Getting to Know Your Characters: New Year Edition

A writing exercise I enjoy is to pretend you are chatting with your characters. Imagine you are on an interview with them, out for coffee, or whiling away the hours in a park. Have a conversation with them. Let you be you and them be them.

Sometimes this can be done all in your head. Do you have a long bus ride? Start interrogating your characters about their life choices. Just don’t miss your stop. Other times, you might benefit from doing a free writing while thinking about this. Let your words and thoughts flow. My general advice for this is not to think too much. Go with your first instinct with a character’s answer. You might be surprised.

We’ve had a list of backstory related questions once upon a time, but let us begin this year with some New Year inspired questions.

  1. How do you celebrate the New Year?
  2. Do you have any traditions you do not celebrate anymore? Alternatively, how has your celebrations changed?
  3. What is your reaction to the phrase New Year, New You?
  4. Where do you see yourself at the end of this year?
  5. What goals did you accomplish last year?
  6. What goals did you not accomplish last year?
  7. How would you have approached last year differently if you could go back and do it again?
  8. What year would you consider your best year, and why?
  9. Is there anything you want to change about yourself this year?
  10. What does a new year mean to you?

 

Worldbuilding Aside:

While we are on the topic of the New Year, stop to consider how you arrange your year/time if you are writing speculative fiction! Is a year religion based? Season based? Celestial based? How do your characters measure time and dates?

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Let’s Talk Names

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

Imagine, if you will, a person. This person has hope and dreams. This person has a past and a future. This person has a style and a voice. This person is one in several billion.

This person is… a person.

This person is your character and they need a name.

If you could listen in on my writing process you would know that some video game boss music is playing right now and it is apt. Nothing puts me in more of an exhausted haze then trying to name the characters I will spend years with. This post may have something to do with a character’s fourth name change in five years. Nothing sounds right! I gave naming power over to one of my sisters and just told her to pick something because I’ve hated every version of her name.  She’s pleased she named a queen. I’m pleased I don’t have to think about it any more. It’s a win-win.

However, we can’t always outsource our naming responsibilities.

Let’s talk about reality for a moment. We don’t choose our name. At least not in the beginning. You get a little older and you can do whatever you want, but there at the beginning the naming falls into your caregiver’s hands. For something that is so pivotal in our lives, it isn’t our choice, not really.

With naming comes histories, expectations, and futures all rolled into one.  It’s a lot packed into just a few syllables. Consider your name. What does it say about you? Perhaps even more interestingly, what doesn’t it say about you?

I’m going to take a moment to deconstruct the name I’m most familiar with– mine. You’ll see most of it up in the website bar. Here it is in all it’s glory: Nicole Faith Getson.

I’ll start with the last name. Getson. There aren’t that many of us around. The story is that Goetz needed to be softened. Changed. Melted into the melting pot. The family adopted a different, Americanized version of the name. Goetz turned into Getson.

On to the middle name. When the first act of your life is almost dying, you end up with the name Faith. There are a whole category of these sorts of names. Names that mean things: Faith, Chastity, Honor, Charity, Grace, Hope, Justice, Patience, etc.. Virtue names echoing a puritan past. These names are a far cry from some names used in the past. If we were actually were Puritans in 1600s my name would have ended up being Safe-On-HighHere is another fun fact about my family: we aren’t particularly religious. When people hear my middle name, I get strange looks. Yes, indeed, I’m a walking misnomer! (Hi Mom! *waves* I can already feel your phone call. Talk to you soon. While I’m in the parentheses here, I’ll go ahead and paraphrase this phone call from my mother for you: “You can have faith in many things other than a higher power, including yourself.” Thanks Mom!)

Let’s move on to the first name– Nicole– the name most people everyday know me by. The name that is shouted to get my attention. Something I’ve learned over the years is that people assume my nickname is Nikki. It’s not. It’s Cole. If you need my name to be shortened, please refer to me as the combustible rock, thanks. Yes, yes, I know that is spelled coal.

I have the added bonus of a masculine nickname as a woman. My name takes people aback. I hear refrains of: “Are you sure it’s not Nikki?” The many years living my life assures me that no, that is not what my name is. I’ve also been told on multiple occasions that I am not a Nicole.  Every once in awhile a person will then rattle off a list of names that seem more like me. Emily usually ranks high on these lists and I am not sure why.

Please do not do this to people.

I REPEAT: DO NOT DO THIS TO PEOPLE.

