We pull our characters from a myriad of situations. Sometimes we stitch them together like Frankenstein’s monster – a little from one person, something else from another until a character emerges. Other times we combine two or three people we know really well, into one. Then there’s the character that makes themselves up; you know the ones. They download into your head and there’s nothing you can do to stop them. They are born like children with fully realized personalities. They may even have built-in catch phrases and drive specific cars. Those are the fun ones, the ones that you can’t fight off the page. No matter how much you try to bury them, they keep knocking on the inside of your skull until you let them out. I have one such character but this blog is not about him because characters such as those need no help, save for our discipline in getting them onto the page. This blog is about the first type of character, the one that’s stitched together like a patchwork quilt.
The other day I was purchasing plants from a nursery. A simple task. As a woman who worked there helped load them into my car she stated an observation. “You drive a Yaris, you get better gas mileage than a Prius.” The woman next to us had just pulled up in a Prius and the woman speaking to me showed unbridled disdain for the other car.
Now there are a few ways I could have proceeded. I could have simply said, “Yes, thank you.” thus agreeing with the obviously opinionated woman and our conversation would have been over.
My father (who I relayed the conversation to later) assured me that’s what he would have done. But, among my many faults I’m contrary, I pride myself on telling the truth and I like to stir up trouble. Plus I had very recently had a long conversation with my father about my car. Yes it gets great gas mileage, there is no doubt about that. It also blows into the other lane on the freeway when a truck passes by or when there are winds above 30mph. If you watch the collision dummy footage you will find, to my dismay, that if another car plows into a Yaris at a low speed (with older models such as mine) it crumples up like a tin can.
Therefore my response to the woman was something like, “Yes but if someone hits me there’s a good chance I will not survive.”
To which she actually replied something like this: “That’s a conspiracy. They want you to believe that but those statistics are all made up. There haven’t been any car accidents in California in the last ten years. The news is full of lies about cars in order to promote fear and make people spend more money to buy more expensive cars.”
I was flabbergasted. I actually tried to argue with her by telling her I had viewed the crash test dummy footage online. She argued back telling me, and truly believing this herself, that the footage was faked. Her next statement, the one that had me walking away shaking my head was: “And if you put those negative thoughts of an accident out there, you will draw one to you.”
Now I believe in positive thinking and affirmations just as much, if not more than the next person but I am a realist. I do not think that if I jump off a tall building and believe I will land unhurt that I will indeed land, unhurt. I also believe in plenty of conspiracy theories but when I drive my car I feel like I’m driving a tin can. As for no car accidents in California… I don’t even watch the news but I personally know of three people who were involved in automobile fatalities in the Bay Area in the past few months and have personally witnessed several not fatal ones myself, quite recently.
But alas… what’s the message here? The importance of all this? That woman makes a GREAT character, or more so, part of a great character. A character who truly believes these things to be true. And I would have missed out on all of that good fodder if I had just agreed with her and moved on. The lesson/s – talk to people, listen and ask questions.
Something major happened to me recently. Life-changing major. I lost a parent by choice, not by death. There was a tremendous amount of drama leading up to the culmination, much like Act II leading up to the black moment in our novels. After the “incident” which took almost six months to play out, the obsessive thinking began. “They should never have… Why did they… I’m so upset about…” etc. Since this event coincided with the outlining of book 4 in my Distant Edge Series I couldn’t keep it from crossing into my thoughts. Before I knew it, a big part of the book’s drama revolved around my character’s issue with her parent. I added similar lines spoken by my family members because quite frankly – they sound crazy, I couldn’t make this $#it up and they make convincing characters.
Looking back on my first three novels in the series, which are already written and will be published starting in May 2017 – I found that my antagonist was completely based on the family member attached to the parent I lost. The character uses modified phrases that this person has spoken to me. Her personality in my books mirrors that of the personality she has shown me for the past thirty years.
