What are a Focal– or any Character’s– Motives?

Heroes– focal characters if you prefer– do not sit on the couch or stay at home very much. They go out and DO all the things that most readers either WISH they could do, or could do, but don’t have the time/money/energy for whatever reason. Hence, we read about them. Now, while it may be possible in life that crazy people do things outside their houses for absolutely no reason at all, this does not keep a reader interested or make a good story. Actions not only must have consequences, they must have a motive. Consider this….you might…on a whim….go for a walk. Lots of people do this. However, you might make a rule that whenever you approach a fork in the road, you “flip a quarter” and heads you go left, tails you go right. Seems rather random, doesn’t it? Sure….but that’s not why we’re going for this walk. We’re going on this walk for entertainment– spontaneity even. Something fresh, different, and new. So for any good yarn to come alive….the focal character really needs not one motive, but several, both present and future.

To make a list of the Seven Deadly Sins (pride, gree, lust, envy, glutton, anger, and sloth) would be a good start and a list of “core” reasons as to why people do things, but it would be doing your characters a disservice…..for example….other motives are and not limited to…..

Revenge, Justice (see the difference there? To the extremes, the latter implies having someone arrested, the former implies vigilantism). Love, Power, (bare) Survival, Adventure, Boredom (and the want to alleviate that condition), Ambition, Romance, Sense of Security, Fame, Children, Cheap Thrills, Altruism (The simple desire to be good and live life to the benefit of others), Religion (or lack thereof), Patriotism, Self-Destruction.

With some soul searching or meditation, anyone can increase the list by asking him/herself why they do the things that they do. When a focal character has more than one motive (going to the diner to apply for a job and, oh, by the way, meet a member of the opposite sex at the same interview), that’s when things get more entertaining for the reader– and for you.

 

Elements of Scene– What are They?

I was rifling through some papers on my desk the other day and found one that I had written years ago– the “elements” or parts of a scene. Now bear in mind that in the 21st Century, readers don’t need (or want) to read about how something tastes in the middle of your scene about a traffic accident, and certainly not if the ice cream cone that the driver is eating doesn’t actually cause the wreck or become pertinent later in the story. As an example, the dessert happens to be rocky road and later in the story the focal character is eating rocky road ice cream– in a dish as opposed to a cone even– and that flavor reminds him or her of the auto incident days or years before. Without further adieu….the 12 elements of scene…..

  1. Time
  2. Place
  3. Position/Movement/Actions of the characters (focal and otherwise)
  4. Motives
  5. Attitudes of the characters (plural) toward those motives
  6. Light(ing), if any
  7. Sight
  8. Sound (including dialogue)
  9. Touch
  10. Taste
  11. Smell
  12. Body Awareness (Relaxed, Tense, Hungry, Exhausted, etc.)

As corny as this may or may not sound, another way to consider a scene is what we used to call a “salute” report. In other words:

  1. Size– How many soldiers/vehicles/whatever were involved?
  2. Activity– What were they doing there?
  3. Location– Where were they?
  4. Uniform– Who were they with? This is not necessarily confined to American/Russian/Mexican/Italian, it can also include Christian/Buddhist/Mormon etc. if that is pertinent to the topic at hand.
  5. Time– What time of day was it? The exact time of day during the scene may or may not be important to the characters involved, but that in and of itself can affect the scene in countless other ways. Is the sun up? Or is it down?
  6. Equipment– What were they carrying/using/possessing at the time of the scene or incident? This can be anything from an M-1 Abrams to a toothpick– if it’s pertinent to the yarn.

As an afterthought, right or wrong in the 21st Century things move faster than they did before. Elements of scene are all well and good but one of the fastest ways to get a reader to close your book is to– waste their time.

Writing and Soul Searching– How To

I’ve been doing some soul searching lately and it occurred to me that others may benefit from my pain (in a good way) and my travels. First, why does a writer know (or care) about self-examination? No, like most people in this life, the writer typically cares not for the ascension to become a better human being any more than his or her fellow homo sapiens do. Why would a writer want to practice self-examination then???

