Soul Searching for Character Development

One thing I’ve learned over the past several weeks is that life is full of surprises, excitements, and disappointments.  Sometimes life seems dull, but others it’s like an emotional roller coaster.  Those moments, the tough ones, the emotional ones, are an invaluable source of inspiration for your novel, in particular: character development.

I’m now several drafts into my novel, and looking back over my previous drafts I can see the stages my thought process went through, beginning with action scenes and quick dialogue to get to the next action sequence and move the story along.  Stage 2 added a little more thought provoking dialogue, a little more backstory to help the reader understand why these action scenes were taking place and to give a little more substance to the wider story arc.  Stage 3 was about tying up loose ends, embellishing certain scenes, smoothing out some rough edges and cutting out some redundancy.  In these 3 stages though, the most fundamental aspect of a reader’s experience was missing or sorely lacking: character development.  Sure, my characters did and said things and the reader usually knew why, but the feelings described were hollow or non-existent.  They didn’t feel real.  The human bond of emotional connection was missing between the reader and the character.

Character development truly makes or breaks a novel, and it can be tricky trying to figure out how to do it successfully.  Loss, grief, fear, anxiety, love, desire, hatred, thrill:  Real emotions which derive from real experiences and real relationships are paramount to character development.  But MJ Pankey, you say, my character did experience loss, his best friend was just badly wounded in front of him!  But as you read that scene, do you feel like your best friend was just badly wounded in front of you?  Tap into your inner psychologist, and tell me what that really feels like.

The emotional struggles make us who we are as individuals.  How we process those emotions, work through them, and overcome them is how we can connect with one another as human beings, and it’s also how we can connect and invest in fictional characters, even if their experiences aren’t real.

Every character who is important to a novel needs this internal struggle.  While my heroine can’t necessarily experience being offered an amazing job and then it falling through a week later in exactly the same way (being a fantasy novel kind of messes that up), I can still incorporate the familiar feelings of excitement and hope for the future, and then the following disappointment when it does not go according to plan.  I know what that feels like, and I can give that to my character.

Describing the internal conflict as actions happen and as scenes unfold is what character development means.  How does this character become better by these experiences, by these scenes, how does this event impact them now to have such a marked influence on a future thought or action?  And the best way to figure that out and get it on paper is to dig deep into your own experiences and describe how you feel/felt/would feel in a similar circumstance, and how did it change your expectations/circumstances/behaviors/beliefs moving forward?

To recap, a story is more than just events, places, things, and actions, it’s about people; real experiences, real emotions, and the kindred connection that a reader has with the character.  To create character development in your novel, you need to do some serious soul searching from your own life experiences.  When was a time you felt embarrassed?  Describe it, give it to your character.  When was a time you felt betrayed by someone?  Describe it, give it to your character.  You get the idea.

So if your novel is lacking some depth, look deep.  Dig up the emotional moments and give your characters a small piece of yourself.  Show your readers the raw humanity we all share between us as a species, and bring your characters to life.

Happy writing!

 

Treading the line between Inspiration and Plagiarism

Every writer is inspired by another’s creativity, it’s just inevitable, yet everyone wants to have an original thought or idea, and no one wants to plagiarize, unless they are specifically writing fanfiction, but even that, as E.L. James has proven with her Fifty Shades series, originally a Twilight fanfiction, can be considered original enough with the proper tweaks.

For the record, the formal definition of plagiarism according to google dictionary is as follows:

“the practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”

That’s pretty vague and the line separating inspiration and plagiarism is fuzzy at best.  Obviously everyone has their own ideas and concerns about the line, and I can’t tell you how many times I have read a book and thought that it reminded me of another book, or that certain descriptions or names sounded really familiar to others in similar genres, as I’m sure you have too.  Is that plagiarism?

Well, I’m going to go through a few tips I use when I draw inspiration from other authors, and how I ensure that I don’t cross that line into plagiarism or some other muddled sibling.  And I’ll do it with an example.

One of the main sources of frustration I’ve personally encountered with my novel Isle of Elandia is writing battle scenes.  So, I decided to listen to an audiobook of the Iliad since it is one entire battle and one of the greatest books ever.

The Iliad is written so that the characters have unique personalities, the battle is expertly choreographed and visual, and it’s very heavy on the gore and details, I can fully immerse myself in the battle for Troy and that’s what I want in my own book!  So how can I do that without plagiarizing?

Firstly, it’s important to recognize the differences between my novel and the Iliad, and every author needs to understand the same when they are drawing inspiration from another author.  For my own part, I don’t really want to drag out the battle scene, especially after several authors in my critique group say they skip battles that drag on and on, even when reading their favorite authors or series.  Obviously this point alone will make it a challenge to plagiarize, since a book length battle such as the Iliad is already far different than a mere chapter.

That’s honestly the biggest tip, recognize the differences between your novel and your favorite author’s.

Rather than copy battle verbiage or incorporate similar specifics, which would be very out of place in my novel in addition to plagiarism, zeroing in on methods the author used to draw in the reader and further the plot is an effective way to draw inspiration.  For example, at one point in the Iliad, the Trojans focus their attack on one part of the wall guarding the Greeks’ ships, which not only added strategy into the battle but also furthered the plot, since once the wall came down it introduced a whole new plethora of emotions, battles, and hero clashes, and it focused the heroes on an attainable goal for a short period.

