Six More Prompts to Develop Your Characters: Employment

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Most characters in most settings have to make a living somehow, which generally means they’ve got a job. How important that job is or isn’t to the story is going to depend on the story, but if we’re spending a lot of point-of-view time with that character, we’re likely to see them on the job; even if we don’t, what their work is should have some kind of tangible impact on who they are. I can’t count the number of romances I’ve read where one or both of the leads has a profession but is never seen at work and never mentions it; or they work in such a generic office setting doing such generic tasks (if anything) that I have no idea what the company they work for actually does. And while I’m most familiar with the romance genre, that’s not the only culprit–how many movies have I seen over the years where I couldn’t tell you, after the movie ends, what any of the characters did for a living, despite being set in modern day, with adult characters?

(I can’t find the source again, but years ago I saw a quote about how, for a while, everyone in the movies was an ad executive, because it meant they made good money but had little responsibility. The implication being, they could do whatever or be wherever the plot needed them to do or be, and also, it was blanket permission to be smarmy, like you’d expect a Hollywood ad executive character to be. I really, really wish I remember the quote better so I could find it again and credit it properly.)

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve just seen a fantastic example of characters with jobs that matter: Steve and Robin slinging ice cream at the mall in Stranger Things 3. Steve needs the job because he’s not going to college. Robin’s reasons aren’t as clearly articulated, but it’s not unusual for kids to have summer jobs, so we can roll with that. Where they work places them both in a position to be involved with the plot as the season unfolds. Same for Nancy and Jonathan interning at the newspaper.

So, with all that in mind, here are some questions to consider when giving your characters a job, or not.

1. If they don’t work, is it by choice, or are they incapable for some reason such as disability, legal status, etc.? How do they support themselves otherwise?

2. Is this job their dream job, a step along the way to it, or completely unrelated? Do they even have a dream job?

3. What’s involved in the day-to-day work? Is it physically demanding? Mentally taxing? How much time does it take out of their day, and how do they feel when they’re done? Does this effect serve the larger story, or work against it?

4. How long have they been at this job? How did they get it? What sorts of privileges come with their position, if any?

5. Are any of the scenes of your story going to take place at that character’s job? If so, how many coworkers are likely to be there, and how many do you intend to utilize? Are they friends with your character, rivals, indifferent? How does their presence mesh with your story’s needs?

6. If nothing story-related is going to happen on the job, how much of the stress (or happiness, or satisfaction) from working does your character bring home at the end of the working day? How does it affect their mood? Does it affect their relationships, like if they work late constantly, are they missing dates or time with friends?

As usual, some or all of these questions, this advice, might not apply to your story. If you’re not working with a real-world setting, you’ve got world-building to do that’s going to include jobs, some of which might not exist yet. Or if you’re working in a historical setting, you’ve got research to do about what sorts of things people did in that place and era, again, jobs that might not exist anymore. In either case, some of my advice will still be relevant, but not everything. Use this as a jumping-off point to think about to make sure your story isn’t two incredibly bland office drones falling in love outside of work while I, your reader, am shouting internally, but what do they actually do all day?

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Writers, Watch This: Just Write

I’ve been meaning to recommend the channel Just Write for a while now, but this video from last week catapulted the idea back into my mind. One third of my posts to this blog are art criticism, because Fridays are book review days.

I’m not sure I’ve ever used the phrase “objectively bad” in one of my reviews, but it’s possible. (Honestly, I’m not going to search all of them for it.) I have strong opinions on what’s bad in a book, and what’s good, but watching this made me consider what my biases are.

I managed to come up with a few that I don’t think most people would argue with:

  1. Pedophilia = bad, when portrayed with anything other than condemnation.
  2. Same goes for rape.

After that, though, my grounds for what constitutes good/bad become hazier. Sure, I decry racism when I find it, but I also recognize that being white, with my raising and background, I’m simply not going to see things the way a person of color would–I can point to obvious racism and racial bias in a lot of the work I read, but I know a lot of it escapes me as well.