A baby naming book is within arm’s reach of my desk. It hangs out on a side table beside my desk. It’s always there, hovering just out of my sight line, lurking, waiting for the next character for me to name. Waiting for me. Staring at me. Coming for me. This is why sometimes instead of trying to come up with names I send an email out to my Naming of Random Things Think Tank (PATENT PENDING) and they get to come up with a side character’s name, because I just cannot.

*boss music crescendos*

Names are a touchstone to a character. It’s often one of the first things we think of when considering a character it helps encompass all that makes them… them.

A character of mine changes his name half a dozen time over the course of one of my books. Being a poster child for identity crises, he uses these names to reinvent himself over and over and over. Each name settles him into a different culture and life. He switches his family name from first to last and back again. He changes how the vowels are pronounced. He changes where the emphasis is, all as he figures out who he is and where he fits into the world.

There is also a lot to unpack in a name. People don’t appear one day at the beginning of their most interesting plot points. They were born and given a name, maybe they changed their name, maybe they have a nickname, maybe they gave up their family name, maybe and maybe and maybe… there are so many options here that give a glimpse into both a character’s backstory and the world.

Worldbuilding: Discordanant Elements

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

Let’s talk about moogles. Kupo.

… Spoiler Alert: Final Fantasy.

I recently finished Final Fantasy XV, instead of raging about my myriad of problems, concerns, general angst, and annoyed love with it I’m going to talk about moogles. No, I have to say something about XV. I’ll inevitably have a cat named Prompto. What a dork. I promise this has something to do with worldbuilding. I’ll get there.

On that note, back to moogles. I’m not going to give you the full History of the Moogle. If I ever went back to school that is the name of my dissertation. The History of the Moogle: Foundations of Fluffiness and Folklore. An entire chapter would be dedicated to the “-mog-” naming system. Note: Worldbuilding discussion about names… coming to a computer screen near you soon(ish). Instead, here are some brief highlights from the games:

First playable character: Final Fantasy VI. This cast is huge and includes a Yeti. It would make sense this is when we first get to play a moogle ourselves. There is an entire moogle army/invasion section.

Final Fantasy VII: Cait Sith. Ummm… Cait Sith. I don’t know what to add. Who is looking forward to that in the remake. Raise your hands! Most importantly, there are no living moogles here!

They are practically nonexistent in Final Fantasy VIII, only appearing as a pseudo Guardian Force available through the Pocket Station and a few dialogue mentions across the game.

Mog as a summon in Final Fantasy IX. Eiko’s little buddy turns out is not so little and is a Eidolon disguised as an orange pom pomed moogle named Mog. Additionally, moogles function as your save point and you in turn run their mail around for them. I love you so much, IX.

In Final Fantasy X we see them pass into legend again. Rather than a living being, they are an equippable doll for Lulu to use as a casting weapon. They reappear in X-2 as Yuna’s mascot dress sphere.

XII brings us full circle to see them once again as a race incorporated into the world, not as a legendary creature.

They return to creatures of legend in XIII. An exception might be made for XIII-2’s moogle who is also a weapon and can speak. Much like the rest of XIII-2, that was unclear and a little bizarro.

That was not as brief as I planned.

In the list of things Final Fantasy fans expect in their games, moogles rate up there along with chocobos, summoning, and crystals. Chocobos are an easy thing to incorporate, they often operate as the Final Fantasy equivalent of a horse. Side note: In XV there is a line of background dialogue of “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.” Are there horses in this world? I don’t think we ever see horses. Have horses fallen into legend as chocobos took over their role? Is this a hint that the world is much larger than we see, are there horses on the other side of it? Or, would it simply be more appropriate to say “I’m so hungry I could eat a chocobo.”  It is a translation/idiom error? Why does this line exist?

Anyway, chocobos are not a problem to work into a game of varying levels of technology and magic. Moogles, however, have a particular aesthetic. How do you work in a fluffy white creature with a pom pom delicately attached to their head and sharp bat wings protruding from their back into a game like XV?

Moogles are painted in two different ways: real and legendary. Looking across the games, those with the most advanced tech and greatest focus on humans have passed their moogles on into legend. Mainly: VII, VIII, XIII, and XV. I cannot imagine what hyperrealistic moogles would have looked like in XV. Perhaps they could have gone with the demon route and made them into enemies that only came out at night? That could have been frightening.

In games that include moogles as living beings such as IX, there is less of a focus on humans as the dominate race and realism. In XII, where technology is often seen in browns and bronzes and given a more naturalistic look, moogles are real. While humans seem to be the majority, the world also is home to viera, bangaa, seeq, and others.  Keeping moogles as living creatures with their own culture makes sense here, in worlds where magic and technology operate together.

