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Robin Burks on Character Development

Today’s author is debut novelist Robin Burks, whose novel, Zeus, Inc. began as a Nanovel. I hope you’ll give her a warm welcome and enjoy her thoughts on character development.

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What makes a good character in a story?

Character development is something every writer has to think about. A good character is key in readers enjoying your work and a good character will keep readers coming back for more of what you write. But where to begin when creating a character?

I tend to look at my own personal characters from an actor’s perspective because of my background in theatre. I ask myself about their motivations and I put myself in their shoes and try to react to situations in a way that I would if I were them.

But there’s so much more to character development than just that. As an actor, the character is already formed by the writer. In writing, you have to create that character from scratch and then continue painting on its various personality quirks, moods and physical traits.

So where does that come from?

When I sat down to write Zeus, Inc., I had to ask myself that very question. Initially, my protagonist, Alex Grosjean, was a young woman, fresh out of high school. I wrote three chapters before I realized that I could not relate to her.

After several more attempts, I made Alex older, closer to my own age, and I started adding personality traits that were similar to my own. Perhaps this was cheating, in a way, but I made her an idealized version of myself. And once I started, I found the character easily enough. As I wrote, I put myself in her position and asked myself “What would I do if I were a private detective being hired by my best friend to find her dad?”
And from there, Zeus, Inc., was born.

But I also had to make Alex flawed because in real life, we are all flawed. And reading about someone who is perfect is also rather boring, right? So I had to come up with something in her background that made it difficult for her to take her friend’s case. Alex needed something personal that she had to overcome. I do not entirely remember where the missing girl case in Alex’s history as a police officer came from, but it gave her that much needed thing to overcome.
As an actor, motivation is key, but so also is conflict. And Alex was written with both in mind.

But Alex wasn’t the only character in Zeus, Inc. There were also a host of other characters. Again, I cheated by writing everything from Alex’ perspective (first person), so I wrote those characters as Alex (or myself) saw them. I ended up basing many of them on people I knew or television characters that I had come across. For example, Aleisha Brentwood is based on a relative of mine, someone that I hold very dear to my heart, as Alex did Aleisha.
But I will admit that the handsome and mysterious Pip was an idealized version of a television character I tend to have a major crush on.

The best thing that worked for me with Zeus, Inc., was to write what I know, and that’s exactly what I did. And it’s probably the best advice I could give to other writers. Take things from your own life, people you know or other characters you’ve seen and use that to create your own characters. Picasso famously said that great artists steal, and I believe that’s exactly what he meant. Let the things around you inspire your characters.

Robin Burks is not only a novelist, but also writes for RantGaming.com, Syfy Network’s DVICE.com and as well as her own blogs – FanGirlConfessions.com and Robin-Burks.com. Robin’s first novel, Zeus, Inc., is now available on Smashwords, BN.com, Amazon.com and in the iBookstore. She also occasionally speaks French and loves Doctor Who.

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Exploring Character and Setting at the Same Time

Sometimes, either before you begin a novel or between edits of a novel, you realize you need to learn more about your characters or your world before you can dive into the main story. Although it might be tempting to rush into the story, it pays to do this work so that creating the next draft is less painful. In order to maximize efficiency, I’ve found a way to explore character and setting at the same time.

This doesn’t include research. While learning about your setting always informs what your characters are like and how they react to things based on where they’re from, research rarely leads directly to new realizations about characters.

What does lead to new realizations about characters is free writing. But how do you use free writing to learn about your setting at the same time?

It’s easy. All you have to do is ask your character a simple question about the world, country or city they’re in. Ask them about their neighbourhood. Ask them about their favourite type of food–is it rare where they are or common? Where is it from? Ask them any kind of question you want that has to do with the world around them, and start writing out their answer. Let them inform you about their world. My best scenes have been written when I felt like I was channelling a character and that is your goal here: to channel the character.

