Reflecting A Real World

I’d briefly mentioned the importance of offering a diverse cast of women in the post about “agency,” and now, we are going to explore that thought in depth. Diversity is an important component to include in any story — and not just with female characters, of course — because it is good for the reader and it is good for the writer.

For readers, diversity offers a greater possibility that they will develop a personal connection with at least one character — and through that connection, the story becomes more personal. It is also a way to introduce readers to walks of life they might not be familiar with. As for writers, it stretches the creative writing muscles and allows us to step into an infinite supply of new shoes, as it were. I also believe a diverse cast opens the way to a more interesting story that sometimes takes writers down paths we might not have considered for the plot beforehand. It also opens the opportunity to shine the light on women who aren’t always portrayed in fiction — or positively portrayed.

Often times, women in fiction get pigeon-holed into set molds, particularly as damsels, femme fatales, or the unfleshed out “strong” woman (just check out TvTropes.com for the basic feminity tropes).  Women in real-life are a full spectrum with different interests, goals, physiques, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and personalities. By showcasing those differences in fiction, a layer of realism is added.

A multitude of different women can also reduce the “wedge” effect discussed in Monday’s blog post. By having women that a FMC can relate to, get along with, or simply work with, it lessens the starkness of the only other woman within the covers of the book being viewed so poorly by the FMC as she has other women in her life that she likes and/or values. Of course, there is no excuse for not fleshing out that antagonistic character or villanizing them without supporting actions within the narrative’s framing.

Diverse female casts allow for the exploration of various relationships and how people from varying walks of life might interact with each other. There is also the opportunity to further explore different choices and how characters have a right to their choices even if others wouldn’t necessarily arrive at the same choice or even agree with them. It can make for interesting drama (not the junior high type of drama) and a chance to really push readers’ (or even the writer’s) own understandings.

For some reason, women characters have picked up a reputation for being hard to write — not everyone is of this opinion, of course. Really all it takes is pausing, looking at all the women in your life, or going to a coffee shop or some other public space, and actually watching and listening. Or as Campbell Soup would say, reflect the “real, real life” happening in front of your eyes on the page.

Advertisements

Agency, Why It Matters

Agency header

No matter if they’re slaying goblins, concocting the medicines of the future, or staying at home with the kids while also exploring their passions, I prefer my FMCs to have agency over their own stories. (Background image MorgueFile.com)

A lot has been made of strong women lately in literature. It’s a trend I like, but sometimes, I think it pigeonholes female characters into one mold — we will get into that during a future post this week where we dive into diverse fictional women.  Rather than using the term strong women in my wish list, all I really want are women who have agency.

Among the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definitions for “agency,” No. 3 fits what I’m looking for: a person or thing through which power is exerted or an end is achieved. The female main character needs to have some exertion of power over her story, whether through strength, wits, dogged determination, etc. Often times this agency is lost to the male characters within the story, and everything the FMC does is based on what the male characters want or are doing. Continue reading

Women Don’t Need To Be Wedges To Each Other’s Happiness

Header photo of a wedge being driven in

This rant is a long time in coming. You’ve probably seen the trope yourself: Two women — sometimes the only two in the entire book — one is our heroine, the other, well, she’s mostly a four- or five-letter word . . . you know the words I’m talking about. The latter usually earns this title for flimsy reasons and because of her proximity to the female lead’s love interest. The narrative itself often offers very little reason for why readers should hate this other female character.

Continue reading

Character Series: Fears and Phobias

giphy

“Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”

Everyone is afraid of something — heck, even Indiana Jones is. And you know what? That only makes us human. We all know what it is like to be afraid, whether it’s snakes, heights, confined spaces, fire, death, rodents, flying, aliens, dogs, drowning, etc. I personally have an almost debilitating fear of heights; I get to a certain point and my body starts shutting down any further steps up. Purdue’s Hicks Undergraduate Library was a personal hell with its stairs allowing me to see the ground below me, but for four years I was able to survive climbing up and down them by not looking down and grabbing onto the railing nearest the wall — and staying close to this beacon of stability until safely outside that underground library.

Monk is a character synonymously associated with fear because he is almost afraid of everything.