Why do this? First of all – sometimes it can’t be helped. Things that are going on in our subconscious comes out in our writing. Secondly – it’s cathartic. It helps us make sense of events, personalities and confusion in our own worlds. Thirdly – and most importantly – it makes for great well-rounded antagonists or protagonists, depending on how people in our lives have treated us.
I received book 2 back from my editor a couple of weeks ago and her comments elicited so much emotion I started to cry (with happiness). She found conflict and motivation within my protagonist that I didn’t even know I had written. This is where our true-life events come out. We can completely fictionalize them and keep the gist or we can use actual events and what people have said to us, changing their names of course.
Everyone’s heard “you write what you know” which is true but we also write “who we know”. Therefore I encourage you to turn all of those wrongs in your past into rights. If you can’t change what happened or the hurt someone has caused you, use it in your book. Turn those meanies into antagonists. Turn their insanity and self-righteous, thoughtless behavior into the conflict your protagonist must overcome. Take the crazy words they have spoken to you, change them a little, and make it part of your antagonist’s dialogue. Not only will this make you feel so much better, it will lend authenticity to your characters. However it is important for your antagonist to believe that what they are doing (their motivation) is right, no matter how heinous it is. Otherwise they’ll read like a cartoon villain. Think of this as a way to process while staying true to your art form. And, it’s probably best not to tell the people who have wronged you that you’ve made them into bad guys in your books. You don’t want to be sued for liable or defamation of character.
Written by: Chloe Adler
Last week someone asked me the question, “How do you manage your unmanageability?” My answer: Accountability.
A few months ago I decided on an exercise challenge. After two years of bi-weekly handstand classes I still could not balance on my own in the center of the room. After asking experts I was told, “you need to practice every single day no matter what, for a minimum of two minutes a day. If you do this, in six months to a year you’ll have your handstands.”
I asked a friend in my handstand class if she would be my accountability partner by checking in every day via text. She agreed and we formulated a plan. We made lists of all of our exercises, given to us by our teachers and started checking in daily. After a few weeks I put all the exercises on a google spreadsheet and invited her. Each day we check off what we’ve done and other women have joined us. Happily… it’s working. I can now hold a handstand for up to six seconds on my own in the middle of the room, after only two months of vigilance. I am also in the routine of practicing daily with daily check-ins to my accountability partner.
Why not do the same with writing? I recently formed a critique group, which has been incredible. However, I had not been writing daily and I need to be as I’m very close to finishing my fourth novel. I asked a few people in my critique group if they would be interested in being accountability partners. Instead of checking in daily, which is a good idea, I went straight to a google spreadsheet, inviting some of my critique partners and formed different tabs for each of us at the bottom.
Along the side are the dates and across the top are: word count, time spent (writing), place (we wrote), emotional state (before and/or during the writing).
Each day I record whether I have written or not and I also look at the other writer’s progress which pushes me further. Google Spreadsheets are great for this because you can invite whoever you want to join them. You can look on their spreadsheet to see what they are doing, they’re free and you can use them on all of your devices.
The other day I saw that one of the writer’s was writing up a storm and I was not so I sat down to write. I don’t feel competitive doing this process, I feel spurred forward by their accomplishments. A sort of “if they can do it with their full time job and husband, I can too”.
I have a deadline too, that I set for myself – I want to be finished before the RWA Conference in July. I looked to see how many words I needed to write a day for that goal and it’s beyond doable. Joanna Penn recently asked a writer on her Podcast, The Creative Penn, what made them finish their first book and the answer for them, as well as for Joanna, was to form a deadline.
Having accountability partner/s is one great way to make your writing goals. Setting a deadline is another. All that said, if you don’t write for a day or two or three or four the most important is not to beat yourself up about it. You can always look at “today” – whatever day is today as the first day you’re going to start and reset your goal accordingly. You can also be realistic. Maybe you only have time to write 1-2 days a week. Accountability can still work. Make sure your partner knows what works for you and what you’re agreeing to do.
Here are two other great articles on accountability, writing, and deadlines J
8 Accountability Strategies for Writing Your Book
How to Hold Yourself Accountable As a Writer
~Written by Chloe Adler