A Matter of Character

Hello, readers!  Once more, it is my turn to contribute to the terrific Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain.  This month, we get into the nitty-gritty parts of writing, those elements that regularly induce psychotic meltdowns and reduce even the hardiest writer to screaming at his or her keyboard in a fit of unbridled literary rage.

This month’s prompt was, and I quote, “How do you develop and relate to your characters?”  Let us begin.

I generally assume when writing posts that you have at one time or another attempted to write a novel.  Therefore, you’ve had some dealing with characters and how…complex they can be.

I’ve had my fair share of character encounters, but I’ve never really thought about how I develop them until now.  So, let’s delve into the word-filled land that is my writerly brain, shall we?

Let’s use an example for this.  We’ll call him Ryan, and for the sake of context let’s say he lives in a spaceship on its way to colonizing an alien planet (did you really expect me to make a realistic example?).  Now, I have some say in the basic personalities of my characters, but beyond that they like to surprise me by taking control- that is, it’s extremely hard for me to simply do whatever I want with them.  A lot of things I try will just not work.  Instead, it’s up to me to figure out what they want to do and to make sure their roles and actions within the plot fit their personalities, not the other way around.

So how do I get to know Ryan?  Well, I’ve found that a good way to test a character’s…um…character is through reactions.  How does Ryan react to other people on the ship?  How do the other colonists react to him?  How do I want my readers to see him?  If Ryan accidentally locks himself out of the ship with only ten minutes of air in his helmet, will he freak out?  Call for help?  Or find a way to get inside without any assistance?  It helps if I try to put myself in Ryan’s shoes and see through his eyes, as it were.

I think having a good background for a character also goes a long way towards deciding why they act the way they do.  For example, Ryan might have been raised on the spaceship.  He knows his way around everything.  Therefore, he wouldn’t be the type to freak out and he would calmly open the air lock using the external switch.

I was going to draw a picture of Ryan...but then I remembered...I can't draw.

I used to think it was strange when an author said they felt like they had no control over their characters, but now I completely understand.  When something feels awkward in my writing, most of the time it’s because I misrepresented a character somewhere along the way.

I can’t try to force Ryan to suddenly become a different person or make a decision that he wouldn’t normally make.  Once his character is set, there’s no going back, and more often I’ll change the plot sooner than I’ll change the characters.  It’s more work if I have to perform my own version of Extreme Makeover.  I speak from experience.  I’ve scrapped entire plots because early on I made an assumption about a character that turned out to be wrong.  It simply could not be fixed.

My advice is this: please, PLEASE, for the love of ALL THAT IS BOOK NERD, don’t go against what your characters want!

As for physical traits, I have a lot more control- at least for basic things (hair color, skin tone, etc).  Sometimes background information helps with this, and sometimes not.  The physical traits that can be changed, like hair style and clothing, are determined by personality.

On to names.  Names are tricky, and for this type of thing I absolutely love websites like this one when I need a little inspiration.  I’ve posted before about the importance of picking a good name for your character.  Essentially, if one decides that a character is going to have a name that means something, that name should completely fit the character.  That includes not only the meaning of the name but also, if it works with the story, the region or language from which it originates.  Again, background comes in handy.

And that’s basically it.  I love all my characters because they’re all unique and they all have a different story.  I don’t believe in there just being one story (the protagonist’s) for every book or series.  Every character has something to contribute and a different tale to tell.  It’s how you learn to use your characters in the most efficient way possible, how you combine all of the intersecting threads that make up their storylines to create the best one, that counts.  When I learn to do that, I’ll have made it as a writer.

Happy reading!

Continue reading

A Google Adventure

I think I picked the wrong name for my blog.

This post got its birth from this one over at The Jackie Blog.  If you’re too lazy to click the link, it’s all about the author’s struggle to have her blog higher in the Almighty Listings of Google.  Which got me thinking.

What do people get when they search for the term “novel journeys?”

And so I embarked on the journey that has culminated in this post.  I figured it was time for something a bit different than a rant on all things book related.  Also, this post is relatively short, which is good because I have an essay due next week that I really need to start, plus all those books (I’m still on The Two Towers).

I used Google for this, because it’s the logical choice (really, does anyone really use Yahoo or Bing?).  It’s the one I use all the time.  So, I typed in the search term.  Perhaps not surprisingly, the first link that popped up was the home page for this blog.  But Google knows that I go there all the time.  Of course it would put that first.  So I scrolled down a bit and got…

This.  A travel agency.  For vacations to places where books took place.  Interesting?  Yes.  But I don’t want my blog to be found by people looking for a vacation.  But then I actually looked at the vacations.  Don Quixote, Anna Karenina- okay.  I can deal with this.  It’s fine sharing my name with one-

What’s this?!

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it’s true.  My blog shares a name with more than one book-related travel company.  Except this particular one deals with one series in particular.  Twilight.

Don’t get me wrong- I liked Twilight.  I did.  But the series has a lot of haters.  Plus, I don’t specialize in Twilight.  If anything, I specialize in The Hunger Games, with Harry Potter at a close second.*

Anyway, that wasn’t the point I was making.  The point is there are a lot of other things, too.  Like this.  And this.