This exercise works well to reveal both character and setting because, frankly, the best way to learn about a world–especially one you’re created yourself–is by putting yourself in the shoes of someone who lives there. So, if you’re trying to explore your characters while getting a better understanding your world, try asking your characters one of these questions:

1. What is the biggest festival of the year in your town/city/kingdom?

2. What grows best on the farms near your house?

3. How do you celebrate your gods?

4. What are naming ceremonies like in your town/city/village?

5. Who is the nicest person in town?

6. Who is the meanest person in town?

7. Do any of the local lords have bastard children?

8. How does your town/city/village draw tourists?

9. Who is in charge of your town/city/village?

10. Do you like the person in charge of your town/city/village?

These questions are just a small sample of the hundreds of questions you can ask your characters to find out more about the world you’re writing in and to get used to listening to them and channelling them. Think of it sort of like journalling for your character. As you might use a prompt to work with in your journal–say, ‘my favourite childhood book’–use these questions to work with your characters. You’re bound to make new discoveries along the way and soon you’ll be used to writing in each character’s voice. Best of all, you get to see your world from the eyes of someone who actually lives there.

Introducing Andre Vonstone

Ordinarily I don’t post on Tuesdays, but today is different. Today I’m interviewing Andre Vonstone, main character of Moonshadow’s Guardian, brother of the king of Moonshadow, and a newly minted vampire. Andre was banished from the kingdom about a year ago after trying to kill Cameron Graves, High Priest of the Temple of Ashe. He’s only just returned to Moonshadow, and I am lucky enough to be the first person to interview him since his return.

DLG: Welcome to Dianna’s Writing Den, Andre. Can you tell us a bit about the incident with Cameron Graves that got you banished?

Andre: Do you make a habit of speaking so directly? It might be wise to remember that I can and will kill you if you piss me off.

Then again, I did come here to share my story.

Cameron is a good priest–he performs the last rites without getting teary, he encourages people with warm words and he gives great speeches–but he’s not always a good man. We’ve had a number of disagreements over the years. The night we got into our fight, we’d both been drinking too much. He said that he wanted to marry Elizabeth, my favourite cousin. I lived with her and her parents for several years of my childhood.

I didn’t think anything like that should happen, so I told him it was a bad idea. He wouldn’t lay off of it, and he said some really dirty things about her. I couldn’t help myself. I was drunk. I attacked him.

Either way, he still hasn’t tried to marry Elizabeth, so I got my point across.

DLG: Fascinating. How did you feel about getting banished for this fight?

Andre: Well, I think it’s more than a little stupid. I mean, I know he’s a priest. I know that. And I know I took it too far. But of course, my brother never thought about throwing me in the dungeon. He just threw me out. I certainly didn’t feel any brotherly love. Mostly, it just irritated me. I didn’t mind travelling through Tar’Ig’Vor and the Magi Plains, but I much prefer Moonshadow.

DLG: Is that why you came back?

Andre: Not really. I mean, I was getting sick of travelling. But I could’ve stopped in any town in the Magi Plains and made a life for myself. I thought about it. I didn’t think about staying in Tar’Ig’Vor–the people there aren’t really civilized and they have such a restrictive culture–but I did think about staying in the Plains, making a life for myself.

What brought me back was my son, Calder. He’s the product of a relationship I had with a maid about eight years ago. We were together for about a year, and I even suggested–before she got pregnant–that Jacob allow me to marry her. He said I shouldn’t be marrying a commoner. She got pregnant and she was so angry that I wouldn’t–couldn’t–accept him that she left me.

I kept in touch with her and I always kept watch over my little boy, and I promised him I’d be back for the spring festival. He was the one thing worth risking my life for.

DLG: Wow. What a beautiful story. Now that you’ve been appointed as one of the king’s advisers, what do you plan to do?

Andre: Well, I’d really like to go live in some small town where nobody knows my name in the heart of Moonshadow. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. I’m going to stay here and try to help my brother rule the country. I’ve worked in some… interesting… fields before and I have expertise he might need. Really, it’s a way to stay close to my son, and maybe I can even make the kingdom a better place for him.

DLG: Those sound like pretty honourable goals. It’s been great talking to you, but it appears to me that we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much for joining us.

