Thursday, January 10, 2019

Writing Tips -- 2019 New Years Resolutions For Writers

Here’s a list of New Year’s resolutions (or just writing goals/challenges if you’re like me and don’t exactly make official resolutions). There are a wide variety of them that will be useful to people at varying experience levels, so just pick the ones that appeal or apply to you.

Write 100 words a day, at least.  Preferably on every current WIP.  This one’s great for busy people that have a hard time getting themselves to make progress on their stories.  A hundred words isn’t much at all, so it’s a good way to chip away at projects bit by bit, and as the months go by, there will eventually be a decent amount of writing accomplished.

Write in a different POV style.  This can be in terms of writing a POV you aren’t used to (perhaps you normally write in third person, and want to write in omniscient POV for this challenge.)  Or, this could be in terms of challenging yourself to write in a POV you dislike(maybe you like writing in third person but normally hate writing in first person.  Writing a few short projects in first person could help you learn to write first person in a way that you like or help you figure out exactly why you dislike this POV).

Thoroughly research a different physical condition and write about it.  Again, do your research and write about it in a way that doesn’t disrespect people in real life.  But, let’s say you’ve never written a blind character before. This would be an opportunity to come up with one and explore what it’s like to be in that char’s shoes.  In this case, it would be good to figure out exactly what caused their blindness to make the research more precise.

Take at least one or two of your most prominent characters and give them a Myers-Briggs personality test.  Then, incorporate your findings in the character somehow.  This can be useful because it will force you to consider the character’s habits and thoughts more.  Also, once one understands a character’s personality type, it can be fun to research and incorporate quirks that that personality type is known for.

Research an obscure philosophy and consider adding it to your character’s story world.  Maybe not the entire philosophy, and perhaps in your story world the philosophy would go by a different name, but philosophies have a huge impact on how societies form and how people behave and thus can give worldbuilding a nice kickstart.

Find a culture, philosophy, mindset, species, etc. you’ve invented for your story world that is represented by multiple individuals, then make sure those individuals actually act like individuals.  Even when two people grow up in the same culture and have lots of similarities, they will always have differences that will eventually make a huge difference in their lives.  Extroversion is usually valued to some extent in the United States, for instance, so I’ve learned to get out there and talk to people when need be, but I’m still highly introverted and often avoid unnecessary conversations.  But practically no one will handle social contact in the same way. Different people have different levels of talkativeness, and they also have different types of social situations they will embrace or avoid.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Writing Tips -- How To Invent Psychology For A Species

When people think about creature design, they often think about the physical appearance of an animal, as well as occasional behavioral points. A cool, functional appearance is important for the creatures we invent, but the psychology of a being matters just as much, if not moreso.

This is especially true when it comes to a sentient being. Sentient beings are often faced with complex social situations throughout a story, and their psychology would, plausibly, affect everything they say and do. If they are not human, it makes sense to assume they would think at least a bit differently than us.

Being human ourselves, and not having any other sentient species to study the psychology of, how can we invent thought processes that genuinely feel different than ours?

Here are a few tips that have helped me explore what a different creature’s psychology could be like:

Think about what key traits the being has, then think very long and hard about why they have those traits/what the effects are. Nearly any trait will affect a being on a deep level. Let’s say the key trait is that, due to biology, the creatures’ natural lifestyle is a solitary one. Their psychology would vary greatly from that of social beings like humans. Humans might be alright with living alone, or can become so upset with people that they separate from society, but that isn’t usually their default state, and they can usually still form attachments to a special few. In fact, if a person can’t stand human companionship, they might be tempted to replace that hole in their lives with a pet, just because having some sort of companion tends to lessen human stress.

A being whose species has a biological tendency toward solitude might think differently, however. They might only see social rules and interactions as a threat, hindrance, or, at best, a way to further their own agenda. A solitary creature tends to handle everything itself, and any other beings it encounters will probably either be predators or competition. The solitary creature’s mind will be wired accordingly.

So, consider stepping into the shoes of a being like that. Day to day, how do these creatures handle themselves? Members of their own kind will often pose a direct rivalry for territory, food, etc., so encountering members of their own species might dredge up feelings of hostility or anxiety. Members of other species are less likely to be competitors, and thus may only be met with indifference or a hint of wariness(depending on whether they are a dangerous predator or not).

