Pygmalion my Frankenstein, Pleaded The Writer

One of the commenters asked about making characters come to life, how to make them more than helpful constructions who hit your plot points.

Objectively I should be the last person in the world to explain how to do that, because, well, for the first … eight novels I wrote, I didn’t know there was any other way to start than with “the character is here and wants me to tell his story.”  Characters came, and still come, to me fully formed.  I don’t sit around thinking “what are his strengths and weaknesses?  Why does he do that weird thing with his napkin?

No, I don’t know every detail about the character when he first shows up.  Usually to be honest all I know about the character is that he or she is in pain and motivated to do something to end the pain.  Sometimes the pain is emotional, sometimes physical.  And sometimes the pain might not be obvious on first meeting them.  And some characters, their pain might even evade the reader altogether – say Dyce Dare in the refinishing mysteries – but what seems to first attract me to the character is their pain.  I’ll see in which way they’re broken.

Of course, when I was young and stupid, I didn’t know the difference between pain that leads a character to move and fight and pain that results in the character just wanting to die, and not in a blaze of glory.  This resulted in two painful novels where the character just moaned about how unfortunate he was.

(I didn’t know at the time that if I’d just used slightly higher vocabulary and not made it heroic fantasy I could SO totally have got all sorts of literary prizes.  Maybe that’s a good thing.  It would have corrupted me and I’d never have learned to write properly.)

Anyway, those were the eight first novels, a couple now published, but mostly written only when the character imposed on my psyche with enough force to make me write.  I mean, it’s not like someone was paying me for it.

And then I sold a book on proposal.  I won’t say that no characters ever came to life in the Shakespeare trilogy.  Quicksilver eventually acquired a life of his/her own, and the others too eventually came lurching to reluctant life.

BUT not to start with.  To start with they were concepts on the page.  I needed Shakespeare.  I needed a gender changing elf who is both the fair youth and the dark lady.  I needed a wicked king, etc.

They were in fact constructs that would do what I wanted them to.  So… how did they come to life?  Well… I had to think about it.  “This is the character, and I need him to behave this and this and that way.”  And then I tried to visualize the person who would do that.

At this stage, I know because I lurk when other writers discuss their process, many people will “interview” their characters.  I have no objection to doing that, except that it’s like research.  It’s easy to get lost in it, and it unleashes a flood of information that might or might not be relevant to the story.  Also, if the character comes alive in the middle of the interview, it becomes way too tempting to sit there and continue it, because then it’s fun.

But it is possible to do a logical back reasoning from ‘he needs to be unfeeling’ to the toughness that was required for him to survive his childhood, say.  And somewhere there, in the middle of writing the book, you’ll hit something – a flash of childhood memory, something like that – and suddenly the character comes to life.

Actually, even me, starting from the character out, I often find I’m “held out” of the character till I write something that suddenly lets me see into them.  See, even when you get your characters for free, getting to know them is like getting to know your friends.  You need to rub together a little and see them in all sorts of situations.  And no character or person in his right mind comes up to a total stranger and says “hi there, I’m a right bastard because my mom beat me with a wooden spoon when I was three, until the spoon broke.”  NO ONE TALKS LIKE THAT.  But if you’re writing the story, you’ll suddenly get it.  And also that the mother beat him because he was playing in a place where the enemy could see him and thus discover the hideout of the remaining refugees of the half-killed race.  And she was afraid for her, for him, and for all their relatives.  And eventually he GOT that, so he can’t even resent her.  And now his being a right bastard makes sense, and he’s alive to you, just as a friend would be.

There’s another method some authors use which I didn’t even know about until I tried to collaborate with an established writer and he told me “Who is this character based on?  Do I know him?”  And then I found out this author writes everyone based on friends, acquaintances or public figures.  This is how he makes them come alive.  They come alive because he knows them.  He just slots the right person to the right goal, much like interviewing actors, I imagine.

I can’t FATHOM working like that.  I do have the occasional tuckerization, but it’s not like that, and it’s usually a secondary character into whose head I don’t get.

But it clearly works for him, since he’s a bestseller.  You might need to work that way.

