February 9, 2014

WRITING ADVICE: Julie Czerneda’s Writing Workshop! #10 Part 1– My Character’s Résumé

In 2005, whilst perusing the shelves at the Hennepin County Public Library, I stumbled across CHANGING VISION by Julie Czerneda (say it: chur-nay-dah), an author I'd never heard of, and was intrigued by the aliens on the cover by artist Luis Royo. It didn’t matter that the book was the second in a series, the cover entranced me and so I read. The book was spectacular, I read others, and fell entirely in love with another series of hers called SPECIES IMPERATIVE for its fascinating aliens and superior characterization. A teacher deeply at heart, Julie Czerneda shares ideas and methodology wherever she goes. On her website, http://www.czerneda.com/classroom/classroom.html she shares ideas for writers. I want to share what kind of impact her ideas have had on my own writing.  They are used with the author’s permission.

Truth be told, I’ve tried this method and had it fail on me miserably. I’ve written up an absolutely KILLER resume only to have the story go in a completely different direction from what I intended and the resume turn to ash in the file. I’ve taken photos from online and pasted them at the end of the story or on my wall or in the file – and yet I don’t think of them after I’ve done the homework.

Character is SO difficult for me to execute.

It scares me, I guess. I’ve read dozens of books on character – the two best are HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY by Orson Scott Card (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/how-to-write-science-fiction-and-fantasy-orson-scott-card/1004687830?ean=9781582971032) and DYNAMIC CHARACTERS by Nancy Kress (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/dynamic-characters-nancy-kress/1100626990?ean=9781582973197) –but I STILL cannot create believable characters CONSISTENTLY.

I can create characters that engage a reader. I can and I have done it.

My problem is consistency.

How do I make characters that come alive every time I create them?

One of my problems is that I usually write in the short story form. In a short story, you only have so many words you can spend on creating character. I have spent the words well and created realistic characters that have sold my fiction to top markets.

I have spent the words poorly and have stories languishing in my files that I KNOW are competently written…but the characters are flat or worse, unrealistic. The pain there is that it’s almost impossible to return to the story once it’s done and force a poorly written character to live.

Or is it?

I couldn’t FIND an article that shows how to revive dead characters (though lots of people seem to oppose bringing characters who have died in TV shows, movies, novels back to life again; as well, there were several articles on writing about zombies...but not what I was looking for.) So I guess I’m going to have to go it alone. There are suggestions out there that sort of state the obvious:

“[People are] looking for unique characters who capture the attention, forcing the hand to continue to turn the pages, care about the events and hunger for the outcome. Uncomfortable and dangerous characters are equally valuable where they force you question, observe and reassess your own motives and actions.” (http://todaysauthor.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/writing-passionate-short-story-characters/)

That’s sort of a “duh”. Of course that’s what readers want. The question is how to GIVE it to them.

Does Julie Czerneda have anything to say on character?

From a year-old interview, I gleaned these nuggets of direction for creating characters (though that wasn’t the QUESTION the interviewer asked. Here’s the interview: (http://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/interview-with-julie-czerneda/)):

“It’s interactions that interest me. The interface between any two or more creatures is full of change and adaptation and lovely icky bits. In storytelling — and real life — I’d rather toss a problem at a group of people (or whatever I have in mind at the moment) who’ll each have a different approach to a solution, if they see it as a problem at all. That’s the joyful surprise of it all.”

“…science fictional thinking is a crucial survival skill. We all need to ask questions, to speculate about possible consequences in an imaginative, yet as close to real fashion as possible, and to become able to assess incoming  information in a critical, not cynical manner. Imagination is of immense use, too often undervalued…To ride society’s changes, rather than be swept away. To decide where and how technology best fits our needs, before it’s in our homes.”

“…communication between organisms who may not even share the same sensory equipment, let alone intentions, fascinate me.”

“...I watched a group of noisy grade 8 students grow quieter and quieter as they worked through a science fiction scenario about limited resources, only to burst into tears when they realized that their character would sacrifice herself for her younger brother; my eyes were no drier than theirs. The shared experience. The power of imagination. The swell of emotion no less real for coming from a story. Those are the moments.”

“My characters are very much my creations and serve the story. I don’t start writing until I know how they would react in any given situation. I’m always aware of the need to convince my readers these “folk” are real and if a character doesn’t fly as he/she/it should, to me that indicates a problem to be fixed.

“That said, I love how a story, through its characters and plot, develops momentum and direction once there’s critical mass. The notions my “hindbrain” comes up with when I’m in the shower or about to doze off delight and sometimes surprise me, but I consider that still part of my process.

“As for personalities? Oh yes, if I’ve done my work properly, characters develop personalities that resonate for me and hopefully for readers. I adore Esen. I have my Mac moments. I wouldn’t want to face such difficult trials as Aryl or Sira or Aaron  but I assuredly know their natures and trust they can and will face them. Jenn Nalynn, my latest, is different again and I can “hear” her laugh. Such are the end results of the craft, of putting enough into each character that they are believable and, I hope, as admirable/vile/adorable/or annoying as I intended.

“What does amaze me is how readers respond to minor characters. I expected the main characters to take hold of a heart or two but not that my walk-ons would have their own fans. These days, I take such great glee in adding details where I know they’ll be appreciated.”

All righty then. Fodder for the cannon – though nothing about reviving dead characters, so I’ll have to work through that on my own. I even feel an article for THE WRITER (yeah, I was published in THE WRITER online in March of 2006)…

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