Tag Archives: characterization

Women in Horror: Monique Snyman

WiHMX-horizontal-WhiteFrom out of South Africa, Monique Snyman writes today and talks about what’s needed to write good characters. I hope you’re enjoying the different writers’ and editors’ perspectives here and will continue to check back throughout the month for Women in Horror Month.

Stepford Wives and Serial Killers: Crafting Complex Characters

People generally assume I am not a horror writer, due to my love of pastels and willingness to help others. Who I am simply does not gel with what is often expected of someone who has a deep affection for the genre. I’m supposedly “too nice,” “too normal-looking,” “too well-spoken.” As if appearances have anything to do with horror. Granted, perhaps I am all those things, but I also pride myself for not truly fitting into anyone’s preconceived notions of who I am to them. That, I guess, also makes me somewhat of a rebel—a rebel in a floral sundress. One, I regret to say, that has a real problem with authority, always have, and probably always will. Does my problem with authority make me a bad person? No. Is my love of pink supposed to make me any less of a horror writer? I hope not; otherwise my career is doomed.

What I’m getting at is that we make judgment calls based on appearances, but all human beings are complex. There are layers to who we are and what we are capable of doing. And what we see is not exactly what we get in the grand scheme of things.

Fictionalized characters, if crafted correctly, are exactly the same.

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Patrick Batemen examines his tools in American Pyscho

If there’s anything horror has taught me over the years, it’s that appearances can be deceiving. For better or worse, the bad guy isn’t always the monster and the good guy isn’t always squeaky clean. It’s because of this sentiment that I’ve always found myself drawn to crafting complex characters. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho), for example, is still one of my favorite characters because he doesn’t initially come across as a…well, for lack of a better word, psycho. Bateman looks normal, is ambitious, seems to have it all, yet there is something seriously wrong with him. Funnily enough, as far as real life is concerned, I wouldn’t count Ted Bundy in on my list of favorite serial killers for exactly the same reasons. Perhaps it’s because I feel Bundy’s madness is more superficial than Bateman’s, and that Bundy did it all for show. I don’t know. I’m not a certified psychologist.

Another character I absolutely adore is Tiffany Valentine-Ray (The Bride of Chucky), because at first she comes across as this heartless serial killer, a thrill-seeker who’d do anything to keep Chucky happy, but she’s much more than that. Tiffany does display a softer side at times, and she does stand up to Chucky. Sometimes, when I feel especially sentimental, I can imagine she would’ve been content with a suburban life…for a while, at least. I mean, even a trophy wife can be much more than a pretty face and a pair of Louboutin’s. She can be a voracious reader like Marilyn Monroe, or she can be a complete lunatic like Linda Hazzard. It all depends on the things that make a person who they are—past experiences, present circumstances, future endeavors.

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Chucky and Tiffany planning creepy capers.

That’s the thing about characters, though, they’re basically people. Each one is unique in their own way.

 

Nevertheless, layers are important, because they allow readers to connect with characters and ponder the “what ifs” and “maybes” long after the book or movie is finished.

So, how does one go about creating a complex character? The truth is that there is no real trick to writing complex characters; you simply need to know your characters inside and out, and make them somewhat relatable. However, I do understand that some will find it easier than others, which is why I always suggest authors first write a character description, just to get a general idea of who they’re working with (appearances are important, whether we like it or not). Note the character’s sex, age, hair and eye color, height, weight, sexuality, and so on. I, personally, then tend to move on to the character’s preferred fashion choices (preppy, goth, jock, whatever), before I get into the nitty-gritty backstory. And yes, it is always a good idea to write a backstory, whether anyone else sees it or not, because your character’s choices are often dictated by a fictionalized pasts. From there, expand to include relationships—how, for example, does your protagonist/antagonist relate to other characters? How did they meet? How long have they been friends? Why don’t they like each other? When will there be conflict? After that, if you have to, gently prod your characters into position by making adjustments to the personality.

As Neil Gaiman said on a related topic, “It’s that easy, and that hard.”

It takes practice to write well, to craft unforgettable characters, to somehow navigate your way through intricate plots and subplots and whatnot. My best advice: Try and try again. I’ve worked in the industry for over a decade, and I can honestly say that honing a craft, in particular one that is ever-changing, is a full-time job. With practice, though, crafting a character doesn’t have to be a chore.

