreme logician, and uses Occam’s Razor to solve mysteries: the simplest and most rational explanation should be preferred to an explanation which requires additional assumptions. He’s a prolific reader, an inventor, and an occasional practical joker. He also delights in using big words to annoy his friends and bamboozle adults.

Neil Perry – Dead Poet’s Society

Neil Perry, for those of you who don’t remember (I’m assuming at this point that there’s nobody in the developed world who hasn’t seen this movie) is the sensitive, poetry-loving, would-be-actor who first decides to reconvene the Dead Poet’s Society, and then auditions for (and gets) the role of Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He’s passionate in a way that I could barely even imagine at age 13. I wanted to feel that passion and love-of-life so desperately. I wanted to break free of the expectations placed on me by my parents, and live the life I chose, if only for an evening. But preferably without the suicide.

Ford Prefect – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Ford Prefect is the one who saves Arthur Dent from Earth before it’s destroyed. He’s the one who provides Arthur with all the relevant information through the story. He’s mostly there to serve a purpose. But I just love him. Why? Because his personal mission in life is to find a good party and get incredibly drunk. He is, at heart, selfish, self-centred, and narcissistic. And when he’s bored, he delights in annoying the people around him. And getting drunk. Because of this, he keeps himself largely obligation-free, and deals with new and unusual situations with all the ease of a well-travelled hoopy frood.

Inigo Montoya – The Princess Bride

“Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

If you just read that in a bad spanish accent (even in your head), then you know the strong appeal of Inigo Montoya. He’s trained his entire life to avenge his father’s death. He’s focused, dedicated, passionate, and completely obsessed with fulfilling his life’s work — finding and killing Count Rugen — and nothing else can side-track him for long. Plus, he’s a legend with a sword.

Silk (Prince Kheldar) – The Belgariad by David Eddings

Silk is open and honest about what he is — a thief, a liar, and a sometime con-man. But whatever you do, don’t call him a “sneak”. He usually comes across as sardonic, quick-witted, self-confidant and cynical, and can turn almost any situation to his advantage. But every now and then (especially when he’s been drinking), his mask slips and he reveals himself to be a deeply troubled and often insecure man. He was the first to teach Garion the thieves cant, and willingly took up a role as the boy’s teacher. But he also has a habit of making sarcastic and outrageous comments just to irritate the asker. He’s an old-school ‘thief with a heart of gold’.

(As a note, I specifically tried to remember female characters that I’d aspired to be like, but I couldn’t come up with a single one. Perhaps that’s a commentary on my personality, or perhaps it’s just a commentary of the types of female characters that were around in the late 80s.)

Well, I can assure you that I’m not the leader of a PI firm, a potentially suicidal actor, a “really together” party animal, a swordswoman, or a good-hearted thief. On the other hand, I am:

  • prone to believing that the proper application of logic can solve any problem.
  • passionate about my writing and willing to fight for my right to do it, regardless of the expectations of others.
  • likely to resort to annoying people when I’m bored.
  • goal-oriented, focused and dedicated to achieving anything I set my mind to.
  • alternately described as being cynical and sarcastic, or a great teacher and leader.

So maybe I learned something from them after all.

Who did you want to grow up to be like when you were that age?

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Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?

Last week I talked about the importance of having authentic characters, and shared an example of how to interview characters to get a better understanding of their personalities. I’ll continue talking about crafting characters this week, but this time from the perspective of a character’s backstory.

Much like real people, characters don’t spring fully formed out of the ether as heroes, villains, or something in between. There’s a reason they have the personalities that they do. For example:

Was your hero an underpriveleged child? Was his beloved father a cop? Did his horrible aunt and uncle force him to live in a cupboard?

Was your villain tormented as a child? Was he a spoiled rich kid? Was his innocent father shot by a crooked cop? Was his father a villain?

These are important details to know, and it can be worth writing a brief summary of your character’s life before you start writing. That way you can also make sure that it doesn’t end up like this:

  • Bob grew up with loving parents. He had 3 siblings – all sisters, and all older than him. He was always his mother’s “little boy” and was spoiled by her and his sisters for most of his childhood. He had a great relationship with his father, and they spent a lot of time fishing and throwing a football around.
  • It was really hard for Bob to leave his family home and go off to college, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. He spent every break with his parents, and one or another of his sisters would often visit as well.
  • When Bob graduated, he went to work at a law firm, and was incredibly successful.
  • Bob decided to become a serial killer, and started hunting down and killing prostitutes.