By the same token, I take a book to task for any obvious misogyny or anti-feminist rhetoric, but I’m not going necessarily going to spot the same things a woman of color would, because I’m in the process of moving away from White Feminism™ to a more intersectional viewpoint.

Getting more specific, I abhor anything that romanticizes abusive behavior (toward anyone, but especially women,) yet what do I find in my own beloved romance genre? “Heroes” who are stalkers, manipulators, abusers, and somehow readers still love them. Do I think they’re “objectively bad?” Absolutely.

But that’s still just a bias.

There’s more, of course–anyone who’s been reading my reviews for long enough could probably list a half dozen on top of these–but to circle back to my original point, Just Write has a lot of thought-provoking videos like this one to get you thinking about writing from different angles and thinking critically not only about the craft, but about yourself and how you approach it.

Writing Homework #14 – Freewriting

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Don’t think–just write. Ray Bradbury

My writing hasn’t been going as well as I’d like lately, and part of it is not knowing how to begin. I need to rework the beginning of my novel draft, which includes adding a new first chapter (or two) before the original draft picks up the story…and I’m just not liking how it’s going.

I’ve got myself a block, and when that happens, I like trying new techniques to get past it. Hence, freewriting.

If this isn’t something you already do, you may want to try it. Not just to unblock yourself, like I am–many writers like to start a session with a few minutes of freewriting, to limber up their fingers and unknot their brains.

How do you do it? Set a timer, open a document, and just write. Sounds simple, yeah?

It’s not. “Just write” means don’t edit. Don’t fix typos. Don’t stop to think about what you’re writing or where it’s headed or if it’s at all related to the story you’re trying to tell in your “real” work–just write.

Will anything you get down in those five or ten or twenty minutes be usable? Bits and pieces, at best, sometimes. But it isn’t the content of your freewriting that’s meant to be useful–it’s the act of it. The cathartic release of your emotions, if you use the exercise like a journal to clear out your head. The warming-up of your hands and brain to the task of working on your project, if you use the exercise as an opening to your regular writing session. The disabling of your internal editor, who is forbidden to care how badly you mangle the words and sentences that tumble from your fingertips.

If any of that sounds like something you need for yourself, here’s your assignment: try five minutes of freewriting, now, or whenever you sit down to write next. Turn on the timer and turn off your self-criticism.

If you feel better afterward, use that, and work on your real writing. If you don’t yet, try another five or ten minutes to see if that gets some of the kinks out. And if it doesn’t? If you’re just frustrated at the end? Maybe freewriting isn’t for you, but now you know.

 

Writing Homework #13: Song Lyric Inspiration

Song and song-lyric writing prompts are nothing new, but I’m going for a slightly different tactic here.

My husband and I are both devoted Pumpkinheads, being teenagers from the ’90s, and early on in our friendship we bonded over our similar tastes in music quite strongly.

On our car trip for Christmas vacation, we popped in some Pumpkins for nostalgia’s sake–I hadn’t actually listened to Machina – The Machines of God in years.

I was caught by a single line from “Try, Try, Try” —

the automatic gauze of your memories

In five words, it says so much. How memory is imperfect and fades over time, and how that’s something beyond control.

Now, if I wanted to use this directly in my own writing, obviously that’s plagiarism. And plagiarism is bad, okay?

But there’s nothing stopping me, or any writer, from noting down lines we love, that speak to us, and adapting that imagery or emotion for ourselves, reinterpreting it.

I’m not going to go so far as to recommend you keep yet another dedicated journal just for song lyrics, like the vocabulary journal, but if you already do have a little notebook handy for your writing thoughts, add those song lyrics in, with whatever images or ideas they spark in you, however they make you feel. Take some time to listen to old favorites, especially music you might have neglected for a while, see what memories the songs conjure up, and write about that too.

