How to Make a Character

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The boxcar full of innocent people is hurtling toward the cliff. Superman wants to save them but WAIT! Lois Lane is on the cutting board, the laser inching closer and closer to her exposed neck. What’s it gonna be Superman – your love or your duty?

Everyone pretty much agrees about life’s core values. Is FAMILY important? Yes. Is GOOD WORK important? Of course. What about SOCIAL JUSTICE? What about PERSONAL HEALTH?

Yes yes yes. There’s not much room for debate here. We all nod, love and truth amen.

But a novelist tortures his characters by making them choose one value over the other. It starts to get interesting when you ask someone, “which value is more important – FAMILY TIME or PERSONAL HEALTH?”

Superman usually figures out how to succeed in both. But us regular people have to decide: should I take the money job that requires me to work 12 hour days? Should I skip the gym membership so I can spend evenings with my grandparents in the nursing home?

These decisions always hurt. They differentiate you from the people around you. These decisions are the structural support beams for the building that is your Character.

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How to Spend Your Quarters: Wednesday, September 10th

I write better in winter because it’s the quietest of all the seasons. Good riddance to June and July. They are too oppressive, their days too long.

It’s like, if you have a four bedroom house, then you’re bound to fill that house full of stuff. And it’s like how, the only way to pack well for a long hike is to bring a smaller pack.

Daylight is scarce in December, therefore time is more precious. Death is nearer in December too, which is always good for writing.

I was born in August, so you’d think I’d be partial to the summer. But for me and maybe everyone else, those first few months of life are painful, disorienting, full of tears. It takes more than a few weeks to open your eyes and start looking around. By the time the holidays rolled around, and the leaves had fallen, and the stars were tightly screwed into their sockets, I looked around and knew that everything would be alright.

The death of the future doesn’t scare me. I’ve heard that it’s coming, but there’s nothing I can do about it – so there’s no reason to worry.

Worries are Anxieties are useful as long as they spur me into an action. As soon as a worry is born inside my head, I try to replace it with an action. Then it becomes an obvious step, a check on the to-do list, something I can plan on. I know what I need to do. Now that the messenger has brought me the news, he can go back to where he came from. But worries that don’t lead to actions are messengers who have overstayed their welcome: they are crappy, hairy weeds taking up valuable real estate in my garden.

I’m not worried about the death of the future. I’m worried about the death of the past. I know that days and seasons and relationships come and go because I’ve seen it happen.

Economists understand that scarcity = value. When I realize that I’m a little kid at the arcade, with a bag full of quarters, and I’ve only got one day to spend at the arcade…. when I think about how my life is a bag full of quarters… then I start to get real damn defensive about how and where I spend those quarters.

This is my problem with “jobs.” I don’t really understand what a “job” is, but it seems like a backwards deal to me.

I know philosophers and artists have said this in a million ways, and I’ll never say it better, but it’s been on the top of my mind all year…

If I’m going to spend 75% of my quarters on one machine, then it better be a damn good machine. That game better have some meaning. It better lead to something. It better help someone. I better not slip into oblivion with a nagging regret that I could have been playing better games all the while. (The only proper way to slip into Oblivion Lake is with a smile on your face.)

This is why it’s so important to “find your passion” and “do the work you love” and “make sure you’re climbing up the right mountain.”

In a way, happiness is a selfish pursuit. But it’s the only nobel pursuit. Because if Gandhi was right that you have to be the change you want to see in the world, then the only way to add value to the universe is to first find it in your everyday life.

Next post I’m going to write about “how to find your passion.” Not because I have any damn clue how to do it. But because I think it’s an important question. And because I’m trying to figure it out for myself. And when I write out my thoughts, sometimes they look less like a pile of bricks and more like a building, or even a nice little home that I can live in until the storm passes.
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A Visit to the Cloud Forest: Monday, August 31st

We started in the construction zone of a Korean apartment complex, and we ended up at the bottom of a lake filled with pulsing colors and friendly sea creatures.

***

My wife April and I walked through a newly developed part of the city. We walked downn the sandy, half-paved roads, looking up at the young shining towers. Five or Six towers were spaced evenly apart from one another in the lot. They were all similar designs, and each one was beautiful, a modern marvel of steel and glass reaching up into the clouds. They were too tall to see the tops, in the same way that the ocean is too wide to see the other side.

Bulldozers and cranes and men wearing hardhats were all busy at their work. It was a weekday morning. April and I were the only visitors – the only non-workers – but nobody seemed to mind. In fact they smiled and asked no questions.

