Guest Post – David Boop: The Snowflake Theory of Characters

By David Boop

Over the lifespan of your writing career, you’ll hear lots of catchy sayings about the craft.

Write what you know.

End chapters on a cliffhanger.

Never fight a land war with Russia in the winter.

The last one may only pertain to alternate history writers, but I’m sure you’ve heard a bunch. One of my favorites goes;

Your character has to be the right person, the only person, who can do X (with X being the anointed task.)

That’s a heavy burden on an unsuspecting office worker, pining for the secretary he’ll never be cool enough to ask out, or the poor milkmaid who dreams of joining her brothers in battle, but is just a girl. Characters are indeed swept up by the story to become the only people who can do this all important thing at the appointed time. Which brings us this little gem…

Characters should be like snowflakes, no two alike.

Yeah, that saying kinda sucks and I don’t blame you for wanting to burn this article. Too bad it’s on a blog and tablets are expensive to replace.  Trust me, I’m not giving you the uniqueness spiel as a writing tip. MY snowflake analogy goes deeper.

Snowflakes are not just one thing.

They’re cold. They’re wet. They can be beautiful, and wished for around Christmas time. They can clump into large groups that force me to sweep off my patio when I’d rather be inside editing. Snowflakes have the ability to be many things, some at the same time.

One of the greatest sins in writing, in my opinion, is the character who is only one thing and incredibly good at it.

Let’s make a character. Let’s call her Kendra the paralegal. One day, Kendra stumbles across a murder and uses her powers of paralegalness to solve a crime in a book we’ll call “Illegal Eagles.” (Cute, eh?) We’re to understand Kendra because she’s us. She’s plucky, good at her job, and just waiting for people to notice her. As she solves the crime, there is no doubt in her mind that this is what she is supposed to do. In each successive book, Kendra finds other backstabbing lawyers or philandering judges to expose, growing more confident that this is her lot in life: crime-solving paralegal.

Where’s the fun in that? How’s that like me?

I’m plagued by doubts. Thoughts run from “I got lucky” to “the publisher owed me a favor” to “that was probably the last sale” even after doing this for over ten years straight. Conversely, when I finish a piece, I’m cocky. “This is the best story I’ve ever written, guaranteed to win me accolades and fame.”

I try to write characters that are not just one thing. They have as much potential to fail as succeed. And they should fail in their tasks occasionally. If they don’t, then we’ll never believe them. Adversity will come, it’s unavoidable. It’s how we handle it that makes us human and, in some cases, heroes.

Ask yourself, why is “The Empire Strikes Back” heralded as brilliant while “Return of the Jedi” maligned? (The answer has nothing to do with ewoks.) It’s because ESB is one screw-up after another orchestrated by overconfident heroes, who barely escape their own embarrassing deaths caused by sheer stupidity. No one expected that after “Star Wars,” and the plot actually mirrors many of my Mondays. RotJ, conversely, is a series of successes. Even when it appears the heroes have screwed up, it only leads to a bigger victory. The outcome is never in doubt as reflected in the character’s attitudes and abilities.

If you want to make your characters more believable, they should have more than one aspect to their personality. Blowhards are usually covering for insecurities. Mousy people in real life are often vicious trolls online. If your characters don’t have different sides of their personality, then your readers will quickly grow tired of them. A snowflake that doesn’t melt becomes boring real quick. (I grew up in Wisconsin, I know this is true.)

Deepen your characters like the many-faceted crystals of a snowflake and your readers will stick out their tongues for more.

 

David Boop is a bestselling Denver-based speculative fiction author. In addition to his novels, short stories and children’s books, he’s also an award-winning essayist and screenwriter. His novel, the sci-fi/noir She Murdered Me with Science, will return to print in 2015. David has had over forty short stories published and two short films produced. He specializes in weird westerns, but has been published across several genres including media tie-ins for titles like The Green Hornet and Veronica Mars. 2013 saw the digital release of his first Steampunk children’s book,The Three Inventors Sneebury, with a print release due in 2016. David tours the country speaking on writing and publishing at schools, libraries and conventions.