The game that plays with this divide is IV. While IV has an almost steampunk aesthetic, the technology is in general not comparable to what you see in VII, VIII, XIII, or XV.  However, technology plays a major role in the game, and humans are dominate. This is a case where magic is a legend, while moogles are not.

How do you make your worlds make sense?  How do all of your little bits and pieces come together to make something that makes sense as a whole? When we are working on our own stories, we usually don’t have 30 years worth of narrative history and expectations to work with.  However, we can learn from the multiplicity of ways similar elements are morphed and altered to create a world.

Ask yourself: Would a moogle from IX, book in hand muttering about kupo nuts, traipsing through the background of a gritty, electric Midgar break a bit of carefully built world?

What Does Lawful Good Even Mean Anymore?

WHAT WAS I JUST SAYING?

Does anyone remember last week’s post? Anyone? No? For a refresher: Why is realistic synonymous with dark, gritty, and violent? Why is so much of our narrative going there right now? Ok. We are all caught up.

Now for today’s. Oh, it’s about the same thing. The same thing that permeates our culture on repeat. A bad record of narrative. Take a hero, make them dark. Take a hero, make them gritty. Take a hero, make them violent. Take a hero, make them evil. Please stop Dark Knighting everyone. Please stop turning everyone evil. Please. Stop.

If you can’t tell yet, this is about Captain America.

I’ll warn you now that this post is disjointed and rambling and perhaps a tiny bit emotional.

This afternoon I got a text from my sister: *whispers apprehensively* have you heard today’s marvel comics news…..?

Why yes, I had and I am tired. I am so tired. Everything about this reads so terribly. Captain America was initially created as a Blond, Blue-Eyed White Engineered Supersoldier™ to fight against the Nazi regime. Are we getting that? Are we understanding what we are doing by turning Captain into an agent of Hydra? Are we understanding what we are saying? Are we understanding the rippling damage of Nazi Captain America?

I am weary. So, so weary. Where are the people helping people?

As our conversation continued, a text asked: Why can’t we have good heroes?

Let’s talk about the cinematic universe for a moment. I’ve fought depression and anxiety for… looks at a clock, then a calendar, then my life as a general entity… forever. Most of my life has been gray. Emotions clouded. Emotions without color dulled by depression. But I remember actually tearing up at the first Captain America movie. I felt ridiculous. I don’t cry at movies. Except for The Lion King, which doesn’t count. You don’t have a soul if Mufasa’s death doesn’t affect you. That’s just a rule of media.

However, here I was staring at the screen in the theater trying not to cry because a kid from Brooklyn doesn’t like bullies no matter where they’re from. It was a glimmer of a hero who wasn’t covered in loathing sardonicism. A hero who wasn’t disillusioned with the world. A person who wanted to help people. When I watched Winter Soldier, the introduction of Falcon as a hero who helped veterans, a hero who acknowledged mental health in a mainstream comic book movie, added to the team. I didn’t cry that time. Instead, I cheered. People helping people. A whole movie full of them.

As our conversation turned to all caps my sister, who is also our familial Dungeon Master, chimed in with: WHAT DOES LAWFUL GOOD EVEN MEAN ANYMORE?

For a bit of background, she just threw our characters into a dungeon and handed us new character sheets. Our old characters were darker, grittier… I was playing a former assassin turned good. Actually now that I think about it, I was basically playing the creepy druidic, tiefling version of the Winter Soldier. Most of our final decision making was made by the half-drow rogue. Our last game deteriorated into a 30 minutes discussion of the morality of killing an goblin. Darker. Edgier. We fell dice first into the trap of dark, gritty narrative.

I’m now playing as a high elf bard who is the ridiculous child of Awful Fantasy and Guy In Your MFA. We have a trash talking barbarian from the bunny clan. We have Pun Isher, the pun slinging gnome. Each of them are lawful good. They are lawful good, but still have differing personalities and opinions. We can still create interesting stories even if we all are for all purposes “good.” We are playing as people helping people divorced from needing a dark past and a gritty future.  

Finally, a text quipped: I don’t like bullies, that includes Marvel writers!

So much of our life is sculpted by media, by storytelling. We learn through narrative. We learn through history. We learn through the stories of others and our own. We need stories. Diverse stories. Stories that question the norm. Stories that show the good and the bad. Stories that find glimmers of hope for everyone.

We don’t need Nazi Captain America.