There is an old saying– because I know me, I can know you. Similarly, because I know you, I can know me. What is meant by that is that most of us– by and large– are not all that different from each other. When one is honest with themselves, each of us must admit that “at one time or another”, we have done some/most/all of these things, for various and sundry reasons….

  • Shoplifted/stolen
  • Speed (operating a moving vehicle)
  • Lied
  • Cheated someone
  • Cheated on their taxes
  • Nude in public– drunk or otherwise
  • Assault/Battery
  • Public Mischief (TP’d someone’s house for example)
  • Cut class/work
  • “Re-Gifted” a present
  • Yelled at someone (even in public) even for no apparent reason
  • Gossiped about another in a hurtful way

These are in no real order….and anyone can increase the list. It is by self-examination that we as writers can better understand our villains– and our heroes– and the why’s of the things that they do. Am I saying that if your villain is short on cash and you are writing about him/her robbing a bank, you should go hold up a convenience store to better understand your plot? No, of course not. However, it is by examining those time that we did (as in past tense) steal something that we can better understand why we stole/cheated/assaulted/etc. and– more importantly– how we felt about the experience from beginning to end.

So, down to brass tacks. In this example I will use theft– I’ve been typing about for the last couple of paragraphs anyway. Any of the previous actions could be treated this way with some forethought.

  • Why did I steal (assault someone, cut class, etc.)?
  • Was there any reason why I chose that person to steal from? Answers could very well be “random” (some guy left his dark glasses on the counter while I was standing there) to something more specific (That guy called me an asshole because I bumped into him).
    • If anything, what did the other person do to me?
  • Could I have done anything differently to achieve my goal (bought my own dark glasses), or was my motive only to cause pain/loss/etc. for the sake of pain itself (“teach the other person a lesson”)?
    • In the end, did I enjoy the experience? Remember, there are no right or wrong answers here. Really, only you need to know the answer.
  • How can I apply this knowledge to my characters, current and future?

I have deliberately kept these questions a little vague, short, and to the point in the hope that they will be more useful “in a pinch” when writing a story. For deeper revelations and better insight into the human experience, I may write another post on this subject, or any good book on self-examination will be helpful. Until then, these and still other questions along this line that some thought will provide will better help us (myself included) to understand the motivations that drive us to do the things that we do, and we hope, help us become better authors.

Why– and How– Using a “Pen” Name….

In some small way I want to apologize for my absence. To get back to writing again I have resorted to using a “pen” name. A pen name is a pseudo-name that authors will take on when (for any of a number of reasons) an author does not want to be associated with his writings. As a couple of examples– political or religious opinions that would not be well-received by the author’s relatives or writing about plots/ideas that may be dangerous to the author (no, I’m not trying to expose the mob, as an example).

As a caution, before writing under a pen name one must assume that if it goes onto the Internet, it can never be taken back. Also assume that sooner or later, someone will find it. Remember that well. While said relatives may find the paper and pen version of your writings under the pen name, on the Internet a stranger will find it– and then next your writing will be either in the Tabloids or on YouTube….maybe both. Pen and paper is always better. Enough said there.

Why? Why else does an author want to write under a pen name? I’m not “penciled in” to a particular genre of writing but if I was, I might want to enlist a pseudo-name to avoid putting off my fan base. (BARF!) If I’ve been writing cheesy love stories and after investing the time and effort to read my next story, suddenly my fans are “forced” to wade through a foul-mouthed action thriller, they wouldn’t want to look for my name on the subsequent book…. Another reason I might want to use a fake name is to appear to be a “new” author– say my previous books had fizzled and sputtered out (To have fizzled and sputtered, my books must have gotten started. They have not).

At the moment, I’m using the “privacy” to practice my craft– writing with emotion, with feeling. My existing yarns are not getting me there in terms of truly relating to the characters on a deeper, more personal level. Thoughts and actions may drive a plot, but feelings make a story personal to a reader. Even if the reader doesn’t actually relate to or even agree with the focal character of the story, the fact that the focal character is actually affected by the events around him or her gives the plot meaning. Who wants to read a story where a character is stagnant?

Done correctly, a pen name can be a useful tool to avoid backlash of the writing that the author is doing, to appear to be a different (new) author, to switch genres, or even to switch techniques without fear of “being seen” in one’s true self.

