Writers: Generating Story Characters with One Stop

Listen, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with my own story characters, thankyouverymuch. My stories are very character-driven. I see their pasts, their motivations, their fears and desires. I know everything about them, and I fall in love.

Until I don’t. Until the day that I need a minor character and they need to have at least a little pizzazz, because they’re going to be a around for a while. But I’ve poured my life’s blood into the main characters, and my brain is objecting to this demand for further ideas: “What?! What I’ve given you isn’t enough? Tyrant! Madman! Socialist dictator! I see that Fidel Castro hat in your closet!”

Enter the Dragon

Just kidding. I mean, enter One Stop for Writers, a powerful resource library that provides a huge toolbox full of prompts, templates and story-enhancing details. I’ve mentioned these guys before. It was their site that gave me some extra motivation to dive into last year’s NaNoWriMo.

I’ve been on a search lately for tools that fit into my strategies for story process streamlining. One of my goals this year (2016) is to be more prolific: to write more short stories and finish more of my longer WIPs. To do this, I need to make the most of every moment I spend on “writing”. As a homeschool mom who values fresh food, doing things from scratch, and time with family (and as a small business owner who always has more client opportunities than time available), my writing time is budgeted. I’m sure you can relate, whatever your lifestyle.

So today I’m sharing my tactics for generating characters quickly using the One Stop tools. With a resource like One Stop, you’ll only get your money’s worth if you USE it. (Even at only $7.50/month, there’s no point spending the cost of a latte and a bagel unless you’re getting something out of it, right?)

And you’ll only use it if you make it a part of your process.

My Story Characters Process: First Make a List

I need some story characters for my current WIP. The protagonist, Andy, is a writer; he’s married with a young child. He’s a bit of an introvert, but no man is an island and his wife definitely has friends. So who else will show up in this story? That’s the first question.

His Writer’s Group

Andy needs humor in his life, so I want at least one of his writer friends to be funny in some way. But how? Does she have a humorous outlook on life, or is she the comic relief simply because she’s such a clown? I want a group of 3 other writers, each with contrasting personalities.

A Rival Writer & Nemesis

This story is a bit tongue-in-cheek, and I hope most writers don’t have a “nemesis” who taunts them and makes scathing remarks about them on social media. But Andy does. I need his nemesis to have some quirks and secrets to round him out. Maybe even a few likable characteristics that Andy doesn’t see through his haze of agitation towards the guy.

His Wife’s Best Friends

Andy’s wife, Alice, has a large network of friends. But I want one or two in particular that she’s close to. These are the people who influence her outlook on life (and Andy) the most. One will be a co-worker and one is a long-time friend she grew up with, maybe even a cousin.

Coming up with all these characters feels intimidating to me, especially when I list them all out like this (and actually this isn’t all of them! the story has a dozen other minor characters waiting to be imagined to life).

Next Step: Brainstorm with the Tools

Writer’s Group: Physical descriptions

First, what genders are these story characters? Andy is not an alpha male personality, and I think he relates well to women. Maybe he’s the only guy in his group. So I need 3 women.

  • The funny gal
  • The ambitious one
  • The novice writer (an improvement project of the ambitious one)

Let’s give each of them some physical description. I’ll pop over to the Physical Features Thesaurus on One Stop:

One Stop - Physical traits thesaurus

I pick a general body type (slender, stocky, etc) for each one. Then I pick two details for each woman (eyes, hair, hands, etc), varying which features I use for each.

  • The funny gal: sickly (her humor is part of her coping mechanism), cheeks hollow, skinny arms
  • The ambitious one: petite build, fingernails that demand attention, legs built like an Olympic speed skater (roller derby amateur?)
  • The novice writer (an improvement project of the ambitious one): stocky build, hunched shoulders (poor posture), eyes with a feverish sparkle

On the detail pages behind the list of features, One Stop gives a thorough rundown for each. For example, I choose “fingernails” as one of the features I focus on for the Ambitious writer.