The inspiration that can be drawn here in my own battle scene is to focus my heroes on a goal within the overall battle, such as sinking a particular warship, destroying a battering ram before it breaks down the gate, or some other strategic sabotage that will introduce areas where I can expand character development, further along my unique plot, and keep my readers’ interest.  My one battle scene is a scene, not a book, and because of this fact, adding extra details, gore, and lengthy descriptions of individual fights –while that drew me into the Iliad and made me feel like I was on the battlefield– it just will not work for my story because the purpose of my book is not to glorify war, and neither is my battle scene.  My battle scene’s goal is just to destroy this warship.

Sidebar:  I think too often authors try to describe too much in scenes, and some of it is more fluff than plot thickening and is due in part to trying to replicate another author’s ideas to accomplish the same affect and achieve the same success.  However, due to the fundamental differences between the two novels, it doesn’t have the same affect on your novel, and it’s borderline plagiarism and will lose your reader.  So again, recognize the differences, capitalize on them, and expand them in your novel.

So to summarize, plagiarism and inspiration can sometimes seem like a fine line.  But the first step to defining that line is to recognize the differences between your novel and the one you are drawing inspiration from.  Once you do, capitalize on those differences throughout your book.  Analyze the methods your favorite author used to keep your interest rather than replicating exactly how they did it.  Avoid sharing specifics in common, and avoid adding in extra details that don’t further along your plot.  Just because it worked for them, doesn’t mean it will work for you, and most likely it won’t.

If you find that there aren’t that many differences to capitalize on or that they are so minor (like only names or colors) that they can be overlooked, then it may be time to re-evaluate your novel.

Best of luck writing!

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No Zero Days – The Key to Finishing Your Novel

I was speaking with an associate recently about motivation, finding time, and just making progress on a goal, and he shared a technique with me that is helping him achieve what he wants.

For myself, this goal would be finishing my novel, Isle of Elandia.  Chapter 3 is complete, and now that the new school semester has started I have not been able to find much time to even open my Scrivener to begin chapter 4.  It’s not that I don’t know what happens in chapter 4, I just can’t seem to put aside enough time during the day that I think will be beneficial enough to make a dent in it.  After speaking with my colleague though, I’ve realized that I may have the wrong mindset about what it takes to make progress.

What I’ve realized is there will always be something more important than my novel, such as: working, my child, dishes, yard work, laundry, a shower, walking the dog.  The list of things that take priority over novel writing is endless, and that list will never shorten because they’re ongoing tasks.  Until I retire, my child goes off to college, global warming destroys all vegetation, I join a nudist colony, my dog goes to the eternal rabbit fields, and I buy into the idea that the bacteria on my skin cleanses me, I will never have free time to write my novel.  And isn’t this the truth for all of us who haven’t written a word in ages but always plan to?

So back to my associate.  He told me about this concept of “No Zero Days”.  It’s premise is simple, don’t go a day where you make zero progress towards your goal.  You don’t have to devote an hour or two hours to it, and you don’t necessarily have to not do something else critical in order to accomplish it because the concept of No Zero doesn’t have a time limit, it’s just do something.  It can be a thought, a sentence, a detail of a landscape setting, a unique marking on a character, or something as simple as deciding how many chapters to have in your book.  Too often we set lofty goals for progress, (this week I’ll finish a scene!  …yea right) and become overwhelmed by how much effort or time it will take to complete it, so we put it off “until I have time.”

In contrast, there is no overwhelming goal with No Zero Days.  And even the busiest of us must admit that there are periods throughout the day where we are inevitably forced to do nothing, and which could be transformed into No Zero Day time.  One great example is going to the restroom.  We all have to do that every single day, and there is literally nothing else to occupy your time doing it besides thinking, so put those moments to use.  Think about your novel, iron out a plot detail, and make it a No Zero Day.

To help keep track and make this a visual goal, print out a calendar sheet and tack it up somewhere that you will see it throughout the day to help remind you to take a moment and think about your novel.  Maybe, just maybe, you might surprise yourself and find a few minutes while waiting in line for your coffee to jot down a scene, or a dialogue, or resolve a key plot hole or piece of character backstory.

There are tons of calendars out there on Google images for free.  Or if you don’t have a printer at home, set a daily reminder on your phone’s google calendar.  Not close to paper or pen or your laptop?  I bet your cellphone is handy though! Use the memo feature to record your progress.

The main point I’m making is this:  Progress doesn’t have to be big, it can be small, but it needs to be progress or else that novel won’t get written.

There are many great writers who have employed a similar technique and were successful at completing many novels.  One writer that comes to mind right away is J.R.R Tolkien.  I don’t know if he called it No Zero Days, but he was no stranger to making small amounts of progress at a time.  His The Hobbit  began while he was grading a student paper.  He took one moment to collect his thoughts and came up with the sentence “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” that blossomed into the tale we know and love today.  That didn’t take an hour or two hours, and he didn’t even set aside a special time for writing, he just took a moment and made it a No Zero Day.

So, if you’re serious about completing your novel, then you have to start, and you have to do.  Forget about carving out time because most likely it’s not going to happen.  So don’t worry about making time, make progress, even if it’s just a one liner that you think about in between grading papers, answering phones, typing emails, walking the dog, or taking a dump.  Just make today a No Zero Day.

 

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