There are ways to jog a recalcitrant character, too, one that is almost there but “hiding” – going to the sort of place the character might hang out in and soaking up the atmosphere, for instance, or looking through magazines (hairstyling mags are good for this) until you see a face that you go “That’s him!”  Or “That’s what she looks like!”  Or even finding the right name by looking through baby name books.  Or trying to picture the character’s daily routine.

Something will catch fire, and the character lives.

What if it never happens?  What if you write the book and you still think the character is a construct?

Don’t despair.  First, it happens to all of us – particularly in the old model of publishing which forced us to write from proposal and on demand.  Do enough books and eventually you’ll hit that point, eventually.  One character or another just won’t live for you.

And you know what?  It’s okay.  Just like with writing when you’re inspired and writing when you’re not, it doesn’t seem to mater, if you know enough craft.  Know enough craft and you can fake it.  The character will still not live for you – but he/she will live for the reader.  Trust me.

Sometimes when reading the book later – this just happened with one of my “rejects” then the character comes alive for YOU as a reader.  So it is there.  You just, for some reason can’t see it, at that time.

And that’s the ultimate ingredient for the character to come to life.

Look, whether you make up your characters wholesale, like Pygmalion sculpting Galatea, or you assemble them from spare pieces of your friends, like Frankenstein, in the end you need an extra touch to make it all come to life.

For Pygmalion that was the touch of the goddess.  For us writers, it is the reader.  If the character moves, breathes and becomes real in the reader’s mind – if the reader can think about him/her only as a friend, someone real, then we’ve done our job, no matter how we did it.

We’ve stolen the fire of the gods yet again.

83 responses to “Pygmalion my Frankenstein, Pleaded The Writer

  1. “This is the character, and I need him to behave this and this and that way.” And then I tried to visualize the person who would do that.

    Yah, that!

    I usually go about it backwards, mind — “Character, you tell me you want to do X. Why do you want to do X?” — but at one point I had to get a character to do something that I, the author, knew was a Bad Idea. (And the character knew it could be a Bad Idea. But I needed the character to do it anyway, and had to figure out why the character would do it anyway — shooting down some reasonable suggestions from someone else who didn’t have that character’s personal buttons, and having misgivings all the way.

    I’m still not sure if I conveyed that “there are no good options here” properly, but so far no one’s complained that the character’s holding the Idiot Ball for no reason, so I guess it was at least plausible.)

    But if one has to make the character from the action… It’s almost like fanfic, really — where people don’t know what motivates a character to behave in a certain way, so they make stuff up about their Tragic Past (or un-Tragic Past sometimes, for variety).

    Of course, once one has done that, one has to evaluate whether the next action is going to be in character… Patricia Wrede actually blogged something about that, in — “The scene worked just fine, right up to the end of the […] attack, when [thief] said “This way…” and pointed down an alley. At that point, Daner refused to follow him. He wanted to question the one attacker who’d survived the fight, and he didn’t like or trust [thief] one little bit. The argument lasted just long enough for the city cops to show up and start demanding answers.

    So [thief] ran off alone, and I spent two chapters on Daner and Eleret dealing with the city cops instead of leaving town. […] Once they were finally free to leave, Eleret refused to go, on the very sensible grounds […]. So the entire rest of the plot outline was toast, because it depended on everybody leaving the city, and nobody did.
    Sticking to the plan would have required rewriting the entire previous seven chapters to make the characters into different people.”

    • (It’s a bit like GMing a tabletop role-playing game, for me, if I want a character to do something in particular that they’re not already heck-bent on doing. I have to bait them into it instead of railroading them through it. There’s a reason I tend to think of viewpoint characters as Player Characters! NPCs (non-player characters) can be pushed around, so long as they’re internally consistent with whatever people know of them. Player Characters need to have bait laid out, so they go vaguely in the way you want.)

    • Oh, yes. The sobs coming alive is a mixed blessing. It does a lot of the work for you, but it might not have been done the way you want it. OTOH it seems as if the result IS better. Who knows?

