The Different Facets of Your Inner Princess

A couple of summers ago, I received an audition notice for a fantasy game that offered many female roles. The catch was that you had to create your own audition script with nothing but very brief character breakdowns. We’ll roll right past the part where I wasn’t actively writing anything beyond the blog at the time, and the fact I (still) have extremely limited scriptwriting experience. I finally selected a character to audition for that was for all intents and purposes a stereotypical goddess of all things good. I figured if I had to both write and play a character, I should go with one that seemed to play to my strengths.

I have a long history of being a princess. Like so many little girls, I grew up around princess culture. I would use safety pins, beads, and costume jewelry to turn nightgowns into princess gowns. I made crowns out of whatever was handy. (My favorite were beaded pipe cleaners, a technique I learned in elementary school from watching the costume ladies at ballet.) I was an expert at turning blankets and scarves into capes and trains.

When I started playing tabletop RPGs, I tended to play characters involved in the setting’s hierarchy or had that elven noble thing going for them…on more than one occasion because the GM needed a fairy princess, and I was the lucky girl chosen. This followed me into LARPing. I was the princess. Even when I was in fighting garb and lobbing spell balls, I was the princess.

And it followed me beyond that. One year, I went to the Washington Ren Faire in one of my favorite court gowns, and decided to go play in the boffer fighting arena. When I walked in, I was the only girl and the guys didn’t know what to make of me until I hit one of them. But a few minutes later, half a dozen little girls had come into the arena because they wanted to be like the princess.

Even my first voiceover job cast me as a YA narrator, which combined with my love of fantasy novels to leave me open to being all kinds of princesses.

I didn’t have to try to be the princess to become the princess. I was just a pretty little princess. But I was a pretty little princess with feminist tendencies. So, I guess I was sort of an edgy pretty little princess. At any rate, I figured that years of being a princess or princess-like in various settings were the perfect preparation for pulling off this script and this role.

I was wrong. Despite the fact my play time had been dominated by this personality type, my writing time hadn’t.

As a writer, I create characters that would never fit in with the current princess culture. They don’t want to be in charge. They’re sarcastic and independent, or fighting to become independent. If they help someone, it’s not out of any noble sense. It’s because they happened to be there when someone needed help. They’re researchers, scholars, artists, performers, martial artists, students. Not your typical princess fare.

While I probably could have drawn from my princess background to play that stereotypical goddess of all things good, I wasn’t able to draw from my action girl background to write her. Ultimately, I abandoned the audition after making a few really awful stabs at writing the audition script. It was an interesting lesson in what I perceive as my performing strengths versus my actual strengths as writer, and it actually helped me refocus my voice acting efforts toward characters that I was more likely to be able to play drawing from my own interests and attitudes.

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Developing Fictional People

This week’s adventure in MOOCing centers around creating a user persona, running that user persona through a qualitative data gathering exercises, and then creating our second user journey of the class. So…basically…creating and manipulating a fictional person. Seems simple enough, right?

Apparently not, and I knew that going into this class. I have a long history of struggling with the concept of developing personas. A persona a fictional person you create who might use the product you’re working on, whom you can then place into context with the product you’re using and play with how they might interact with the product. But it’s a fictional “real person”, somebody who could really exist, and I don’t even believe in real person fan fiction. (I got forced into collaborating on one years ago, and that’s one of many things I will never forgive that person for doing to me.)

What’s funny, though, is that I have no problem creating fictional “fake people”, or what we call “characters”. I’ve done it for years. I can create a whole cast of characters for stories. I can help someone brainstorm a character for their own stories. I’ve created PCs (playable characters) and NPCs (non-player characters) for tabletop RPGs and LARPs. People have paid me to create people who don’t exist. I don’t suck at it.

For some reason, though, while my brain can create a battle-hungry princess and her fabulous war unicorn on the spot, it shuts down when asked to create the person who would play a slumber party mystery game aimed at tweens. I can’t even get to deciding that the persona is a ten-year-old girl. Honestly. It’s awful.

And it shouldn’t happen. Regardless of where the character is being used, it’s just that – a character. A figment of someone’s imagination being set into a given context in a given storyworld. Period. And people will be watching the persona for the purposes of drawing off information, but they do that with characters, too. To think of personas and characters as separate activities is to build a false wall for yourself, and to unnecessarily stunt your creative work.

Selecting the Right Character For the Story

So often in stories and games, there’s a question of, “Why does it always have to be a prince or princess who goes off? Shouldn’t they stay home and avoid getting killed off or sit around and look pretty or something royal?” It’s like storytellers believe that the only people capable of sweeping missions and great quests are those with a crown on their head. While there may be something to that (I think of the reforming Disney princess culture as I say that), there’s a much simpler, more likely explanation: A young royal would have access to the funds, supplies, and connections necessary to undertake a long journey. It’s possible that someone from a lower class could use their skills to pull off a quest with minimal stress on resources, but it’s often easier to have a nice cushion to shove off from.

