Notes from Whining vs. Angst in Characters at Westercon


Whining versus angst
Corry L. Lee, Alma Alexander, Elizabeth Guizetti, Stephanie Weippert, Anna Sheehan
  • Why do characters come from?
    • sometimes they leap out
    • characters take quite a bit of work. 
    • given the plot of my book, what’s a character that’s going to be interesting if they go through a change that mirrors the plot of the book?
  • If you have a character that says “here I am”, and then you have to write a story, what do you do?
    • Elizabeth: I need to start with a plot, their occupation, and their gender. once I have that, the rest jumps out. I’ve very plot driven, not character driven.
    • Alma: I wrote down character sketches (~5 lines) for nine different characters, then started writing. No idea of what the plot is.
    • Stephanie: I start with a starting scene. I imagine a woman driving in a stormy night. Then ask, why is she doing that? And it turns out she’s lost her job, and her boyfriend, and her apartment complex is being torn down. 
  • If you have a character where everything is going wrong, how do you keep them from being whiny?
    • Anna: I have a very passive character, who is that way because of emotional abuse. The trick to get away with it is to make it an unreliable first-person narrator. 
    • Stephanie: 
      • anger to overcome whiny
    • Alma: 
    • Elizabeth: Most of the characters I write about have real problems. If they whine a little bit, the reader understands that’s acceptable. But I also go to action: the character does something.
    • Corry: If you have somebody who is cycling on something in their past, they can’t just loop on the same thing, and say the same thing: e.g. “i lost my job. it sucks that I lost my job. i can’t believe i lost my job.” it’s time to progress: “oh, maybe i lost my job because i came to work with a mohawk.” or go into action.
  • What about action characters? If you have a really active characters, how does that balance out? (e.g. how do you write a two-dimensional action here?)
    • Elizabeth: they have to have real problems. they need to have personalities, likes and dislikes, friends. This rounds them out.
    • Anna: Has a character who is wildly angry, whose impulse is always to hit first. But need to keep him from being one dimensional. So he fights this anger. It has a background: he was institutionalized as a child. And it causes him problems.
    • Corry: Their personality needs to build with the world and intensify the story. Otherwise it is just tacked on.
  • Questions
    • What about secondary characters?
      • Corry: 
        • I like to look at the main characters. These are aspects of my main characters. Now how can I flip that aspect, and give it to a secondary character. Now each character and the aspects itself is more interesting.
        • Too often secondary characters are just milk-toast. They’re not interesting enough, or not weird enough. 
      • Elizabeth: Every secondary character has to fulfill a purpose, and if they aren’t fulfilling enough purposes, then combine secondary characters into one: makes them more interesting, fulfill more purposes, and have less names to remember.
      • Corry: Your secondary characters should want and need things, just as your primary character does. And if what they want is at odds with the primary character, all the better.
  • How do you demonstrate characterization?
    • Elizabeth: generally a quiet scene, something that furthers the plot, but something they do uniquely: e.g. the thief character who washes their laundry by hand and hangs it inside so it won’t be stolen.
    • Stephanie: Let the character make their own choices: big things: what are they going to choose if they can only save one of two things. little things: what music they listen to.
    • Anna: I do a lot of dialogue, and focus on the off the wall.
    • Corry: Action. Have your character doing something. The choice of what they do, and how they do it tells us a lot. Washing the blood out of the laundry is very different from someone doesn’t wash the blood out.
  • Q: What if you want to push your character over the edge and shatter them?
    • Do your research and make sure what kind of crazy it is.
    • You can’t go back.
    • Editors might not like it.
    • The character is changed permanently.
    • But they should be put together in a way that is functional.
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