      • Yeah, occasionally I will have a very strong character flatly say, “No.” Cross his arms and stand like he was superglued in place.
        “But I need you to do this, so I can get you over here.”
        “I wouldn’t do that.”
        “Ok, what WOULD you do?”
        “This. And then this.”
        “Oh. And then could I coax you to do that?”
        “Possibly. Yes, that makes sense. And then I would follow up with this, which would put me where you want me to go…”

    • Ha! The first time I tried to write my story, I just started at the beginning and followed the plot — and my protagonist looked at the MacGuffin that would have given him magic powers, said “Nah, that couldn’t be real,” and walked away — and my story was over before it had really begun.

      This time I’m going to figure out who the protagonist is, and only let him find the MacGuffin once I know why he’ll pick it up.

  2. Some times I wish they would fail to come to life.

    I’ve gotten myself into a tangle with a series, with three stories happening simultaneously. I’m trying to de-complicate things by pulling two threads out of the main plot and turning them into short stories.

    So now the male characters are fighting over which women get into which part. This is ridiculous. I can’t have fictional characters stealing each other’s girlfriends in my head!

    • LOL. Join the club. I’ve had one character go “if I have to die, I get to have HER first.” And NOTHING would happen until I did that.

    • Wait until a minor “color” character in a one-off story smiles and turns himself into the MC’s (eventual) spouse, requiring a back-story that re-writes a planet’s history. If he wasn’t such a charming gent . . .

      • YES. Has happened to me…

        • Yep. He was suppose to expiate past sins by dying to save another character . . . He pointed out that the other character (1) had more sins to expiate (2) was a much better fighter, be it with magic or sword and (3) hadn’t I noticed the FMC needed a boy friend? And furthermore I needed to go back and rewrite that earlier scene so he was the guy . . .

      • I have the reverse problem, on occasion. I start off with a plan whereby Girl A is fated to be the lover of Man A, but then I discover she’s fatally flawed/compromised and then along comes Girl B…

        If I didn’t love writing anout relationships so much, I’d spend a lot less time on them. But then I’d be a sci-fi or thriller writer.

    • If I have multiple storylines, and I’m having trouble with them, I find it works really well to write each one separately and THEN merge them. You get each story properly written, and it becomes obvious where things need to overlap and intersect to interweave them. Just mho, and that and about six bucks will get you a cuppa at Starbucks.

      • Yeah, sometimes I have to untangle, write them sensibly, then re-tangle. But now I’m considering leaving some out, possibly turning them into short stories or novellas. Which will involve even more work, because the first thing I have to do is think up a new problem for them to solve, in each new story, without losing track of the bigger problem ongoing in the main novel . . . Good thing I’m already insane.

        • I read that as “possibly turning them into stone.” 😛

          • Then I could toss them in the pond and forget about them? Hmmm… No, then I’d have nightmares about the Characters drowning. Never mind. Especially since it might involve soggy zombies.

            • Soggy Zombies and other Stories, a Delightful Collection by Pam Uphoff

              • Or maybe Soggy Crocodile Zombies and other creatures by Pam Uphoff

                • My zombies–a book that I doubt will _ever_ be seen by the general public (I’m a Compassionate Conservative)–are a bit gooey, but not soggy. That would have interferred with their flamability.

                  • Oh geez – we need to get that compassionate out of you Pam, because I now want to read the stories. 😉 I am not usually into zombies but I could make an exception–

                    • Ha! You say that now . . . and it’s Book Two of the series. Book One is the Mayan Calendar thingy. Look, there are some manuscripts that just need to _stay_ in the back closet.

                    • Pam Uphoff | September 2, 2012 at 6:39 pm:
                      . . .Look, there are some manuscripts that just need to _stay_ in the back closet.

                      Pam, I have that back closet door SO firmly closed. It’s too bad, because a lot of that stuff is actually not bad (IMHO); it would just result in career suicide if ever that collection of insane ramblings ever saw the light of day…

                    • Kim == this is why G-d gave us pen names. NO ONE NEEDS TO KNOW. And actually some of those sell better than the others (not that I’ve done it yet, except with “juvenalia” under Sylvia Haute, but friends of mine who have say that some of the stuff they thought was utter cr*p sells better than their “real” stuff.
                      Although I’m not doing novels from that time — not without rewrites. Two of them are “on the slab” for radical surgery, though, after which they’ll come out. Probably sometime next year at the rate things are going.