Today’s interview was part of a blog chain at the Absolute Write Water Cooler. The idea is that each month we do a chain of related posts. This month’s theme was interviews. You can check out the interview before mine here and sometime in the next couple of days you’ll be able to see the next one over at Twilight Asylum. You can find a list of the rest of the participants here.

What to do with Your Dear Diary Project

Now that you’ve finished your Dear Diary Project, there are several things you can do with it. They range from hiding it in a corner in your basement to trying to turn it into something publishable. But before you do anything with the file or manuscript itself, you need to properly extract all the valuable information from it for later use.

Extracting Information for your Dear Diary Project

Now, I don’t know about you, but my character profiles are pretty messy and I usually don’t have much room left on the page by the time I’ve written a Dear Diary Project for that character. So I like to create a fact sheet, which is a simple list of facts about my character. Things like their favourite colour, what kinds of animals they like, and experiences that changed their life that either weren’t important enough to be included in the profile itself or that hadn’t been thought of when you made it.

Reread your Dear Diary Project. Scan it for the things that are most important. Write down all the things you’ve learned about your character over the course of the month.

Once you’ve finished that, take a separate piece of paper and write down any new stories you might have gotten from writing or rereading your Dear Diary Project. Make note of any moments you think it might be important for your character to remember during the main project you’re working on. Pick out ones you might be able to turn into short stories. Write down as much about these ideas as you can, but try not to spend more than fifteen minutes on that.

Now you should be ready to start thinking about what to do with the project itself.

What can I do with my finished product?

There are a few things you can do with your Dear Diary Project. It’s possible that there are a few I haven’t thought of. In fact, writing that sentence I thought of something I’ve never considered before. I’ve created a list of things you should be able to do with your Dear Diary Project. Some are harder than others.

Leave it in a corner in your basement
Or in my case, a corner on my computer. I’ve never done much with my Dear Diary Projects. I’ve posted a few entries on my blog every year, but I’ve never done anything more than take knowledge from my Dear Diary Projects. I’ve thought about doing character blogs and all kinds of exciting things with them. But to be honest, other writing projects and school have always taken priority over transforming my Dear Diary Projects.

You know what? It’s all right if you do the same thing. Having a character’s diary stashed somewhere in your basement or your computer is pretty nifty. The important thing is what you’ve learned from working on your Dear Diary Project. Whatever you do with it, you’ll still have learned something about the process itself–and that was the real goal of this project.

Create a Character Blog
There are these nifty little things called character blogs. I don’t know all the history of them and I can’t tell you who wrote the first one, but I know they’ve existed for a few years now with varying success. Your Dear Diary Project can easily be turned into a character blog. At the very least you’ll want to clean up your grammar and spelling–unless you’re OCD and already have–and make sure that each entry shines, that each one is memorable.

If you want to get serious about character blogging, brainstorm what comes after your Dear Diary Project. Create a proper storyline around the Dear Diary Project. Decide how long–not exactly, but generally–you want to write your character blog for. Then go to great pains to make sure your character’s blog looks good and start putting your work up. You can generate quite a following with a character blog, but it’s a long and painful process. Then again, so is building a following in any kind of writing. If you want to do it enough, you should make it. But if you don’t want it bad enough, it’ll never happen.

Book
There are books made up mostly or sometimes entirely out of diary entries. There are tons of them. Most of them are historical novels set in our world during some particularly interesting part of history. There are also books written entirely in letters, and depending on how you wrote your Dear Diary Projects, transforming them into letters and adding some return mail might not be too hard. You’re going to have to polish the crap out of it though.

I don’t know how much of a market there is for this kind of story in genre fiction. I haven’t read or seen too many fantasy novels in the form of diaries, but I’m sure there is a market available for them. A book like this might do better in the ebook publishing world. It’s easier to find a specific group of readers with the internet and there’s an endless supply of people online. With dedication to your work and lots of revision, I’m sure you’d be able to sell a few copies, maybe a few hundred. With a little bit of luck, you might even be able to sell a few thousand. It might be worth a shot–you just have to decide how important this project is to you.