When you need inspiration later for your projects, or when you need to capture a specific tone for a scene, you’ll have your own words ready to guide you.

Expand Your Horizons: A 2018 Reading Challenge

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I’ve been thinking lately about how many types of books I’d like to read more of, yet never seem to make time for. I thought that next year, I should read one book from outside my comfort zone a month.

But then I realized this would make a great reading challenge to share. It’s lightweight, easy to personalize, and even stackable, if you want to take on more than one category of books you’ve been meaning to read.

So I invite you to join me on a reading challenge adventure in 2018!

Some category suggestions to get you started:

  • Non-fiction
  • Banned books
  • PoC Authors/Protagonists
  • LGBTQIA+ Authors/Protagonists
  • #ownvoices in general
  • Classics
  • Poetry

I’m definitely leaning towards non-fiction, classics, and/or banned books myself. But you can customize the categories to make them broader or narrower depending on what interests you, and of course there’s all sorts of things I didn’t list because I already read them. You could use this as a platform to try any sort of genre fiction you haven’t read, or you could decide to read Man Booker Prize or any other award winners, or back-catalog books from Oprah’s Book Club, if that’s what you want.

Simply choose (or create!) one or more categories, commit to reading one a month in 2018, and let me know you’re participating on social media with the tag #horizonsreadingchallenge.

Let me know what you think, and feel free to suggest more categories in the comments!

 

Looking at Writing from a Different Perspective, Part II

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Last year I recommended two Youtube channels that examine story through the lens of a different genre–video games and movies.

Today I have another recommendation: Lessons from the Screenplay.

This channel takes a writerly bent on movie analysis by examining the screenplay directly. I’ve been impressed by and learned something from each video I’ve watched–I’m not caught up with the backlog yet, and I’m skipping some videos to avoid spoilers for movies I’m interested in seeing but haven’t.

Anything, though, that gets me thinking about the guts and bones of story construction is something I want to pass around for everyone to share.

Let Me Tell You a Story #27: Too Many Plot Bunnies

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With a completed series behind me and a NaNoWriMo novel draft I’m not ready to tackle rewriting, I’m stuck firmly in Plot Bunny Land. I have seven WIPs at the moment with drabs of story notes, partial scenes, and the vaguest of character sketches and outlines–they range from a mere 581 words to a fat-bunny size of 5,941.

I’m still writing nearly every day, but over the past few weeks I’ve added a few hundred words at a time to four of those seven bunnies.

I have no idea what to write next.

Each one is appealing to me, in one way or another, or I wouldn’t be writing them in the first place. I’ve got ghosts in a library, reunited old friends (two takes on this one), geeks in love, lesbian witches, a werewolf shifter pack with a family structure instead of the debunked Alpha/Omega nonsense, and a man belly dancing on a bar. They’re all fun.

But I don’t know where any of them are going. The downside of being, in all major ways, a pantser.

So today I’m brainstorming ways I can choose between these fluffy little rabbits and focus on just one story to write.

  1. Continue as I am, adding to each story as the ideas come, until one takes over naturally. PRO: doesn’t force me to choose. CON: getting one project finished will be extremely slow.
  2. Pick one at random and force myself to write it while ignoring the others. PRO: might help me get my work ethic (and word count) going again. CON: higher risk of burning out on a story midway through.
  3. Spend some time developing a rough outline for each one, then choose which one to work on based on whatever feels more complete/inspiring. PRO: will probably lead to the most informed choice and best first draft. CON: does not at all play to my strengths and will involve a great deal of work up front before making a decision. PRO #2: at the end of whichever project I pick, I’ll have still outlines and notes assembled for the rest of them.

Given that it’s the middle of September and I’m about to go on a week’s vacation (yay!) I’m leaning towards #3, despite it not being my usual style. If I take the next six available weeks before NaNo starts, I can probably work up a reasonable plan for which story to choose and be ready to write a draft of it in November.

Wish me luck, my lovelies. I think I’ll start this afternoon.