Once an author figures out how their creature operates in a natural setting, they can think about the ins and outs of how that creature might interact in a social setting. If a solitary creature joins the hero’s quest to save the world, he might only do so to obtain something he wants, or to keep the villain from destroying his territory. Thus, he’s forced to be social for the sake of that goal. How does this affect him? Does he cooperate on a surface level, but actually find the social setting stifling? He could even have some very extreme thoughts, like seeing society as evil. He probably has reasons for this that sound perfectly logical to a being ill suited for a social lifestyle, so a glimpse into his mind would probably make his beliefs sound passionate and/or reasonable.

Keep biology/environmental niche in mind. Humans are diurnal, which means active during the day. As such, we have poor night vision and are innately afraid of the dark/night. Primarily because it’s easy for things to sneak around at night and eat us, and we wouldn’t see the threat until it’s too late. As a result, we speak of darkness and shadows as evil.

Keeping this in mind, how might a strictly nocturnal animal feel about brightness? Maybe it scares them because it makes them feel exposed and in view of a predator. Or they see a need for excess light as a sign of weakness. At the very least, their psychology is different from ours in that they are more comfortable in the darkness, and we are not. Many of their beliefs and social norms, or at least way of describing the world, will stem from that psychological quirk.

Some other biological factors and niches to keep in mind are lifespan, location in the food chain(especially whether they are predators or prey), habitat, whether or not the creatures are generalists or specialists(generalists are usually more adaptable), if the animals are social, and what the relationships in their social group normally are.

Have them perform similar behaviors to animals or people in real life, but for different reasons. Going back to our first example of a solitary creature, how might the ‘same actions for different reasons’ idea be used?

We discussed the idea of the solitary creature joining the hero’s ‘save the world team’ in order to protect his territory. Normally, a social creature might think in terms of someone bringing large quantities of food back to camp out of a generous desire to feed everyone. So, let’s say the solitary creature kills a deer and, out of instinct, drags it back to the place he is staying the night so he can eat his meal in relative safety.

Afterward, he eats his portion and then walks to his part of the camp and sleeps, which clears the way for his comrades to eat a portion of the deer. His comrades might think him generous for bringing food back to camp every night, when in actuality, the creature is selfish and indifferent. He is used to hunting a large animal, eating his fill, then leaving the rest to scavengers. He is simply following that behavior, and doesn’t bother explaining that reality to his comrades because he doesn’t care if they know the truth and knows that it is to his advantage if they see him as kind and generous.

Consider manufactured/learned/ imitated behaviors vs. innate/normal behaviors.  Let’s consider our solitary creature again(I’m just going to call him Solitaire from now on). If Solitaire learns that he encounters issues whenever he behaves in ways his comrades don’t expect, he will probably alter his behavior accordingly. This can be as simple as teaching himself to say please and thank you to smooth over conversations, or expressing concern for a comrade regardless of whether or not he feels it. Sometimes learning how to cope in a society might fascinate Solitaire, but there will also be times when the learning process is inconvenient.

Learning the rules may be easy enough (show compassion, be helpful, apologize after upsetting someone, etc) but following them at all times is not. Learning how to apologize is easy in and of itself, but knowing when isn’t always. It’s easier for humans, since we’re usually wired to at least try and cooperate with each other, so it’s easier for us to recognize when we’ve genuinely hurt someone and desire to make amends.

That is not how Solitaire’s wired, however. He may learn to apologize whenever someone seems visibly upset at him, regardless of whether or not he means it. So what happens if he does something offensive, but the person he wrongs doesn’t show how hurt she is? Solitaire’s other comrades might demand he apologize, causing him to refuse, feel annoyed, and justify his behavior.

At this point, Solitaire’s manufactured behaviors become clear. He learns certain things in order to get by, but since social behaviors are not innate for him, he falls very short of social norms, though he often hides it. Of course humans can make fake apologies as well, but Solitaire’s reasons for being fake are a little different and far less likely to change. In fact, depending on the psychology the author chooses for him, he may not even have the ability to feel guilty for harming someone.