He’s a single dad, Summa Cum Laude graduate, part-time temp worker and believer. He’s a member of the International Association of Media Tie-in Writer, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, Horror Writers of America and the Western Writers of America. His hobbies include film noir, anime, the Blues and Mayan History. You can find out more on his fanpage, www.facebook.com/dboop.updates or Twitter @david_boop.

In The Aftermath of Colorado Gold

By Yvonne Montgomery  

One of the sessions I appreciated the most at this year’s Colorado Gold Conference was Christine Jorgensen’s Plotting Your Novel Using a Dynamic Grid.

My study has always been a forest of papers where the filing system is similar to an anthropological dig: one layer on top of another. The goal is to keep the important bits available to weave into the work. The longer it takes to write a novel, the easier it is to forget those cunning ideas that crop up at inconvenient times: twilight sleep, in the shower, as I’m cooking coq au vin. Every gem is scrawled onto a scrap of something and set aside to look at later—if I can find it. At times I’ve had more paper tacked onto the walls than piled on my desk. Always I’m haunted by the suspicion that my most brilliant ideas are somewhere in the debris.

Chris, author of the wonderful Stella the Stargazer series, and whose new suspense thriller, Missing, is coming out soon, is a voice of reason in a cluttered world. With two or three Styrofoam presentation boards, tape, and many colorful Post-it notes, she demonstrated a sane way to make plotting both three dimensional and coherent. Starting with the “Character Sheet for the Dynamic Grid,” filled out for the protagonist, the antagonist, and for important secondary characters, information about the inhabitants of the work is collected.

Major incidents or crises are compiled and noted on the Post-it notes. They, in turn, are stuck to the Dynamic Grid board, which has been divided into Acts 1, 2 and 3, with sub-headings for the vital plot elements. Character and plot information are put onto the Post-it notes, which can be moved around to suit your muse.

I have long entered plot and character information in notebooks, guaranteeing lots of flipping through pages to find needed information. First I have to find the right notebook.

Chris’s system offered a way I could see the plot elements as well as the characters interacting through them before and during the process of writing. I could take some of the clutter off my walls and, through judicious use of the character sheets, begin to tame the wild kingdom of papers scrawled with haphazard information and scattered throughout my house.

Eureka!

In the month since the conference, I’ve begun to make some progress toward organizing my writing process. It’s happening slowly, because I’m working to finish the second of the Wisdom Court books, a series of metaphysical thrillers set in Boulder. Since it’s a series, I’m using the principles of the Dynamic Grid with extra boards for the story arc that extends through the first three books as well as the plot elements specific to each book. A few of the characters are in two or three of the books, and others are introduced along the way. Putting information about them on a plot line I can see when I look up from the computer might take me out of contention as the slowest writer on the planet.

I’ve written fiction a long time, but I’m always learning something new. Thanks to Colorado Gold and people like Chris Jorgensen, who share their techniques for dealing with the issues that plague us writers, we members of RMFW can hone our craft and enjoy good company. Doesn’t get better than that.

[Chris’s handouts for Plotting Your Novel Using a Dynamic Grid are available on the RMFW website under the Conference setting.]

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Yvonne Montgomery is the author of two mysteries, Scavenger Hunt (aka Scavengers) and Obstacle Course, and co-author of Bridey’s Mountain, a Colorado saga, awarded the Top Hand Award from the Colorado Authors League for Best Book Length Fiction of 1993.

Yvonne lives in an old three-story house in Denver’s historic Capitol Hill. Its nooks and crannies and odd noises in the middle of the night have inspired her latest work, the Wisdom Court books. The first, Edge of the Shadow, will comes out as an e-book later in 2013. Her ebooks are widely available, including at Amazon, B&N Nook, iBooks.

 

Yvonne’s website is at Writer in the Garret,http://yvonnemontgomery.com/

Yvonne ‘s Facebook link: Yvonne Montgomery Ewegen

Twitter: Yvonne Montgomery Ewegen