Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

I Need This Whiskey For Research

Give me all your research material!

People always throw around the old advice “write what you know”. I entirely blame that single phrase for every boring, insipid, slice-of-fucking-life novel I have been forced to read. Slice of life? Slice my wrists, more like.

I hate this advice because people take it as an escape hatch. I know about being a piece of human cardboard, so I will write about that.

It’s not a prescription, people. It’s a challenge.

Write what you know? Then you better know some interesting stuff. And most people do. The average person is, frankly, not that fucking average. I have yet to meet someone who didn’t have at least one interesting thing about them. Maybe they’re an expert in knitting sock heels*, or they can name the stats of every NFL player who has ever been indicted for a major crime. People are interesting.

But tell those same people to write what they know and they gravitate towards the most boring, everyman incarnation of themselves. Because characters are supposed to be relatable.

You know what I relate to? People who do things. Instead of sitting around waiting for the plot to start, they’re out there learning to code, hiking mountains, teaching a robot to love, or perfecting their blintz recipe. They’re talking, learning, fighting, fucking. When the plot happens, it’s interrupting a life that was already in progress.

Take the advice, but take it in the spirit of learning. You want to write about a computer programmer who’s an expert on scotch? Read up on some coding languages and try a few lines. After that, get thee to the distillery or local watering hole and start trying stuff. If you’re really dedicated, you’ll learn about hangovers at the same time.

Now, some things are obviously impossible to actually learn. I’m not likely to become a sorcerer through watching YouTube videos.** You will not gain superpowers by letting radioactive spiders bite you; you will probably gain a rash, though. But those things are not all that make that character interesting. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, but he’s also a scientist, a nerd, and a photographer. Someone writing him would probably do well to crack open a few science books, or take a look at the standards in newspaper photography these days.

So, maybe it shouldn’t be “write what you know” at all. Maybe it should be “write what you can learn”.

*Seriously, there are a lot of variants. I know like 8 without even trying, and I’m not a hardcore knitter.

**Much to my chagrin, I assure you.

 

All The Feels: Making Character Deaths Count

Here lies old Skully Face. He was a skully face.

Here’s a familiar story:

Plot, plot, plot, character does something, plot, plotty plot plot, character does something else, plot, character dies and it’s so fucking tragic. Why can’t you see how tragic this is?!?

Except that it’s not tragic. Because, according to my super-technical summary up there, that character didn’t do much of anything. The plot did stuff, but the character was mostly just along for the ride. They were driven, not driving.

I call this the bystander effect. Too often characters in stories that die are not important. They were either plot devices or someone with so little impact on the other characters that they might as well have had a sign around their neck reading I exist only to provide the protagonist with a tearful moment. If you’re alert, you can see the death coming because that character serves no other purpose.

It’s no good just telling people that an event is tragic. No one likes being led around by the nose. And your audience is smart. They will know when they are being forcibly led, and they will resent you for it like kids being guilt tripped into eating their vegetables by Mom’s descriptions of starving people. And then they stop reading.

Here’s how you make a character’s death count: make them an actual character. They should do things with other characters that have emotional weight. They should have an affect on the world around them. They shouldn’t just be a Feels Delivery System from central casting.

There are shorthands you can use for this–mostly family relationships–but be careful. You might think that your protagonist’s brother dying is a big deal, but unless he had something to do he might as well be a random pigeon that got knocked out the sky. It’s got a hell of a lot more impact if you show your protagonist’s older brother looking out for her and then dying. Then she has to carry the weight of his death as well as the fear that no one can help her now. It makes her hesitate before getting close to people because he already sacrificed himself to save her and why does everyone she love die?

All the feels. Just because her brother was a person with a real impact on her life instead of a random bystander wearing a tag that said “main character’s brother who dies conveniently lolz”.

Remember: every character in a fully realized world is the protagonist of their own tale. They have things that they want. So they will interact with your protagonist with that in mind. They’ll try to move things in their direction. There should be the sense that, if you suddenly stopped following the main character and started following this other guy, the story would not grind to a halt. It might be a different story–and in the case of Brother, likely a shorter story*–but it would still be a story.