Solitaire may not like having to expend the effort to fit in with a species that expects so much of him, either. Even after learning to imitate social behaviors, he may sometimes dwell on the fact that he never had to deal with this when he was alone. He might also wonder why social creatures love living in a way that forces them to adhere to others’ expectations.

So, yeah, these were the first few ideas that came to mind. I may do a follow up post with a few more ways to brainstorm different psychologies.

What do you guys think? Do you have any methods for developing different psychologies for your characters? Are there any creatures/characters that you think have a unique or fascinating psychology?

Feel free to comment with questions as well. If anyone wants me to expand on anything in this post, feel free to ask and I might do a follow up article. Feel free to subscribe to this blog if you want to read more.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Writing Tips -- Why To Avoid The Word 'The'

How many titles have you seen that start with ‘The’?  (The Grand Escape, The Greatest Showman, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Girl Who Owned A City, etc.)  How often and how easy is it to start our descriptive sentences with The?

Obviously, there are plenty of things that don’t start off with The, and it's fine to use The now and then. But growing up it sometimes felt like this word was everywhere, beginning so many titles and, as I began to notice, starting a lot of my written sentences.  

After a while, the overabundance of The started to get grating, primarily since it made many of my sentences sound repetitive.  So, here came the self imposed challenge: Use The when need be, but otherwise, try to avoid using it to start sentences and titles.  

Simply reducing the use of that one word had some interesting results.  My titles became more interesting and creative, my prose less repetitive, and ideas expressed in my stories started coming through more vividly.  Being unable to use The very often made it necessary to learn and adapt, or even completely rethink scene descriptions and sentence structures.

So, for those looking to improve their writing, avoiding The as often as possible may be a useful exercise.  Or, for those already using The only on rare occasions, they can consider finding one or two other words that are repeated a lot in their writing and try to avoid using them.  Ultimately, exercises like these encourage authors to dig deeper and find titles/prose that are more unique and meaningful to the story.

So yeah, just a little something that’s helped me.  

Have you tried something like this at some point?  What words do you repeat the most? Are there any writing quirks, mistakes, or too often used words that have become a pet peeve of yours?

Feel free to comment, or subscribe to this blog for more posts. Thank you for reading :)

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Writing Tips -- Why Is Romance Important?

Romance kind of gets a bad wrap for being silly and frivolous when included in a story.  In some cases, this is for good reason. Mainstream media often depicts romance in a stereotypical manner, or in a way that’s so cheesy most can’t help but scoff at it.  As a result, some might see it as an annoying interruption, a deviation that has nothing to do with the main plot. Furthermore, some people have little to no personal interest in romance, and thus have no desire to include such things in their story.

Some stories are indeed better when devoid of romance, but there are many cases where a tale may actually benefit from the inclusion of romantic elements.  For the sake of this post, ‘romantic elements’ will encompass the normal connotations of falling in love, but also other issues that surround it, such as lust and marital conflict.

First and foremost, romance benefits stories by reflecting reality.  Romance impacts everyone, even those that abstain from relationships.  When people’s parents don’t get along, that shapes their childhood. Furthermore, practically no one would be born without romance and lust.  In general, even societies that lack romance and handle reproduction through more scientific means were probably affected by romance in some way.  In all likelihood, something in their history made them see romance as a hindrance to progress and thus caused them to focus on other means of sustaining their population.  Thus, even then, some sort of romantic element might merit discussion to explain the origins of that society.

There are ways to avoid a story being impacted by romance, but they often require writing about beings vastly different than us.  Having all the chars be immortal is one method. Another is to write about a completely asexual species that has always been like that and has no contact with creatures that reproduce other ways.

Romance can provide sequel material.  If the main character’s story arc is over, either because they died or they are done adventuring forever, sequels are going to have to focus on other characters.  Although it may be possible to use previous side chars or new chars as the sequels’ protagonist, focusing on the next generation instead may have more impact. This gives authors a chance to build off the previous arcs of well loved chars and show how they impacted others.  A character’s behavior is often going to impact their family greatly, after all. Even further, the character’s children can provide a fresh perspective on previous events and people.

