Tag: Characters

Guest Post: Margaret L. Carter – Making Monsters (#writing post)

Unleaded: Fuel for Writers is pleased to host horror, fantasy, and paranormal romance novelist Margaret L. Carter as our Guest Blogger for Saturday, March 26, 2016. She has written for you a fantastic, post about making monsters and the careful thought and detail necessary to make them fully realized characters. Something that can be a little harder than it looks, especially if you are just starting out.

Monsters need to be as carefully considered as your heroes (even more if they ARE the heroes), otherwise, they aren’t really characters just 1-dimensional one-note “dolls”, mindless bloodthirsty “critters” or mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplashes, chewing scenery and monologing about the evil they will do.  BUT, with Margaret’s notes, we have a little help in thinking about how to make our monsters just a little more “real.”

You can find information about her published works, filled with the monsters the adores – vampires, werewolves, ghosts, dragons, and more! dragons, and the discontinued fanzine THE VAMPIRE’S CRYPT (all issues still available in PDF format) on her website: Carter’s Crypt.

Making Monsters

Suppose you want to write a story or novel featuring vampires (my specialty)? How do you decide on their traits—powers, weaknesses, nutritional requirements, method of acquiring blood (or energy, if they’re psychic vampires), attitudes toward ordinary mortals? One of the strongest attractions of vampires as a literary motif, in my opinion, is that there are so many different varieties of them in folklore and fiction. No matter what kind of vampire you want to create, you can probably find a precedent for it somewhere.

view-of-a-church-in-the-countryside-victorian-woodcut-engraving-dated-emj53hHow much blood do they need and how often? Do they habitually kill when they feed? Are they completely nocturnal? Do they involuntarily fall into an undead coma at daybreak or simply prefer to rest by day? How do they react to sunlight? Does it destroy them (a trope invented by the silent movie NOSFERATU, not found in classic fiction of the nineteenth century or in folklore—legends that prescribe a return to the grave by sunrise imply that daybreak simply immobilizes the vampire), cause them some degree of pain or discomfort, or not bother them at all? Do they sleep in coffins or require native earth? If sunlight harms them, do they become tougher or more vulnerable to it with age? Do they belong to a secret subculture with an elaborate hierarchy, or are they mainly solitary predators (as I prefer)? What attitude do most of them take toward ordinary mortals? Do crosses and other religious objects repel them? If so, does the effect depend on belief (the vampire’s or the attacker’s?) or is it an objectively real power? If the latter, how do you deal with the metaphysical implications of an objective spiritual force? (The BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER universe appears to be completely secular, yet crosses work on vampires, a fact that is never explained.) Do your vampires radiate a charismatic glamour to seduce their victims? In one novel I’ve read—which presents the undead as terrifying rather than romantic figures—the newly turned protagonist discovers to his horror that the magnetic allure of vampires is just that, glamour. A vampire’s true appearance is that of a decomposing corpse, disguised by a constantly maintained illusion.

In creating her “good guy” vampire, Count Saint-Germain, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro said she compiled a list of folkloric vampire traits and gave her Count the most common ones. (A few, however, she definitely borrowed from Bram Stoker, such as the lack of a reflection and the need to rest on native earth, which he seems to have invented.) If you don’t already have a fixed idea of what your vampires are like, you can survey folklore and fiction to pick out the characteristics that work best for your story. Did you know that some folkloric undead, rather than being the nearly godlike immortals of many novels, have a strictly limited lifespan after which they “die” on their own? There’s one legend of a type of vampire that goes through several transformations in the course of its postmortem existence, at the end of which he or she can pass for human and travel to a different area to start a new life. While some folkloric vampires conform to the older assumption (as exemplified by Saint-Germain) that the undead can’t engage in normal
sexual relations, others have a lusty reputation of visiting their widows and fathering dhampirs. You might decide to use a folkloric element that hasn’t often appeared in fiction, such as the belief that you can entrap a vampire by scattering small objects such as seeds on the ground, because the monster has a compulsion to count them one by one. (An X-FILES episode included that detail.) In one of my stories, I referenced the superstition (I forget which European ethnic group it comes from) that you can defeat a vampire by stealing his left sock (raising the question of how you can tell which sock is the left). My vampires, who belong to a naturally evolved species, not supernatural, drink milk as well as blood. I got the idea from Guy de Maupassant’s classic tale “The Horla,” in which the invisible vampiric monster drains a glass of milk in the night, and also from folk beliefs in some regions that vampires dry up cows’ milk. Terry Pratchett’s vampire clan in CARPE JUGULUM struggles hilariously with all the best-known traditional superstitions as well as some lesser-known ones such as the sock thing.