Don’t tell me to feel. Make me feel by giving me a reason. And I’ll be with you until the closing pages.

*Also a tragedy.

Meaningful Explosions: How To Get The Reader’s Attention

THE FUTURE IS WRITTEN ON YOUR INSIDES.

If there is a piece of writing advice that is taken too fucking literally–aside from ‘write what you know’–it’s ‘make something exciting happen on the first page.’ You know what that means? That means I’ve read far too many books–and seen far too many movies, because apparently everyone gets their advice from the same place–over the last little while that start with something actually exploding.

This is a problem.

Now, look: I like explosions as much as the next guy. More, probably. And I get that you want to grab the reader’s attention. But having some random tart push a button and explode a mail box doesn’t get my attention. Because, without at least a little context, I don’t give a fuck. For all I know, that’s how you send mail in her world.*

Random explosions, surprise gun fights, being dropped into the middle of a car chase–these are all exciting things. But I could turn on the news and see that shit. Hell, if I turn on Fox News I can get it 24/7, with a side order of wharrrrgarbl. But that doesn’t mean it’s compelling. And it’s a little insulting to your audience to assume that the only way they can be tethered to a story is by having something spontaneous combust.

What I need is story. I need questions. I need things that give me a reason to keep reading. And, sorry to say, explosions are not often it.

You could argue that the explosion provides a question: why the hell did she blow up the mail box? But that’s not a very interesting one. We can do better.

Try this on for size: we see the bomber, feel her nervousness, see the sweat beading on her lip. And she pushes the button. Mail box gets blown to mail box heaven**. Pieces of letters and bills and cards and flyers flutter down from the sky.

And then, instead of running away, the bomber goes toward it and starts snatching handfuls of the mail confetti from the air. Words. Single letters. A phone number, or pieces of one. As sirens approach in the distance, she hunches over on the sidewalk and starts putting the random pieces she collected into some kind of order, reading it like the old shamans would read the future in entrails. Because this is the only way she can find out what she needs to know before it’s too late.

Better, right?

This takes up about the same amount of real estate on the page as just an explosion, so you’re not slowing anything down. And you open up so many more possibilities for questions. The question is no longer why did she destroy the mail box? The question is What is she trying to find out? Or maybe Why does she think she can read the entrails of a mail box? And my personal favourite: Can she?

The difference between ‘things happen’ and ‘everything explodes’ is meaning. I don’t want random explosions. I want meaningful explosions.*** Or at least explosions that hint at meaning.

And, if in doubt, leave out the explosion altogether, and just go with the meaning.

*Side note: I’d mail more letters if this were the case.

**Where all addresses are written clearly with full postal codes, and no one ever tips them over.

***’Meaningful Explosions’ will be the name of my band.

 

The Only Two Tools Writers Need

Time to get rid of that special software that promises to write your novel for you.

Let’s talk about writing tools.

There are eleventy billion products out there that will attempt to convince you that you need them to write. Software. Notebooks. Workshops and courses. Special pens that make coffee and are also vibrators.* Some of these things might help some people. But, aside from things to write with and on, there are only two tools you really need when it comes to writing, and both of them are mental.

Are you ready?

Your two tools are: the magic wand and the sledgehammer.

The magic wand** is your creativity and wonder. It has a sign that says Ideas come from right fucking here, asshole.*** This is the thing that shows you all those possibilities. Everything you can possibly create comes from here.

But the magic wand, for all its power, is useless on its own. It’s fun, sure. It always keeps you entertained. But it’s incapable of making anything.

For that you need the sledgehammer.

The sledgehammer doesn’t give a shit about magic. It’s about results. It takes the ideas and makes something out of them. Stories, mostly. Every time you sit down to grind out the word count, that’s the sledgehammer at work.

And, like the magic wand, it is also useless on its own. With no magic, your writing will lack life. Ever read a story that felt like a DVR programming manual? That’s a sledgehammer with no magic wand. The story gets finished, but you’re left wondering why you bothered in the first place.