Hands up if you think that makes sense.

Hands up if you think it’s ridiculous.

You don’t need a degree in psychology to understand that a well-adjusted guy with a Supportive family, no childhood trauma, and great prospects is highly unlikely to turn into a serial killer for no reason. (Please don’t give me real life examples of where this has happened. Real life doesn’t have to make sense – fiction does.)  If you were writing this summary of Bob’s life, no doubt you’d either change some of the details of his upbringing, or add an instigating event that triggered this psychopathic/sociopathic behaviour.

On the other hand, have you ever read or written a story where the story/character arc goes something like this:

  • A serial killer is targeting prostitutes. The cops/FBI/PI/random hero has a limited amount of time to figure out whodunnit and stop the next murder.
  • Clues left at the murder scenes lead the investigators to believe that the crimes are being committed by someone with a background in law. Further investigation leads the investigators to realise that each of the killings happens in the 24 hours after a prominent criminal lawyer (Bob) loses a case. And he’s just lost another one.
  • They investigate Bob, and he goes into hiding. The investigators know that, despite the danger, he’ll kill again. (That’s what serial killers do.)
  • The investigators talk to Bob’s family, who tell them Bob was a normal kid who loved his sisters, and played football with his father. They’re horrified to think that he could be involved in the killings, and try to convince the investigators of his innocence.
  • The investigators eventually track Bob down and catch him just in time – while he’s torturing his latest victim. They manage to save the girl, but have to shoot Bob in the process. He dies crying for his mother, which is even more poignant/disturbing when juxtaposed with the near-dead body of the prostitute.

This seems like a fairly reasonable (if cliche) crime story, but the question remains: Why did Bob turn into a serial killer? And why prostitutes?

Even if you don’t explain the reasons why your hero is a hero, or your villain is a villain, make sure you know what they are. No one does anything without a motive, and everyone eventually asks, “Where did I come from?” Don’t let poor Bob take the fall without an explanation.

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Crafting Characters – The Interview

One of the most important (and often hardest) things to do as a writer is to create a cast of believable, 3-dimensional characters. Without characters that a reader can relate to and enjoy, your novel is never going to work. You could have an amazing plot, dramatic conflict, an awe-inspiring world, and a unique voice, but without real characters to populate your work, you may as well not bother.

So, how do you craft a believable character?

  • Choose the right name.
  • Create a personality.
  • Give him/her a face.
  • Provide him/her with a problem or choice during the course of the story.
  • Let him/her grow and change.

In this post, I’m specifically dealing with the second point: creating a personality.

While there are many ways to do this, a method that’s often worked for me is to sit and do an interview with my character. Not only does this provide me with a lot of information about the character’s life, values, and background, it can also let me see his/her attitude and demeanour.

So how do you interview a character?

Start with a series of questions. The ones I use are in bold below, but you’re welcome to make up your own if these don’t suit, or if you can think of better/more interesting ones. But it’s not enough to just answer the questions.

Think about an interview with a real person. The way they speak, their expression, their body language – all of these things tell you just as much about them as the actual words they say. So from here, I sit down and write out the interview as a short story. I’ll give you a couple of examples. These are the two main characters from my previous novel.

Marcus is sitting in the back corner of the tavern. He’s wearing a hooded cloak, with the hood drawn closely about his face. He’s clearly trying to be inconspicuous, but in a place like this, his clothing actually draws more attention to him than if he’d been dancing on the tables. He smiles as I approach and offers me a seat.

“Thanks,” I say. “Are you ready to get started?”

“Sure,” Marcus says. He seems happy to see me, and to be taking part in the interview.

“Do you like your job?” I ask.

He smiles again, this time in wry amusement, although I get the impression that it’s directed at himself rather than at me. “I don’t really have a job,” he says. Then he adds, “Unless you consider being a trainee thief a job. In which case, I’m not very good at it, but I do like it.”

“Do you have any friends or significant others?”

He’s still smiling, but his eyes look sad at this question. “Yes,” he says more quietly. “Raven. He’s been my friend for a long time.” He looks around the room, as though searching for his friend, and then looks disappointed to find that Raven hasn’t miraculously materialised.

“What is your idea of success?”

It takes him a moment to answer this, as though his mind was still on the previous question Finally, he says flippantly, “Being alive at the end of the day?”

“What do you hate?”

“I don’t hate anything,” he answer quickly. “I mean, what is there worth hating? Hate doesn’t change anything.”

“What do you do in your spare time?” I ask.