Monk is a character synonymous with phobia since he is practically afraid of everything to the point his fears affect his quality of life. Does your own character’s fear gravitate toward being a phobia?

Look at yourself. What are your fears? How do they affect your daily life? Now pause and reflect on your answers to those two questions. By considering your own fears and even those of friends and family members, you will be better equipped to shape a character’s fears and possible phobias, because your character has to have them, unless they are completely alien. Why is it so important for characters to have fear? Because it can really connect your readers to a character due to fear’s universal nature. Continue reading

World and Character Series: Are your characters human?

Sometimes writers forget the basics while putting our vision to paper. And in this case I’m not talking about basics like grammar, plot or even character development. No, I’m talking about the basics of life: the need to eat. Often, times characters in books will go days without eating, making them more robot than human.

In my first book, which was completed in middle school, I don’t think my characters ate at all, except during one scene … needless to say, they should all be dead from starvation. Later characters in more recent writing endeavors have fared better in the food and drink department; they have also actually felt hungry when food is not readily available.

Food should appear in a character’s day-to-day life; it makes them more human, and food is something readers of all creeds can connect with. While food is a basic staple for life, it should not dominate any text, unless it is being intentional used to say something about a character. However, it should be sprinkled throughout a manuscript whether shown or mentioned in passing.

Beyond adding realism to your manuscript, the inclusion of food can have two other benefits: character building and world building. After all, food can say a lot about a person and a world/culture.

Characters

Is your character a picky eater or do they follow the see-food-eat-food method? Are there certain foods they do not eat, either through choice or because of cultural or religious reasons? Does your character have any food allergies? Hot and spicy or as bland as it comes? Would your character kill for chocolate, maybe even literally?

All these questions add depth to a character and can actually say a lot about them — not only that, they might make a good plot point. Perhaps, they don’t realize they are allergic to a type of fruit, leading them and associates on a hunt to find a doctor in a land where they don’t speak the language. As for depth, food choices tune an audience into a character. If they are vegetarian that will tell the audience something just like if your character follows all his/her cultural or religious eating norms or one that follows most but enjoys something that is not suppose to be on the menu.

Food choices can also affect how your character interacts with others, possibly adding conflict. Your vegan character visits a party full of personal taboo food items. How do they or the people around them react? In general some people, no matter whether they are meat eaters, vegan or so on, can be defensive about their eating habits.

Do not forget about the have-nots and have-plenties. They will each react differently to food. How has your character’s childhood of living off scraps affected them? If placed in a situation where they will have to do without food again, do they accept it and continue on or do they dive back to the past traumas? Does your wealthy, always well-fed nobleman cave after missing a lunch and dinner or persevere? There are many possibilities to explore.

Of course, a lot of your character’s eating habits will be influenced by the world and culture they inhabit.

World

Certain foods can’t grow everywhere. And while conducting world-building, this is a topic that needs delved into. What grows in the various regions of your world? Can certain regions sustain livestock? Or can certain ones only sustain smaller critters like chickens or sheep and goats? This will affect your characters and possibly have economical consequences in your crafted world.

Is one region the sole source for grapes? This might make the region exceptionally wealthy through trade, or perhaps it has attracted the attention of neighboring regions who have since conquered it, leaving the native populace poor and at the mercy of their overlords who benefit from the resource. One region might depend on hunting and gathering while another has established a strong agricultural society. A region with plenty will view its food very differently compared to a desert region where all food and drink is not to be wasted.

Don’t forget the politics that can revolve around food. Maybe one of your regions has forbidden the import of a delicacy that can only be found in a neighboring region. Or maybe they just place high levies on the delicacy, meaning only the wealthy can procure it. Governments can also place embargoes on other countries and regions, which might keep certain foods from reaching that country.

There is a lot to be considered when plotting your world’s food chain, as it were. And perhaps the best way to map it out is to explore your local agriculture scene in addition to those that can be found around our world. Research crops to see if they could exist in the environment you intend to place them. For example, you are not going to find rice paddies in a desert region or world, cherries require a temperate latitude to be grown and mangoes require tropical temperatures. Each plant has its own requirements.