Here’s another way to break it down:

Magic Wand: Holy shit, check out this dinosaur ninja I just thought up, it has lasers and claws and is also a princess, oh my god, hahahahahah

Sledgehammer: Turn on the computer. Let’s figure out how to make this work. Oh, and you’ve got 1000 words to go today.

Of course, they don’t always work this well together. Sometimes the magic wand gives you samurai unicorns and the sledgehammer thinks that’s stupid. And sometimes the sledgehammer builds something that the magic wand thinks is booooooorrrrrring. They fight. They work at cross purposes. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like they’ll ever get it together. But, like the odd pairing in every buddy cop movie, if you keep throwing them into ridiculous situations, they eventually figure out that they work better together.

So strengthen both. Absorb the weirdness that the magic wand runs on. Hone your practical skills so the sledgehammer is easier to lift. With those two in your toolbox, you’ll be amazed at what you make.

*Could someone invent this real quick?

**Bonus fact: The Husband used to have a magic wand at his place of work, for customers who demanded the impossible. When new regulations required that everything be labelled, he even labelled it ‘magic wand’.

***Magic does not equal nice.

It Came From Twitter: Writers On Their Favourite Part Of Writing

Yesterday, comic writer Gail Simone* posed the following question on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-04-30 at 10.29.58 AM

If you take part in the Twitter—or even if you don’t; Twitter is public, as many celebrities have discovered far too late—you should go read the replies. You’ll learn that one, Twitter appears to be made up of at least 40% writers, and, two, that everyone has a different answer for this. Seriously. Fucking everyone.

Some of the answers resonated with me—characters, losing yourself in the zone—while others left me pulling a face best described as ‘bewildered’. It turns out there are people out there who enjoy world building most of all. Not that I hate it or anything, but it’s sure as hell not on the top of my list.

Fox’s favourite part is convincing people he’s Voltaire.

No, the top of my list is relationships. Characters are people, so they interact like people. Or they should, if I’m doing my job right. The relationships that develop between characters, especially ones that have known each other for a long time, are the best thing ever to me. I love writing the old friends meeting over drinks to shoot the shit. Or enemies talking at an arm’s length, every word an attempt to gain the advantage. Or the people who’ve just met, uncertain about what they think of each other.

Love, hate, contempt, admiration, uncertainty, mistrust, friendship…all these are gold to me. There’s nothing I’d rather write than relationships. And the fallout of relationships, commonly known as ‘plot’. Because that’s what gives the truest, most dynamic version of a story in my opinion: when the way people interact—they way they are—makes things happen. They’re not just reacting to a bunch of shit that happens around them. They made it happen, both the good and the bad. And now they have to decide what to do about it.

So, riddle me this, writers: what’s your favourite part of writing?

*Do you follow her on Twitter? If not, you should, if only to learn how troll from a master.

Breaking Out The Hard Stuff: Writing The Parts You Really Don’t Want To

No one ever promised you ‘easy’.

It’s a myth that writing always feels good. Sometimes it’s hard, for a variety of reasons. The most obvious of these is of course not knowing what to write next, or not knowing how. But I’m here today to address the lesser-known but still powerful type of hard: emotionally difficult.

Case in point: the other day I was working on a scene that honestly made me uncomfortable. It was about a rapist justifying his own actions to himself. The whole thing left me feeling like I’d just taken a running leap into an open sewage pit.

I didn’t want to write it. I don’t even know if that particular scene will make it into the final cut. But I needed to know how he would see it, because of course very few people ever see themselves as the Bad Guy*, so that I knew how he would act later. Because how he acts later is instrumental to how the main character sees him, and makes a decision regarding him. There are serious consequences to his action, and I needed to know how he would accept—or, in this case, not accept—these consequences.