  • Descriptors: trimmed, decorated, glossy
  • Common actions and alternative words: pick, drum, scratch (I can just see her now… picking at a mole on the underside of her jaw with those manicured nails, and then stopping when she realizes she’s doing it)
  • Emotions and related gestures: she drums her fingers on the table when she’s impatient, then switches to her knee when someone glares at her to stop

One Stop also provides simile and metaphor examples and cliches to avoid (biting her nails to the quick, clenching her hands until the nails make dents in her palms), as well as suggestions for making the physical description do double duty in illustrating your character’s inner landscape. In thinking about how fingernails fit into my Ambitious writer’s psych profile, I realized she never misses a manicure appointment, because she considers her hands her most expressive trait and knows that her nails help draw attention to them. It’s all connected to her short-person issues (“Notice me! Notice me!”).

NOTE: Dearest short people in my life, honestly I am NOT patterning this gal after you. Heh heh. No, no, really!

See how quickly this character starts to feel well-rounded? Because One Stop was put together by writers, the details are story-ready. I would not have thought of fingernails, of all things, to focus on. It’s just not something on my radar screen, personally.

Using a tool that was designed by more than one person and which deliberately includes a wider scope opens many more possibilities than I’d come up with on my own.

A Rival Writer & Nemesis – Negative Traits

Story characters need more than just a physical description. And in the case of Andy’s rival, we don’t even know what he looks like, except perhaps a profile photo on social media. Andy has never met him in person, only encountered him online.

But wait, before we get to some negative traits, I just gotta name this guy. Since One Stop doesn’t have a name generator yet (that would be a neat addition!), I head over to BehindTheName.com to grab a likely name. If I want to go direct, I look up the word “rival” and use the name Emil.

Or maybe I want the nemesis to be Arabic, so I use the random name generator and select “Arabic” as the ethnicity. He could be Saif (“sword”) because he’s always poking at Andy. Or maybe he’s Malik (“king”) and he never lets Andy forget what his name means. “My mother knew while I was yet in her belly that she bore the king of talespinners inside her!”

Yeah, Malik Saif Hadad (for his last name I went to AllNames.org and clicked on Surnames and picked one of the most popular Arabic surnames).

Okay, so what are some negative traits I can give Malik?

One Stop - Negative traits thesaurus

So many fun things to choose from! But I’m moving quickly, so I’ll just pick three at semi-random and see how they fit together.

Addictive, catty, vain.

He’s addicted to approval, applause and validation from others (basically a social media addict), which is why he’s always mouthing off. He’s petty in his complaints and cheap shots at others. The vanity is all tied up in the approval addiction.

Check out the (truncated) detail page on addictive behavior:

One Stop - Negative traits thesaurus detail

Rounding out the Nemesis – Secrets & Wounds

This rival sounds really one-sided. Even though Andy may experience him that way, I don’t think he’ll feel real to me unless I give him some more layers. When I have a “bad guy”, I like to round him out with some unexpected things.

Here comes the fun: I’m heading over to the Idea Generator page at One Stop. It’s like having a hat full of good ideas. Just reach inside and pull one out and see if you like it.

One Stop - idea generator

Let’s see what Malik is hiding. Did he cheat to win that short story award? Yeah, maybe his greatest achievement so far was won using plagiarized prose!

What are his inner wounds? Maybe his family was involved in Islamic terrorism in the past. Now that such things are outlawed and considered a terrible shame, he has to use a fake name so he’ll never be linked with those activities. Maybe he bullies others because his mother bullies him; he has a wretched home life but talks big online.

What kinds of quirks does he have? I’m not sure whether any quirks will be obvious in an online relationship, but here’s one that inspires me as a writer: Malik collects bits of people. He doesn’t actually perform voodoo or believe in it, but when he meets with someone in person (or even when brushing past a stranger or standing in line at a coffee shop), he tries to collect some little piece of them: a strand of hair, a gum wrapper they throw away, fingernail clippings. He lacks relationships with others, and feels some small, freakish comfort from having these intimate connections with someone else, even though they are unaware of it. He doesn’t label the bits, he just puts them all into a jar he keeps on his desk. Sometimes he picks up the jar, holds it up to the light, and ponders the collection.

^ ^ ^
All of these ideas came from something in the idea generator prompts!