Using next gen characters is also usually easier than starting completely from scratch, since next generation stories ground readers in pre-established situations instead of having to take time for exposition to introduce new ones.

But next generation characters are harder to introduce without some degree of romance(unless the stork dropped them on the parent’s doorstep one day).  If someone has a biological kid, the question of who that kid’s other parent is will likely come up at some point. Maybe the question would realistically occur in the story, or it will simply be something readers want to know.  But having a kid is a process, an entire segment of the character’s backstory, and thus would impact the character almost regardless of the circumstances around their child’s birth. If, for instance, a man has a child because he got married and his wife died in childbirth, that should have some bearing on his characterization.  In turn, this will have a bearing on their child’s characterization.

Writing romance well can be very vital in cases like that.  Main characters have the spotlight on them. If everything else about them is well written, yet their romance arc is flat, stereotypical, and/or barely discussed, it might weaken the story’s quality.  Or, even worse, it can cause people to misread the character. If a character is supposed to be kind hearted and empathetic, yet his spouse dying in childbirth has no impact on his behavior going forward...he may come across as callous, or at least inconsistent.  It would also be strange if that romance arc didn’t impact the character’s child in some way. The child might not be sad, due to not knowing the mother, but such things would impact how the child grows up and sees the world. This can fuel a sequel by giving the next generation character challenges to work through.

Romance is an excellent way to explore human psychology.  Many normal relationship dynamics, such as friendship, conflict, etc. are present within romantic relationships, but the two characters are more deeply intertwined.  Because of the impact they have on each other, their relationship dynamics are magnified. If two regular friends don’t get along, it’s usually a lot easier for them to go their separate ways, so we may not see what would happen if their conflict worsens due to close proximity.  

In a romantic relationship, however, breaking ties can be harder.  The two chars are more likely to be emotionally bound, or they built a life together that will fall apart if they stop interacting.  Factors like that may force them to stay together and in conflict far longer than people who are just friends. This is the perfect opportunity to show how a detailed, somewhat inescapable conflict looks like over the long haul.

But conflict isn’t the only psychological aspect that can be explored through romance.  There’s also long term friendship and camaraderie. Normal friends have a higher chance of moving away and growing apart, but a romantic partner may very well stay there a lifetime, if all goes well.  This can be used to explore how such close friendship impacts someone’s life. When people always have someone they can count on, that greatly affects their behavior. People might be a little more daring or effective if they know someone’s always got their back, for instance.

Romance doesn’t have to be cheesy or stereotypical.  Not only can it can be an intricate study of human nature, but it can be used as a well thought out plot device.  The way people treat their significant others, for instance, says a lot about them and helps with characterization.  A romantic partner can be a help or a hindrance, depending on the story. When characters responds to each instance of that, they show who they are and move the story along.  At that point, the romance doesn’t have to be sappy and cheesy, but an interesting set of behaviors instead.

If authors want to write stories and characters that feel real, they often need to address romantic elements at some point or another.  Simply because of that, learning to write romantic elements adds another tool in the author’s arsenal. One way to start learning is by finding shows/comics/etc. with well written romantic elements and various types of relationship dynamics.  When people find romantic elements in a story they enjoy, it becomes far easier to internalize how to add those elements in their own tales. Additionally, pay attention to romantic elements that occur in real life and compare them to romance stories that seem poorly written.  Based on what is seen in real life, what did those romance stories do wrong and right?

So, just my two cents worth on the subject. What are the best and worst examples of romance writing you've seen? What are your habits/opinion when it comes to romance in stories?

Thank you for reading! Feel free to leave a comment, or follow the blog if you want to read more.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Writing Tips -- Good Cooks In Stories

Recently I've been watching Kakuriyo -- Bed And Breakfast For Spirits, and it's an enjoyable break from all the serious stuff I normally watch.  As the story progresses, however, it's obvious that (so far) it's fallen into a trope common in stories involving a skilled cook: characters tend to automatically like whatever food is made by the skilled cook, regardless of individual preferences.