One of the towers had especially fascinating windows so we went inside. Everything was bare concrete, fresh drywall, clean plastic, all covered in a thin layer of dust. Only the most basic wiring had been prepped in the walls. We stood inside and looked out at the world through clever modern mirrors that somehow swung open from all four sides.

Then we began to climb the stairs. No one seemed to mind. The impossible long steel arms of orange cranes swiveled on their pivots outside. Workers passed us on the stairs. At one point there was a scary gap in the unfinished staircase, where a miss-step could easily have lead to a long fall. I went first over the gap, and then I helped April up. We hugged the far wall, staying as far away from the edge as possible.

We wound up and up, like Jack climbing the Beanstalk. Outise the windows, all we could see was the white mist of passing clouds.

The staircase ended unceremoniously with a plain, grey door. We were now on the top floor of the tower. We pushed through the door and came out onto the rooftop balcony. The rooftop spanned off in every direction. It might as well have been a new ground, a new earth. It was much more organic and lively than the steel and glass interior of the building that we had seen so far.

In fact I know realized that were in the top canopies of a very old forest. The concrete floor of the roof was intertwined with seasoned log beams. And now I could see green, leafy limbs poking through the clouds here and there.

Two men were leaning on a wooden fence and talking. April and I walked over to them. The guy with the mustache turned out to the be the head construction manager. And the other man was the owner of the adjacent tower. They were talking casually about the fence line, the surroundings, and the age of the structures, as any neighbors might do. The head construction man was friendly and he offered to show April and I around.

As we walked, our surroundings became more and more forest, less and less building. We saw that the whole construction project was a sort of rebuild, that it was more a treehouse than a concrete tower. We could even see how the structure began to twist like a tree in it’s upper reaches.

We went on into the cloud forest. It was dusk, and a mysterious mist hovered over the forest floor. The sky was closed off now, with trees overhead on all sides. We came to a peaceful lake in the middle of the forest. On the far side of the lake a family was playing. Two little girls ran along the shore laughing. I could see their colofrul reflections in the water as they ran. I tried taking pictures, but somehow I was always too slow. Whenever I took a picture, the girls had run just out of the frame. The picture could only capture their reflections, which lagged a bit behind the girls themselves.

Me and April and the Construction Manager stood quietly. The family across the lake talked and played easily, as if their surroundings – the cloud forest and the lake in the sky – were as normal as could be.

One of the little girls, the one in the sky-blue dress, tripped and fell plop into the water. That’s how we all ended up at the bottom of the lake. Now I remember.

But there was no panic really. We all reacted as if the natural thing to do was, not to save her, but to be with her. So me and April and the Construction Manager jumped in, and the family on the other side did the same – the parents and the sister and also some cousins and an aunt/uncle pair.

Now I’m standing at the bottom of the lake, and what shocks me is how clear the water is. It’s almost as if there is no water. I can see clear through to every side and every corner of the lake. But we’re surely underwater, because of the way we move, and the way everything is pulsing and flowing. But we can only feel the water, not see it.

A fiery orange squid drifts by, not more than an arm’s length from my face. Grey monster manatee creatures are laying around in groups of twos or threes. Huge wavy forests of kelp ripple up from the bottom. And in-between these kelp strands, little glowing fish dart in an out. It occurs to me that the little colorful fish are just like tropical jungle birds, flitting around the rainforest canopy. Sea anemones the size of people undulate their spongy heads. Everything surges and throbs, pulls and pulses and returns.

Suddenly a black wildcat comes lurching awkwardly through the water, as if he’s forgotten that he doesn’t belong here. Immediately he becomes entangled with one of the fiery orange squids. They twist and crash and lock up together in combat. I’m nudging April and telling her, “watch this.”

Meanwhile the little girl in the sky-blue dress is fine. She’s floating around as if she meant to be here all along, and her brown pigtails are spinning slowly behind her like helicopter rotors.

I’m scared of all this strangeness under the sea. But I’m calm and happy in a way that you can only be when you’re underwater. I know that we’re all going to be fine, April and me and Mr. Bob the Builder, and the family who’s out for a picnic at the lake. Even the wildcat and the squid are going to be OK.

I hear there’s a finicky demon watching over the shore of the lake. He’s gotten out of hand lately, and is acting more like a child than a protector and keeper of the natural world.

Perhaps we’ll have to pay him a visit… try and talk some sense into the guy.

Yo No Soy Yo: Monday, July 27th

The beginning is the holiest part of every journey.