How To Get Started….Can You Dream?

So I’m sitting here working on my current yarn (that will get me fired if I publish it, but no matter) and something struck me about a comment a visitor made about never being able to really grasp– you know– writing. At the time, I was thinking about:

  • Hamburger           $1.99
  • Cheeseburger       $2.49
  • Fries                       $1.09
  • Soda                       $0.99

Okay, I’ve written something, a menu. I’m not going to make any money writing menus, especially without a restaurant to sell hamburgers with, but I have written SOMEthing. That’s a start. So who is my audience? If I want to make quicker money and I’m good at writing technical stuff, I may want to consider writing training manuals for a major corporation. Have fun– I could do that IF I wanted to or if I were hungry enough but– not my style. For the moment at least, we are talking about fictional writing….

What IS fiction? A fiction is just that– a fantasy– on your (the authors) part. You may never make a single dollar from your efforts, but unless you want that to be your sole aim then that’s not the point. The point is– through it all, the hair pulling, the deadlines, the needy relatives demanding your time when you really want/need to write– you want to ENJOY what you do for a living (currently, I don’t).

So the question becomes….how well do you dream? And we are not discussing that wonderful chaos that no one ever really admits to the contents of after we are awake again. In a way…I am referring to vision. Vision is that thing that allows a man to stand in the middle of a corn field growing crops to feed the hungry….and instead he “sees” the shopping center that he intends to build in five years time. He even sees this down to the janitors picking up the garbage that his store shoppers leave behind as they walk out to their cars.

Difficult? It does take a little practice but no….not really…. You think about your day ahead of you, don’t you? If not, let’s pretend that you do. In that possible future that you are considering and how it may affect you later on that day, you are GOD. You control all the lights, the scenery, what your friends and enemies say….EVERYTHING. Rarely does any of this come to pass of course, but this line of thinking is in fact, a fiction. Unless you are already a famous actor, politician, or other celebrity no one will ever want to read it, but it’s a fiction. So let’s spruce it up a bit…..

In this fiction we have a hero (this is totally off the top of my head) and we will call him Jack….. Jack walks down the street and…..he makes it to the corner liquor store a block away. Mission accomplished– pretty boring, huh? Yep. Boring.

In terms of dreaming, there are five “W”s– Who, What, When, Where, Why. Now the Who we know– Jack. The When we know, that specific scene that we are working on. The Where we usually know (unless we want to change the scene itself)– the location of that we are writing about at that moment. The WHAT….now THAT is the question….

Readers LOVE conflict…it keeps them turning the page. Boredom will close a book or a web page faster than anything else– except the dog making a turd on the living room floor 😉 So in this context, road construction that happens to be blocking the sidewalk is a form of conflict. It impedes Jack’s progress toward his goal. Is Jack getting to the liquor store important to him enough to sprint toward the mound of dirt on the concrete and jump over it? Probably not. What about go around the block or take another route? Probably. Is the obstacle so great that he turns around and decides to go to the liquor store another day? Probably not…….

In real life, these decisions happen every hour of every day. Fairly often, a particular goal will wait until the next day or next week and maybe even with good reason. Readers don’t want to read about the boring lives that we live. The already know boring– they want to read ACTION. They want ADVENTURE….or at least something different. Otherwise, why read the book?

The other side of that coin is that there is always a point of TOO much action (all at once). That becomes confusing and difficult to follow for the reader (another closed book). As an example, if Jack were in a traffic accident and then he was in yet another traffic accident/gunfight/brawl before the first conflict had been at least reasonably concluded, the story typically loses proper continuity and flow.

Then there is the WHY of the conflict. In the traffic accident example, was Jack being inattentive? Not a very good story, but possible. Was he inattentive at that moment to introduce a critical character– his future wife– into the story? Much better. The list of possibilities is endless, but as a starting point there are always the seven sins– pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and gluttony (sloth). One might also add fear…as a possible motivation. Fear that a character will either lose something that they have or not get something that they want. Fear is a WONderful motivator for a character– protagonists and antagonists alike.