                    • Closet? But Pam, I hear m/m romance pays! (RUNS. FAST. REALLY FAST.)

                    • Scott – your zombies sound more plausible than some of the zombie stories I have read. They don’t always consider how the zombie virus (etc) started. Plus zombies come from (…I had a complete blank out just then) voodoo culture… Yea… I remembered. 😉

                    • They very rarely EVER talk about how it started. Even the seminal classic in the genre, World War Z, just has a sick kick yammering about something that bit him in the flooded area of China behind the Three Gorges Dam, the implication being that the massive development had caused some unknown series of events resulted in a contagious animal…but Max Brooks leaves it there.

                      I went to great lengths to cover just about every aspect of the virus. Delivered by warhead, carried by nanites, which begin reproducing immediately upon infection. The nano-infection overlays the host’s nervous and muscular systems, allowing control and animation. The nanites are part of a self-healing mesh network array, so simply blowing part of a zombie away won’t kill it. You have to take out the largest concentration of nanites…in the brain.

                      Of course, you can’t leave out the infection bite part. The infection alters the saliva, causing subtle structural changes that allow the glands to continue to operate, though they produce more of the viral agent the nanites carry. The agent itself is the source of the reduced decomposition and has other, more nasty, effects that the main bad guy needs.

                      Where does the power for the nanite come from? Handwavium, but it’s a lot of fun and underlays the entire story.

                    • Scott – “where does it come from?”
                      I have a suggestion… an alien race who wants to colonize that planet and consider the humans in their way? Once your guys get rid of the zombies, then they have to prepare for an invasion. Maybe in the sequel?

                    • Its a lot more complicated than that, but a lot more fun because I think it’s an original take on the subject. The Bad Guy needs 35 billion human minds to power his trip home. There aren’t 35 billion humans you say? Don’t be so sure. After all…if you make something, nobody can tell you were to put your toys.

                      It’s just that your FTL is screwed up and you need those toys to help you figure out how to fix it…so you can go harvest the rest of ’em and then split the galaxy.

                    • Scott – I am a big picture kind of gal. So I see things in more epic ways. 😉 But a bad guy who is into screwing 35 billion people– that is an interesting concept too. I would wonder if a planet had a whole group of amoral people. Or would a space cop show up to get the bad guy? Ummm… sounds like a show I really liked. It was really a B-movie called “I come in peace.” lol

                    • The problem is that his FTL is shot and he can’t fix it himself. He knows that any sapient race, given enough time, will do so shortly after figuring out sustained fusion, so he simply seeds the planets (using up the last of his FTL) and goes into stasis. Sensors alert him to the neutrinos a successful fusion generator give off, and he comes out, ready to dance. The fun part, though, is that he sets himself up to be humanity’s (what’s left of it) savior 🙂

                      None of this is in the first two books and only comes out at the end of the third. My goal is to make the Fasla character so beloved to the reader (he sets himself up as our savior, fighting off a drone invasion fleet that he created), that when the whole plan is revealed to the grandson of the first book’s main character, it will be extremely jarring. I’m going for the biggest “no fucking way” factor I can get.

                      To the human characters, he’s a member of a small group of aliens that didn’t want their people wiping out humanity. This allows me to do some fun human-alien interactions, alien misunderstandings of human life, gives my zombie fighters, eventually, some higher tech than most apocalyptic stories, etc. Lot’s of cool aspects to cover.

                  • Gooey zombies? Would those be the zombies of past loves lost? I’ve been haunted by a few of those … terrible monsters. They drive you to drink, and worse, cause you to make drunken phone calls to past loves, they can make you apologize for wrongs done to you and they can compel you to mistreat future loves. Thank-you, NO gooey zombies for this reader!