A little child has a million potential lives ahead of them. They’re like a round stone on the tip-top of a mountain peak. Whichever way they’ll roll is anybodies guess. And as that child grows into an adult, they make decisions about what to do and where to go, and slowly but surely all those possibilities they once had, they start to fossilize into footprints, photos, and stories of the past. Those potential paths become trails we’ve travelled and remember.

And that’s what literature is at the most basic level: footprints in the snow. Everybody has a story, a trail they’ve left behind them. A coyote in the mountains has slowly typed his story into the earth, over the course of years, step by step, decision by decision.

The weird beauty of life is that every single day we keep getting reborn. Every night the sun goes down and I go to “sleep” – which is a mysterious, powerful, empty kind of death-journey where nobody knows exactly what happens – and God pushes the Big Red Button that says “Reset” – and I wake up 8 hours later thinking, “huh?”

The morning is the holiest part of every day.

This is because, in the morning, your day has unlimited potential to manifest in any way imaginable. Maybe today is the day you make a big change. Maybe today is the day you ______.

Now I am not a morning person or a night owl. I am not an introvert or an extrovert. I am not an optimist or a pessimist. I am not a spiritualist or a materialist or a conservative or a vegetarian.

In fact, as of today, every label that I used to use to personally brand myself is now synonymous with the word “nothing”.

Like this: I am a nothing. I was born in nothing town, which as you know is the capital of South Nothing. I am a devout follower of nothing-ism.

Or if “nothing” is sounds too much like buddhism, we can take a page from Kurt Vonnegut and invent our own word.

I am a Furrowitz. My friends all know me as a Furrowitz person. Every year for the past 35 years I’ve voted Furrowitz.

That’s a little better. Now the labels that define me sound more like nonsense, which is what they were in the first place. Whatever I did yesterday, or for the last 50 years, has no bearing on this morning. Today is a new day. And what’s more, it’s the beginning of something.

Yo No Soy Yo

(I am not I)

-by Juan Ramon Jimenez

I am this one

walking beside me whom I do not see,

whom at times I manage to visit,

and whom at other times I forget;

who remains calm and silent while I talk,

and forgives, gently, when I hate,

who walks where I am not,

who will remain standing when I die.

Before Monday sweeps me away, and I get all caught up in the monopoly game of life, these are some things I’m going to try and remember. I’m going to laugh at absurdity when it rears it’s goofy head, instead of being afraid or reacting in anger.

I am just going to let myself be myself, calm and silent and forgiving.

This week has all kinds of potential power hidden underneath the surface, like the tip of an iceberg that’s as big as a mountain underwater.

Contrary to popular belief, Monday is not a Shit Day. It’s the holiest part of every week. I just had to walk around it, to the opposite side; from this angle it looks completely different.

Blockbuster Aisles: Wednesday, July 15th

Genre is simple. It’s a convention that lets readers know what to expect before they start reading a book. (Or watching a movie. Or playing a video game. You name it.)

Whenever I think of “Genre”, I remember being a kid, walking up and down the Blockbuster aisles looking for VHS tapes to rent. As soon as I walked in the store, I’d head straight to the Action / Adventure aisle. I didn’t screw around with horror or drama or comedy. I wanted to see Bruce Willis, Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, or Sean Connery on the cover, usually with a car explosion in the background.

Thank god for the convention of genre. Otherwise I would’ve had to roam the entire Blockbuster store before I found what I was looking for, and even then I might not be happy with what I found. Genres are time-savers. Like any set of rules, genres are begging to be broken. But overall they are helpful.

I think that the convention of “Genre” speaks to an even higher global truth – a human truth – which is that, “the key to happiness is managing expectations.”

The rule made sense to me as the manager of a company, it makes sense to me as a husband, and it makes sense when I look at the book industry.

If a customer is upset, it’s because they had an expectation that went unfulfilled. Either 1) the expectation was incorrect in the first place, or 2) the product did not align with the expectation.

In researching “genre”, I recently stumbled across this idea from Robert McKee, author os “Story: Structure, Substance, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting”, that I really liked. McKee laid out 5 main categories that genre can be broken into. These categories involve the certain types of expectations that a reader brings into a work:

  1. How long the story will last.
  2. How far we’ll need to suspend our disbelief.
  3. What is the style, and the particular experience of the story
  4. How the story will be structured
  5. What the general content of the story will be

Right now my interest is in the fantasy genre. So now that I have this nice framework from McKee to work with, I’ll be researching more in depth how the fantasy genre answers these questions for readers.