The same principle applies to other monsters such as werewolves and zombies. It seems to me that, if you don’t already have your monster’s traits mapped out in advance, it’s always a good idea to revisit the folklore and observe how movies, TV, and fiction have developed or altered the original source material. You might come across a little-known legendary characteristic that could give your work a fresh slant. Do your werewolves get infected with lycanthropy by being bitten (another trope invented by the movies)? Or do they follow the folkloric pattern of becoming werewolves through a curse, a voluntary transformation by way of dark magic, or inheritance from a cursed ancestor? Do they change only at the full moon? Can they control their transformation and suppress or perform it at will? Are they aware of what they do in beast form, or do they suffer a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde change where a different personality takes over, as in the classic horror movies of the 1930s? Do they live in packs? Are they literally people who sometimes change into wolves, or are they more like wolves with the power to become human?

Ghosts raise their own set of questions. Are ghosts in your universe conscious entities or mere psychic traces left on the atmosphere? If a ghost really is the spirit of a dead person, is it bound to a certain spot (or object) or free to travel? Is it tied to the place of its death, the location of its body, or a site with some emotional meaning for it? Can it affect the physical world at all and under what conditions? Can it change its appearance? How much memory of its mortal life does it retain? Does your ghost yearn to “go into the light,” or do you assume its spectral existence on this plane is permanent? Is there any way for it to regain a corporeal body?

MomentoMoriDCShakespeareIn creating a “monster” such as a vampire, especially if the monster is your hero, you might consider why vampires attract readers. In particular, what is the vampire’s main allure for you? The eroticism of blood? The intimacy of sharing the essence of life? Immortality and the perspective gained by living centuries or millennia beyond a normal human span? The image of the rogue or fallen angel whom only your heroine can redeem? The plight of a character whose survival compels him to live among ordinary people while hiding his true nature? Whatever constitutes the core appeal of a vampire, werewolf, demon, or other “monster” for you, you can endow your characters with traits that embody that appeal. In creating my naturally evolved vampires, I wanted to keep the erotic overtones of blood-sharing. I justify this detail by postulating that an intelligent predator would rather not draw attention by violence and killing. So my vampires don’t have to kill when they feed, and their powers of hypnotic seduction make their donors eager to be fed on. Vampiric mesmerism also enables them to make victims forget being bitten. Another major attraction of the vampire for me is the concept of a creature who looks like us but isn’t quite one of us and therefore has a skewed angle on human existence. (It’s the same reason I find Mr. Spock fascinating.) So I enjoyed creating vampires who have never been human and never can be. Yet because they grow up among us and have to pass for human to survive, they can’t help picking up human behaviors and attitudes no matter how they resist that process. In fact, they’re so adaptable in childhood and adolescence that if care isn’t taken, a young vampire can develop a phobia of items that can’t objectively do them any harm, such as crosses—to the extent that they might suffer psychosomatic wounds from contact with such items. As another consequence of their non-supernatural origin, they can’t transform human beings into vampires, so a vampire in a cross-species romance faces the risk of falling in love with someone he or she will almost certainly outlive.

Whether your monster is a villain or a hero, a detailed conception of its origin, nature, and characteristics will help to make your portrayal of the creature fresh and vivid. You can deviate widely from the audience’s stereotypical expectations (e.g., sunlight kills vampires, silver kills werewolves) as long as your concept is consistent, coherent, believably rationalized, and clearly presented early in the story.

 

mcarterpaintingMargaret L. Carter received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary, M.A. from the University of Hawaii, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, all in English. She has taught literature and composition courses at various colleges and presently works as a part-time proofreader for the Maryland General Assembly.