Scenery vs. Scene

One of the greatest (and sometimes most daunting) things about writing fiction is that as long as your reader keeps turning the page….you are GOD…..as long as the reader keeps reading. As the author you control not just everyone’s actions (or inaction), but also the lights, the sound, the smells (good and bad)….everything. The hard part in writing fiction is remembering that. For example….your main character is in the bathroom and one of the supporting characters who is really not feeling well walking into the bathroom. The hero might say:

“You look like shit.” The new face might even respond:

“I think I have pneumonia.” And you the author would know that both are true statements. The reader doesn’t know that. He or she only knows what you tell them. Additionally, beforehand the author might have penned:

Sarah had coughed most of the night and had a fever when she woke up that morning.

On the one hand, unless you want that sickness itself to be the entire point of the story, you probably don’t want to go off onto a long tired of every detail of the medical condition– your reader will lose interest rather quickly because the action, the flow, of the story has stopped. If the sickness itself is not pertinent to the storyline, then that fact may need to be slighted or even cut altogether. On the other hand, to create the illusion and continue the fantasy of the story, you will want to SHOW the reader that the supporting character is having a hard time. In this example, it’s an integral part of the scene and quite necessary to the story (explaining why the hero wasn’t at the scene of the murder in the next chapter, for example)…..

Entering the bathroom, Sarah wheezed as she exhaled. Looking over at her, John noted the bags under her eyes from lack of sleep and continued brushing his teeth in front of the mirror. He knew that saying anything at that moment would only make his morning worse and that she was an uncooperative patient. Leaning over the sink she used the vanity for support and labored a coughing fit. Daintily, she spit phlegm into the sink and rinsed it down. John continued his brushing motions and Sarah breathed heavier than normal. Having finished, John lovingly placed his hand on her forehead and felt on fire. Annoyed, John couldn’t take it anymore. He surmised that his morning was probably going to be worse anyway:

“So, which clinic are we going to?”

To keep the reader turning the page, the movie that you are presenting to them (in their head as they read) must not stop, and certainly for any length of time. The trick is to work the scene into the action of the story by having the characters react to the world that you have built around each of them. You don’t want to overdo it– include only the descriptions insofar as they are pertinent to the story. In the above example, did it matter whether the sink had one basin or two? Not really…hence why I didn’t include it in the “story”. That said, it gives your reader the illusion that your story is real when you work the scenery (disease) into the story without actually giving too much information.

Try it 🙂

What Makes a Good Villain?

We’re going to talk about liking villains, so let’s cut the crap. The truth is, admit it or not, we LIKE our darker sides. Although we would never ACTUALLY do it, who has NEVER daydreamed of successfully robbing a bank? Oh sure, the money is nice, REALLY nice….but that’s not what we so deeply enjoy. We enjoy the thought of “getting over” on the system and/or our fellow man.

Who doesn’t lust– at least occasionally? And some of us keep from getting caught by our spouse! <satire>

Who doesn’t like to take time off– at least occasionally? Some of us are more apt to call it “retirement” while they lounge around and do nothing all day– for days/weeks on end.

Who doesn’t want to be/feel at least a little superior to their fellow man or woman? Guilty….as charged….sorry. Gandhi I’m not.

So when writing a villain, don’t be afraid to write a REALLY bad guy. Memorable characters (good or bad) make for repeat readers 🙂

Ok….now that we have that out of the way…there are two encampments in writing a good villain. The first has a much narrower audience in that the reader has to be more in touch with their “bad” side and be willing to look at it– especially in comparison to others’ bad sides. Villain number one really shines in the arena of how he REALLY screwed the good guy over (usually before being defeated in the end). This can be accomplished either in a new and interesting way to the reader– or with a certain flair and style that the reader didn’t expect. For example (I was thinking about this on the way home the other day), you could write a story about a villain who has a penchant for identity theft. You would want to leave out a few critical parts of the process of course but the villain finds unsuspecting victims on social media and steals their identity. Okay, ho hum at best….however….. This particular villain “follows” the person online and learns everything about the prospective victim including likes, dislikes, quirks, idioms, etc. etc. etc. When the villain is ready, he (or she) locks the victim out of their accounts and BECOMES the victim….online. The villain starts a campaign not just learning about the victim’s friends and relatives likes/dislikes/habits/private information, but also poisoning the victims friends and relatives into believing that the victim had changed– as a person– into what the villain wanted the victim to become. The whole point of this little exercise for the villain is not just to rob the target of their money, SSN, etc but also to fool everyone into believing that when the REAL victim does show up….no one believes them.