That’s a little hard to hear while we’re in a period of what has been generously called “incompetence porn”, but it’s true. The chances that a group of complete strangers can band together and work as if they’ve known each other for years is highly unlikely. Believing the privileged class brain who can’t figure out how recover a hidden file can break into a secure database strains even the most liberal suspension of disbelief. The idea that a character who has zero experience with anything similar to the one skill set needed to solve a major plot problem can suddenly acquire a near-master understanding of that skill out of nowhere is beyond ludicrous. No matter how much we want to believe an ordinary character can become something else just by writing it, it’s just not going to happen.

And it makes sense when you think about it. If you have a malfunctioning computer, you’re not going to take it to your friend who is an outstanding chef. You’re going to find someone experienced in fixing computers. Stories are the same way. They don’t happen to a character who has little reason for being there. The story we want to follow is the one following a character who has the resources to be there, be it money, staff, skills, tools, connections, whatever.

This point was kind of driven home for me recently. I’m currently working on a story with a small set of characters, and creating the third character gave me a fit because I wasn’t thinking about the simple rule that all of the characters had to have a legitimate reason for being in the story. When I stopped trying to create a character in isolation and started asking where the gaps were in the team, the character created himself.  Yes, character creation can be that simple when you match the character to the story.

The next time you’re stuck trying to build your story around a character, ask yourself one simple question: Does this character belong here?

Narrating Characters vs. Their Introverted Writers

Over the years, I’ve been told that my secondary characters are far more interesting than my main characters. After hearing this from the same friend repeatedly, I finally started looking at my stories and seeing what she was talking about. I thought.

But it turns out that while I do have some stories where I clearly liked the secondary characters more than I liked the primary characters, it’s not the pervasive problem my well-meaning friend had made it out to be. Instead, I was telling stories through the filter of an observing character.

What does that mean? Well, it means that I may have been too much of a Dr. Watson fan as a child. No, no, no. I kid. It means that I like to write stories where the narrating character isn’t the protagonist. I like to tell stories from the point of view of a character who chronicles a sequence of events, or is in a position to react to what the protagonist is doing. I’m working on a story right now where the narrating character is subconsciously finding her own path through her teen years while passing judgement on how her sister is doing the same thing. Not entirely original, but it has actually provided a breakthrough or two for my writing. And it’s made me look more closely at how often I use this narrating character style and how I use it.

I personally am strongly introverted. A writer who’s introverted? How unique! I know. But one of the advantages of being introverted is that I tend to observe. A lot. Sometimes in a very creepy way (or so I’ve been told). And I like to work through what I observe by writing about it. I like to blog about what I’m seeing and how I’m perceiving it; or to share smaller observations on social media, again with some sort of personal analysis. I’m discovering I can explore a lot of what I see through fictional worlds and characters. But because it’s coming from me, the chronic observer, my narrating characters sometimes take on this somewhat aloof point of view. And I think it happens more often when I am trying to make sense of something I’ve observed, rather than just working from a prompt, idea, or story starter.

What about you? What personal ticks are you bring into your writing voice and techniques?

Curse You, Steven Moffat

“What the viewer knows vs. what the character(s) know” almost rivals “what a character knows vs. what the player knows”.

I’ve decided that.

I realize it’s not exactly the same thing, but in a way it really is. As writers, we’re trained to make the protagonist (or his trusted sidekick) the reader’s stand-in. The readers’ proxy. Their way into the story. When we give the reader knowledge that their representative in the story doesn’t yet have, it changes our relationship with the character and the story itself. We’re forcibly kicked out of our spot within the story back into the real world to be nothing more than an observer yelling at a soundproof window. It’s disorienting, and that story becomes a joke. A trope. One of the many, many stories where we take the author to task for making their protagonist make stupid decisions.

As a tabletop RPGer, it’s really hard to play a character with a straight face when you personally know the inside joke (or the ultimate fate you’re running full-tilt toward). While I’ve managed it a bit more gracefully than some others I’ve gamed with, I’ve watched player knowledge torpedo a game while the player tries to change a situation to suit his knowledge (or to avoid something he knows is coming). It stops being a reaction to what’s happening and allowing the others in the campaign to react and interact within the game. It becomes a full-on quest to try to stop the inevitable, to cheat death (either figuratively or literally).

Something to keep in mind while working on stories, be they linear or interactive…

The Weak Main Character

I admitted recently that one of my greatest struggles with my writing is the concept of “voice”. Another thing that trips me up is the main character. A friend of mine used to cringe every time I sent her something to read over because she already knew what her first critique had to be: I don’t like your main character. She’s too weak/whiny/lame/etc. But your secondary character is pretty cool. In one story, I had two main characters, each with her own sidekick, and both sidekicks were more interesting to readers than the two main character. Double failure, and proof that this is really a pervasive problem for me.

When the main character is supposed to be the reason the reader gets interested, is the filter for the events of the story, being accidentally unlikable is a problem. It’s an even bigger one when the character in the sidekick role is more interesting. I’ve taken to calling this “Watson Syndrome” after Dr. John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ faithful chronicler (not to be confused with the disturbing skin condition of the same name). My main characters have a bad habit of observing and commenting on the story playing out in front of them rather than being fully integrated into the story.

