Guest Post — by Scott McGlasson

*No, I didn’t forget Witchfinder, but this has turned into “one of those weeks” and we’re beset with errands.  I will post it later this afternoon.  Meanwhile our very own BS McGlasson…. er… I mean Scott… startled me two weeks ago with a question ‘does creating a character often give you an inferiority complex’.  As I couldn’t say that it did, I told him to write it up  and if I liked it, I’d make it a guest post.  Yeah, yeah, to the rest of you, the glory and undying fame of writing before billions millions er… thousands of my adoring fans fascinated minders can be yours too.  And I run into heavy stuff often enough I don’t mind having a few guest posts laid by.  The caveat is I hate editing with an undying passion so it will take a while for me to read it.  Meanwhile, put your hands together (not that way.  I WILL do Witchfinder, you don’t need to pray for my sanity or whateve… oh, I see.  Thanksgiving.  Yes, I see that) and give a warm ATH welcome to Scott McGlasson.*

I, Suck

by Scott McGlasson

We spend a great deal of time working on the minute details of our characters, but none so much as our protagonists and our antagonists.  With protagonists, even the shady anti-heroes, they inevitably have qualities that make us care about what happens to them.  When a character really works, it’s almost like we’re meeting an actual person and listening to the way they describe themselves rather than we few dreamers creating them out of whole cloth.

Have you ever created a character that made you criticize yourself in some way?  Once the characters had fleshed themselves out, have you ever looked at their way of doing things compared to how you do and found yourself lacking?  Cuz I have recently and it’s not all that much fun.

My journey into self-inflicted angst began, as most journeys of self-inflicted angst do, at Borders Books.  But first…

Scott: So, Borders Books…tell me.  What is best in life?

Borders Books:  The open latte counter, fleet-footed employees nowhere to be found, overpriced books in customers’ hands, and the pink highlights in our employee’s hair.

Scott:  Wrong, Borders.  It’s to crush your profits, see your customers driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of your granola-gnawing staff.

…and now back to the blog, already in progress.

Like most of you, whether you want to admit it or not, I raided my local Borders Books as it was going out of business.  How could you not?  In the weeks before the nearby franchise closed, they went from thirty percent off to eighty percent off books which had, only weeks before, been ridiculously expensive.  The trick, it seemed, was to ride the crest of the chaos, hiding away the titles I wanted under other less interesting books like A Winner’s Guide To Successful Parcheesi Tournaments.  Books of that caliber worked very well to camouflage my future purchases from the grubby little paws of other wannabe writers.

The end result was a veritable Tower Of Babel of babble about writing.  At least half of those books were on character development and how your protagonist could very well suck if you didn’t pay heed.  Well, I didn’t pay heed, but I did pay ten cents on the dollar.  Today most of said tomes are under a layer of dust roughly comparable to that layered atop a forty-year-old’s home gym equipment.

Hidden deep within this collection of preemptive errata were things I’ve actually found quite useful.  Sarah Domet’s 90 Days To Your Novel, for instance, has two things going for it that I was able to apply to my greener than green, wet behind the ears authoring; a solid approach to synopsis and outline, and a useful way to do character sheets.  Am I going to use the rest of it?  Hell.  No.  There’s no way on this Earth or any other that my manuscript will be finished in 90 Days, but I see nothing wrong with selectively parsing out the useful tidbits.  Just won’t tell anyone I used a “90 Days To…” book, ‘kay?  Don’t rat me out.

From what I gather from the published authors that I’ve traded correspondence with (including our immediate blogging goddess), most do not use character sheets to flesh out their cast.  In the interest of aping success, I had not planned on using them either and was generally happy with the way my main guys and gals were describing themselves.  I hit a low point in my plot development last week and needed to go off on a tangent to break the block, so I thought I’d give this character sheet a shot, as it were.