Her first two books were paperback anthologies, CURSE OF THE UNDEAD andDEMON LOVERS AND STRANGE SEDUCTIONS. She has published several works on vampirism in literature, including SHADOW OF A SHADE: A SURVEY OF VAMPIRISM IN LITERATURE, the anthology DRACULA: THE VAMPIRE AND THE CRITICS, and THE VAMPIRE IN LITERATURE: A CRITICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY. Her stories have appeared in several of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkoveranthologies, and her “Voice from the Void” appears in THE TIME OF THE VAMPIRES, edited by P. N. Elrod and Martin Greenberg. The Design Image Group published her werewolf novel, SHADOW OF THE BEAST, in 1998. Her vampire novel, DARK CHANGELING, appeared in electronic form in June, 1999, from the Hard Shell Word Factory and won the 2000 Eppie Award in Horror.

Two vampire romances in the same universe, SEALED IN BLOOD and CRIMSON DREAMS, and WILD SORCERESS, a fantasy novel in collaboration with her husband, Leslie Roy Carter, have been published by Amber Quill Press. Other fiction is in progress from Ellora’s Cave andAmber Quill.

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No Outlining Involved! Organizing for Pantsers with Post-its

Being a writer who doesn’t outline — called a pantser or an organic writer — has its special challenges. Even the organization process doesn’t always work quite the same way. So it can be frustrating at time to look for ways to make things work and only get things that work for outliners.

But Post-its are a great tool for pantsers. They’re actually fun to play with because you can rearrange them as you need to.

What we’re not going to discuss:  This is not going to be about a scary looking thing like Post-it Plotting.  There’s going to be no mapping of scenes on Post-its, or anything even remotely related to outlining.

Tools You’ll Need

  1. Post-its: Have fun shopping for them. They come in a variety of colors, and there’s currently a color scheme for locations like Greece and New York. You can even do different shapes if you want like hearts or daisies, though these tend to be a little more expensive than the square versions.
    What size should you get? I’d recommend the 3×3, if nothing else because there’s a lot of color variety to pick from. But they’ll give you a lot of room to write on, whether you write big or want to add more notes.
  2. Pen: Try a Sharpie pen. It’s got a nice soft tip, but is bold enough to stand out on most Post It colors. Better still, it comes in lots of colors and you may be able to grab packs on sale when the school items start popping up.
  3. Sketch Pad: Try 11X14, which can be found at art stores, office supply stores, and Wal-Mart. You’ll want large and blank, to give lots of room for your Post Its. An alternative: White board.

Post-its to build a list of characters

One of the problems I have is that it’ll take me a little while to get to know the characters, and names can be very hard to remember. Especially when I’m writing and another one pops into the story unexpectedly, or, in the case of a character I had — his name changed three times within 6K.

Enter the Post-it. Keep a large sheet of paper near your desk. I use an 11X14 one from an art pad. A white board would work, too.

When you add a new character name, write the name on a Post-It and slap it on the page.

If your character name changes, write the new name on a Post-It and put it over the old name. That way, you still have a record of the name in case you find it while you’re revising and don’t remember that John changed to August.

The nice part about this list is that it’s very flexible. You can do different Post-It colors for certain types of characters, like you might want to know how many male characters you have versus female characters, or family factions, or just pick random colors that work for you at the moment. It’s really up to you.

The Post-its can also be rearranged in whatever way you want, so you can shuffle them alphabetically or just slap them on the page in any old order.

A character list by Post-it

A character list by Post-it

Post-Its to build a story bible

A story bible contains really pretty much anything you want about your story that’s hard to remember.  The term originated from television, where TV series had to keep track of (sometimes anyway) details:

“This is ideally a binder with everything about your book contained in its pages: plot outline, character sketches, notes, bits of dialog, small details, scene description, research, etc. You’ll find this extremely useful. The habit to develop: get a binder, write notes on characters, plot, scene, dialog, and keep it updated, as soon as you’re done writing. So: write, log it, then update your book bible.”

When describing a story bible, most writers start talking about three ring binders, tabs, and then it gets complicated very quickly.  They also include planning, which is tough for a pantser.  We’re not sure where the story is going, so what would we record?  Like other parts of pantsing a novel, some stuff may come in and then, ultimately, never get used.  Then it becomes a question about time investment, because pulling out that binder, finding a new sheet of paper, making the notes, punching the page, and then figuring out where it should becomes a lot of time.