Still, that was a hard 1,000 words. It took me damn near all afternoon, when normally I’d crank out that many words in an hour and then get a cookie. I wanted to stop, not because the words weren’t coming, but because when they were I didn’t want them to. I spent half the afternoon writing a couple of sentences, getting weirded out, and walking away for ten minutes or so before coming back. Because, distasteful as I found it, it needed to be written.

So I wrote it, and felt dirty all over when I was done.

But yesterday I opened it up again and read it over, and it turns out that scene is exactly what it needs to be. Anyone else reading it will come away feeling the same way I did. Which, considering what we’re discussing, is the idea.

This comes back to that old Stephen King quotation that I bandy about every now and then:

“[S]topping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea. Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.”

You can’t leave the hard stuff out and write only the pieces you want. Because there’s gold in them there hills, if you’ve got the guts to make the climb and dig it out. It won’t be nice, and it won’t be easy. But whoever said art has to be either was a fucking liar.

*Though he is. No worries about that.

Skinny Dipping In The Fountain Of Weird: How To Get More Ideas

Sweet, sweet weaponized death.

I get a lot of questions about the way I think. Not all of them the good kind, either; about half those queries are phrased “What’s wrong with you?” That’s because, if you spend any significant amount of time with me, either in real life or online, you’ll eventually be exposed to the Fountain of Weird. This is what I call the part of my brain dedicated entirely to Weird Shit: dinosaurs with tanks for heads, six-limbed cat-people, a five-dimensional intelligent ebola virus, Soviet Russian weaponized cupcakes that eat you. Everyone who reads this blog? You’ve already been exposed. I hope your shots are up to date.

The questions, though—or at least those ones that don’t cast doubt on my sanity—are mostly about the process. How do I think of stuff? Why is it so easy? Why the hell would you say that out loud?

The reason I think of this stuff is because I’ve trained my brain to say yes.

It’s easy to dismiss things as childish or silly or ridiculous or wrong. It’s especially easy when those things don’t actually exist. But by taking the time to consider them, no matter how fucking weird they are, you open the doors to creativity. You’re allowing your mind to play. And that’s where the good stuff comes from.

If you’re always saying no, then sooner or later your brain will stop presenting you with the strange and wonderful and often downright disturbing stuff that it comes up with. It won’t do work that’s not rewarded.

This is why so many writers say that coming up with new ideas is never a problem. They’ve trained themselves to think this way. To say hell, yes to the sentient muffin bakery with the side-mounted cannon* that just crawled out of the dark recesses of their mind. Because what looks silly at first glance might have a great idea hidden inside.

And if not, you just spent five minutes imagining a sentient bakery firing muffins through windows**. How is that not awesome?

So, teach yourself to say hell, yes before no. Teach yourself to consider before you reject stuff outright as stupid or wrong or, my personal favourite, ‘a waste of time’. Give that weird thing some time, even if it’s only a minute or two.

Because the weird things, my little badgers, are the best things.

*”DO YOU KNOW THE MUFFIN MAN NOW, MOTHER FUCKER?”

**I’m officially stuck on weaponized baked goods today.

Coffee, Create, Repeat: Planning Chaos

My schedule is not that different from this. I even schedule a nap some days.

I have a daily routine: get up, read articles, drink coffee, get dressed*, write, exercise, lunch, shower, edit. Nearly all of the aforementioned activities are accompanied by music and the occasional caffeinated beverage. It sounds boring. That’s because it is. And that’s by design.

The less random daily shit I have to devote brain power to, the more space gets freed up for actual creativity. In other words, every second I don’t spend deciding if I’m going to read articles before or after my run is a second that I can use to think of reasons why my main villain seemingly devoted his entire life to being a giant douche. You know, the important stuff.

People think creativity is all about chaos: the endless swirl of energy that moves ideas around in your head and makes you spew them out on the page or the canvas or the eight-track**. And, you know, that’s part of it. But only part. Because the secret is to balance chaos with order. Very little gets created when you’re standing in front of the open fridge, wondering if you should have lunch now or later.