It had the typical stuff.  His/Her Name?  Where Does He/She Live?  What Is His/Her Most Prized Possession?  Etc, etc, ad nauseam.  Where I really hit the meat of this exercise was working on my protagonist’s personality traits.  Bare in mind, the guy in question is not your average, everyday Joe.  If he was, he would be dead along with around five and half billion other such.  No, this guy is an accomplished soldier, an inspiring leader, a reluctant monarch; in other words, a great man truly worthy of narration.  But aside from all of that, Michael Edward Turner is a doer.  He does.  He came, he saw, and he did.  He will do again.  He’s the once and future doer.  He’s…well, you get the gist.

The first thing one learns about leadership, aside from the awesome bennies (especially if it’s bureaucratic leadership), is that a great deal of it is just making a damned decision and acting on it.  That’s a very powerful thing…acting on it.  The sheer act of will that takes a thing from an idea such as “You know what?  That dent in the drywall needs to be patched,” to, “Remember back when we used to have that dent in the drywall?”  What is that except being a leader of one’s one inner demons (or daimones, if you’re Walter John Williams, which you probably are not) and marshaling them into action at the behest of directed will?

Sure we’re not talking about saving the human race from both a zombie apocalypse and an alien invasion here.  We’re talking about fixing a frigging dent in the drywall.  So why is Michael E. Turner doing all of these wonderful things within the electronic pages of my manuscript while my drywall remains unpatched?

I have long acknowledged that I’m a procrastinator.  I do pine for a self-imposed work ethic of the sort that allows our gracious hostess to not only have a huge amount of work behind her—and in front of her, God willing—but also crank out wonderful screeds every day, sometimes twice a day, that keep the bloggerati thinking.  Sure, I pine away, but what is pining if not yearning without realizing?  What’s keeping me from such a work ethic?  What’s preventing me from spending hours a day behind the keyboard, working on my manuscripts rather than using that time to absorb vacuous entertainment?  Lack of will, for the most part.  Sheer, unadulterated lack of will.

And that’s where Michael is kicking my ass up one side and down the other.  Michael sees a job that needs doing, squares his shoulders to the task at hand, and gets it done the best way he knows how.  Sure, he’s got his problems—if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be interesting—but he accomplishes.  As I talk to this guy and discover more and more about him, I can’t help but wonder, “Why can’t I be more like that?”

And there’s the rub.  If a rational, mature adult can conceive of a character like Michael in such detail, why can’t said rational, mature adult BE those things?  Certainly, we can write about characters doing horribly evil things to victims in works of fiction and our moral compass prevents us from doing such things in real life, but what’s keeping us from emulating the positive aspects of our characters?  This doesn’t necessary work for every aspect of a fictional character, I grant you.  I can fully flesh out a character that can fly like a superhero, but gravity has something to say about me doing it in real life.

If I can fully flesh out a driven, accomplished individual with many positive character aspects, what’s stopping me from trying to adopt those aspects in my own life?  The answer, inescapably, is myself.

How about you?

80 responses to “Guest Post — by Scott McGlasson

  1. “Just won’t tell anyone” = “Just don’t tell…” Ugh.

    • Don’t sweat. You always find the typos AFTER you post. Law of nature.

    • FWIW, after getting massively stuck in writer’s block on several mss, a friend recommended a book titled something like, “Write a book in 30 days.” I bought it, found what I needed – an actual revelation – in the first chapter: “If you get stuck on a detail, skip it and go on. You can come back and fill in xxx later.”

      That was all I needed. Never read the rest of the book.

      • Wayne Blackburn

        Heck, yeah. Programmers do that all the time.

        Of course, this is why there are sometimes things that make absolutely NO sense in a piece of software – someone forgot to go back and fill it in.

      • The “90 Day…” book had a very good exercise on book synopsis, suggesting a 8-10, start to finish, telling that should be as intriguing and interesting as the book itself. That helped me out a lot. Plus, it was the nth suggestion to work in Scrivener, so I picked that software up as well and it’s really helped me organize my mosaic of random awesomeness.

  2. Clap. Clap. BS er Scott… I have a procrastination streak a mile wide too. Unfortunately, it has gotten worse as I have gotten older (and sicker). Nice job. I learned long ago that if I wanted to accomplish something that I kept plugging through the boring as well as the exciting times. Steady wins the race.