                    • In the series I’m working on, I’m doing a mash-up of zombie and hard sci-fi. One of the first questions I had to ask myself was whether I was going with fast zombies or the more traditional Romero-style shamblers. Since I’ve got a “scientific” (at least in the context of the alien virus that does it) basis for infection and animation, I can do both. In the first stage, lasting roughly a month, the reanimated corpse is just as fast, agile, and strong as they would have been in life, with hearing and smell slightly heightened. After that, they get slower and stiffer as time wears on, though decomposition is held mostly at bay for upwards of two years by the alien infection. After two years, they really start falling apart, but are no less infectious than the day they turned.

                    • I invented my zombies while playing with “Parallel Worlds collide.” I mean, if parallel worlds can split off, then to to conserve mass, some other parallel worlds have to merge, right? And why be gentle about it? Crash, crunch, thud . . . lots of people dying, lots of people mergeing with similar biological material. Some of which wasn’t technically alive any more. . .

  3. For me, I’ve had characters develop in several ways – of course, I usually have a kind of ‘casting call’ for someone to do something to further the general plot: a character with this kind of past, and these attributes. Then I work them up with the same technique that I used to use when writing military performance reports. I ask myself ‘what is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about this person?’ I used to use this all the time in describing the airmen that I had to report on, and it works just as well with fictional people. What’s the main thing about them? And then everything else flows from there.
    Then there are the ones that just pop into my mind, fully-formed and ready to go, as soon as I come up with a name for them.
    And finally, there are the ones who just … develop. There was one particular character who started as the stubborn, utterly conventional and boring brother-in-law of the heroine … and he grew into a strong character in his own right – still stubborn, but practical, earthy and quite funny, when he felt like it.

  4. I have thought much, of late, upon the tendency of SF to understate character, to focus on plot or puzzle while forgetting that readers want characters with whom to identify. This is particularly a problem of early SF, but it has tainted the field to this day. Even when we are given such grand characters as Manny O’Kelly-Davis, Wyoming Knott, Professor de la Paz & Mycroft H.O.L.M.E.S. there is a tendency for readers to grow so invested in their challenge that the strength and attraction of the characters gets overlooked.

    • I’m certainly guilty of 3D story and 2D characters. All these years of dreaming up plots, stories, and “wouldn’t it be awesome’s” and not much in the way of character, motivations, empathy, etc. Then, having realized that, you have to pass through the Niagra-volume downpour of cookie-cutter, cliche character types and resist plugging those idiots into your supercool storyline. At last, having braved a 2D universe, gone up the Falls naked in a barrel, I’ve gotten to a point where my characters have taken on a life of their own and, thankfully, let me in on it.

      The only one I’ve had go all Frankenstein on me is the villain in my three-book series…and that was an opposite Frankensteining. He revealed himself to be much more gracious, helpful, loving, and lovable than I would have him. In the end, though, it works because the character that, hopefully by the end of book two, is so cherished and loved by the readers ends up horribly, unbelievably evil.

      I’m going for a shock at the end of book three that’s so incredibly jarring to the reader that they will need to put the book down and look around for immediately help.

      • Scott, I have the reverse problem: my characters are fairly well-fleshed out, but my storylines are simple beyond words. I would have NO PROBLEM pitching a storyline to a studio exec/publisher in 20 words or less, but to explain my characters succinclty? Oh vey. “Well, the ancillary hero is a farm boy who hated living on the farm, so he ran away to sea, and only after seeing how brutal life is awayfrom the farm does he realize that farm life is for him, after all. But first he has to witness the slaughter of an entire African tribe and escape a homicidal Army officer, not to mention allay the suspicions of the farmer whose daughter he wants to marry…” (Skeleton Coast, release date October 2012) And that’s the secondary male character.

        • Oh wow – sounds like a good book Kim… let me know when you have it on kindle so I can get it please!!!

          • You’ll be the first to know, Cyn. Well, you and all Sarah’s other readers. For some reason, Glenn Reynolds hates me and refuses to plug my books on Instapundit. No idea what that’s all about, but hey, it’s not like he owes me anything.

  5. I don’t interview them because they invariably –not coming from a culture where interviewing is practiced — end up asking all the questions about what is going on and then sidling out of the door to get away.