He grins again as he answers, “Practice. I don’t like falling off roofs.”

“What did you have for breakfast?”

Still grinning, he answers, “This morning? Let’s see…” he pauses to think about it for a moment. “Smoked ham, kippers, bacon, quail eggs, blue cheese, peaches, and bread. Oh, and coffee, of course.”

“Did you ever have a pet?”

He shakes his head with a laugh. “A pet? What would I do with a pet? I had a companion for a while as a boy, but he was sent away when I got too attached to him.”

“Do you believe in luck?” I ask.

“Of course!” he answers. “If Raven hadn’t rescued me when I fell off that roof…” he trails off, and the haunted look returns to his eyes briefly. Then he finishes, “Well, it would have been bad.”

“What is your favourite scent?”

He smiles, clearly recalling a particular fragrance. For the first time, he hesitates considerably before answering, “I don’t know.” He’s a very bad liar.

“What is the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?”

“Strange?” he repeats, his easy grin returning. “What do you mean by ‘strange’? I once saw a dog being chased by a cat. Does that count?”

“What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?”

He shrugs. “Besides falling off a roof?” He grins to himself for a moment, and then his expression grows more serious, and his eyes unfocus as though he’s looking at something far, far away. “I remember being told the prophecy when I was seven. And I remember my father sitting me down when I was 13 and explaining that I would be killed on my twenty-first birthday so that my brother can be the greatest king Wysteria has ever had.” He pauses and focuses back on me. “But that was over seven years ago, and I don’t really think about it anymore.”

His good mood is gone, and he scans the crowd again as though looking for someone. Then he looks back to me, and his toe is polite when he says, “Was that everything?”

I leave him where I found him, but now his mood matches his cloak, and the patrons of the tavern look more inclined to leave him alone.

 

Raven isn’t there when I arrive, so I make myself comfortable at a table. He walks into the tavern just as I take my first swig of ale. He spots me and heads over. He doesn’t wave or smile. He doesn’t look like he wants to be there. When he reaches the table, he adjusts his chair so that he can see the entrance while he’s talking to me. “Let’s do this,” he says. He’s obviously here under protest, and I wonder who convinced him to come.

“Thanks for coming,” I say. “Do you like your job?”

He looks at me steadily. “Do you even know what my job is?” he asks. When I don’t answer, he continues, “I don’t like being a tinker. Or working for mages. Sometimes I like being a thief. Happy?”

“Do you have any friends or significant others?”

Again, the steady look. “Yes,” he says simply. When I don’t immediately go on, he adds, “Who they are is none of your business.”

What is your idea of success?”

“Success?” he repeats, his eyes narrowing a little. “I came here,” he waves his hand to indicate the city around us rather than this particular tavern, “to be a mage. Little did I know that you can’t do that if you don’t have the right breeding and the right money. So now I make a living as a tinker and a thief. Does that sound like success to you?” He frowns and shakes his head. “It used to be that my idea of success would have been to make it into one of the mage towers. Now,” he shrugs. “I guess my idea of success is being able to afford to buy enough drinks to forget what I used to want.”

“What do you hate?”

“Mages,” he says simply, with no hesitation. “And nobles. Especially royalty.”

“What do you do in your spare time?”

He laughs bitterly. “Spare time? Only the nobility have spare time, and they mostly spend it sleeping with other people’s wives. People like me don’t have spare time.”

“What did you have for breakfast?”

“Ale,” he says, his eyes challenging me to make something of it.

“Did you ever have a pet?”

He smiles, and this time it seems to be genuine. “Yeah, when I was a kid I had a puppy. It used to follow me around everywhere. I loved it so much.” His face hardens. “But it died.” He doesn’t provide an explanation, and I’m not game to ask.

“Do you believe in luck?”

“No.”

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because if I did,” he says, peering towards the bar and signalling to one of the wenches to bring him a drink, “then I’d have to admit to being the unluckiest man to have ever lived.”

“What is your favourite scent?”

He smiles a little as he answers, “Lavender.” He doesn’t explain further.

“What is the strangest thing you have ever seen?”

Raven shrugs and rolls his eyes. “I don’t even know where to start. The dregs are pretty strange. So are the mage towers. So is the street after three-night bender.”

“What is the most frightening thing that has ever happened to you?” I ask.

The girl brings over his drink, and Raven pays for it and then downs in one long swallow. Then he looks back to me. “We’re done,” he says simply. Then he stands and heads for the door. I won’t be getting the answer to my last question.

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