Screenplay
This is the one I thought of while writing this post. To make it into a script would probably take the most work, because your Dear Diary Project is probably mostly exposition rather than dialogue, and scripts are usually mostly dialogue. There’s more room for exposition in a screenplay than in a stageplay, and you can even take the most important parts and make them into a series of scenes for a screenplay. This is probably the hardest option, but it might just be the most entertaining. I, for one, think my Dear Diary Project would be a better movie than book.

The other thing about turning your Dear Diary Project into a script of either kind is that it’s really hard to start producing a play or movie. You have to do a lot of networking and you have to find funding for it. You have to find people willing to help you out on set, and you need to find actors. There are always lots of people wanting to be actors. It will be hard to turn some of them away, but you’ll only get one for each role. Finding people to help create your set, fund your project and film your movie will be much harder. Maybe even harder than getting a book published.

This is just the beginning of your options. With any luck, you’ll have thought of something I haven’t. Think about your options for a while before you do anything with them. You’ll need to get away from the story for a while before you can edit it anyway. Besides, Nanowrimo’s next month. It’s time to start planning–and I’ll talk to you a bit more about that on Friday.

What are you thinking about doing with your Dear Diary Project?

The End of the Dear Diary Project

Today, September thirtieth, marks the end of this month and with it the end of this year’s Dear Diary Project. Hopefully today you’ll be able to give your Dear Diary Project an ending that will tie it up nicely. If not, don’t worry too much about it–after all, it’s not like your character’s life is ending, so why should their diary? If you have the time, you can even keep going with your Dear Diary Project. I won’t stop you, but I will tell you that now is probably a good time to move on to a new project, and unless you have the time to do both, I’d suggest ending your Dear Diary Project now.

What should you do once you’ve finished your Dear Diary Project? First, give yourself a pat on the back for finishing it. Then join me on Wednesday to talk about how to make the most out of your Dear Diary Project. Start something new–a short story, planning for a new novel, a new blog, whatever strikes your fancy. And don’t forget that it’s October now, and Nanowrimo is right around the corner.

Me, I have to work on Moonshadow’s legal code, but I hope to get a little bit more editing done before November starts. And I’ll be pulling out a binder with notes for a story idea I had last year but which I never ended up writing, blowing the dust off of it, and making sure it’s ready to be my Nanovel.

There are going to be some big changes around here, which I’ll talk more about on Monday, but right now what I can promise you for the next month is information on making the most out of your Dear Diary Project, how to prepare for Nanowrimo, and a couple of writing exercises I hope you’ll find useful. In the meantime, there are a couple questions I’d like to ask you:

What did you like about the Dear Diary Project? What do you think would make it better for next year?

How to End Your Dear Diary Project

Whether or not you planned it, some sort of structure and story arc has probably appeared throughout the course of your Dear Diary Project. With only a few days left in the month, it`s time to start thinking about how you`re going to end your Dear Diary Project and finish your story arc. It`s important to write something which will tie up a couple of loose ends and feel satisfying as an ending to both you and your character.

There are lots of ways to end your Dear Diary Project, and what is most effective depends on you, your character, and what you`ve written so far. You should spend at least a little bit of time during the next few days planning and setting up hints for the end of your Dear Diary Project, whatever that is going to look like.

Here are some ideas for ways to end your Dear Diary Project:

1. A New Journey– Over the last thirty days, I am sure your character has changed, and so have the people around them. It can be surprising how rapidly people change, and how rarely somebody you met a month or two ago is the same person when you meet them again. The changes in your character’s life and psyche can be leading them down a new path at the end of your Dear Diary Project. It may be that your character leaves home now for the first time, or that they choose a career path they’d never really thought about. Whatever it is, the introduction of something completely new will both end the story well and show that the character’s life goes on.

2. A New Friend/Lover– Another interesting way to end your Dear Diary Project is with a meeting. Your character might meet someone new, or they might suddenly realize that a person they’ve never talked to is actually really nice. They might have been waiting for something like this to happen all month, but then again, maybe they haven’t been. Writing down the moment in which they truly gain the new friend or lover, and showing their emotional reaction to it both in the moment and afterwards, also rounds off the story nicely.