And then there’s the matter of time management. If your writing routine consists of ‘sitting down whenever I feel like it and scribbling down a few words before not looking at it for a month’, then you’re not going to produce as much work as someone with a more regular routine. Because of that, what you do produce will likely be of lower quality as well. Not because of talent, but because in order to get better at something you have to work at it consistently. I started a routine a couple of years ago, and the improvements I’ve seen in my writing in that span of time have kicked the living shit out of the improvements I saw in the years before when I was flailing around and figuring things out.

Now, what ‘consistently’ means to you is variable. I have to write five days out of seven, but I often do more because I want to. A lot of weeks I write every day. But not everyone likes to do that, even if they can. Maybe you’re a Saturday writer. And that’s fine. Maybe your routine involves getting up at 2 am to paint yourself with chocolate frosting and run naked through your neighbour’s backyard. And that’s fine, too.*** Whatever your routine is, just make sure it works—i.e., it makes you write.

And don’t forget to break your own rules every now and then. It’s a routine, not a prison sentence.

* I don’t like working in my pyjamas, though since I work from home, I totally could if I wanted to. That’s right: I’m just throwing that opportunity away because I can.
**I know there are artists out there who record on vinyl; is there anyone who’s doing eight-tracks?
***Just stay out of my backyard. I’ve placed bear traps.

The 7 Faces of Doubt, Or How To Never Get Anything Done, Ever

 

That bat-faced little shit in the bottom right, he’s the Distraction Of The Internet.

Doubt is the worst of all demons. You can keep those weird ones with the goat faces that haunted Sunday School when I was but a wee impressionable young thing.* Doubt is the worst because 1) it’s insidious and 2) most of the time, you’re the one producing it. I’ve never met a creative person who wasn’t, at some moments, a festering boil of doubt. You’re being your own demon, which I imagine is a big savings for Hell. Teach people to condemn themselves, save demon-power. Of course, it’s non-unionized work, but you can’t have everything.

But doubt it a tricky bastard. It doesn’t always look the same, and sometimes it brings friends. Sometimes it takes the form of something so different that it could be mistaken for something sensible. But it’s a lie, and you need to be able to see through it.

So, to help you with your daily projects, writing and otherwise, here is my spotter’s guide to doubt:**

1. Procrastination: If you never get around to it, it doesn’t count as ‘failing’, right?

2. Research: I just need to know how yaks were essential in to the culture and economy of the mountain people of Outer Mongolia***, and then I can start.

3. Tiredness: Oh, I was totally going to get to that today, but I didn’t sleep too well last night because I had that dream about the robot otters again. And, you know, there’s not enough coffee, and I could really use a cookie, and *indeterminate waffling noises*. Tomorrow. Tomorrow’s fine.

4. The ‘Muse’: I just don’t feel it. You don’t expect me to work when she’s not here, do you? Art cannot be rushed!****

5. Distraction. OH MY GOD I LOVE TWITTER SO FUCKING MUCH.

6. Perfection: I can’t start until I have the perfect opening line. And I can’t move on until I’m sure that everything is in place. It has to be perfect, or there’s no point. It’s not like there’s a thing called ‘editing’.

7. Timing: Ehn, it’s not really a good time now. I haven’t had enough Yak Butter tea*****, and it looks like it’s going to rain. Besides, I only start things on the first day of the month, and this month that was a Sunday, and I don’t work on Sundays. Maybe next time things will line up right. Today….mmm, doesn’t look good. Sorry.

So, what form is your doubt taking today?
*Honestly, I’m surprised more Catholics don’t write horror. The shit they tell you in Mass is fucking terrifying.
**At the moment, I’m dealing mainly with #3 and #7, with a side order of Holy Crap Am I Busy.
***…I actually wrote ‘yak’, realized I was just going on old movies to assume they were in Tibet and the like, and had to take a ninety second research break. IRONY FOR THE WIN.
****Fuck yeah it can. In the words of Henry Miller, “Even when you can’t create, you can work”. It’s not all fairy dust and magic wands; sometimes you need a sledgehammer.
*****Now I’m stuck on yaks. Though using the reference twice means the research is less a waste of time, right?