But a Post-It note is a good, temporary solution. Write down anything you need to remember and attach it to the page. Rearrange as needed. Once the story is settled, sort through them for what you need and order them into categories. Then you can transfer them to a more permanent document if you need to reuse them later.

Post-Its for additional novel research

During the course of the writing, you’re likely to hit spots where you realize you need to do more research. Like you need the names of local birds or a name of a place.

But being a pantser, you may also find that if you race off and do the research now that you end up not needing it because the story can change sometimes very drastically as you write. Conventional wisdom says to put the research note on a to do list in a spreadsheet or in a binder.  That goes back to the same problem of dragging out a spreadsheet or a notebook while you’re writing and recording this.  Or writing it down on a slip of paper, hoping you remember to record it in the appropriate place later.

Enter the Post-its again. Write a comment in the manuscript like “fussy (DOG BREED)” (mainly so you can find it again!) Then write the research note on the Post-It, slap it on the paper, and you’re done. Once you’ve finished the novel, you can screen them for ones that survived and still need to be done. The Post Its can be transferred to another paper and taken to the library. Pull off one and throw it away when it’s researched.

One of the great things about Post-its is that they only require a few seconds to pull out and dash something off on them. That makes them a very flexible tool to cope with the messy nature of being a pantser.


No Outlining Involved! 5 Pre-Story Time Saving Tips for Pantsers

If you’re a pantser, which is a writer who doesn’t outline, you know how hard it is to find any kind of tips that work for the way you write.  Just about every time saving tip either involves some form of outlining or tells us we should be outlining, and frankly, it doesn’t help!

Bria Quinlan says,  “To people outside pantsing, sometimes it looks easy. You just sit down and write and the words flow. Um, yeah. No.”

Maybe this is why there’s a lack of anything much out there for us.  So try these ideas out, see what works, and make up some of your own.  This is some stuff you can do before you write the story that doesn’t involve any kind of outlining and might be kind of fun.

1. Researching when you don’t know what the story is yet

Now I don’t know if you’re one of the people who likes research or not, but as a pantser, research to me has always been a barrier to getting started on the fun part: writing the story.  I also don’t like research.  It reminds me too much of school homework, and the way writers act about digging out obscure details makes me feel like everyone is grading me.  But as a pantser, I have the additional challenge that I don’t actually know what I need for the story!

The result is that when I research, I end up doing it while I am writing the story (story stoppage!), and I’m often grabbing everything I find so I don’t have to do it again.  And I still don’t get enough of the right things and have to go back and do more.  Grrr!

So I decided I had to do it differently so I could focus on the writing part. I looked around for a topic list for setting.  Finding the right list was hard — most of the people making the lists really love research, so there’s a lot more than what I needed.  I found a list I liked and pasted it into Evernote.  Then I scanned through it and eliminated questions I wasn’t going to need for the setting, and any that I knew I would never use.

Then I did two a day, which took two weeks.  For questions like “What kind of animals are in the area?” I looked for ten animals.  That way, I would not only get enough and not too much, but I’d also think about which animals I was choosing.  What might I actively use in the story?  What would be an animal everyone would associate with the location?  I also added two categories of my own because the setting was a town with a beach, so I needed animals characters might see in the waters, as well as what they would find on the beach.

2. Setting up characters for your novel the pantser way

One of the things I’ve always done is start writing, and then I’ll toss in a character that I had no idea I would need until I got there. I dash off online somewhere and find a name.  Plop!  It goes into the story.  And the process repeats itself.  Then I realize I have three characters with very similar sounding names, and now I have to change them.

Aarrgghhh!

Before writing the story, come up with a list of ten names of characters who might be in the story.  Make sure you have a first name and a last name.  Also try coming up with a short paragraph about what this character might do in the story.  When I tried this, it started out as a chore, but as I finished the list, I started getting excited about the story and the characters that might populate it.  I even took one of the character names and plopped him in a short story.