3. A Great Loss– We’ve all lost somebody at some point in our lives. Your character is much the same–and if they haven’t lost anyone yet, they’re sure to lose someone eventually. Loss can be a powerful moment in your character’s life, and their reaction to it can show you so much character. As a bonus, this ending gives you extra depth, and an opportunity to let your character really grow. What if they actually stop writing their own diary when you do, because they are so depressed from their loss? It happens to lots of people. We all react to grief differently, and from the point of view of characterization, this is one of the best endings.

4. Something Completely Different– Really, you can end your Dear Diary Project however you want. It’s up to you and your character to find the best ending for your Dear Diary Project. Just make sure that the ending makes sense considering your character and the story you’ve been telling.

Personally, this has been the easiest Dear Diary for me to write, and it will be the easiest to end as well–I decided on the ending more than a week ago. That said, I think it’s also the one I’ve learned the most from. I hope you’ve learned a lot so far. Next week I’m going to talk about how to get the most out of your Dear Diary Project, but in the meantime, enjoy the last few days of your Dear Diary Project.

Have you thought of an ending for your Dear Diary Project yet?

Dear Diary Entry

Today I would like to share with you one of my own Dear Diary Entries, which I hope you will enjoy. My Dear Diary Project is written by Riana, the main character of Moonshadow’s Guardian. At this time she called herself Naomi, and she lived at Home, the gloomy red caverns where demons are sent when they hit puberty and gain access to their powers. She’s just begun swordplay lessons.

Enjoy.

Day Nineteen
Today began with a long run all around the town. I’m slowly getting used to the atmosphere of darkness, what with almost all the stone being black and the gargoyles hanging onto the corners of every building, and the sick, twisted plants growing in the narrow spaces between houses. I still don’t like it, but I’m getting used to it now. The sights don’t horrify me the way they did when I first arrived. Even though it’s only been a couple of months, I feel like I’ve aged a hundred years—I was just a scared little girl when I got here, but now I’m becoming a woman.
A woman who feels like she is always being watched. I swear sometimes I see yellow orbs like eyeballs lurking in the shadows. Sometimes when I’m going to sleep I hear movements outside the door, but if ever I go to check, there is nobody there. The door is thick and wooden and protected by powerful spells—all the doors here are, to keep demons from being killed in the middle of the night. We like to die in a proper fight, around here. But I suspect that the people who are watching me will never actually seek a physical confrontation. If I am to be punished by them, it will be in the official way, and I’ll never get a chance to truly fight for myself. People aren’t really given trials around here. A ‘trial’ around here is really the Family deciding how to punish people they don’t like.

Then again, in the Magi Plains, people don’t usually get trials either. They just get their limbs or titles removed. Sometimes they get banished to some far away place. If it’s somebody really important, or if the crime was really drastic, they might get a trial. The four families don’t like to kill innocents, so if it’s a crime that people are usually executed for, they like to enforce trials. Of course, the judges are all cousins of one of the four families and they usually rule against the poorer party, but at least it’s some kind of trial.

I suppose I shouldn’t be too worried about it. I’m not Merrique’s lover right now, and they won’t actively try to harm me until I am. For now I just need to focus on my training—several hours of repetitive motions, trying to make each one faster than the last one. I’ll fight those battles when I have to.

It’s Tough to be a Writer

Writing isn’t easy. Or perhaps I should say that writing well isn’t easy, even for those of us who have an instinctive grasp of grammar and spelling. Fiction is particularly difficult, because you’re creating new people and giving them new experiences. A good story is something like a tapestry–made up of many different elements and woven for hours upon hours upon hours.

In order to write an amazing book, you need to have a strong setting, strong characters, and a good, non-stereotypical plot. And you’re going to have to rewrite, because you’ll probably realize that your characters aren’t as tough as you thought they were, and your plot’s got holes in it bigger than your windows. And after that, you’re going to have to rewrite again, because on the first two times through you were focusing on the story, not on the words themselves, so you have to tighten it up.

