Writerly Notions: Characters & Negativity

One thing I’ve found out about myself, and which is part of why I’ve begun to think that I’m not future-author material, is that I can’t see the appeal of writing about sad or difficult things.

To be a little clearer:  if I’m feeling crummy, why would I want to actualize my dense, dragged-down, twisted, tangled feelings into words? Won’t it just leave me more exhausted and drained and defeated?

Additionally, why would I want to write about characters’ (whom I like) suffering, be it mentally, physically, or emotionally? (Okay, that’s not entirely true; there is a kind of…satisfaction from watching a character go through struggles and change as a result.)

I suppose it’s truer to say that I have a hard time getting why a writer would create characters who do intentionally terrible things.

I can get characters doing what they think is right or characters acting on their own sense of identity and integrity. But that that identity or sense of right would be to compromise the humanity of others…like why? What’s the appeal?

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January Summary

a day late

As part of the Every Day Challenge, instigated by the-cassandra-project, I set up two challenges. The second one, or Challenge #2, focused on Nights of Heroes — revision, outlining, character development. I posted about my progress it every couple days. These posts can be found here at my writing journal.

Other general writing posts can be found here.

My Challenge #1, which was to write 100+ words every day, can be found here (among other material and inspiration related to the story.)

Finally, I made character aesthetics.

Wow, characters sure change

2009

my earliest description of said character

5’7” – Feb 23, 295 [Pisces] – lazy loafer, indifferent to work or effort, good-natured, “the scam-guy”, good with words/lying to influence situations & people, vagabond-atmosphere, sincerely loyal to his friends, sentimental, likes fresh bread, inwardly poetic, adventurous, carefree, devoted, dedicated, polite, the most likely to take time to read or study historical scrolls, “the ordinarily heroic one”

 

2016

Physical: freckles, dusky flyaway hair, wiry to lean muscular, dark brown eyes, light brown skin, prefers not to wear shirts post-surgery, 5’6”

Identity: queer platonic heterosexual trans man*, passionate friendship, poor, no schooling

Personality: clever, idealistic, fatalistically optimistic, easily hopeful but easily crushed, doesn’t think well of himself but smiles easily, wants to make up his mistakes to his mother

*is that even a plausible identity?

The Lord of the Rings

The Fellowship of the Ring

by J. R. R. Tolkien

Chapter 1: A Long-Expected Party

Pg.41-45: “‘But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days he is, and he listens to all of Mr. Bilbo’s tales'” (44).

He does everything wrong as a writer – he introduces characters that are not major characters, he shows and tells, his description is sparse, and he uses “being” verbs. And yet…it works.

For one, he does introduced three vital characters: Frodo and Bilbo Baggins and, to a lesser extent, Samwise Gamgee. What’s striking to me is that he introduces them and explains them through dialogue. And it’s dialogue that tells a lot about hobbits and their history and how they think.

Namely, that they’re very focused on themselves and their own lives. The world at large doesn’t concern them. But the history of the peculiar Bilbo Baggins is definitely worth talking about. Not because any of the characters say so, but because that is literally what they’re talking about.

We learn that hobbits like family history. Which their dialogue makes clear through their questions and the flow of the conversation, but Tolkien adds that “hobbits have a passion for family history, and they were ready to hear it again” (43).  It’s fascinating that he just tells the reader that, even as the action ensures it’s confirmed.

What’s also striking is how little description is included. At least in the conventional sense I’ve always thought of it. For example, I couldn’t quite say what The Ivy Bush looks like other than its “a small inn on the Bywater road” nor what Gaffer or Sandyman or Daddy Twofoot look like, other than generic hobbit (42). But I definitely have a sense of place.

And what’s most compelling is that these first two scenes import a fair amount of backstory – the hobbits view on Bilbo and his adventure, Frodo’s parents and how he came to live in Bag End, and that Sam is on friendly terms with the Bagginses, like his father Gaffer.

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The Horse and His Boy | Characters

from The Chronicles of Narnia

by C. S. Lewis

“‘I say, Aravis, there are going to be a lot of things to get used to in these Northern countries'” (Lewis, 206).

As I said previously:

I happened to find this on my bookshelf while organizing my piles of writing into binders and read it over the weekend. Of the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia, this has always been my favorite. Which is probably why it’s the only one I have with full color illustrations (and which was the specific edition that I read).

The story takes place during “the Golden Age when Peter was High King in Narnia and his brother and two sisters were King and Queens under him” (3). How this happened and who they are is explained in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and their reign (the Golden Age) mentioned.

My main question while reading it was: why did I like it so much, or what made it likable to me? What, if anything, made it stand out against the other Narnian books?

Last time, I discussed how the culture of Calormen is meant to caricature the culture and tone of the 1001 Nights but without Islam, seeing as Calormene worship multiple gods.

In fact when I started reading, I tried to wrap my head around the presentation of the Calormene natives (Bree’s owner and Arsheesh, Shasta’s fisherman father). Both seemed written to be dislikable. And this brought to my mind the idea of characters flaws and how non-white (or non-English coded) characters are portrayed in the story.