As I started to write, I added to the list because there were always more characters who came in that I didn’t think of.  Then this list becomes a reference when I couldn’t remember a name.  That usually takes me about half the book before I start connecting the names to the characters.

Don’t spend a lot of time on this, though.  Just an hour or an afternoon.  It’s just meant to help you once you start writing.

Why not a character worksheet?

Character worksheets are an outliner’s tool; in this case, outlining the character.  It’s a very mechanical way to characterize, and it didn’t make sense to me to identify things like this when I could write the story and find out who the character is.

3. Setting for Pantsers

The reason I started doing these “10 of” lists is because of setting.  I like characterization when I read; setting doesn’t do much for me.  The result though is I tend to focus on the characters and not pay enough attention to the setting.  Kate Paulk (who I met a Virgina convention) says this is a common problem for pantsers:

“Most of the pantsers I know – me included – have a tendency to include only the setting information that their characters notice. This isn’t enough. When you think about it, you mostly don’t pay much attention to familiar surroundings: it becomes background and not worthy of mention. I’d describe my workplace environment as “a cube”, for instance, and not think to mention the Demotivator poster I have on the wall, the way I use color coded highlighters on a large planner to give me a month-at-a-glance view of what’s happening, the assorted notes stuck to the cube wall.”

So this list was a way of making sure I paid attention to the places those characters would inhabit.  For my cozy novel, I started with one of the primary places, the bookstore the character inhabited.  What did it look like?  How had the character changed it from when her grandmother owned it (a name on the character list)?  This ended up requiring a little research into Art Deco and looking at some pictures of the style.   Then I figured my character needed a house, so I spent a little time on that.  I added eight more settings, including one for a meeting hall that I changed in the story to a church with a fellowship hall.

For each one, I tried to associate a character from my 10 character list who would be at this place so that it wouldn’t just be a vague “place” to me.

4. Make a map of the most important story settings

This was a next step from the settings, so I could get a picture in my head of some of the locations.  That way I didn’t have to stop and figure it out while I was writing and toss some random thing in (which I am very good at doing).  I just did two to start with because I knew I was going to use those settings and later added a third.  Graph paper and pens will work.  In my case, I used PowerPoint.  I found a floor plan of a bookstore online and traced it. I’m a PowerPoint speed demon, so this took probably an hour.

For the third one, I was writing a scene and having a hard time with the picture of the fellowship hall.  I went to Google Earth and found the church I went to when I was a kid and used the overhead view to build it in PowerPoint.  I also explored as much of the building as I could with Google, so I noted some windows that were in hall.

If you’re saying “But I’m not an artist,” neither am I.  In her maps workshop, Holly Lisle notes:

“This doesn’t have to be pretty. You do not get extra points for artistry. I’m showing you a technique for generating ideas and creating a story where you didn’t have anything before, not trying to turn you into an illustrator. If you can’t draw a straight line, no problem. You aren’t going to need any straight lines. Wobbles are part of the process. Nobody but you ever has to see this map. Nobody but you ever has to know it even exists.”

Why spend time on maps for your story?  

We get a lot of people saying things like this aren’t writing; therefore we shouldn’t do it.  As a pantser though, I’ve discovered how easy to fly through a scene and not think about basic things like what the inside of a room looks like.  Surprisingly, it does work.  I found myself incorporating in the room elements as I wrote and mentioning specifics like the “science fiction bookshelf.”

5. Use Ten of for anything else needed in the story

If you have anything else you might need for the story, such as made up place names, create a list of ten of those items.  I have a 1.5K dog walk in mine and a character who is a dog, so I came up with the names for dogs.

Do just make lists for things that you will use in the story, and do reuse them for other stories.  I could easily reuse my list of dog names if I write a short story that has another dog in it.  But don’t spend valuable time on “might needs.”  In this case, err on the side of under doing it, and make another list during the writing if you realize you need it.

Why ten?  

I’ve used ten here four times, and there’s a good reason for that number.  As a pantser, I want to jump in and get started on the story.  As a result, if I don’t like doing something, I simply won’t do enough of it, and I won’t pay enough attention to it.  Ten’s not too many that I’ll start getting impatient.  It’s also a number I can easily finish with an evening of work.  And, most important, it’s enough that I can’t dash through it to get to the story.

