Cast Your Book

Writing can often become labor-intensive. We become so focused on rewrites and editing and tightening up the grammar and narrative and plotting and on and on and on... Sometimes it's fun, for a break, to remind yourself why you're writing this thing - at it's most basic, because it's fun to tell stories.

One of the fun things I've done in the past to break monotony is cast my WIP as if it was a movie. I imagine which famous person would play each character and look up pictures of them in poses or settings that might have occurred in my story. This is fun, plus I find it helpful when writing the story. It's especially helpful when working on series, to help recapture the tone and feeling of each character that you may have been removed from for a time while, say, working on other projects.

In the end, we don't know these people as people, the ones I pick from pictures I find on the Internet. We're really only casting them as characters we remember them playing in past roles. You may think this makes your own character less than unique, basing them on other characters from film or television, and you would be right if you tried to write them exactly as they were in that other work. For me, though, I only use it as a sort of template, if I do it at all. I don't try to write them exactly as they might have been in someone else's story, but use them only as a prototype for the character I have created, only as a reminder, not as a carbon copy.

Kaley CuocoZoe SaldanaFor example, in my current WIP, the next book in my most popular series beginning with the book Rogue Agenda, I imagined casting one of two actresses as the main character, Lainie Parker: either Kaley Cuoco or Zoe Saldana. Wait a minute, you say, that can't work. Lainie is a white brunette. One of these actresses is blond and the other is African American. Well, while I originally wrote Lainie as a Caucasian brunette, in the end, there's nothing about that character that requires her to be either. If they were truly being cast for a movie, either of these actresses has played parts in the past that remind me of Lainie in different ways. I would be just as pleased if either one was cast.

What actors/actresses would you cast as the primary characters in your current WIP? Share with a comment below.

Your Character’s Umvelt

Inside-of-a-Dog-coverWhat is your character’s umwelt?

Yes, umwelt.

Pronounced OOM-velt.

I came across this concept while reading Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz.

(If you have a dog, like dogs, are curious about dogs and dog behavior, it’s a fascinating book.)

Anyway, the idea of the umwelt came from an early 20th Century German biologist named Jakob von Uexküll.

To quote Horowitz: “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.”

As illustration, consider the lowly deer tick.

Von Uexküll tried to imagine life from the tick’s point of view.

A tick will climb to a high perch, like a tall blade of grass.

The tick is waiting for one particular smell.

Sight is no good; the tick is blind.

Sounds are irrelevant.

The tick is waiting for a whiff of butyric acid, “a fatty acid emitted by warm-blooded creatures.”

(We humans smell butyric acid as sweat.)

When the tick smells what it needs to smell, it drops from its perch.

Its hope during freefall, at that moment in time, is to land on an animal, get its teeth into some skin, and drink blood.

If all goes well, the tick will feed once, drop off, lay eggs.

And die.

That’s the tick’s self-world.

Its umvelt.

Its purpose, wants, needs, desires.

The tick, after all, much like your protagonist and your villain (both), are heroes of their own lives.

Doing a bit more research on the umvelt, I found this article from a website called The Edge and a terrific additional way of thinking about it, that the umvelt is the animal’s “entire objective reality.”

It works for people, too.

Your characters.

“Why would any of us stop to think that there is more beyond what we can sense?” the article asked. “In the movie ‘The Truman Show,’ the eponymous Truman lives in a world completely constructed around him by an intrepid television producer. At one point an interviewer asks the producer, ‘Why do you think Truman has never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?’ The producer replies, ‘We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented.’ We accept our umwelt and stop there.”

For instance, we humans accept those things we can and cannot smell with our noses. Any ordinary dog would laugh at our feeble powers with smell.

But we accept them.

What is your character’s umvelt?

What reality have they accepted? What bigger reality are they oblivious to? What senses or abilities are their strengths? Their weaknesses? How were they put together—for what purpose? What will they consider success? Or failure?

Get to know your character's umvelt might help sharpen your character in a distinctive, new way.

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ALSO: I was blown away by all the kind emails, messages, tweets, Facebook posts and texts after being named Writer of the Year.

Thank you all so much!

RMFW, quite simply, rocks.

Hope to see you all at Colorado Gold so I can thank you in person.

A Character By Any Other Name…

Usually, the names of my characters simply come to me, along with their physical characteristics. I always know how they look, because long before I have any idea of the plot, I visualize at least one scene with the main characters. It may be the first scene, or it may one that happens later in the book, but that initial image is what sets up the whole story. I know if my characters are tall or petite, or if it’s the hero, if he is very muscular and tall or merely average for a studly hero. I know their eye and hair color, and if their hair is wavy or straight. They appear in my mind as clear as a photograph.

Based on their physical characteristics and the character’s general personality, which I usually have a glimpse of from that initial scene, the character’s name will generally pop into head. When that doesn’t happen, it’s more of a challenge. Since I'm an impatient writer, who wants to immediately jump in and start writing, I don’t wait until I find the perfect name. I come up with a temporary name and use that until I find something better. As a result, the heroine in my current WIP has had three different names. Thank heavens for the “search and replace” feature!

To find potential names, a lot of authors use baby-name books or online sites. But for historical novels, that only works up to a point. When you need a name that fits a specific time and place, you have to do more intensive research. I often use The Writer’s Digest Character Naming Sourcebook. When that fails me, I start delving into historical records. But finding a name that is historically accurate can involve other issues. A lot of traditional names from the more archaic eras are odd-sounding. Eneuawg and Goleuddydd are historical Welsh names, but I would probably never use them for a character. The same with the Saxon names Ulfcetel and Aelfgyth. Readers want to have some sense of how to pronounce the characters’ names. If you use too many unusual names, readers will get confused and become overwhelmed with keeping track of who is who. They might even stop reading altogether.

