Tuesday, June 12, 2012

In Search of Character

Eh, no, not my character. I'm afraid I'm rather well stuck with what I have there. As I work on Seaborn, though, Book 3 of my Masters of the Elements series, I am continually bemused by the power of a character to leap off the page in unexpected ways.

I have a couple of personal tools I am using for this book to get into my character's head rather than just let her grow organically off the page like usual. I was somewhat stuck when I first sat down to put fingers to keyboard on this one. The last thing I want is to write a series that uses basically the same plot and character difficulties/personalities. Jetta in Firedancer is a very strong leader type (so much so that she's been nominated as Best Hero in the E-Festival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards). In Windrider, the hero, Sheshan, is a quiet sort of guy who is not out to save the world until suddenly it becomes imperative that he step up. I didn't know anything about the lead character in Seaborn except that she would be a woman (for ulterior reasons that will be revealed by book's end). But what sort of woman? Young, old, middle-aged? Haughty, shy, very powerful, a beginner? Someone jolted into power or eagerly seeking it? All of these are common tropes and I wanted something more.

Clueless, I turned to my handy-dandy spreadsheet of character traits and began randomly picking things that looked interesting that might attach to this woman. Each of them had a story to tell, but was it the right story? Thin? Is that the body type of all Water Clan folk? How about an unusual voice? Would that be normal, the result of an injury, or what? Is it beautiful, raspy, barely understandable? A limp? How would it affect her and where did it come from? My mind ran down a hundred fruitless tracks, none of them leading to good places insofar as plot and workability and what this character would want or need to achieve in the course of the book.

None of those got used, by the way. The one that actually sparked my "Eureka!" moment was this one: exceptional posture. Oh, my. Suddenly my brain switched on. I pictured a young woman standing very straight, her shoulders stiffly squared, her chin up, her back defiant. Why was she this way? Is she this way all the time? Suddenly I could "hear" the reactions of all my other characters to her clamoring in my mind. I got a good snort out of Settak's. And then I knew that this girl had a story to tell.

No, not girl. A young woman, trapped  by obligation and duty but wanting desperately to be more, see more, do more. What was holding her back? Why the unbending pride? How does it affect her world view? What would it take to shake it? Is she right or wrong, and why? Now I had the beginnings of a story, because I had her motivation and the conflict that arises from it, and that, for those of you paying attention, is one of the most valuable lessons I ever got from a critique of my work long ago. What is each character's motivation? What the heck do they want? Oh, how I love that question from Babylon 5--the essential question, the driving question of the entire series.

The other tool I used to get inside this character's head is unique to this series. It is a document I dubbed "Cultures" and it is only a few pages long. It is not an exhaustive compilation of everything I know or think I know about the peoples of Metrenna. In fact, each culture only has a few paragraphs, but they are written in first person from the perspective of a Firedancer, a Windrider, etc. It puts me squarely into the attitude of these people, what they value, how they see themselves, how they see others and the world around them. Wow, is all I can say. Just...wow. This has been enlightening, to say the least. It certainly dumped out perspectives all unexpectedly that I never had a clue existed in the psyche of each clan. Yet, when I look at them in comparison to their element (water, fire, wind, etc.) it is entirely logical, almost inevitable. So there's another question I'll think about when building characters from now on: Who am I?

Some writers always carefully work out these details before beginning a book. I never have, because I never felt the need, but these books are different. Each character is so closely tied to outside influences and fighting consuming battles against them that they demanded I understand going in more than I generally want to. I don't like feeling straitjacketed when I write (hence, no outlines), as the sheer joy of watching something build on the page is half the fun of writing. Nonetheless, I am excited about what I learned from these two questions, and how I got there. Stay tuned. My young woman, Nes, is still finding herself in my head. I look forward with anticipation and curiosity to discovering what she learns.

Both Firedancer and Windrider, Books 1 and 2 of The Masters of the Elements, are on sale right now until midnight. You get 25% off the cover price of the print versions, and both ebook editions are a flat $1.99. You can't beat that, but the sale ends today. You'll find them here.

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