    Once upon a time, I had to write a story, putting down every act of the character, and then and only then, I would have the thing in hand and say, “So that’s his motivation.” (As if the characters didn’t trust me until they saw I would actually write their story.) Then I would put in all the motives in the second draft.

    I’ve gotten better.

  6. I very, very rarely tuckerize characters. Just doesn’t work for me for whatever reason. Two exceptions: one, a guy I met in the course of my day job who had cause to be annoyed with something my company did. Even as my hair was whipping back in the breeze of his righteous anger, I was thinking “I have GOT to put him in a book!” . It was a Gunny-level rant and a privilege to see, even if I was on the receiving end 😉

    The second exception was someone I never met, but heard a lot of stories about–the ball-turret gunner on the B-17 my father crewed on during WWII. I had to *tone down* his exploits for the purpose of fiction because nobody would believe he could exist. I mean, caught stealing horses off an Indian reservation and the judge gave him the choice of the Army or jail? An actual *horse thief* in modern times?

  7. … looking through magazines (hairstyling mags are good for this) until you see a face that you go “That’s him!” Or “That’s what she looks like!” Or even finding the right name by looking through baby name books. Or trying to picture the character’s daily routine.

    This probably worked better when newspapers still existed, but back in the Eighties when I was working night shift in a hotel, Sunday mornings would get so slow that, along about 4AM we would start going through the wedding announcement pictures, crafting thought balloons for the people in those photos.

  8. I usually start each main character the way I craft my characters for theatre acting. I look for some facet of my personality, however small, that fits the character and study the traits of that facet. That then becomes the character’s foundation, and I build logically on that. Jeremy Brett called it “becoming,” I only recently found out. So in a way, every character I write, good and bad, male and female, can be termed a Mary Sue, I suppose. But so far it seems to work for me. Then I go thru baby names until I come up with the right first name, and often dig through my ancestry for surnames that fit.

  9. A lot of my characters are based around people I know, or an amalgamation of them. And a lot of my characters look familiar staring back at me from the mirror. 😉

    Like the old saying goes – write what and who you know. Maybe I should just try to meet more people.

  10. I daydream characters. I start with stereotypes. If I knew more Jung, they’d be archetypes. And then, I subvert them. Break the molds.

    Once I get a rough feel for the kind of a persona you’d see in your daily life — the cashier at the drive-through, the cop who gave you that speeding ticket, the cute girl in the next cube farm to the right from yours — then I start putting them in the situations of the story. Enough of that and I can write them.

    The hardest thing for me is to hear their voices. It takes a long while before I can differentiate more than just male-female.


    • Mark, when it comes to female voices, I just recall voices of old girlfriends and write those. Authority figures are old schoolteachers, male friends are school- or Army buddies, bad guys are politicians.

      Voices are not my problem; female faces are. I take pictures of girls at school (with their permission), see random pics on the Internet etc and use those. Otherwise all my main female characters would be tall redheads.

  11. Before my illness, I wrote some great pieces except they were more literary than actual fiction. I was of the opinion that if your character wasn’t doing what you wanted, then you were just nutso…

    And then– I became ill. I lived in a hospital and began to understand that there are actual people out there who are called to tend to the sick. I found that when I learned some compassion or at least learned how compassion worked on me that I could start writing characters and not plot. (I do use plot, except mine can get really tangled.)

    Now characters come to me fully formed. We look for a name that will describe their character and then off we go. If I get stuck it is because I am trying to put slot a in round c. So I back off and think, “what would the character do,” and then I am off and running again.

    Plus when I have two or three subplot lines, I thread them together into a story. I will work on one character until I reach a stopping scene, and then go to the next and start at the time period where the first character stopped.

    I don’t understand using family or friends to make characters. I have used some behaviors of family for my villains. Don’t ask. But I just don’t find my family that interesting except for some bizarre behaviors. A lot of my stories are about looking under the surface of the actual story. Not everyone who looks and acts nice is nice and vice versa.

    So how do I make them come to life? I just keep writing and hope that my skills get better with each story and each novel.