And that’s being generous–odds are that each of these steps will take two or more new drafts of your novel. Ten years isn’t an unreasonable amount of time to spend writing and rewriting your first novel–I’ve already been working on Moonshadow’s Guardian for six, and I expect to spend another year or so on it before I submit it to any publishers.

The scary thing is that once you’ve got a book published, your publishers expect you to be able to have the next one ready for them in a year or two. For the rest of your writing career, publishers will be giving you deadlines, and you will be struggling to meet them while making your work the best it can be. It doesn’t get any easier after you’re published, except that your family and friends will actually start respecting your writing time.

So if you’re struggling to write your Dear Diary Project, slow down. Remember that right now, the only person who really wants you to write is you. Remember that there’s no need to rush into publication. You can’t hurry a book and expect it to turn out well.

You don’t have to be trying to get published to enjoy writing. And sometimes, the desire for publication can make it less enjoyable. Remember that first and foremost, writing is for you. If it’s not enjoyable, it’s not worth it.

So go out, enjoy yourself, and write up some good times.

Staying Motivated When Life Interrupts

The last couple of weeks have marked the beginning of school for many of us. Personally I’m very excited to begin the new school year, knowing that it moves me one step closer to graduation and from there I can begin the rest of my life. I’m also excited because I’ve got some great classes this semester–particularly Aboriginal Studies and Law–but all the excitement in the world doesn’t stop me from catching sick. Which is, unfortunately, what happened to me last week. I spent most of the weekend in bed, so this is a very short post.

Despite my sickness and not getting much done–I managed to forget my school binder at a friend’s house on Friday evening because I was so out of it–I did manage to write a Dear Diary entry each day this weekend. I didn’t do any editing and I did only a little bit of reading, but I managed to accomplish those 250 words of my character’s diary each and every day. I picked 250 as my word goal because it’s not too challenging for me–it still allows me to have time to write other things and to work on my homework–and because it makes the most sense for my character, who would write fairly brief diary entries.

I hope that you’ve picked a similarly easily achievable goal. Just remember each day when you sit down at your computer that you don’t have to write an epic. Your goal isn’t to write a novel this month, and it’s certainly not to drain yourself entirely writing extremely long diary entries. I’ve made the mistake of making the word count goal too high–1, 000 words–for this challenge before, and learned that long winded diary entries don’t really help characterization, they just get boring after a while. Each day is different, but there’s only so much in any given day that’s worth writing about.

Remember that while you are challenging yourself, it’s more important to learn about your character than it is to write x number of words. The goal is to learn a little something about your character each day and to get a little more used to their voice each day. Even if you can only push out one or two paragraphs on any given day, that’s okay. You can still learn something from those one or two paragraphs about your character. And no matter how sick or busy you are, you can always write those one or two paragraphs.

What is the biggest obstacle between you and your writing time?

Journalling Prompt #1

A journal does not need to be simply a recital of facts. Your character’s journal should include facts, some every day things and some unusual events, but it should also include many other things. It’s your character’s space to explore who they are and what they want. Journals can be very therapeutic and can help us all discover ourselves and reach our goals.

Sometimes, when we’re having a hard time, we need to sit down and really think about what’s causing our problems. Not just the surface of it, but what’s really behind it–our own deeper issues. Asking ourselves on paper and then responding honestly can help us reach the heart of the problem and find a solution. Your character might not be the type to do this, but then again, they might be. So I’ve come up with a few basic questions that your character should ask themselves each week, and decided to give you a choice between two every Wednesday. Take each of the questions and modify the pronouns a bit to make them character-specific if you want to write them on the page. If your character isn’t the type to write the question itself on the page, have them writing the entry with that question in mind.

Today’s potential questions are:

What does your character truly want out of life, and what’s stopping them from achieving it?
OR
Does your character get enjoyment out of their life as it is? Why or why not?

And my question for you:

Have you ever journalled your way through a problem?