And I have really mastered the art of finding different ways to have a character in this position.

I’ve come to realize part of my problem is that I don’t have a strong grasp on character development to begin with, so at least I have a starting place, but it’s going to be interesting trying to unlearn a behavior that seems to have permeated most of my writing career.

The “Big” Reveal

I’ve been reworking the affectionately-dubbed “zombie project” (that would probably be better if I included some zombies at this point), and I’m noticing something: There isn’t much emotion in this manuscript. Someone has actually pointed this out to me before, but now that I’m reorganizing and rethinking plot it’s standing out like a neon sign in an open field.

The main problem is that my “big reveals”…aren’t. I’m great at planting the clues, but each reveal is nothing more than a lacking (or nonexistent) build-up and a brief “This is supposed to be cool or awe-inspiring” moment.

That makes for great reading, doesn’t it?

So now, not only am I trying to fix my plot and character issues, but I’m trying to make these key moments in the story worthwhile for the reader. No one ever remembers the book that left them saying, “So what?” after turning points. I have to figure out what’s holding me back from turning these scenes into the moments they were intended to be, and then make them be those moments.

It’s a good thing I enjoy challenges.

The Pointless Main Character

Character development is a known issue of mine. With very few exceptions, the majority of my main characters are uninteresting. They lack something. Some lack a backbone, which is odd given that I’m the one writing them. An amazing number of them lack any sort of drive or goal. Others just flat out lack personality.

Alexandra Williams, the main character of my favorite NaNovel that I’ve ever worked on (the one I’m currently trying to beat into something readable), falls into that second category. Originally, these weird guys roughly her age asked her to help them find one of her contemporaries, and she was only too happy to go along for the sake of going along. She had no other reason for being interested in the case.

Actually, she kind of reminds me of a character I once played in a pick-up game, one who could have happily remained at the tavern eating her dinner because there was absolutely nothing interesting to her about the events going on.

Unlike that character, though, Alex played her role well within the plot of the story. It could have been any other archaologist in the world, but Alex really made it her own little quest. Eventually, I revised things to a point where she was suddenly a decent choice for the job because the missing archaeologist was her father’s old friend and colleague, but Alex herself had little to do with the choice. If she’d had a sibling who was also an archaeologist, that sibling would have been just as valid a choice.

Even with the family connection, Alex’s only real reason for working on this particular case is because she was asked. And she comes out of it with a broken ankle and a better understanding of an obscure culture she’d never heard of prior to the story. Alex is a strong, confident young woman who makes it clear early on that she pretty much does whatever she chooses to do, and she just goes along with first a research assistant and then some scary guys roughly her age.

And she’s the protagonist.

I think Alex illustrates a lot about where my main characters fail, and she gives me a lot to think about while I’m trying to make her into a better character and trying to research character development. I sometimes wonder if I stay with this manuscript because I can see so many opportunities to learn more about crafting a good story.

Classic Characters

I’ve often read that what makes a classic cartoon character is the character’s ability to fit into any time and space. Bugs Bunny could walk the streets of France, sing an opera, and run away from a (rather inept) hunter. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can face the Shredder in modern-day New York, New York of the future, and cyberspace. Mickey Mouse can drive a steamboat, enchant brooms, and still find time to court Minnie Mouse.

It works that way in books, too. Look at the Nancy Drew books. Nancy solves cases all over the world, and has for decades. Children’s picture books like the Arthur series feature similar timeless characters who can move naturally between very different situations.

These characters are strong in their own personality. They’re defined more by what they do and how they do it rather than by where they do it, and that gives them a flexibility that allows them to draw viewers or readers in and drag them along on their adventures. That, in turn, gives them a timelessness that allows them to reach out to different generations, making them truly classic.

Fictional Me

One of my biggest problems as a writer is character development. I can get the C, but more often than not I either get the G or the O. (Usually, I get the O, but can’t find the G.)

For example, I can sort of start answering questions to define a character based on me, but I get lost when I start looking for that character’s goals. Then, I start trying to create obstacles, and I start worrying that the obstacles either aren’t obstacles or they’re too wimpy.

In my life, I’ve had obstacles. I’ve had plenty of obstacles, but I feel they’re either common obstacles or I brought them on my own head. To Writer Me, neither feels like it will garner much sympathy.

I’m also a Man vs Self kind of writer, and those really aren’t Man vs Self obstacles. They don’t feel like they are, at any rate. The problem is: I’m a fairly quick-study most of the time. Sure, there are things that elude me, and I walk away from them. I may come back and try again (with mixed results), or I may not.

In that case, am I looking at something more like this?

[new skill appears]
Fictional Me: [tackles and learns]
[slightly harder new skill appears]
Fictional Me: [tackles, fumbles, re-tackles, and learns]
[harder skill appears]
Fictional Me: [tackles, fumbles, analyzes, re-groups, and learns]
[boss-level skill appears]
Fictional Me: Great! [grumbles]

Maybe?