    • I have two major characters and one minor one that are derived in part from friends. Not entirely, but certain personality quirks were so strong that the quirks appeared in the characters. I asked permission for use, just in case, and so far all three friends said, “go for it.”

      My characters “are” alive when they appear, the major ones at any rate, so all I can do is channel them somewhat. I’m not sure why they are alive, though, unless it is because I wrote non-fiction first, describing real people and animals and actual equipment and events, and that bled over when I began creating fiction. I’m chronicling the exploits of real (in-my-head) people.

      • Yes – real (in my head) people who are telepathically telling their story. 😉 It is actually harder for me to use first person than third person. I am trying first person on my novel that I am posting on my blog. We’ll see how it goes.

        Sometimes I see them, but not often. I am more aural. (okay it sounds like I am having hallucinations lol).

        • I prefer to let them talk, hence first person. And Cyn, no. Tons of writers do it. I don’t. I sort of “see” and “hear” in my mind, no senses involved. BUT some people get the senses.

          • Umm – I do get smells sometimes. 😉

            • I was hallucinating like crazy when I was on prednisone a few years ago (100 mg daily for six months). I couldn’t tell the difference between the hallucinations and the storytelling except I was one of the characters. My hubby just followed me around and made sure I didn’t hurt myself.

    • A lot of my stories are about looking under the surface of the actual story. Not everyone who looks and acts nice is nice and vice versa.

      You have to hear this as read by Henry Fonda in My Name Is Nobody to get the full effect:

      … And I also figured out the moral to your grandpa’s story, the one about the cow that covered the little bird in cowpie to keep it warm, and then the coyote hauled it out and ate it. It’s the moral of these new times of yours: Folks that throw dirt on you aren’t always trying to hurt you, and folks who pull you out of a jam aren’t always trying to help you. But the main point is, when you’re up to your nose in shit, keep your mouth shut. at 3’45”

    • Wayne Blackburn

      Hmm… using family and friends… I just realized… I could probably take the stories that my dad has told me and come up with something kind of Tom Sawyer-ish. That’s an interesting possibility.

  12. Wayne Blackburn

    Of course, when I was young and stupid, I didn’t know the difference between pain that leads a character to move and fight and pain that results in the character just wanting to die, and not in a blaze of glory. This resulted in two painful novels where the character just moaned about how unfortunate he was.

    That just instantly made me think of Superman by Five For Fighting.

    • gag. Moan. Retch. That.Is.A.Repulsive.Set.Of.Lyrics. (Urks.)

      • Wayne Blackburn

        And that is exactly why I remember this song all the time. I usually don’t listen much to lyrics, because music is mostly just background noise. but after a while, I start listening to see what the words that I don’t immediately recognize are. This one just digs into my brain and makes me want to punch the radio. And then go punch the musicians who created it.

        • For those who don’t want to go through the links:

          I can’t stand to fly
          I’m not that naive
          I’m just out to find
          The better part of me

          I’m more than a bird, I’m more than a plane
          I’m more than some pretty face beside a train
          And it’s not easy to be me

          Wish that I could cry
          Fall upon my knees
          Find a way to lie
          About a home I’ll never see

          It may sound absurd, but don’t be naive
          Even heroes have the right to bleed
          I may be disturbed, but won’t you concede
          Even heroes have the right to dream
          It’s not easy to be me

          Up, up and away, away from me
          It’s all right, you can all sleep sound tonight
          I’m not crazy, or anything

          I can’t stand to fly
          I’m not that naive
          Men weren’t meant to ride
          With clouds between their knees

          I’m only a man in a silly red sheet
          Digging for kryptonite on this one way street
          Only a man in a funny red sheet
          Looking for special things inside of me
          Inside of me
          Inside me
          Yeah, inside me
          Inside of me

          I’m only a man
          In a funny red sheet
          I’m only a man
          Looking for a dream

          I’m only a man
          In a funny red sheet
          And it’s not easy

          Its not easy to be me

          • As Kate would say when something annoys her “Can we kill them now?”

            • Ugh! Those are down there with the Spice Girls’ “Greatest Hit,” except even more inane and depressing. Wow.