Here are a few brief responses and proposed solutions to this trope:

Let some taste testers dislike the food.  Everyone has different tastes.  Some things are so gross to me that I can't imagine them tasting good to anyone, like this really bitter tea I had once.  But then someone else near me tried it and liked it.  This can be a challenge when writing good cooks because it is necessary to show how skilled they are.  And the easiest way to do that is to show everyone loving their food.

It's not necessarily 'bad' to depict characters that are so skilled their food is always perfect for whoever eats it.  But to make the story more realistic and deep, the author can also show what happens when someone doesn't like what the skilled cook prepares.  Such a thing could be an opportunity to explore and address ways of politely telling someone 'I don't really like this'.  Or maybe to show how the cook handles criticism and learns from it.

The taste testers don't have to dislike the food very often, but it would be realistic for that to happen once or twice.  For a real life comparison...when people go to a fancy restaurant, all the food is made by competent chefs, but that doesn't necessarily mean they'd enjoy every single thing on the menu.

Allow skilled cooks to mess up now and then.  Of course this shouldn't happen very often.  These cooks have to appear competent after all.  But allowing them to mess up now and then can provide good character building moments.  Are they distracted by worries or excitement?  If so, they may accidentally burn a batch of whatever they're making.  

Are they learning to make something completely new and out of their realm of expertise?  Show that they are skilled enough to make good guesses when it comes to cooking this new thing(which could be an entirely different genre/culture of food) But also show them making a mistake that causes the dish to be lower quality than their food normally does.

Have them receive input from another skilled chef.  This can be someone on the same level as them, or someone more advanced.  Even if the skilled cook's food is normally good, that doesn't mean they do everything completely right and could still benefit from another's chef's tips and tricks.  

To address the taste and personal preference aspect of this...  If a professional chef dislikes a certain type of food, they might still be able to tell if it is well cooked or well prepared.  This might not always be the case, but in some instances at least, the professional will understand the 'standard' for common dishes and judge the dish based on that criteria, rather than their own taste buds.

So, yeah, just my two cents and observations on the matter.  

Have you noticed this trope yourself?  What are your thoughts on it?  Are there any other cooking story tropes that come to mind?

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Writing Tips -- Pros And Cons Of First Person Narrative:

This is a partial reboot of an old post from my tumblr,  I decided to delve a little deeper into the topic of first person than that initial post did because I've found that first person is one of my least favorite point of view styles.  Although there are several first person stories that I do like, it's still the POV I tend to avoid.  

This made me wonder what it takes to make make a good first person story.  Unpacking what I like and dislike about first person POV sounded like a good writing exercise as well, so here we are.

So...some cons of first person:

First person is, to an extent, less common, and thus a little jarring at times.  While this tends to vary a bit based on the genre, as well as time of publication being discussed (the popularity of different POV styles probably ebbs and flows) other points of view seem to be a more favored now days.  This is especially true when we add visual media to the mix.  Most movies aren't in first person at all.  If first person is included, it is usually only at certain parts of the film, rather than all the way through.  So first person is more likely to feel a bit jarring, except for the readers that habitually seek out first person stories.  Interestingly enough, first person is usually the POV type I see people actively saying they dislike or try to avoid.

Prose sometimes suffers, and we are less likely to feel like we're inside the character's head.  These are in the same section because they stem from a similar issue:  With first person, it is easy for authors to fall into the trap of using 'I' sentences too much.  Instead of simply reporting visuals or running through thought processes, there may be too many sentences that say 'I saw that' or 'I thought that'.  It is very much like sitting down and having Grandpa tell a story.  While this isn't necessarily a bad thing, it means a lot of detail is omitted and we are not given much detail on character thoughts. Now days, many readers want to feel immersed in the story, which tends to mean being in the character's head.

'I' sentences are fine when used sparingly, but only when necessary.  'I saw a mouse sniffing at the open packet of food.  I hated mice.  They were always chewing holes in things so they could steal food and make messes for me to clean up.  I grabbed a jar and stalked over to the table.'  isn't as vivid as something like 'The rustling on the table was a mouse, sniffing at the open food packet.  Nasty.  Those stupid little rodents were always chewing holes in things so they could steal our food and leave their poop around.  Where was that useless cat?  Shaking my head, I snatched a jar from the counter and crept to the table.'