  3. But Seriously, Now. Scott, I have thrashed myself on that very point — why can’t you live up to your own beliefs and principles — all my self-aware life. I might have even done it before then, but then what good is self-awareness if you can’t put it down every once in awhile?

    No solutions, mind you. Or discussion. Or even stupid ideas. Just… there it is.

    M

    • On the contrary, self-awareness could be a curse. When Dr. Cockroach mentioned B.O.B. didn’t have a brain, B.O.B. said, “Turns out, you don’t need one. Totally over-rated.”

      Your quip about putting it down, though…I’m totally stealing that :)

  4. We’re like that because thinking and talking have always been easier than actions…and I’m as guilty about that as any man.

  5. I find characters, one in particular, incorporate a lot of what I wish I could be. For example – physically strong, smart enough to hold her own with professionals, tough enough to defend herself and wise enough to know when to dive out the back door and hide beside the trash cans. But the better I know my usual MC, the nastier her flaws have become and I’m glad I don’t have her horrible guilt and self-loathing. Deep inside she is not a nice person.

    Perhaps the trick is to remember the flaws in our characters – ours as humans and ours as in our creations’ flaws – and to work on the ones we can fix, a little at a time.

    • My guy is all of the things I mentioned, but the blind spot, that opposite side of the coin, is his sense of duty. It is the most important thing in the world to him and it’s caused a lot of problems with his wife and kids. He doesn’t put them second, within his worldview, but he would say something at work (he’s NSA) is more important than one of his kid’s baseball games. His wife has put up with it for the better part of two decades, but she’s at her wits end over it.

  6. Good post. I’ve often wondered at how I could be more like some of my characters, as well as less like some of them as well. It’s hard to break our own ingrained character traits I suppose since they have developed and become locked in over many years. Still, one would like to think we could control our own attributes to our advantage. If we can write our characters’ destinies, why not our own?

  7. Wayne Blackburn

    If I can fully flesh out a driven, accomplished individual with many positive character aspects, what’s stopping me from trying to adopt those aspects in my own life? The answer, inescapably, is myself.

    Don’t tear yourself up about it. I’m not saying to not try to improve your motivation, because of course, you should, but you’re not the only one who feels that way about being a procrastinator. I don’t know if I have it worse or not, but I have a living, breathing example of the type of person you described, who I’ve known all my life – my father. Only real difference is that dad didn’t have much ambition to improve his lot in life. He worked for the YMCA for the last 25 years of his working life. But anything that ever needed to be done, he did it, whether it was fixing that dent in the drywall, or it was tearing the whole top half off the kitchen and rebuilding it.

    He has to be terribly disappointed in me, because I’m a procrastinator, too, and seldom seem to be able to muster up the motivation to get things done, if it is going to feel like work.

  8. My heroes don’t kick my ass, other than perhaps being only slightly less asshole-ish than I am, on some occasions.

    I’m different, I guess, because I prefer to write very flawed characters as protagonists, and thus I’m always struggling to make them more sympathetic — to make them succeed despite their flaws rather than because of their heroic qualities.

    I don’t think that “heroic” primary characters are very interesting, anyway. I mean, even Superman has to have the red- and green kryptonites to make him fallible, or else he’d be even more boring than he already is. It’s why I always preferred Keaton’s Batman to Bale’s (yeah, I know, heresy), because while Bale’s Batman is more tragic, Keaton’s is more conflicted and hence, I think, more interesting.

    You can take it too far, of course. I’ve never been able to finish any of Updike’s Rabbit books because about halfway through, I generally need to be stopped from putting a .45 bullet through the book out of sheer frunstration with the character.

    • The key is forcing characters to confront the limits of what their strengths can accomplish, and either overcome or accept those limits.