I guess there really is nothing new under the sun.  At least not in terms of blog names.  Here I was, coming up with this clever double-meaning (but in a good way) name that would become my way of launching into the blogosphere.  And here it is, already taken by countless other things.

Does that mean it’s a bad name?  Not in my book.  So it’s not completely original.  Did I really expect it to be in the first place?  In the days of its infancy, when I was coming up with usernames and domains, did I think I had something special- especially when that something was such a simply brilliant thing?

I suppose this is a learning experience for me.  I mean, there really are no new stories, either- just new ways of telling them.  So even though the name of my blog isn’t unique in this world, the content is.  I am unique.  So are my posts.  The title doesn’t make it any less valuable to me.  And that goes for my books as well.  They’re going to be similar to other things, sure, but in the end it’s all my own.

Well, I suppose that’s it for now.  I’d better go work on my essay.  On Tuesday I’ll be posting my contribution to the Teens Can Write, Too! blog chain, so tune in for that.

Happy reading!


*And now I really want a travel agency with Potter-themed tours…can someone research that for me?





I Can’t Think Of A Good Title Right Now

Let’s face it, readers: a name can make or break you.  What you’re called or what your work is called can be everything.  People insist on their world being labeled, titled, branded, and otherwise marked.  And in the book industry, the name is what brings people in.  A good title can literally be the difference between success and failure.

That’s why finding a GOOD name for your novel/poem/biography of King Menes is so hard, and so important.  Other than the cover art, a name draws the crowd.  It has to hint at the storyline, but not give so much away that it’s boring.  For example, take Hatchet by Gary Paulsen.  The name implies something having to do with the outdoors and the wilderness, but nothing is given away to those who haven’t read the book.  Of course, it turns out that the hatchet is an important part of the story, but we don’t get that right away.  If this novel had been called something more obvious, say, Survival Kid or something,* more of the plot would be obvious.  People would be like, “Oh, this is about a kid surviving.”  Although some of them might read it then, the casual passerby might not be intrigued enough to actually pick it up and read the back cover, or start on the first chapter.  In the same way, this post holds the opinion that a name should also give somewhat the genre of the book, though I have no idea how it might do that.

Besides hinting at your plot, the name of your work has to be catchy.  Hatchet has a much tighter, better ring to it than the plainness that Survival Kid exudes.  If a title isn’t rolling off the tongue, it’s not going to sell as well.  In the film Julie & Julia, Julia Child writes her book and sends it off to a publisher.  However, the name she puts to it is something like French Cooking for American Chefs.  The name was, in a word, boring.  The publisher decided to spice it up a little, renaming it Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The new title has more energy.  It gives a sense of action and accomplishment that conveys what the book itself is all about.  That’s the trick to any good title: it must fit the story while enticing readers in.

Naming your work is hard; no doubt about that.  Finding the right word or phrase to sum up what you’ve done can take a long time.  After all, in some cases an entire new world has been created.  Then it’s impossible to condense everything into just a line of script.  Add to that the pressure of getting it right or risk losing readers, and it can be a nightmare.  But there’s fun in the venture, too, I think.  When I’m writing something, I let possible titles simply fall into place as I’m shaping my story or poem.  Sometimes a phrase just fits.  Sometimes, the title becomes a part of your story, another chapter that ties it all together.  That’s when you know you have it exactly right, when the name is seamless and fits your writing like a custom pair of shoes.

Titles don’t have to be evil.  We writers can work with them to make something perfect.  After all, they’re made up of words, and words are kind of our thing.

Happy reading!

Snowball Is WHO?!

I mentioned symbolism in yesterday’s fangirl post about companion books, which got me thinking.  Symbolism crops up a lot in novels, especially in popular ones.  The Twilight covers all symbolize something.  Harry Potter carries a lot of it in everything from names (which I’ve already talked about) to the type of wood used in wands.

I’m not even going to mention The Hunger Games.  You’re probably sick of me fangirling about that anyway.


But does a book need symbols to be popular?  Sure, they add a heck of a lot of depth to the book, and create a better way of storytelling, but not every good book has so many symbols.  (But I can’t be sure on that front.  As I mentioned yesterday, I’m not the type to recognize that sort of thing.  At least not much.  All I’m saying is it’s a good thing we went over Animal Farm in reading class.)

I don’t think a book absolutely needs to have this stuff to make it big.  I do think, though, that for a YA book (which is the genre I’m interested in) to gain a substantial adult audience, the way all three series above did (I think I’ll call them the Big Three), a book needs something deeper, something more than love triangles and ohmygosh who am I going to the dance with???  And a lot of the time that richer element comes from intricate symbolism that is woven throughout the story.

And the rest of the time it comes from, well, books having a much better plot than above dancing.

SO...MANY...SYMBOLS...*eye twitch*

And there’s where I come to a halt: I’m not good at symbolism.  At least not yet.  Which means I can’t put it into my stories without everything being really cheesy.  I can’t even imagine the first step in creating a good symbol.  Do other authors even do it consciously?  I read once that Rick Riordan didn’t even realize one of his books had symbolism.

