Posted in Exercises, writing

How Acting Applies to Character Description

Although an initial look might make it seem as if acting and writing are two vastly different arts there are tools in an actor’s kit  writers can borrow. Several of those come in handy for developing characters. For today, I’m only focusing on character description.

For an actor, costumes and makeup are only part of what they can count on to help change their appearance. Another item they might be taught in, is the leading center. In other words: what part of the body pulls a character forward? This goes a little deeper than just thinking about which foot to put forward first, it also helps define a character based on where their center of gravity is. Both a heavily pregnant woman and a rotund man will lead with their stomachs, leaning back slightly to offset the added weight at the front of their frames. The difference here however, is how that weight is carried: pregnancies tend to have supported weight, resulting in the waddle of an expectant mother. Excess weight from too many beers results in a shuffle as that weight drags on the body.

There are other ways of expressing this too. The daydreaming child leads with her heart, both literally and figuratively. The headstrong warrior puts their brave face forward first. An old man with a heavy weight lets his shoulders push him forward. Each of these people has a reason for the way they move: be that skipping joyously all over the place, or sidling along with a cane.

For writers, thinking about what would lead a character forward gives you a good base for their outward description that goes beyond short, skinny, brunette, blue eyes, etc. This gives you a way to describe their actions and fix them in your readers mind: how they walk and how they stand.

Not only that, it also gives you opportunities to work description in besides mirror scenes or self-comparison. Describing a character striding into the room to throw papers on his desk becomes a memorable opening. Similarly as a quieter character ducks their head and tries to make their stature smaller in a crowded elevator stands out more than someone looking in the mirror.

As an exercise: Observe people around you and how they move and stand. What part of their body sticks out most when they’re standing? How does their leading center affect how they walk?

Posted in General

Rejecting Obstacles

Back in February, I mentioned that my father had had a stroke. Thankfully, despite the area of his brain that had been affected by said stroke, he’s been discharged from acute therapy and is now home with my sister and I. Unfortunately, while he’s been discharged he is still a long way from independence again (which I’ll note here frustrates him, even when he doesn’t have the words for it). For the most part this means someone still needs to be here twenty-four hours for him, though we’re expecting that to change. Because I have the most amount of time to provide that care, that’s required a change in my routine.

At this point, it would be too easy to say I simply don’t have time to write, to create blog posts, to keep working on the career I want. It’s too easy. The reason is there and laid out perfectly: a large chunk of my time is no longer my own. It’s a reason that keeps thousands of people from doing that thing they want to do. Time is finite, and there is no better excuse than to say you don’t have the time to learn that skill, to participate in that event, to write that novel.

Note I say excuse. I say that because in between all the things I have to do during the day, there is always that element of time. Not everything happens at once, and while yes, it’s easy to excuse myself from doing this, that and the other with the blanket excuse of ‘I don’t have time’ the fact of the matter is that there’s always time. Maybe that’s ten minutes while I wait for the dryer to finish, or in the half hour where Dad is napping before his next dose of medications, but there’s always time. In fact, since having him home for the last two days, this post is being written in the half hour before I myself head to bed.

There is always time. Finding it throughout the day is often an obstacle course. The biggest obstacle I have to face however, is getting to the start of it and accepting that yes, there are obstacles ahead of me. Every time I face an obstacle I can either accept it, or I can seize the opportunity on the other side of it.

Things may change again in a few weeks, depending on how my father is doing. Or, this may simply become the new normal for my family and routine. Regardless of the outcome, every time I find myself thinking ‘I can’t do that because…’ I need to remember to look for the opportunity, instead of just finding the obstacle. Perhaps I can’t map out that character arc because it’s time to make lunch. But, I can most certainly do a quick search in the name of research while waiting for the microwave or while a can of soup heats through.

Every obstacle hides an opportunity. Finding them and is the key point.

Posted in General, writing

Avoiding Burn Out

There are two–maybe three–big things that prevent you from finishing a story. One, procrastination. Two, burn out. Of the two, procrastination at least pretends to be something useful (don’t let it fool you though, it is lying to you and is not actually useful). Burn out on the other hand makes no attempt to hide what it’s there to do: make you dislike your story.

Every creative person has a well from which they draw inspiration and motivation to create.  That well is a finite resource however, and burn out is what you get when that well is empty. It can feel like you’re tired of working on that particular project or that you’ve run out of ideas for it. This can make you susceptible to Shiny New Project Syndrome, or just add another unfinished piece to the pile.

Thankfully, avoiding burn out isn’t a huge undertaking. There’s a lot of little steps that can prevent it.

Start with self-care. Your energy reserves will only go so far, and they’ve got to get split between taking care of family, the day job, relationships and your creative projects. Sometimes the best way to keep your energy up is to go ahead and indulge yourself in twenty minutes of cat videos or to accept that yes, you know you’re procrastinating, but one night off of this that or the other thing won’t hurt. Just don’t make it every night and don’t let self-care be an excuse to procrastinate with more cat videos.