But these lists are really about having the information already available while you create the story, and have enough that you can pick what appeals to your muse at the time.

Writing without an outline has its own special problems.  So it’s important to try out new techniques and see what works for you and not just assume that what works for outliners will work for you.  Are there any additional pre-writing tools you’ve used that have worked?

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WWW: Bad Writing Analogies

A back-and-forth on Twitter this week:

@nrbrown: I want 140 characters of advice/encouragement…not a link to some article that will keep me from writing for another 15 minutes! #argh

@DL_Thurston: Writing is like brushing your teeth. Everyone does it differently, it should be done daily, and you feel great when it’s over.

I was thinking about writing this week about Twitter writing advice, but then I realized that it would then be automatically picked up by the @Fuelforwriters and I would just be perpetuating the problem.  So instead, I’m going to offer more bad analogies for writing.

First, it is like brushing your teeth, not only for the reasons mentioned, but also because it may hurt when you do it again for the first time in awhile, but that’s a reason to keep going and not to stop.  It will not, however, leave your breath kissably fresh.

Subplots are like elephants.  If you can’t see one, you can be pretty sure there isn’t one there, and you’re not going to be able to just go to the store and buy one.  They eat a lot less, however.

Good dialogue is like airport luggage.  The tags should get it where it needs to go, but shouldn’t get in the way of what’s really important.  Plus bad or confusing tags will just get everything all muddled up.  Fortunately no one will charge you $50 to have more dialogue.

Adverbs and adjectives are like salt.  They’re a tool of the under confident and the beginner, but part of being an expert is knowing how to use them sparingly.  However, at no point in history have soldiers ever been paid in adjectives.

Writing is like stripping.  You end up baring yourself to complete strangers (and some curious friends), and it’s going to go a lot better if you show rather than tell.  It may also pay your way through college if you’re good enough.  G-strings are options when writing, however.

Characters are like people.  They each have their own life and exist when the focus isn’t on them, living, struggling, and just generally being.  Oh, wait, that one was real.

Over on Writerly Words this week: I explore the whys behind the popularity of Steampunk, and present an unorthodox look into the hows of building a team of characters.


WWW: Mining for Gold

Administrative note: I’ve decided to stop calling every one of my posts “Wednesday Writerly Words”, as it makes it hard to go back and actually figure out which post is which.  I may even go back and retitle the old ones if I get really bored.

Even when a writer isn’t writing, they’re still being a writer.  That, in my mind, is one of the main signs of being a writer, having that spot in the back of your brain that never entirely turns off, even (or especially) when you’re on vacation.  Thus it was that I spent the entire cruise churning over in the back of my mind just what kind of plot I would set on a cruise ship (after spending a chunk of my time in New Orleans wandering around their elevated cemeteries wondering if Arkham maybe had similar water table issues with burials).  Being me, I kept coming back to the idea of a horror story set on a ship, which seemed to have two fairly obvious directions to go: sea monster or transposing a standard haunted-hotel plot onto a seagoing vessel.  Neither is entirely original, but either could probably be done well by the right person.

I spent a lot of time collecting characters, and by the end of the cruise I figured out one thing: I need to start being bolder about being a writer.  It’s by no coincidence that I watched a bit of Castle on the cruise (there was an entire channel on the ship devoted to showing one episode of the show per day on continuous loop) which is a show entirely based around what I need to start doing as a writer: talking to people and learning about their jobs.  There were one or two staff members who I ran into that I’m rather upset that I didn’t take the time to talk to off the record and get their real feelings about their jobs, the nature of cruising, and the other people aboard the ship.

So I’m going to be throwing around the idea of a cruise ship horror story, trying to determine if it’s a short story, novel, or (most likely) screenplay idea.  Maybe it’ll happen, maybe it won’t, but it’s all about never entirely turning the writing brain off, and always being on the lookout for story ideas and concepts.

DL Thurston is the author of Rust, available in print, for the Kindle (US/UK), from iBooks, and in all other eBook reader standards. You can read his various exploits at his blog, follow him on Twitter, or watch him try to make sense of the War of 1812.  He apparently also pines to be a non-fiction travel writer and is a step closer to selling one of his short stories.


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