Exploring Backstory: Questions to Ask Your Characters

Recently I’ve run into a bit of a wall. This wall is forty years of intricate backstory. Some of it I know better than my own. Some of it is an utter mystery. However as much as I like to run head first into a story without knowing where it will end up, I also like to have every word drip with approximately 100 different meanings and 1,000 different interpretations. So here I am staring at my computer wondering what they did with their life.

When searching for answers to characterization I personally like to imagine that I’m chatting with a character. Why? You ask. Simply because by framing the question as something the character has to react to, you get both their answer and how they answer the question. Do they respond hesitantly? Or perhaps too quickly? Do they look down, unwilling to meet your eyes? Or maybe they go on a five minute tirade that takes you both by surprise. If you want to be even more meta you can write a scene between two characters asking each other the questions.

It seems a bit strange at first, but it gets you in a character’s head more than a fill in the blank character sheet. I feel like I’m filling out paperwork when I fill out one of those. Physical Description. Check. Personality. Check. Parentage. Check. Just hitting the boxes.

Here are a few to get you started:

1. Explain your earliest memory.

2. How did you meet your best friend?

3. How would your parents/caretakers describe you as a child?

4. Describe the person who has most influenced your life.

5. What do people remember about you?

6. What are your recurring nightmares and dreams?

7. How did you grow up?

8. What have you been jealous of, and why?

9. Describe your biggest regret.

10. What is your greatest accomplishment?

A note about the writing and phrasing of questions: avoid close-ended questions. Close-ended questions can be answered with a single word (or a very short phrase) answer. Sometimes you can avoid these by rewriting or rephrasing the question as an imperative statement.

Taking the first question as an example, when you write it as a close-ended question you would have “What was your first memory?” By switching the language to “Describe your first memory.” then the answer can be expanded upon. Rather than answering “my mom” they are prompted to describe their mother in greater detail. (Unless a two word response is in character, then let their brevity be characterization.) Another way is to simply tack on the phrase “and why” or “and how” to the end of a close-ended question, but that can feel more like an interrogation and less like a discussion.

Now that I’ve written them out it looks a bit like a job interview. Answer the questions well and I’ll hire you as a main character. Your pay is the inevitable pain that comes with being a protagonist. Benefits include an adventure and a potentially happy ending. You can retire when I say “the end.”

10 Questions to Ask Your Characters- Fandom Edition

One of the many aspects about living in the middle of nowhere is that it takes several hours to get… anywhere. It’s a four hour drive to my mom’s place, two and a half to one of my sisters, and a whopping thirteen and a half to another sister. Luckily, there is also a sister just down the hall. At least that thirteen hours is changing soon. Yay!

Due to our massive amounts of travel time we have devised unending ways to entertain ourselves in the car. Among the top favorites are: casting novels as movies (occasionally with very little regard for the source material, including our own), impromptu musical numbers (usually The Scarlet Pimpernel), and interrogating each other with irrelevant questions about our characters. Because sometimes you really need to know what Super Smash Bros character an elf who has never seen a Nintendo before would use.

Some of the fandom flavored questions are:

1. Which Hogwarts house do you belong to?

2. Who is your favorite Doctor?

3. Trek, Wars, Gate or Battle?

4. A Song of Ice and Fire or Game of Thrones?

5. What was your favorite Joss Whedon inflicted death?

6.What Supernatural gif do you use the most?

7. What district are you from?

8. How many times have you watched Sherlock?

9. Do you prefer DC or Marvel?

10. Fire, air, water, or earth?

The Legend of Zelda: Female Representation

Warning: spoilers abound.

Over the last year I have played an utterly obscene amount of Hyrule Warriors. I don’t want to know the number of hours I’ve poured into the game with my sisters.

One of the many reasons I love the game is the ability to play as some of the female characters the series has developed over the years. Looking at the roster for the Wii U you can play: Zelda, Impa, Sheik, Ruto, Midna, Agitha, and Fi. Including the new additions of Cia and Lana that is nine female characters on the roster. To say I was ridiculously excited at this discovery is an understatement. I could finally play as Zelda/Sheik.

Somewhere among my family’s photo albums there exists a photograph of six-year-old me sitting on the edge of our couch slack-jawed while watching my father play Ocarina of Time. I wanted to be in Hyrule. Not as Link, or Thor as my father always renamed him, but as Zelda. She was the princess of the land who also happened to be a smoke bomb wielding, magic using, enigmatically speaking, harp playing warrior. Sign me up.