Make sure you also have plenty of creative inspiration to keep your ideas flowing. This might be anything from a mood board, a hand-picked playlist or even just a list of random things you like seeing in stories. Keeping something to help bring a new idea to life helps you avoid getting stuck on trying to cover that gaping plot hole and helps refill your creativity.

The final part is pacing yourself. Not everyone writes at a breakneck pace, and even those of us who do might want to consider pumping the brakes a little. There is no such thing as overnight success, it takes lots of little steps. Pouring your energy into one step leaves you unprepared to handle the next step–be that editing, submitting, marketing or whatever else you have to do for your project. Your energy needs time to refill. Also keep in mind that just because you’ve finished one step doesn’t mean you have to dive headlong into the next. If you’re getting feedback, give it a day or two to soak in before you start making changes. The same goes for finishing a draft–pace yourself and give yourself some time for the emotional reaction to diminish so you can give the right amount of energy to the next step.

Posted in General

Naming Characters

Naming things is hard work. Kids, pets, places are all examples of this, and characters are no exception. In some cases you can get away with just using a placeholder name until you can find the right name for the character. Nonetheless, when you’re hunting up a name, there are a few things to consider.

The most obvious might be that your character’s name is appropriate to the genre. Although this seems like a no brainer, it is something to consider, especially for genres like historical fiction where you’re constrained by particular time periods. You can’t exactly name your character Yosemite Sam if you’re dealing with Spain in the 12th century without raising a few eyebrows. There are definitely places where bending the rules around names are allowed and thoroughly encouraged (I’d personally say fantasy and sci-fi are the top two examples of this, but please keep in mind I don’t have facts to back that up). Even within those genres however, there are still generally excepted naming conventions and rules that apply.

When looking for a name also keep in mind the meaning of a particular name. We all know Belle means beautiful, and in the case of our favorite Beauty and the Beast Princess, and it suits her well. There’s no need to question what her role is. She’s the beauty, and she’s there to tame the beasty. That being said, also keep the flipside in mind: it’s not all that often that characters get to choose their own names, so a name laden with lots of meaning might also place a lot of expectation on a character. While that can be used to help you flesh out a character’s family life and backstory, depending on how well-known the meaning of that name is, it can also mean your readers bring expectations to the table with them.

In the cases where you need to name characters that are related to another, consider family patterns. Often parents want sibling names to go together nicely (Mary Kate and Ashley Olson; Chris, Liam and Luke Hemsworth; Jaden and Willow Smith; Fred, George and Ginny Weasley; Sokka and Katara). There’s always exceptions of course, but when naming siblings consider choosing a soft rule to go by, such as a specific number of syllables, or that each one contains a certain letter pairing such as double a or an l and an i. Those letters may not need to be together, but they’ll help give a cohesiveness to the group of siblings as a whole. This doesn’t need to be a hard and fast rule though, sometimes names sound nice together without any sort of pattern. And of course, sometimes names within families just don’t match each other.

Also to consider with family names is the generational aspect: sometimes names get reused and varied. A real life example here being that my middle name is Jean and my grandmother’s name is Jeanie. One of my uncles also shares his first name with another family member. That’s all on one side of my family. There are plenty of unique names for certain, but repeating a name from a generation or two ago is an option in some cases.

Finally, when naming character consider the region and heritage you’re working with. Although again, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, many names can be handed down to someone because of a heritage, and most especially with last names as these often are handed straight down from parent to child.

 

Posted in General

Making Goals

With a fresh start on the year it’s so easy and enticing to want to do set goals and aim high. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with dreaming big either. The problem sets in entirely when those big goals get to be a little too grandiose and real life gets in the way, especially when it’s a writing-related goal. Finding a balance isn’t always easy either, so how do you do that?

First, recognize that regardless of what your goal is, you’re going to have to put in work. Things don’t just happen to fall in people’s laps. Books don’t magically fall out of the computer, fully typed and edited. Similarly, a full-time paycheck from writing doesn’t spontaneously appear because you want it to. It’s going to take work.

Secondly, try breaking your overall goal down into smaller milestone goals, and look at which ones you can actually accomplish within a month, and then within the next year. Remember what I just said about work? This is where it starts: you need a plan. Put one together. This might mean planning out the daily time where you sit down and actually write, or it might mean giving yourself solid deadlines to have a smaller goal done by.

If you’re just starting your writing career and aren’t sure what you can do just yet, then one of the best things you can do for yourself is take this year and set a challenge for yourself each month. Maybe that’s learning about a particular aspect of the industry (publishing options, standard contracts, editing services and levels, etc.), or that’s figuring out your process, but it will help in the long run. If you’re thinking you can just write something out in a couple of weeks or months and have it published and selling just as fast, I have some terrible news for you: it’s not likely.

If you’ve been writing for a while and are looking to move forward, now is a good time to push your limits. For those looking for the traditional route: send more queries, work on another project while you’re waiting. For those in self-publishing, what else can you do to up your numbers?

Aim high! But also remember that no matter what you aim for, you have to put in the work to get there.