              • I’m sexy (head bob)
                I’m sexy (head bob)
                Don’t you think I’m sexy (head bob)

                I’m insipid… I’m insipid.

                • It’s been a while since I had even the slightest interest in buying what the Spice Girls were selling, but surely nobody thought their witty conversational banter was what they brought to any party? Sure, they were insipid, but I don’t believe anybody was interested in talking to them?

              • It’s a horrible song, but it suggests a plot that might be worth writing, though perhaps not just now — but it might rescue one of my older fantasies. Instead of taking the boy who lived, the hidden prince, the man with great gifts who boldly steps forward, or even who gets reluctantly pushed forward… to take the hero who knows he’s one but doesn’t want to and is consumed with (forgive me) metrosexual self-pity and self loading and to make him — over the course of a book or three — what a man SHOULD be (and which our current culture does its best to discourage men from being) surely would be a worthy character arc and, if I may say so, very Human Wave. (Just like the superman who wants to curl up and die is very much part of the now aged and effete New Wave. — why would any literary movement, as an aside, call itself “New” or “Innovative” or “Modern” or even “Post-Modern”? It’s like in the nineties all the things that opened called 2000 this and that or 21st century this and that. SURELY you know it won’t remain forever new or future or modern or shinier than tomorrow? Um… maybe that’s a subject for a whole post.)

                • They grew up watching ads for scouring powder and deodorants. Everything was “New” “Modern” “Innovative.”
                  It’s only going to get worse, you know. Today’s children are growing up thinking you praise something by calling it “Green” “Organic” “Vegetarian” and “Recycled.”

                • Wayne Blackburn

                  An angsty metrosexual would be different, but otherwise it sounds like the plot of Hancock, which turned out to be a pretty good take on that notion.

          • Men weren’t meant to ride
            With clouds between their knees

            At least two of the low tech characters in my head — very different ones — are making very derisive comments about this.

            The AIs are making “whut” faces.

            • Mind you I have mid range hearing loss, so a lot of these lyrics on first hearing sounded completely different and more… uh… I finally asked Dan “Did he just say “I’m only a man, consorting with sheep”?” Apparently I was wrong…

            • My MC is making a very naughty comment about that line, while one of the secondaries is grousing that if he can’t fly or walk, he’s not going anywhere (he gets truck-sick and is very literal in his thinking).

            • Quite a few fighter jocks would dispute that. I at one time wanted to be among them. Flying in a trainer was the closest I ever got, and it was exciting as all &%^~! Especially the one time we got to bust Mach! (My next-door neighbor in Enid was a flight instructor who NEVER got all his flying time in. I got to ride along several times with him. Be green with envy — it was awesome!)

        • Not without me. If you ever decide to go on a punching mission, I MUST go along.

  13. Thank you, thank you, etc., ad infinitum. A whole post on the very subject I was struggling with? Riches galore!

    I’d never thought about interviewing my characters before. What an interesting idea. I’ve got a six hour drive tomorrow, with nobody else in the car to talk to — maybe I’ll plop my protagonist down in the passenger seat and talk to him, see what he’s willing to tell me. I’m already starting to find interesting incidents to ask him about: until I started working out the interview questions, I hadn’t realized that his acceptance on the hero team wasn’t automatic. (They almost rejected him, but then he… well, I don’t know yet how he proved himself, so I’ll ask him tomorrow.)

    We’ll see where this goes, but I think you may have just given me the idea I needed to break this roadblock. Thanks again!

  14. Sometimes I use actors. Usually ones who I have seen only in a few roles, but liked, and then I dream up a role I would like, or have liked, to see them play. Since I love reversals often that means imagining the bit player or bad guy in the role of a hero, and maybe a main character I didn’t happen to like as the antagonist. Kind of like starting with a picture found in a magazine, I guess, just with a bit more filling in it because you’ll also get the voice and possibly some mannerisms to go with the looks.

    Since my stories always seem to start from characters, not plot, I haven’t had the problem of trying to dream up a suitable character to fill a function necessary for some particular story, so far. May not go that well if I have to do that at some point.