Saturday, 23 February 2013

Is there anybody in there?

Firstly, I have to thank Jim Murdoch who gave me the idea for this post via a comment he left on my post last week.

Thanks, Jim.

Last week I talked a bit about characters, and how I like to base the qualities for my characters on the general bonkersness of people I encounter. Jim made an interesting point in his comment about the fact that often the central character is far less interesting than the other characters that circle around them. Jim gave the example of US sitcoms, and one of my favourites, Seinfeld, is probably a classic example of this. But I think there are lots of examples that illustrate this principle.

My favourite examples I like to use when describing this idea are Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter - which I've always seen as kind of interchangable - I'd love to see a mashup where Frodo and Harry join forces to defeat Darth Vader.

When you think of the main characters, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, and good old Harry, what comes to mind? Not much. There's not a lot to them. I guess they're kind of brave and stolid - they fight hard and don't give up. But there's not much else you can say about them. They're not that clever or funny, and they don't have unusual character quirks. When it comes down to it, they're kind of boring.

So what do you make of that? Is that an oversight on the part of the writers to create such bland central characters? I think not. I actually think it's completely intentional, and it's actually a highly effective storytelling device. 

I see these characters as kind of like a blank page. Readers can project whatever qualities they like onto them, making it easy for a broad range of readers to identify with them. This makes them really effective as "windows" into a story, allowing readers to become more fully immersed. It also helps the personalities and eccentricities of the supporting characters to shine more strongly.

Because of this, the name I like to use to describe these characters is "blank heroes". And when I look at my stories, I can see it's a device I make use of as well. Neville Lansdowne is definitely a blank hero (maybe he's not much of a hero when it comes down to it). So are Magnus Mandalora and Kriffle the Flidderbug. Come to think of it, pretty much all my central characters so far would qualify as blank heroes.

It's such an effective device that it's easy to fall into it too readily. With some other stories in development, I'm seeing if I can break the mold and come up with some less blank central characters. We'll see how we go.

Have a great week.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Bonkers, bonkers, bonkers, bonkers, bonkers

Characters are my favourite part of being a writer.

I suppose that isn't suprising. As a reader, I think characters are my favourite aspect of a story as well. Sure, I might initially get sucked in by an interesting premise, or the promise of some sort of exciting revelation, but ultimately it's the characters that keep me hooked.

That applies just as much for writing. The aspect of writing I get the most joy out of is writing characters. I love putting them into situations and seeing how they respond. I love sticking them into a scene together and observing how they react to each other. No matter how good (in my opinion) my story ideas are, it's the characters that keep me interested in the writing.

To me, the aspect of character is so important that when I'm planning a story, once I have the basic idea, most of my time is working out who the characters are. I figure that once I have that sorted, the outline of the plot will come naturally.

People often ask me where I get my character ideas from. After all, I suppose I have some pretty strange ones. I guess some of them are obvious. I'm not going to deny that character types in Magnus Opum, such as the Kertoobis, Cherines and Glurgs are totally derived from Tolkien's Hobbits, Elves and Orcs. 

But what about some of the others? What about the Doosies, the incorrigible gossips with ears on the back of their heads but only one eye. What about the permanently energised Pharsheeth, or the Great Oponium? These characters are much less Tolkien and much more me.

And what about some of my other stories? What about the constantly bickering Flidderbug tribes, or the assortment of strange people Neville Lansdowne meets in his adventures, like the Toaster People or the Aimless  Girl or the Shouting Man? Where do they come from?

People seem to assume I have a very strong imagination. Perhaps they're right - I'm not sure if I'm the one to judge. I know that often the inspiration doesn't come from so far away.

It's mostly just from viewing people. Being with them. Listening to what they say. Seeing them on TV or reading about them in the news. There's one basic thing I take away from it all.

People are bonkers.

And once you've figured that out, coming up with strange and unexpected characters is not that difficult. To be honest, I don't think my characters are anywhere near as odd as a good proportion of the people I encounter. The sheer bonkersness of most people is beyond what I could ever capture as a writer.

Of course, that doesn't apply to me. And I'm sure it doesn't apply to you either. Have a great (and not too bonkers) week. 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Keeping my balls in the air

I know how to juggle.

I taught myself how to do it, just after I finished school. I was a bit bored one day and on a whim I thought, "Why don't I teach myself how to juggle?"

So I did. I grabbed a bunch of golf balls (to this day, I reckon golf balls are the best thing to use to learn how to juggle - they're easy to catch and don't go bouncing away) and began. I didn't have an instruction book. I just figured it out. 

I'm not that coordinated (when I used to play cricket, I was notorious for the number of catches I dropped) but by the end of the day I had gotten to the point where I could do maybe ten catches in a row. And in a couple of days, I could keep going up to 100 and over.

I even began to do tricks, like under the leg. Though I never did manage the "take a bite from an apple" trick (I always seemed to smash it against my forehead) and I could never manage more than four balls. Still, it's one of those things I'm kind of pleased about. I know how to juggle.

I've been thinking about the whole juggling thing a bit lately because these days I seem to be spending a lot of time juggling. Maybe not in a literal sense, but most of my life seems to be a struggle to keep a lot more than three balls in the air.

My work in itself is a juggle. Multiple projects is the name of the game. Gotta keep them all moving forward - multiple deadlines are getting near and that's a lot of juggling. Then there's the juggle of balancing work with personal life, and all the decisions that involves.

But the biggest juggle of all is the attempt to keep some sort of a semblance as a writer with everything else going on. There's the three current works-in-progress which I've blabbed on a bit about previously - I suppose each of those is a ball. Then there's all the social media stuff - my Twitter ball and my Facebook ball and the rather large ball that is this blog. Honestly, I have no idea how I do it.

Even as I write this, I'm still madly juggling. Here go those balls - up and down and up and down. I really hope I don't drop them. Can you imagine what a mess that would make. 

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Watch out - the writing police are in town

I went to see Neil Gaiman last week.

It was a really fun night. He's a great speaker and raconteur, a real writing rock star. And with the amazing body of work that he's produced, he has an awful lot to talk about. Novels. Comics. Films and television shows. He's pretty much done it all (did I mention that I was more than a little envious).

He read from his latest work (there were even some chapters distributed for free, but by the time we got to the theatre, someone had nicked our copies - bummer). He also read this brilliant Australia Day poem. But the thing that interested me was discussion of a commencement address he gave in the US last year, which apparently had been something of an online sensation.

Of course, I had to check this address out, and I liked what I heard. I liked that the focus was very much on writing what you wanted to write and thumbing your nose at any supposed rules. Because those rules are something I've been hearing an awful lot of lately.

It seems like wherever you go, there are people saying what you can and can't write. They're listing 10 rules for this or 5 rules for that or the 20 rules that every writer must follow. They're saying how books should open and books should close. My head is overflowing with these rules.

I know that most of us won't end up with the kind of success Neil Gaiman has achieved. But to me, the reason why he's an inspiration is because he can have that success on his own terms. He can write the books he wants to write the way he wants to write them, without caring that he might be breaking any supposed rules. If he doesn't want to write a sequel to a book that was a great success, then he doesn't have to. Maybe he's the exception that proves the rule, but at least he shows that it can be possible.

So next time I hear that the writing police are in town, laying down the law and telling me what I can and can't write, I'll remember the evening I spent listening to one of my favourite writers. And then I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing and writing what I'm writing. I dare them to come and arrest me.