On the subject of character

noun: character; plural noun: characters

1.the mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.
2.a person in a novel, play, or movie.

As I writer I would say both these definitions are intertwined. That’s why we hear that a movie or book is “character driven” versus “action driven.” An action driven drama still has characters. The label is supposed to point out that the action of the piece is emphasized more than the mental and moral distinctions of the individuals (who are still characters, per definition number 2. Confused yet?)

But I digress. This post isn’t really about the use of characters in writing. I categorized it under “neurotic griping” for a reason. This post is my commentary on the way our culture determines character. At the moment I’m not impressed.

This started with a post from a friend on Facebook, lamenting about how disappointed he was with the lack of charity presented by truly wealthy people, such as celebrities and athletes who get free perks and gifts all the time. The problem with this premise is the assumption that a person’s character is intertwined with their occupation. As the definition above points out rather efficiently, it doesn’t.

And there in lies our societal problem. We are placing value on a person based on their occupation rather than their character. One has nothing to do with the other. You can have a factory worker who volunteers at the local hospital, and a renowned heart surgeon who beats on his/her kids. You can have a school teacher that deals drugs and a movie actor that has been faithful to his/her spouse for decades. You can have an ex-con that raises vegetables for his/her community’s food shelf and a minister that embezzles money from his/her parish. I think you get it.

In my opinion we need to return to the true definition of character and hone our judgements accordingly. These over-reaching, generalizations of “poor people entitled – rich people successful” or “rich people spoiled – poor people noble”  needs to go away because they are simply wrong. Human beings should be judged on their actions, on their treatment of others, not on their title or their income. period.

Oh, that’s right…this is a process.

The process of creating a story can take many forms depending on the proclivities of its creator. Some writers have the discipline of writing down to a science in their consistency. They have a space and time that remains constant and there they barricade themselves in to be alone with their alternate universes. How blissfully convenient that must be.

I don’t create that way because, simply put, I am a consistently inconsistent person. I have a space but it is not just for writing. It is also covered in bills, paycheck stubs, junk mail that should be relegated to somewhere else, exercise ideas and plans that will probably never see fruition, extra clothing should said space become too cold, various doohickies,  half read books, and at least one cat. My schedule changes day to day, some days I work 12 hours at a different job, some days only 7 hours, and I have a couple of days off. So far, the discipline that I see in other authors that I admire simply eludes me.

So my writing inevitably occurs in fits and starts. My characters do not wait patiently in the wings for their scheduled entrance. They pop into my head any damn time they please, and I try, sometimes in vain, to remember what ever nugget they left behind and write it down. The pulling over in the car and writing it down on pieces of leftover receipts from my purse rarely works. For some reason, as useless receipts, they are always easy to find, but as valuable tidbits of writing, they somehow get lost. Go figure.

With every new writing assignment, every writer, no matter how seasoned, copes with the deep seeded insecurity that they won’t finish. That they will finally be found out as a fraud, and they just don’t have it in them to create one more sentence. All they have is the faith in the almighty process.

That is also where my faith lies. The reminder that I have done this before, and that I will do it again, hopefully better than the last because part of the process is learning what works, what doesn’t, learning to let go, believing in the depth of your characters and the resonances of their stories with readers. I will doggedly write on, word by word, line by line, scene by scene, chapter by chapter. You get the point. Now if I could just learn to leave a pocket in my purse exclusively for those darn receipts.

Perfecting the Build-up

When writing suspense, build-ups are very important.  They need to contain key elements and well timed revelations to maintain the audience’s interest without being overly obvious. And they need to be laid out correctly, or they simply fall apart into a pile of pointless plot lines.

There’s lots of decision making when creating the scenes that build to a climax. Often story lines get pruned because they slow down the pace or interrupt a particular sequence. And that’s okay. Just because a  funny sentence or flowery description occurs to you doesn’t mean it’s not expendable. Save it for something else.

Usually there are several smaller climaxes that become build-ups on their own and create the structure for the big Kahuna climax that will usually end the book. Since it’s the beginning of gardening season up here in Wisconsin, I will make a gardening metaphor.

Think of a book as a terraced garden that works its way up a hillside. The smaller climaxes are points of interest that lead the eye up to a big focal point at the top of the pile, maybe a fancy smancy sculpture or water feature. The build-ups are the walls and dirt that support the points of interest and make up the bulk of the entire structure. They need to be formed correctly and be aesthetically pleasing without diverting attention away from the climaxes they are supporting.

Build ups also need to support each other in terms of validity and relevance to the overall story, just like climaxes need to hold their own without outdoing the next climax or the really big one that sets off the whole thing. If everything is held in proper balance, you should be left with a product that you can feel confident to share with others.

I’m at the point in Book 6, Woman in the Wind, where I’m building up to my first big climax. Securities will be shattered, panic and suspicion will set in, and fast paced action will ensue. Just all in its own, correct time.