Other research revolves around livestock. Certain livestock like cows require a lot of resources to raise, which is why it is important to make sure a region in your world can actually provide for them. Beyond integrating livestock into a world and its regions, don’t forget wild game — which will also require certain resources be available in order for them to feasible exist there.

While all this research might seem tedious, it will provide add realism to your novel and possible open doors to unique conflicts or character development.

Character Series: Habits — The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Habits — the good and the bad… and sometimes plain ugly — can add spice to any character, making them complex and flawed. Habits are routine behaviors that occur repeatedly and can happen on a subconscious level. So what habits do your characters have? Are they good or bad?

Some habits only appear when a person is put in situations that illicit certain emotions such a stress, nervousness, fear, anger, etc. Nail biting, stammering, snapping fingers, among others — these can all be habits displayed when a character is put in stressful situations. One of my characters bites his lips or interior mouth, often to the point he draws blood; however, these little ticks do not necessarily have to have painful side-effects. They will also enable you to show readers your characters’ emotions without resulting to: The avalanche frightened Sue Bob.

Beyond situational habits, some characters might develop good habits. Habits like always having to have things in place; however, perhaps, this habit leans more toward OCD, which can come into play during the story. Other good habits might include always putting money away in the bank each paycheck, having certain religious habits like praying everyday at a certain time of the day, exercising regularly, having a superstitious routine they complete before leaving the home, etc. While some of these might not be necessarily good, they are benign — they also add another side to a character. Characters with multiple habits that stem from things like superstitions can have layers.

Formed habits can also tell a story about your character’s past, especially if they were developed during hard times like during a war, famine or while bouncing from house to house in the foster system. Really think about any traumatic past experiences your character might have endured and consider if perhaps the experience has carried over in the form of habits — they can be small little things.

Of course, characters can also have bad habits that can make them their own worse enemies, such as with drug use, drinking too much alcohol, etc. However, it is important to note there is a line between bad habits and addictions/mental illnesses. With bad habits, the person has more willpower than with addictions; they are aware that their actions are bad but they just choose not to stop, while addictions/metal illness do not always have the willpower to stop on their own. Bad habits, while they can be extreme to the point they are life destroying, can also be small things like overspending occasionally, picking one’s nose or procrastinating.

You can have a character who for the most part has their life together, yet is constantly shooting themselves in the foot by gambling or overspending — it could get to the point that their life is in shambles. I find bad habits like these add great depth to characters, but then again, I’ve never been a fan of the perfect protagonist — sorry Superman, I’m a Batman fangirl.

So consider adding some habits, whether good or bad, to your characters — they will only add spice and depth, further shaping them so they feel more real to the reader.

Character Series: Education

What was your characters’ education like? It is an aspect of your characters that you should know since education will be a deciding factor on what jobs your characters can have, their world views and how easily they can navigate through life.

Ask yourself what type of students your characters were. Did they engage in their education or shrink in their desk hoping the teacher would not call on them. Or perhaps they had a nontraditional learning experience, being home-schooled or born in a period of time when public schools, as we know them, did not exist. If they are from a different time period or world, it might be that rather than schooling, the young focus more on learning trades — some might never learn to read or write.

Other questions to ask when it comes to education include: What were your characters favorite subjects, their least favorite? Did they have any learning disabilities that made their education difficult? Was there a teacher that particularly impacted their life, that really helped shape who they are? Did external factors, like their home life, affect their education or lack of education? Did they leave early without completing their education? Was there a time they were a good student? How long did they study a skill or trade? What were the different levels of education they’ve completed?

Once you know a character’s level of education, you can begin to ascertain career or job paths that are open to them. You will know if they can become the police officer you envision them as or the teacher you want them to be. Or writers can research professionals or period trades to determine what education would be required to fit the job: Think how this tailored education might have affected your character’s life. If their education was very time consuming, they may not have had much time for friends or special activities. In period pieces, your character may even be required to leave family to pursue a particular trade.

Similarly, you will know that a character’s lack of formal training or education will place limitations on what they can do. Take time to reflect on all the challenges that will face a character who has no or very little education, especially if said character never learned to read or write.

Finally, consider educational bonuses or advantages your characters have received. Do you have a character that is multilingual? Have they specialized in certain fields or trades? Such little things might come in handy at some point during your story.