For my books set in contemporary times, it’s easier, although sometimes there are too many choices. Because of the time travel sub-plot, my modern heroine needed to have a name beginning with “M”. Obviously, there are dozens, if not hundreds of names that fit that criterion. It you narrow it down to names that are popular currently, it gets a bit easier. Then it’s a matter of finding one that sounds right, that intuitively fits that character.

I've written a couple of fantasy novels, and in them I used mostly made-up names. I combined real words from real languages for some names and for others, altered real but obscure names to create new ones. It's interesting how some sounds we associate with females and others with males. And how some names sound right for a hero and others are a better fit for a villain.

The process really can't be explained. We all tend to associate specific characteristics with certain names. Often our feelings about a name are based on someone we knew with that name. Or it may be the way the name sounds or some other connection. I remember when my son was trying to figure out a name for his new kitten. She is an unusual-looking cat, what I call a pastel tortoiseshell, with gray, gold and cream all swirled together. I wanted to name her Paisley, but my son immediately rejected the name. It seems he knew a girl in preschool named Paisley and he didn’t like her. For the record, he ended up naming the cat Trainwreck. A tough-sounding name that appealed to him, a guy in his late teens, and which the cat lived up to, becoming the terror of the local mouse, rabbit and, alas, bird population when she came to live with us when my son went off to college. (Trainwreck now lives happily with my son and his wife, who was his girlfriend when they first got the kitten, in their tiny house in San Diego.)

How you feel about a character’s name is hugely important. In the cases where I’ve struggled with a character’s name and/or used several different ones, I also tended to struggle with their personality and their role in the book. It’s almost as if the character doesn’t become clear to me and truly come alive until I find the right name for them. A character who has the “right” name from the beginning is usually easy to write. Their personality, motivation and conflicts are immediately clear to me.

But what if you find the perfect name for your character and then realize another character’s name starts with the same letter? In that case, I usually change the name of the character who is less important to the story. With two names starting with the same letter, it’s too easy for the reader to get confused. But finding a new name can be agonizing. Some characters, even secondary ones, are simply that name, and creatively, it’s difficult to find an alternative that feels right.

Maybe I’m the only author to whom character names matter so much. But I don’t think so. I was recently talking to a writer friend who was struggling, and part of the reason was because she kept getting the heroine’s name in her current WIP mixed up with the heroine’s name in the book she was editing. Until she got the right name clear in her mind, she had difficulty moving forward in the book.

The only thing harder than naming your characters is finding a pseudonym. But that’s an issue for another blog post!

 

Guest Post: Samantha Ross – Recap of Carol Berg’s Western Slope Workshop

Are they real?

Are your characters real people? According to Carol Berg at the RMFW writers meeting on the Western Slope the answer has to be yes. Readers know it is a story, but the characters need to be alive. The goal should be that they are not characters, but people.

How do we do that?

Through Introduction:

Sum up the person through another’s POV. Start with the general overall such as gender, race, age and so on. Now move onto appearance. Keep in mind that you show rather than tell. What is the voice like, how do they carry themselves? Then attitude. Are they gruff, shy? Don’t forget to start showing gestures, patterns, and habits.

Maybe it’s a gradual introduction from the protagonist or antagonist. Or a few paragraphs. Create layers, and interactions with the setting and also with other characters.

Our people need to be complex. That means they have strengths, weaknesses, hopes, fears, dreams, and goals. Successes and failures both during the story, and before it started. Like everyone, they are going to travel through a range of emotions, thoughts, wants, actions, and reactions.

That character needs to want something here and now. They are also going to have a plan for the future. It may be a glass of water right now, and to win the big race next month. Remember it is colored by the emotional “why” they want it. Those whys are going to include things from the past, present, and future.

As we write this story, we need to create challenges/conflicts that showcases all the above. This person needs to be able to problem solve, take action, have the ability to grow and change as the story progresses.

Through Narrative POV:

 Whoever is telling the story at the moment has the narrative POV. Usually this is the protagonist, the antagonist, sometimes a secondary character. It is limited by the character; meaning every thing is filtered through this character at this moment.

A child at a funeral has a very different POV, vocabulary, actions and reactions than an elderly man. Even between two elderly men there will be things to contrast and compare. They each had a life before walking into the funeral that shaped them.

We learn who he is layer by layer. As he interacts with the other characters and setting, we start to understand him. We see what type of background he comes from, what he thinks of this moment he is in. There is action and reaction. There are choices, and responses. And more choices. And more responses. Dialogue both internal and external all reveals who he is, and what he is going to do. We see the contrast and compare in the narrative POV as he shows, or does not show his opinions, thoughts, and prejudices. How he acts upon these, or does not act reveals much about him. All of this shows us who he is.

We know that we have succeeded in making our characters into people when the reader says, “I knew he would do that!” When our readers thinks about this person outside of the book eagerly awaiting the next story to come out, or to simply open the book and keep on reading. Sometimes over and over.

Samantha Ross pictureSamantha Ross is a ghostwriter, freelance writer and editor. She lives on the Western Slope in Montrose, Colorado. For years she taught adults, organized lesson plans, developed curriculum, and encouraged everyone to be a success. One day she stumbled into her high school librarian who pointed her toward the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Now Samantha’s days are spent writing fiction and non fiction that covers a wide range of topics. If she’s not standing in front of her desk working, she’s spending time with her family and friends.