Short Story: Quinn Rowntree (part 1/3)

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(This story is 3,449 words long. Reading time is approx 18 minutes)

Quinn Rowntree

(Part 1/3)

Quinn looked around the room, took a deep breath and tried to steady his shaking hands.

He was sitting in Baron Woodley’s parlor, in one of the many oversized, lavish armchairs that lined the back wall. He rubbed his sweaty palms across the soft leather armrests. The Baron would be home any minute now.

Outside the daylight faded. Inside, the parlor was cool and eerily quiet. All around the room were signs of wealth and privilege: the bowl of fresh fruit and the decanter of brandy on the table, the paintings on the walls, the ornate centerpiece rug, the books, ink pens and parchments that covered the desk, all of it spoke of a wealth that Quinn had never known.

The faintest sound came up from the bottom floor. Quinn cocked his head like a terrier and listened as the sound of footsteps entered the house.

Continue reading

How to Fight Fear: Monday, June 29th

There’s only so much you can say about writing. I feel silly talking on and on about it. There’s only one rule when it comes to the game of writing – one rule, one revelation, one credo – which is, to get better you have to keep writing. Write every day. A little bit more and a little bit more.

It’s not complicated. Like all profound truths it’s shockingly simple. But “simple” does not equate to “easy”.

When talking about artists and creatives, I often hear this topic brought up:

People are afraid to make the big leap toward being an artist because the waterfall rush of fear and insecurity is so goddamn overpowering. The roar of doubt is deafening. Right when you’re about to begin a project, (write the first word, record the first video, sing the first note) – that’s when the doubt hits you like a wrecking ball. And then you start to back-pedal:

“What if I give it my all and I still fail… what then?”

“What if people laugh at me?”

“There are so many experts out there, how can I ever hope to compete?”

“I don’t have time for this. I need to buckle down and provide for my family.”

There is no easy response to these fears. If you finally do come out of the closet and call yourself an artist, you’ll have to grow some tough skin. Your friends won’t understand. You’ll make new friends who do understand. Even you won’t understand. The risk is greater than it was before, the risk of failure hangs over your head. Therefore the potential reward is infinitely greater. You’ve created a thrilling twist in the plot scheme of your life. Now people are watching, interested, glued to their seats, awaiting the outcome.

Your excuses are lame. Every excuse you can make has already been overcome by somebody in your exact same position. The choice is yours and yours alone. That’s the brilliant and equally scary part about all of this.

I know it sounds a little “out there”.

Writing for me is a daily exercise in pushing myself “out there,” instead of remaining down here in my comfy, insulated little world.

I’m the worst of all offenders and doubters and procrastinators. The only reason to keep these writing blogs going is to keep trying to talk some sense into myself.

But I believe with my whole heart that YOU are powerful and beautiful and limitless. I believe that I am too. That’s what we have in common. And we have to keep creating. Really there is no other option. There is only the next day, the next project, the next step forward. There is only right now and what you choose to do with it.

I’m All Jazzed Up!: Thursday, June 25th

I’m excited to share my new short stories. I’ll post them to the blog next week on July 1st.

The first one is called “Mr. Green.” It’s a really short spy/crime type scene that I imagine being the opening scene of a television show or a movie.

The second story is the one I’ve really been putting a lot of time into. It’s called “The King’s Puzzle.” It involves riddles and wizards and treasure and I hope it’ll be fun. I’m submitting it to a short story contest in mid-July, but I’m trying to finish it by July 1 so that I can post it to the blog sooner than later.

These past couple months I’ve gotten into a good habit of just writing a little bit of fiction each day. When I first started writing these stories, I would spend weeks planning and plotting (which mostly just means feeling stuck and not writing anything). Now I’m doing better with producing something each day. Even if I don’t know where it’s going, just the act of writing helps me come up with ideas. This shouldn’t have surprised me at all, since I’ve always used writing as a way of sorting my thoughts.

The most encouraging part of this blog/story project so far is that I’m developing the habit of producing and being creative on a daily basis. I’m frustrated because I want to do more, I want to write novels and publish them on Amazon. I want to hire an editor because I know that’s a really important step in a writer’s development. I want to write better rounded short stories with more kick to them. I have so many ideas for my website, for my novels, for a podcast that I want to start… But I can’t get too far ahead of myself. Right all that matters is write, write, write – build up my stories and try and improve every month.

It’s encouraging to see all of the posts and stories pile up, even though it’s only been a few months.

I’m super excited to send out my newsletter at the beginning of July where I talk more about how things are going.

I guess this Thursday I’m just feeling really grateful. The comments on the blog really fire me up. I love interacting with other readers and writers and creatives.