      For example, in Superman a memorable story-line a few decades ago focused on one of Clark’s neighbor’s, a couple in an abusive relationship (yeah, the husband was a wife-beater; they’ll never be transgressive enough to portray a wife who physically abuses her husband.) Being able to see through walls, hear across vast distances, fly at super-speed while juggling SUVs does little to persuade somebody their behaviour is wrong. While Clark could have opened a can of whoop-ass (BTW – where do you buy that stuff? Is it available through Amazon or must it be ordered from Acme?) it would have merely legitimized the principle that might makes right. Superman’s strengths were unsuited to the particulars of his problem, forcing the character outside his accustomed pattern.

      Conan’s decisiveness, directness and savagery won’t win him a woman’s heart (as I recall, he was disinclined to rape, probably a result of all those Frazetta-Femmes casting themselves at his feet.) [Long and tasteless digression on the implications of Conan, broadswords and Freud deleted.]

      We all tend to “go with our strengths” and get frustrated when our strengths are the wrong skill set for the task at hand. How much more must this be the case fro larger-than-life strengths found in so many fictional characters? Being more powerful than a locomotive is no answer to lactose intolerance.

    • Good point. When I wrote the first part of this story, at first intended to be a short-story, just to clear out the cobwebs because I’d not written in a decade, it quickly turned into 20k words and I had a whole range of questions about why the principles where doing what they were doing.

      Answering those questions forced me back to the original protagonists grandfather and I’m having a blast with that storyline, but the original protagonist had a beta-reader saying basically what you said about Rabbit.

  9. Sometimes you can kinda cut your procrastinating self out of the cycle. Like if you get up at 5 AM to do dishes or bake or go running. You’re too tired to think much or put anything off, or to do anything except whatever it was that you told yourself you had to do as soon as you got up.

    Of course, this assumes that you’re not so tired that you’ll destroy the drywall.

    • Like if you get up at 5 AM to do dishes or bake or go running.

      I’ve been trying to get my ass out of bed in the morning to go running. I’ve got the “Run For Your Lives” Zombie 5K coming up on August 18th and, even though I’ve had five months, I’ve not done a damned thing to get to get ready. My inner-monologue has suggested to just say, “Screw it. You’re going to ‘die’ anyway. Dress in a business suit and carry a briefcase”.

      If you’re not aware of what it is, it’s 5K including obstacles. You wear a flag-football belt with flags and hordes of other players icked-out as zombies try to “kill you” by taking all your flags.

      I’m doing it for “research” purposes.

    • This also assumes that 5 am isn’t sleeping in for you. I very seldom get up that late myself, it seems like half the day is wasted if I don’t get up until daylight.

      • with me it’s 6 am that’s sleeping in, so today, having woken up at eight thirty, I think I’m legally dead. Or something. Had a fascinating dream about being the daughter of a medieval apothecary and trying to cure a parrot’s diarreah. When I die, I’m donating my mind to science. May they have joy of it.

        • I used to be up at 5 a.m. Now it is 7 a.m. I need more sleep to survive the meds (and other things). But, I get a min. of eight hours sleep (although I do best on ten). ;-)

        • I don’t know if that is better or worse than the dream I had today, about being repeatedly hit in the head with pieces of a recap tire that decided to come apart on a car driving by me.

  10. Post: “I can fully flesh out a character that can fly like a superhero, but gravity has something to say about me doing it in real life.”

    In much the same way I can write about people who have all the prerequisite physical attributes for doing Interesting Stuff (flying fighters; becoming astronauts; etc.), but can never actually do it myself (20/50 left eye + 20/150 right eye = 100% chance of *never* being able to fly an airplane myself this side of LSA — oh, and having to deal with elevated blood pressure every time some jackass comes floating out of the woodwork bleating that “Up With People” bullshit about “‘can’t’ is just a word” or “you can be anything you want to be”….)

    Re Borders: The Friendly Local Gaming Store nearest my house used to have these flimsy wire shelves for game display; thanks to the Beaverton Borders, they now have these lovely wooden shelving units….

    So, I guess the moral I’m taking from all this is: The only route to personal happiness is via the misery of others…. >:)

  11. Ah, Borders. I have a lovely Roget’s Thesaurus. Since it’s organized categorically, you get these masses of words clumped together. It’s beautiful. And an excellent way to procrastinate.

