Monday, 30 January 2012

Defining a character

There are the books that depend on characters and there are the books that depend on plot - some accomplishes both, like the ever fantastic Harry Potter series. But for the beginner, succeeding with even one of those is difficult.

So today, I have decided to talk about characterisation. 

How do we, as readers, define a character? Is it the physical attributes, or is it the personality?

You would probably say both, and sure, that's fine, but I have found that physical attributes doesn't really matter. Why? Because we never really see what a character looks like - we usually define a character by personality, because that is something we see in action.

Take any novel written in first-person viewpoint and you see what I mean. With first-person viewpoint, the ways of finding out what the main character looks like are limited. We can see this person in a mirror, or we can hear the protagonist being described by someone else (although that would sound ridiculous in dialogue). The point is, we may never find out what the main character looks like, but that hardly matters - we know the personality of that character inside and out, and that's all we need.

So how do we create these characters? How do we make them stand out from the crowd? How do we make them so that we don't confuse them with any other character?
Okay, the first thing is to give everyone a distinct name (I know - too basic) - it sounds easy enough, but you would be surprised as to how close some names may sound or look, and giving your characters names that are too similar to each other (like having them all start with the same letter) is often very confusing for the reader! (In other words, don't have an Edmund and an Edward, or a Harvey and a Harry, in the same novel!)

Now, the most difficult thing is to create these characters' distinct personalities.
Just a few hours ago, I played through one of my favourite DS games - Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright - where every character always has very distinct character traits. The game is, as is implied by the title, about the defence attorney Phoenix Wright. And naturally, handling murder cases implies handling a lot of different people: victims, suspects, witnesses, attorneys, and prosecutors. The point is, these people need to be easy to remember, and to relate to.
I'll take a few examples:

We have Phoenix Wright, who strongly believes in justice, and who is constantly made fun of by others because of his good-willed nature.

We have his rival, Prosecutor Miles Edgeworth, who is very proud and self-confident and who, since he decided to become a prosecutor, has been named 'genius'. He is not very good with people, but his heart is in the right place. He is also afraid of earthquakes.

Phoenix's partner, Maya Fey, is a Spirit Channeling Technique apprentice (can talk to the dead) who is always positive, but a bit naive.

To give examples from a more famous source (Harry Potter):

We have Hagrid the good-willed giant; Dumbledore the old, weird genius; Hermione the clever Muggle-born; Snape the wicked guy-you-never-know-which-side-he-is-on, and so on, and so forth.

The point is, you always strive to have approximately 3 distinct character traits for every person in the novel. The less traits, the easier to remember - but the harder to find realistic (so you got to find the balance!). Rowling managed to balance this perfectly, but she also managed to give every character a memorable face. This is tricky, but it's all in the details. Not the usual things, like eye and haircolour, but things like 'dimples' or 'filthy nails' or 'a crooked nose'. It's all in the details!

So now I wonder - how do you establish the traits of your characters? Do you make a list of traits and just choose a few, or are these things decided already when you first come up with the character? 
How much time do you spend on 'getting to know them' before you start writing? 
And how do you decide on their looks? How important are the physical attributes to you?

Friday, 27 January 2012

How to get inspiration and motivation

I have realised that when reading blogs, I appreciate reading things about how other writers 'live their writing lives'. It's especially satisfying if I find that people do things similarly to what I do. It may sound mean, but I love hearing that others face the same problems that I do, if only to realise that I'm not as hopeless a writer that I often think I am. In fact - many writers seem to think that about themselves too. We all have moments of self-doubt. 
"I'm a crappy writer." 
"I will never get anything published." 
"No one would want to read anything I've written."
"This story stinks."
These are all thoughts that bring us writers down, and I know myself how hard these thoughts can be to defeat. 
I still haven't. 
Being a writer is a lifelong struggle for acceptance, but what we must understand is that being unique is not a bad thing - it's just the opposite. Being unique can be hard, but it's also the easiest thing to achieve once you realise that being yourself is all you need. Sure, we all want to write as good as our most praised authors; the ones we admire so much that we read their stories over and over. But trying to sound like them is just a waste of time. The hardest part is to accept this and to walk your own path; sometimes this takes years.
I may have my moments of self-doubt, but I think I have begun to realise that whatever I do, it brings me forward. Be it achievements or mistakes, it will make me a better writer using nothing but my own power.

But I'm getting off topic.
I was going to write about inspiration and motivation. I don't know if I succeeded to do that with my random little speech, so I'll try a different approach - I'll tell you what I do to get inspired to write.

It's widely known amongst writers that sitting around and just waiting for the motivation to come isn't the best idea - in fact, it may be that it never arrives. If you truly love writing, you should grab the opportunity as soon as you have some free time to do so. Actually, you should even make that free time come to you. What with work and school, many people feel like they don't ever have the time to sit down to get anything down on paper (or the computer, as I prefer to do it). It's easier said than done, but make that time happen, or you will never improve.
I seldom get the motivation to write just with a snap of my fingers. Truth be told, I sit and stare at the computer screen, or the wall, or the blank TV screen, and I try to win a mental battle with myself: 
"You should write!" 
"But I'm not in the mood!" 
"Go and write, you idiot!" 
"But I should really do the dishes..."
And eventually....... I do the dishes, okay, you got me.
The point is, don't let that internal voice get to you! He's evil, I tell you! Evil!

Something I've noticed actually gives me the urge to write is simply this: read - or watch - something that you admire, something you wish you had come up with first, something you want your work to become. For me, that are things like Harry Potter, or Twilight, or Disney movies, or The Lord of the Rings, or Narnia... Make yourself truly believe that you are just as capable of creating something like that, and that someday, others will read or watch your work and get inspired by it!

I don't know about you, but this is something that really inspires me, and it motivates me to write.
Once you have that inspiration, don't read anything you have written beforehand! For me, that is a total inspiration-killer! And don't show anything you've written to anyone else, because that's just as murderous!
Just write! Write to your heart's content! It doesn't matter how good the grammar is, or how many holes you have in your plot, or even what you write - just keep going! The first draft isn't going to be perfect - it never is! That's what you have the power to change in the second draft! It's all in your hands! Nothing is crafted in stone, or written on those ancient typewriters, where you can't delete or change it! Make mistakes! Make them time and time again, because every time you do them, you'll learn something and improve!

When you then look back at it in a few months, or years, you may believe it is crap, or you may think it is genius. No one can tell. The point is that you tried, and it was a small step on the way to becoming something much, much greater!