I begin to see it now. Malik has been so vocal for so many years that he can no longer get honest critiques or help with his work. People are afraid to be at the receiving end of his very public, verbal shreddings. Because of this, he only hears nice things (which he doesn’t believe, because he is plagued with self-doubt) or hateful things (which he expects because deep down he knows how awful he has been to people). He has created his own prison, and cannot see the way out. The only time he gets attention is when he is horrible to others, and yet he cannot stop because he is so starved for attention. A vicious cycle.

The Process Continues

I’ll be writing more posts like this as I continue the quest for my ultimate story writing process. I feel that One Stop for Writers is a powerful tool that I have yet to leverage to its full potential. Sharing the journey helps keep me accountable to continuing the exploration, instead of letting this resource languish ignored, like so many others in my past.

If you are taking steps on your writing journey this year, share them in the comments! I’d love to hear where you are in your process.

One Stop for WritersTIP: One Stop has a free version

When you visit the One Stop for Writers site, you can get a sampling of all the tools by creating a free account. Then you can see for yourself what I mean. Or sign up for a month and try it out.

Just make sure you USE it if you do. A tool left on the shelf is a waste of a good tool!

Done: #SpecFicCollective Author Marketing Website

Sometimes I get so busy doing things I forget that part of the reason this website exists is to share with my friends what I’m doing! After Realm Makers in August, I was re-inspired to get moving on my vision for the #SpecFicCollective — a virtual community of speculative fiction authors who work together to market their work.

The Website

specficcollective-screenshot

Launched in September 2015, I’ve managed to keep up a consistent publication schedule (which is something of a first for me, at least when it comes to personal projects). It started as once per week, but now goes twice a week.

Topics covered include things that circle around author branding and marketing. Finding your readers, making new fans, learning who you are and how to describe your work in ways that set expectations and attract the right audience. After years in Internet marketing helping small businesses get online and understand how to do these things for their companies, I find skill set well-suited to the changes in the publishing industry. I love explaining things and hope very much that someday, somehow these articles will help my author friends find success in matching their stories with their audience.

The Brand Materials

When I launch a website, a few basic pieces of supporting brand material are needed. At the barest minimum used to be a logo and tagline. Nowadays, I add to that a Twitter header, Facebook cover and site favicon. For most of my personal projects, I also include a basic color palette, a font (or two) and a general style or some imagery.

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The materials aren’t perfect. I used to agonize over and spend a lot of time getting things as perfect as possible. And honestly, they weren’t much better than this, even when I spent more time. I’m not satisfied with the SFC logo. I expect the background theme and imagery will be modified every year or so just because a fresh look is, well, refreshing.

But guess what? I shipped it. And that’s the theme of this year for me, in a lot of ways. Taking ideas and putting flesh on them, launching them into the world and giving them a chance to live in the wild to see if they survive.

The Future

I’m working to get the foundational content onto the website. In Spring 2016, I hope to launch some of the more interactive aspects of the site and encourage true community to grow around the concepts. Tentatively, this may include things like regular video conferencing or webinars and downloadable resources that encourage small groups to form and apply the collaborative marketing strategies together.

Someday, I hope that hundreds of thousands of speculative fiction authors will carry in their heads the framework of understanding that I’m passing along. Delusions of grandeur, much? Why, yes. This isn’t just about fleeting tactics that will change as technology changes. This is about creative people understanding who they are and how it impacts what they create. Teaching them to see their work within the context of a life well lived and a career in creating that lasts. Showing them how to relate to each other in ways that help everyone — authors, readers, cover artists, and more. Taking what I’ve learned from others and passing it along through the unique lens that is my experience and insight.

Community is Essential

I am not alone. I exist and travel this journey of life and publishing within a community (several communities, actually) of like-minded individuals. I predict that 5-10 years from now, there will be many stories about failed attempts and fantastic successes as we apply the ideas shared on the #SpecFicCollective site. I look forward to hearing about the successes and I hope to offer comfort through the failures even as we all learn from them together.

Creating art and sharing it with others. There’s nothing like it. And when you do it side by side with others on the same journey? Priceless.

Fairy tale or music video? Why choose?

So enjoyed this mini-film that is way more than a music video. Why aren’t more of us breaking the molds?