More often than not villain number two will be used– and easier to write. Very few people in all of human history are 100% evil. Almost everyone has SOME good quality about them. This type of villain is every bit as Evil as the first, but has at least one or more redeeming qualities that help the reader identify or relate to the bad guy in some way. This villain may embezzle lots of money each from millions of people (and even believe that he or she was right in doing so), but might also….really love dogs….for example (who doesn’t love a dog?). Another villain might be a high-profile assassin– who just happens to do pro-bono work assassinating corrupt politicians while leaving evidence of the corruption a the scene of the crime.

No one reads a story hoping to find a weenie or easily vanquished bad guy at the end. Villains that truly embody the darker side of humanity– encouraging the reader to really detest or even hate them– are the stuff of great fiction. And that (along with a little good side in the villain) is what makes the bad guy memorable.

Why have a Character Sheet?

Many might ask the point in having an actual sheet or document describing the pro/antagonist. This helps bring the character to life for the reader, focuses your thoughts as to who the character is, and is a useful tool in fleshing out the character. It also helps when you’re “right in the middle of something” and you can’t remember what you wanted your figment of your imagination to be– at the time.

Everything else being equal, the more information you create the better. Now that said, some details will never make it into the story and that’s okay. Your reader will never see the sheet anyway. Certainly not unless you show it to them. Another point to note is that especially after you create a “standard” blank character sheet (they’re so much easier as a starting point), it’s okay to leave some items “Unknown”, “Irrelevant”, or “TBD” (to be determined (later)).

How much effort SHOULD you place into a character sheet? To save your time (and perspiration), let me ask you this– how central is the character to the story? For your primary hero/heroine, you’ll probably start with no less than a half-sheet and eventually work into a whole sheet or more. At the other end of the spectrum, a story that I’m still working on has “less than half sheets”. It’s just simply a listing of the character’s name and the “hook” or detail that I want or need to remember (the town bartender, for example).

What goes into a character sheet (other than name/height/weight/hair and eye color, etc.)? What are the character’s likes and dislikes? What social groups or hobbies does he she have? Who is his or her employer? What is his or her faith (if any)? What special talents does he or she have (harmonica, plays chess really well, auto mechanic in his/her spare time, etc.)? What makes him or her tick? As an example, I will paste an existing character sheet out of my drawer…..

Name: Cecil Rougher (Becker), Magistrate of Beckersville

Age:42

Sex: Male

Height: 5”4”

Weight: 150

Hair/Eye Color: Black/Brown

Father’s Name:

Mother’s Name:

Hometown: Beckersville

Education Level and Origin: 12th grade (or equivelant?)

Occupation: Career Politician who never really made it

Past Occupation(s): Politician, Soldier

Political Leanings: Pro-Goverment

Group Affiliations:

(Factions):

Religion/Faith (if any): none

Weapons Skill (if any): Spear and Shield

Favorite (and why):

Food:

Drink:

Time of Day:

UNfavorite (and why):

Food:

Drink:

Employed By: Capital Government

Boss: ? But he needs one here…..

Pets/Sidekicks (if any):

Weapon (if any): Mace/Dagger

Talents (whistling, guitar, etc.): Fights Florentine (Two maces and no Shield)

Possessions: Two maces, suit of chain mail, Magistrate’s garb

This sheet is only an example. As you can see, many of the entries are left blank. I haven’t written enough of the story to need to fill them in yet, and this is only one of the more minor antagonists in the story. You can get as creative (color coded if you like) or as simple as you wish. The important thing is to make your characters MEMORABLE. Anyone can write about a hero who lets a good person die. Detailing not just why the good person had to die (to save hundreds/millions of other innocent lives) but how the hero came to the conclusion that an innocent person had to die, how he/she felt about the event, and how the event changed him or her, now THAT is what makes characters become real– or at least seem so. And that is what keeps readers engaged and coming back.