For everyone who has given my stuff a chance, thank you big time. I hope this is just the beginning of a really long and wild journey.

Trial by Fire: Tuesday, June 23rd

What a character needs, and what a character wants, are usually totally different.

A character’s traits are the surface aspects that we might use to describe them: A person’s friends, job, spouse, car, hobbies, where they live, where they vacation, where they go to school.

But obviously these traits don’t define a person’s character. Character is revealed during times of trouble. When all of a person’s “traits” are snatched away, that’s when we find out what they’re really made of.

Right now I’m watching a TV Series, “Murder In the First”, in which the antagonist is a young, rich, entitled Silicon Valley entrepreneur (played by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series). Over the course of the first season, this character gets a few big scares, and he realizes that he’s not as invincible as he once thought. Suddenly his whole life is on the line, and all of his freedoms are nearly stripped from him.

Sure this character wants to be found “not guilty”, and go back to his company and his familiar ways. But what does his character really need? In order to become a better person, what does he need? Maybe these trials will be good for him – maybe he’ll learn a valuable lesson or two.

Maybe he just needs a scare? Maybe he needs to do hard time? That’s for the writers to decide.

Being able to distinguish between what characters want and what they need is key to creating rich, lively people on the page. It’s an important thing for authors to think about – and as with all of these “Art of Story” aspects – it’s a question worth asking in our own lives as well.

 

5 Quirks of the Fantasy Genre: Monday, June 22nd

I want to write a fantasy series this year, so I’m trying to do some respectful research on the topic… What do fantasy readers like? What do they expect? What are they tired of?

Here are a few notes I’ve been picking up on the fantasy genre.

1) Point Of View: The third person omniscient narrator was popular in the old days but has since fallen out of fashion. Much more popular is the third person limited, where the author jumps around to different characters, but stays close to each character, looking over their shoulders and only letting the readers know what the characters themselves know.

I must be a part of this trend, because I personally don’t like when authors jump out of the 3rd person limited and into the 3rd person omniscient.

I think it’s because, the omniscient narrator reminds me that the author is present, and that the author already knows everything. The third person omniscient narrator reminds me that there’s a writer behind the story. I’d rather not be reminded that I’m watching a movie – I just want to be swept up in the action as if I’m there.

2) Grey Characters are the most interesting. The battle between good and evil is not as white and black as it used to be in the old days. It’s important to get inside the heads of all the characters and realize their motivations. There are no heroes and no villains – only humans who want success, love, and prosperity –  humans who are insecure, afraid, and irreparably damaged just like you and me.

3) Portal Fantasy is apparently out of fashion? I don’t know if this is true or not, but it seems to be a hot topic between readers and authors.

A portal fantasy is when the main character travels in between worlds. The classic example is Alice in Wonderland. Other examples include Peter Pan, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and The Magicians.

A non-portal fantasy is when the story begins and ends in a fantasy world. Lord of the Rings is an easy example – there’s no modern day kids popping in and out of the Shire. Middle Earth is its own reality.

But portal fantasies are what I’ve always loved! Surely those types of stories can never be exhausted? There are pros and cons to both, sure. Maybe portal fantasies aren’t in fashion, but they’ve sure sold off the shelves in the past.

4) Introduce a Reader to a Fantasy World Slowly. Don’t throw in too much newness too quickly. Don’t scare the reader away. Give them something normal and introduce the magic gradually as you go along.

I appreciate this about the Golden Compass series. Pullman does a good job of letting you slowly into the fantasy world. Actually I think all successful fantasy authors have figured this out. A fantasy world is queer, unusual, brimming with foreign words and concepts. If you push too much of it too quickly, the reader might shy away. Give them time to get used to their new universe and they’ll slowly start to buy into it.

Harry Potter doesn’t begin with Harry flying crazily on his broom, casting Patronus spells against the Dementors. It starts with a regular boy in a regular enough house. We are slowly introduced to the crazy over time.

5) Avoid Info Dumps. I hear this a lot in regards to fantasy. The underlying problem is that fantasy authors are world-builders, and as such, they have a lot of information to relay to the reader. It goes without saying that “info-dumps” are bad in any genre, but in the fantasy world it’s a particularly sticky trap. Talented writers figure out how to relay that information slowly, over time, through the mouths of their characters, and in the midst of the action.

***

That’s all for now. A part two will be coming shortly. Whenever I start researching, I’m just reminded of how much I don’t know. But it’s fun to learn. The fantasy genre, for all these reasons, is intriguing to me. I loved it as a kid and I want to offer my own stories to the catalog.