The world is wide open and waiting…

Some stillshots from the video

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Books Read in 2015 and Reading List for 2016

my-books-on-piano-framed

It’s fun to see what our friends are reading. Despite my reluctance to do “what everyone else is doing” (somehow, I have a deep-seated desire to avoid what’s popular, even when there’s nothing wrong with it), here’s a list of what I read last year (more or less; I don’t keep close track of it). Maybe it won’t seem like I’m following the trend if I do this early enough in December. Ha!

If I reviewed a book, I’ve included a link to my review on Goodreads.com.

Fiction

I’m sure there must be others on this list… but then again, I think this is the most I’ve read in a year ever since I had my oldest child!

  • Red Rising (Red Rising #1) by Pierce Brown (one of my new favorites!!!) – review
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner – couldn’t finish it; watched the movie instead
  • Romeo’s Rules by James Scott Bell – review
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – review
  • Dead Things by L.T. Kodzo – review
  • Mariah’s Dream by Grace Bridges
  • The Sekhmet Bed (The She-King #1) by Libbie Hawker
  • Hidden in Sealskin (White Changeling Book 1) by Thea van Diepen (so fun!) – review
  • The Ghost Box by Mike Duran
  • Darkness Brutal (The Dark Cycle #1) by Rachel A. Marks
  • Dragon Badge (Lost Dragonslayer) by Scott Moon – review
  • Divergent / Insurgent by Veronica Roth
  • The Hunger Games / Catching Fire / Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Kid’s Fiction

I often pre-read books that I think my kids might like or read aloud to them.

  • The Zodiac Legacy: Convergence (Zodiac #1) by Stan Lee, Stuart Moore, Andie Tong – review
  • Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind by Gary Ross, Matthew Myers (Illustrations) – review
  • The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby
  • Quest (Journey Trilogy #2) by Aaron Becker – review
  • Masterminds (Masterminds #1) by Gordon Korman – review

Non-Fiction

  • Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story by James Scott Bell – review
  • VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing by James Scott Bell – review
  • Transform Your Habits by James Clear – review

Planning to Read in 2016 / Currently Reading

(Links are to Amazon.com)

There are a BUNCH of others, but it’s really too much to list here.

Did Han shoot first? George Lucas explains…

star-wars-han-solo-greedo-aftermath

Did Han shoot first? In my mind, it will never change:

Of course he did. 

But once again I feel betrayed by George Lucas. (The first time was in the theater watching Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.*)

George Lucas and Revisionist History

In this article on Rollingstone.com, George Lucas tries to explain how Han needs to be a John Wayne figure to marry Leia, the kind of guy who would only shoot in self-defense (ie, after being shot at).

I disagree, and from two different directions:

  1. There’s nothing wrong with Han as a self-focused, self-preserving scoundrel who later learns (by being around the right kind of friends) to put others first. This feels like an authentic character journey and doesn’t detract from his appeal or worthiness at all.
  2. When you KNOW the bounty hunter is there to kill you, “self-defense” should not require waiting until the bad guy gets a shot off. Even today’s absurd legal defense criteria admits that all you need is to *feel* that your life is in immediate danger to justify deadly force in self-defense.

The Evidence

Here’s a video comparing the two scenes:

Part of me wishes I could get my hands on an original script just to see if Lucas is telling the truth about how Greedo “always shot first”, but part of me doesn’t care. I know what I saw when I first watched Star Wars, and that’s that.

#HanShotFirst #StarWarsUntainted

Afterthoughts

* Despite the disappointments, however, I want this clear: I still love George Lucas. Creators can make story decisions that I don’t like (Joss Whedon!), and even lie to me, and it won’t change my love for them. How does the saying go? To err is human. To forgive, divine. I choose the divine path, even though it’s not popular. People sure do love to hate on other people, don’t they? Just remember: that’s the path to the dark side.

What does storytelling have to do with marketing?

If you are selling ANYTHING to others (a book, a product, a service), you need to grab onto this idea of using stories for marketing. And I’ve yet to see a better basic outline of how that works than this video by StoryBrand founder Donald Miller.

He tells you why story works, how it works, and why you’ve probably got the wrong idea if you’re promoting yourself as the hero arriving to save the customer’s day. It’s 20 minutes long, and WELL worth the time.

donald-miller-story-brand-intro-video

(Clicking on the image will take you to the page with the video.)