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An Angel

THE DRY, DUSTY air billowed in his eyes. Gripping his spear, Tahiq leaned his shoulder into the sand-flecked neck of his horse. His loyal friend nuzzled his hair, pants lifting his flyaway tangled hair. After days riding against the Nehev Desert, man and mount were exhausted. His clothes were soiled by blood and dirt, his scabbard had been lost in the battle, and his saddlebags  — one of them anyway — had been cut from the saddle. But Tahiq had his gold; he and Nieves could return monetarily victorious to Hebran. Just another day and they would be home. Hot water, fresh food, a soft bed. And best of all to Tahiq, his angel Ghadila would be there waiting for him. And that was all he needed to survive through these skirmishes. The memory of his angel.

Written30 July 2014

Word count: 135

Inspireda 1,000+ wd snapshot into these characters’ lives

Inadequete Words

I wish I could express more clearly and eloquently how much this assignment to write a sentence for five aspects of my characters’ lives plus their short and long term conflict has wrecked my desire to work on my story, let alone think about my characters.

I know part of it is my bad habits: terrible focus and procrastination (hello, new trait!). Another part is my vicious despondency, which can make getting simple things done difficult. And another part is my weak characterization. 

So, yes, some of it is stuff I should improve upon. I should get into my characters, think about them as they would. As a writer relative told me yesterday, it’s partly letting the characters manifest. Which is something I have realized recently. Characters have to live. For me, I thought once I had a deep sense of who they were, whereby I had an instinctual idea of how they would respond to events and others, I thought that would be enough. But I don’t think it is. 

There has to be something conflicted or compelling. Characters can’t just be themselves. Something has to be going on with them or for them or you don’t have a story. And knowing when I’ve got a story or a bunch of facts is probably my biggest weakness. 

Finding a Character with Story

I’m supposed to write up five sentences, two additional ones that expand on the first, five contradictory sentences, and two more that expand on those for three characters in my novel. And snowflakes, was it hard. 

I’m starting to think characters are one of my weaknesses. Not imagining their history or personality or what they look like but creating complex stories about them.

For me, writing five sentences felt more like writing facts. In contrast, the examples showed sentences that exposed charater but also sparked interest (not my interest). But the idea seemed to be to experiment and explore the possibilities of what the sentences could mean. 

Like, if I wrote: He had cyclical health in his youth, so his parents could predict when and how he would get sick. There’s not a lot I’m going to deviate from or be curious about. I know what that means. It may shift in my writing of the story. But this character’s history and who and what he is, at the moment, is pretty set in stone. 

I’ve been learning that maybe imagining the various ways events or characters could evolve is what makes stories strong. Well, that, and also the fact that I’m not very good at character stories. And hence, I’m thinking I don’t make good well rounded characters. This is definitely an aspect I’ll need to work on.

I blame this on consuming too many fairy tales, mythology, epics, and folklore. I can read personality into Red, nameless protagonists, Enkidu, Hanuman, Rostam, Antar, Zaynab, etc because of their reactions, sayings, gestures, and mannerisms. Do modern characters work the same way?

Even if they do, I can’t shake the feeling that if I had to write five sentences about Achilles in five aspects of his life (hobbies, romance, religion, job, health, what have you) they wouldn’t be done in the right way. I could think of sentences but, again, they’d be facts not sentences that may be explored for plot or character complexity. 

Nights of Heroes: Character Gender

Please excuse my randomness. If anything I say is inappropriate or misstated, please let me know.

So one morning in the last few weeks I got to thinking: why is one of my central characters transgender? Why not just have him be cisgender?

The plot isn’t heavily about him realizing he is, nor is the plot heavily about his transition. It certainly has undercurrent effects in how other characters relate to him and how society interprets him, along with heroism as expressed in a non-conventional male body. So it has an effect on the character but his story isn’t about it. Does that make sense?

But aside from all that, the main reason I can’t swap his gender is because it would feel wrong for him not to be transgender. It’s just part of who he is. Well, that and having freckles.

Honestly though, he’s one of the most vitally important characters in my writing, so yeah, I’m not gonna mess with who he is. There might not be a good plot reason to keep him transgender, but damn, it’s too much a part of his identity that if I did try to change it, I feel I’d be butchering my own character and that’s cruel.

The Tale of Hill Top Farm

The Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter

by Susan Witting Albert

My mom actually read these before me, and when she told me what they were about — Beatrix Potter, author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and others, where the both the humans and animals talk — I was moderately intrigued. But it wasn’t until one day over two months ago that I picked one of them up on a whim.

There was something about the cover that instantly drew my attention. And it was a really wonderful read. Not because it was the most astounding story I’ve ever read, but because of how it reminded me of myself and certain sentimental values and my integrity as a writer.

At its core, the book reminded me why I wanted to write. Not because of anything Potter wrote about (animals, children books) or how she went about it (sketching, painting), but the mood it evoked. A sense of wanting to combine a love of nature, art, and animals into narrative form. (Although on the note of not-what-she-wrote-about, my earliest story was a picture book with cats.)

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