The Legend of Zelda series began with Zelda as the object— a thing to be rescued. However, the series has developed over the years to craft a character with her own agency. No longer is she the princess trapped by convention as much as crystal. We have watched her begin to subvert the roll of the damsel in distress. In Ocarina of Time she is a (albeit cryptic) mentor to adult Link. In Wind Waker she is a pirate captain. In Twilight Princess her bow brings down Ganon as much as Link’s sword. In Skyward Sword she undergoes her own journey through the temples one step ahead of Link.

I wanted to play all of these games from Zelda’s perspective.

In Hyrule Warriors we see a character who can wear pink, wield a sword, giggle, oh… and lead an army.

Few things bring me to anger quicker than the female character who announces her strength via a rejection of  other women. I am strong because I am wearing pants. I am a protagonist because I am masculine. I am a worthy being because I embody society’s construct of masculinity.

Here is the thing about strong female characters: when creating them you don’t actually need to abandon characteristics that are classically considered feminine. A strong character does not automatically equal a masculine character. A weak character does not automatically equal a feminine character.

A distinct binary of masculinity and femininity is not helping anyone. Let alone a binary that is attached to strength and weakness.

“But,” you exclaim, pointing to the screen, “you just rambled on about how much you love Zelda/Sheik, a character who seems to reject her femininity in favor of a masculine alter-ego.”

Zelda leaps across those boundaries as both princess and sheikah warrior. As a princess she uses diplomacy as much as a rapier. As a sheikah warrior she uses deception as much as a kunai. Her strength of character is not defined by where her femininity and masculinity points are allocated. 

I want to play a game where Zelda, guardian of the Triforce of Wisdom, can fully be the character we see ripples of throughout the series– a princess, a warrior, a leader. I want to play as the damsel getting herself out of distress by her own wisdom, courage, and power.

My excitement for Hyrule Warriors has been rekindled with the recent announcement of Linkle coming to Hyrule Warriors Legends. I am curious to see how she will be treated. What commonalities will she have with her male counterpart? What will change to make her female?

While waiting to see who Linkle will be, Zelda and I will continue our adventures.

10 Trope-y Characters I Want to Read (or write)

I live to poke at tropes. I love to start a story with seemingly cliched, tropified characters who you think you’ve seen a million times. I then like to poke at them until they twist and break every genre convention with flaming characterization while I cackle maniacally. Maniacally really is the only way to cackle. On that note, some thoughts:

1. Benevolent Necromancers
Maybe raising that army of the mostly dead was actually for the best. Also, just a thought here… Can we not associate black with evil and death? Just once? I love color imagery perhaps even more than the next person, but let’s shake it up.

2. Malevolent Healers
Can we take healing and make it villainous without it being necromancy? I say yes. This is practically torture just waiting to happen— Prometheus’s punishment. Heal. Hurt. Repeat. Let’s just try not to resort to something that is basically Blood Bending.

3. Nuclear Technician Fairies
Basically, get them out of the forest. Also I want them to actually be tiny instead of human-sized fey masquerading as fairies. Some cyberpunk fairies would also be amazing. Tiny fairies living in your motherboard wrecking havoc. That could explain my last computer crash.

4. Mercenary Seers
No waifish child seers here. You can see the future and you are embracing the creepy child motif? Really? No. How about a coalition of seer assassins swilling the water of sight between jobs? A new novel idea is stewing in those waters…

5. Less Than Graceful Elves
Fall off your horse, Legolas.

6. Intelligent Orcs
Ugly is evil. Ugly is unintelligent. Ugly is villainy manifest. Yes. That is exactly what we need to be saying. Perfect. If you must have them war-faring, then who exactly is planning their battles if they cannot even string coherent sentences together? I want an orc who is a chessmaster.

7. Screw-up Sorcerers
I want things to go wrong. I want that spell to blow up in her face. I want a spell to backfire in an unexplainable way. I want her to learn from her mistakes. Now, I don’t mean I just want to see a young sorcerer in training. I want to see a supposed master failing and flailing for an answer. It happens. I know far too many PhDs to think otherwise.

8. Sunshine Loving Dark Elves
Maybe with a fluffy pet kitten.

9. Actually Incompetent Novice Heroes
I know we want to see a hero being all heroic all the time. I know we want to see the best archer in all the land the moment she picks up a bow. But why? Why does everyone need to be so inherently good at everything? The first time I shot a bow I spectacularly missed the target. And, as a great shocker, I wasn’t spectacular on the second shot either. (That particular endeavor didn’t last long for the safety of everyone involved.) According to everything I’ve learned, I apparently can’t be the protagonist of my own life. I missed out on the overly talented gene that is passed around to main characters. This can only mean one thing: NPC for life.

10. Non-Spoony Bards
Need I say more?