So does this inadequacy mean I’m not going to be a super popular writer?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  It all depends on what I’m able to write, if my plot is good enough to go on without symbolism.

Sigh.  That’s really too bad, because I absolutely love reading books with symbols in them.  You know, at least the ones I can spot.


Happy reading.

Why Any Other Name Would Just Be Less Exciting

I’ve been thinking a lot about the naming of characters.

I’ve learned that it’s a very delicate process for some writers.  And, it turns out, these are the writers I tend to like.  A lot.  For instance, take J.K. Rowling.  Do I even need to name the books she’s written?  (It’s Harry Potter, in case you don’t know.)  EVERYTHING IN HER BOOK HAS SOME SORT OF MEANING.  EVERYTHING!!!  It’s the most incredible thing.  I’m guessing a lot of Internet research about the Middle Ages and name etymologies went into it, but I could be wrong.  She could just be an expert namer.

I don’t think the word “namer” is even a word.  But I don’t care.

Let me show you what I mean here.  Also, by the way, these meanings are borrowed from Mugglenet, which I consider a leading voice in the Harry Potter Internet fandom.

Remember Errol, that poor old doddering post-owl owned by the Weasely family?  Apparently Errol is an Old English word meaning “Wanderer.”  It certainly makes sense to me.

Also, Fenrir Greyback’s first name (that would be that nasty werewolf) comes from Norse mythology.  Fenrir was a gigantic wolf who caused the gods a lot of trouble in the past and was prophesied to be featured again when the world ends.  Which, when you think about it, is basically what Greyback did during the whole You-Know-Who takeover(s).

Another series whose naming I enjoy (actually, I enjoy the series in general.  It’s definitely in my top three) is The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins.  This is a YA trilogy that has been taking the world by storm over the past couple of years.  The final book, Mockingjay, came out almost a year ago, and a movie is now in production (squeal!  More about all this will definitely be coming later, but that requires its own post).  I don’t think I actually made any connections with the names and their meanings on my own during reading this series, but there is definitely something there.

Again, I’ll give some examples.  These come from another great fan-made etymology.

I’m sorry, anyone who’s only read the first book, but I just love Beetee, a District 3 tribute introduced in Catching Fire (the second book).  His name comes from a unit of energy measurement, the BtU.  I find this name most fitting for someone so adept with all things technology.

Also, I quite enjoyed finding out Peeta Mellark’s etymology.  Turns out his first name comes from (it seems obvious now) pita bread!  Mellark, on the other hand, isn’t as straightforward.  It probably came in part from the lark, a bird which carries all kinds of metaphors for the character’s ability to use words so well.  It also means a bunch of happy things like “good fortune” and “hope.”

I’m sure there are other books I’ve read whose names carry inner symbolism as well, but these two are the ones that have impressed me most with the author’s knowledge of mythology, history, and general awesomeness.  They have convinced me that in order for my books to be the best they can be, the names have to mean something.  At least, that is, if I’m writing fantasy or post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction as these two authors were.  But I think this lesson can count for any and all genres.

I’m not trying to sound like a copycat here.  I really think that names are a great way to convey more information about the character.  Of course, I’ll probably never be able to do it as well as my examples did, but I can try, right?

Then again, this probably means I have to go buy a gazillion mythology-related books now…

On Deep Sea and Deep Space

Today I finished reading The War of the Worlds, and as promised, I will now review it.  Here goes:

First of all, the narrator has no name.  This, to me, is a very cool thing.  It implies that H.G. Wells, the author, is the narrator as well.  Actually, besides some characters in the beginning who (spoiler alert!) die, I don’t think anyone has a name.  It was a refreshing thing to see.

Secondly, about this whole alien invasion thing.  I’m sorry if I’m spoiling things for people who haven’t read the book, but it’s necessary.  These aliens from Mars come down, and straight away expose themselves to our climate/environment.  If these guys were smart enough to figure out long-distance space travel and Heat-Rays, than why couldn’t they see that our air might not be the same as theirs?  Of course, within the world of sci-fi, external sensors are definitely possible…hmm.

Oh well.  It still bothers me that apparently the change of planet had no larger effect on them than what eventually killed them.  Although, come to think of it, that’s a pretty big effect.

Anyway, Mr. Wells is a superb writer of science fiction.  I have a bunch of his other books lined up on my Amazon Kindle for future reading.

But first…first I have to get through some Jules Verne.  To be specific, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I’ve been on this book for months and it’s super long and I just can’t seem to ever finish it.

Part of this is the descriptions.  I have nothing against Mr. Verne, but he wrote whole long paragraphs just naming different species of fish that our hero comes across while aboard the submarine.  It gets to be a bit tedious after a while.

Also, I grew up believing that the name Nemo (which, by the way, is Latin for “no one,” according to the book) was unique to a certain lovable undersea movie character.  Therefore, all the things I associate with the name stem from said lovable character.

Boy, was I misled.