Sunday, August 29, 2010

How Visual Are YOU?

WriteOnCon hosted a wonderful vlog by Mary Kole, the literary agent who writes the blog awesome blog, by the way, for anyone who is interested.

Mary Kole spoke on stereotypical characters, and how often agents see that in submitted manuscripts. The worst thing, she says, that can happen in your writing is "Cliche"...that is, writing exactly what everyone else does. Writing dies with cliche. Think about it. Wouldn't you get so tired of reading stories if every single one you read featured a person of less than average size who is faced with a quest to destroy an amulet, or a ring, or a necklace of great power so that an evil dark lord will be finally destroyed and the MC's haven of peace will be left alone? Tolkien did it brilliantly. I'd hate to have to read a thousand books of a similar nature, with perhaps some or none of Tolkien's masterfulness.

The reason agents react so strongly (and usually negatively) toward stereotypical characters is because there is something "grating" about the familiar. An agent really likes to be surprised by the new and intriguing story.

This vlog was so nice, because Mary took us on a quick tour on how one can take a simple stereotype and change it into a character that is uniquely your own.

It's actually rather simple in a shockingly difficult way. Mary Kole did it this way. She took a stereotype, (and a Rubik's Cube), and demonstrated how to liven up a character.
The Rubik's Cube is all one colour, to demonstrate:
The Math Elite, a super-brilliant kid who only cares about her GPA, and who is a little bit socially stilted. (Boring, right?)

Now, Mary Kole livens it up by twisting one side of the Rubik's Cube: This teenage Math Elite, she doesn't really like math. Numbers are something that just come easily to her. It's actually not something she wants to do with the rest of her life. (The Rubik's Cube is still a little boring, but it's a bit more interesting now.)

Okay, back to some cliche:

The teen Math Elite usually has strict parents that really stifle and try to control. (We restrain a yawn. Geez, that old story, huh?)

Mary Cole twists another side of the Rubik's Cube:
What if the parents aren't strict? What if they're actually irresponsible hippies, and it's the teen's job to basically keep the house together? (We're feeling less sleepy now, and the Rubik's Cube is definitely looking more interesting.)

Mary twists another side of the Rubik's Cube:
What if the teen Math Elite just got a scholarship to a really great college, but she's not going to take it because what she really wants to do is open a record store in her hometown. (Hey, this might be a story worth reading.)

Mary keeps twisting that Rubik's Cube, and it's looking quite mixed up and lovely now:
What if the teen Elite, brilliant and pretty, with quite a future before her if she so desires to take it, is also dating a "bad boy"? (We're definitely getting a much more interesting story, and a conglomeration of subplots nicely mixing inside the main plot line.)

We're starting to have more of an idea about our MC now, her character, her secrets, all the fun stuff that makes her an actual living multi-faceted person instead of just a boring cliche.

From here, Mary puts the Rubik's Cube down. It has served it's purpose in creating a juicier storyline than the stereotype we started out with. (At the end of the vlog, though, she puts it to rights in about 20 seconds. Amazing. I digress, though...) Now she produces a list with words on the list that can help to clarify what makes any human being, and therefore any character, unique. These are a person's, or character's:

Relationships with other people or characters
Hopes for Future
Secret Pain
Secret Joy
Things they do in private
Things they do in public

Once your character has become more human, Mary provides a list of questions to ask yourself about every one of you characters as you're writing your story that will help give your character more depth. These are:

  • Your character has a box buried in the depths of her closet. What does it contain?
  • It's late at night, and your character can't sleep. Everyone else in the house is basically dead to the world and will not wake up even if your character plays drums in the living room. In that dark middle of the night, what will your character do?
  • As a kid, your character wanted to be "X" when she grew up, but then "Y" happened, and now she wants to be "Z". What happened, and why did it change her trajectory to "Z"?
  • What is your character's relationship to all the other characters in the story? When is the relationship easy? When is it complicated, and what complicates it? What is your character's primary conflict with the other characters in the story? How does the conflict change over the course of the story?
One of the greatest weapons in your writing arsenal is the element of surprise. For example, no character should always be the same flavour, like a single vanilla flavour. It's boring boring boring. Add a little chocolate. Much better, right? In the same way, don't make your characters always 100% good. Again, boring, boring, boring. We like our characters to have some flaws in them, because it makes them human and more relateable. If you add a little chocolate flavouring of cowardice or deceit or pride, it makes your character come alive.

In the same way, don't make your villains 100% flawed. They have to have some spark in there that can make them a little bit sympathetic to the reader. Add some vanilla to their mix.

If you can pull a moment where your reader is surprised and intrigued when a new facet of your character is revealed, it will pull your reader deeper into the story and deeper into caring for your character. However, no matter what kind of surprise you pull, don't lose the character of your character. Make sure that your character stays in the character you created for her. Reveal new "wrinkles" or flaws or sparks of light that were previously unknown, but don't completely present a false side of your character to your reader in order to justify a scene in your story, because you will lose faith with your reader.

From here, you are well on your way to creating a completely real character that is unique, personal, and has a true story to be shared with the world. There's nothing like this journey, where you can take a cliche and turn it into something so much better.

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