    • One can always excuse it as an exercise in rebooting one’s inner word processor and expanding one’s vocabulary.

  12. Procrastinating, yes. One rare trait for protagonists, who’d want to read page after page where a character thinks he should do something, then flops on the sofa and makes a cup of coffee and opens the TV/starts reading something irrelevant online/watches the clutter and just thinks he should perhaps do something about it but then decides it can wait another day, and there is something else too he should do too but he can’t do that something else before he has done something about the clutter because he decided this time he’d clean the room first.

    Would make for a boring story.

    Too busy procrastinating to do anything useful right now. But doing that kind of does make your life boring too.

    Oh well, maybe tomorrow.

    • Hamlet, the prince of indecision.

    • Don’t know about you, but the way my house is laid out I have to make the coffee (or tea) before flopping down … otherwise pretty much exactly right. Yup … especially if you include the sudden impulse for cleaning. Funny how procrastination about one thing can inspire effort in some other area where you might otherwise be inclined to procrastinate.

      • oh yea – I hate cleaning, but I’ll sometimes clean instead of write. DANG… why is that… and don’t tell me it is because I am getting inspiration… no this is different.

        • It’s demons. When they cannot distract you with something ‘evil’ they will resort to distracting you with something ‘good’, just so long as you don’t do what you are supposed to be doing.

          • Sigh. As good an explanation as any. Actually when that happens to me, I find I’m scared of something I’m working on.

            • Yes- when I wrote Conjure Man, there was a point where I cleaned the house for three months before I went back to it. I had hit a scary part.

            • “If your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough” or some such…

            • Some time back – I think it was right after the Columbine shootings — I decided that demonic possession was a useful explanation for all sorts of things. The realization is based on the idea that, for most phenomena, the real purpose of an explanation is to allow parties to move on, it is not to “explain” the behaviour in question in such way as to allow proactive prophylactic procedures to be established to prevent recurrence.

              “Demonic possession” does not require belief in the existence of demons, it simply stands for “don’t know, don’t need to know, don’t much care, don’t need to burn brain cells on it.”

              • pohjalainen

                Works for me. Real explanations are needed only when it’s you or somebody you know and there might be the chance that you can maybe do something to remedy the situation if you can understand what’s happening because the situation is still ongoing.

              • it simply stands for “don’t know, don’t need to know, don’t much care, don’t need to burn brain cells on it.

                The first thing that came to mind was the creation of pantheons of gods at the dawn of civilization (and before, to be sure) with institutionalized worship, etc, as we tend to think of the Greeks and such. That reminded me of a book I read on physics (yes…I, by my own choice, read a book about physics) a few years ago.

                Now, while most of the book caused glazed eyes, the first chapter was an excellent treatment of the formalizing of science, starting with the proto-Greeks and moving up through the Renaissance. The really interesting stuff is how the thinkers of the early eras, given what they had to work with, were pretty damned good at coming up with explanations for what they observed. Is that a rock? Well, a rock is part of the earthen plane. All things want to remain in the plane they originate from. If you throw a rock into the air, it will try to get back to the closest thing it can to the earthen plane. This also handily explains rivers running to the sea, etc.

                I was pretty damned impressed with those toga-wearing hemlock swillers.

      • Heh. Well, there actually was a time when I could make the coffee while sitting on the sofa, provided I had put the coffee and water in the coffee maker before sitting. Not enough space for it in the kitchen so it was on the side table next to the sofa. But I have never been able to use the computer while on the sofa since I have never owned a laptop, have to go to the bureau in my bed room for that.

        Cleaning is one of the most common excuses I have for procrastinating. Either doing it, or deciding I have to do it before doing something else, except then I postpone it yet another half a day, and then it’s a whole day, and I think my current record is a month and a half – cleaned a bit now and then but never managed to do the whole job so the apartment was in this state of half messy half decent that whole time. I’m a pretty good procrastinator.