The second option sounds slightly better from a prose standpoint, and gives us a better window into the character's thoughts.  Why?  The first example has the narrator simply reporting actions and a few blunt thoughts.  It also included a few unnecessary 'I' statements that could have been removed in favor of more description.  The second example, however, is almost like the narrator is a better storyteller, able to communicate their thoughts more vividly to the reader.

First person narration presents a more obvious bias.  Bias is an important aspect of writing, but is often more blatant in first person.  This isn't an immediate problem, but it can annoy some readers that prefer to form their own conclusions instead of having a narrator telling them what to think.  This annoyance often multiplies when the reader disagrees with the narrator.  Character bias is extremely realistic in a first person narrative, but it is important to ensure that the story is well suited to first person.

Obviously, the audience is going to form some of their own conclusions regardless.  In the Emperor's New Groove, for instance, the viewers probably view Cuzco as selfish and bratty no matter how many times he describes himself as a nice guy.  But this is fine because a story like The Emperor's New Groove works wonderfully in first person.  

Yet, in other cases, stories are more fun when the reader/viewer can simply watch events unfold without feeling like a character is directly speaking to them and demanding they interpret things a certain way.  This is a factor that should be considered when deciding on POV type, since it will affect the mood and audience perception of the story.  Narrator bias is good, but shouldn't be used in a grating way.

Narrator bias and personality quirks should be present, but often aren't.  Imagine a dog chasing a cat around the neighborhood.  That story would sound different based on who's perspective the story is told from.  How would the dog report the scene?  How would a cat narrate it?  What about the thoughts from the human watching the chase?  

A cat, for instance, might try to gain sympathy by talking about how upsetting it was to be chased by the big, mean dog, but intentionally leave out the fact that the dog only gave chase after being insulted and scratched on the nose.  But the audience might assume the insult happened, depending on how the cat tells the story.  The way characters tell their stories based off their personality and audience is a fascinating dynamic.  The issue is that many first person stories don't do this nearly as much as they should.  In fact, now and then, a first person story might be so lacking in these dynamics that some may wonder why the story wasn't simply written in third person or omniscient instead.  If the story doesn't lend itself well to bias, that might be a sign that first person isn't a good POV for it.

Now for some pros:

Done right, first person can inject just as much, if not more, personality than third person.  This is someone telling us their blunt thoughts, or at least the ones they are willing to share.  And done right, these speech patterns can tell us a lot about the narrating character.  This often means the author needs to have a vague idea of where and why the narrator is telling the story, along with the narrator's intended audience.  Is the narrator a grandparent looking back over their life with regret, perhaps telling their story as a cautionary tale?  Or is the narrator a sneaky criminal trying to paint himself in a better light?  This can even be a fun way to enhance the story's lore.  Is the story in first person because it's written in a journal?  The fact that the journal exists in the first place can be an important plot point.  What inspired the narrator to journal the story down at all?  

It's easier to portray a first person narrator as more biased/unreliable.  This branches off the previous point, but the unreliable narrator thing deserves a paragraph of its own.  If someone wants to do an unreliable POV story, first person is often a great way to go, especially if the author wants to make it obvious, fun and quirky.  The Emperor's New Groove is a great example.  The audience knows that the narrator is unreliable because his words don't match up with the story's circumstances, and when narrators don't notice such discrepancies they've probably deluded themselves.  While a similar effect can be accomplished with third person, first person unreliability is a bit different.  At the very least, it makes the unreliability more obvious, and the audience is more likely to know that the discrepancies are a deliberate part of the narrator's character.

It gives the story a different feel.  Depending on how the first person aspect is used, it may make the story feel like an old classic like Where the Red Fern Grows.  Or, the story may need to be in first person to accentuate the fact that the tale is the character's diary or collection of letters.

Overall, first person isn't a bad POV to use, but it should probably be chosen only if it fits the story and the narrative is developed in an entertaining way.

So, yeah, just my two cents on the subject.  I'll probably go through and make a similar post for each of the main POV styles.  What do you think of first person POV?  Do you have anything to add to the pros and cons list, or any tips for those writing first person?

Thanks for reading! :)