Synam 3Monique Snyman’s mind is a confusing bedlam of glitter and death, where candy-coated gore is found in abundance and homicidal unicorns thrive. Sorting out the mess in her head is particularly irksome before she’s ingested a specific amount of coffee, which is equal to half the recommended intake of water for humans per day. When she’s not playing referee to her imaginary friends or trying to overdose on caffeine, she’s doing something with words—be it writing, reading, or fixing all the words.

Monique Snyman lives in Pretoria, South Africa, with her husband and an adorable Chihuahua. She’s the author of MUTI NATION, a horror novel set in South Africa, and THE NIGHT WEAVER, the first installment in a dark fantasy series for young adults.

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A Eulogy on Character: Andrew Brechin

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Andrew Brechin knew how to be a character and a three-dimensional one at that. Photo: Tanya Kozak

Originally I was going to write about gender stereotypes for the Ink Punks (a local writing group)
but after the unexpected death of a friend last week I have decided to switch. So, in honour of Andrew Brechin who died too young, I dedicate this post to character.

If you saw Andrew on the street you might think, there is a rather stout fellow, or; he is a portly guy. Two ways of saying the same thing but different connotations to them. These statments might give the tone of the time period in which the story is given, or the narrator’s voice and suggest a certain level of education or deportment. They can also indicate a person’s view of another character. We’ll see more about Andrew’s deportment as we go on. In fact, as I play the only partially omniscient narrator of this piece, I will hopefully reveal more about Andrew to make him live in your mind, for that is how we keep all who have moved beyond the veil alive.

If I said that Andrew was part of the Society for Creative Anachronism (or medieval society) you might get a picture in your head of someone who liked history and to dress in costumes. And if I told you his medieval name was Guillermo Portelli, and knowing he was a stout fellow, you might begin to think he made a joke at his expense. And you would be right in both accounts.

He did indeed like to dress up but he saw it more in terms of daily raiment than as a costume. He was known to have once dressed as baby Cthulhu, that tentacled Old One of  H.P. Lovecraft’s invention. A few pictures do exist. There are other pictures of him with black wings and a black peasant shirt, fake Viking helm with plastic horns, wearing striped pants as he stands proudly on a miniature Viking ship, swirls of paint and glitter as he participates as one of the topless wish fairies in the Lantern festival, or wearing a long red robe with hood as a tech wizard, and wearing a purple top hat as he walks down the street, with cloak and a drum over his shoulders. There are many pictures of Andrew in various types of face and body paint.

Yes, Andrew loved to dress up and was known to have a few hats. You see, he didn’t believe that as an adult you had to let go of the child within. He was a staunch agent of joy and the sacred jester. He brought mirth and fun wherever he went, whether he was drumming for bellydancers, playing as part of the festive Carnival Band or just out there enjoying a party.

If I stopped here, you would have a picture of him, of how he looked and some of his attitude, but he was much more than this. Every year for his birthday, he would announce Breklormas, a feastorama at a local Chinese restaurant. The greasier the better, and I’m sorry to say I never made it to one.

He had a cunning mind and frequently formed wild plans for world domination or something with bacon in it, or some other crazy idea that he’d share with friends. One of his last posts before he died was this:

So, on the one hand, I really don’t want the Winter Olympics back. On the other, the idea of taking it back from the Russians and making it the GAYEST FUCKING OLYMPICS EVAR (which is really saying something, since the Classical Greek athletes competed naked except for a coating of olive oil) amuses the heck out of me. We could make a Queer Olympic Flag with seven rainbow rings on it, and I think it would pass copyright law as a parody…

He was always thinking. I wasn’t his closest friend but I saw some of this wizardly wit with his quips on facebook. And yes, Andrew’s, or Breklor as we sometimes called him, wit and whimsy were evident. He had a penchant for shooting pictures of toilets and posting them just because it was rather, well…Andrew.

Stereotypes begin in reality and are only a snapshot of someone. We have a clichéd image of what a jock, a hippy, a power attorney, a rock star, a nerd, a hipster, etc. look like. There is a uniform to both clothing and personality type. But it’s like looking at twenty blueberry pies baked by twenty people. They may all be pies and have blueberries but they will have diverse textures, various flavors and when you really look at them, uniquely different aspects.

When you write, even if you have a stereotype, you need to flesh that character inside and out. Anyone who just saw Andrew walking down the street, in cape and top hat, walking into the Stormcrow, haven for geeky game enthusiasts, would classify him as one of the same ilk. They would be right but what distinguishes one geek or nerd or jock from another is how you portray them. Already, because I’ve described more carefully Andrew’s clothing, he wasn’t just a T-shirt wearing geek. He was always clean and carefully dressed, and while he wore T-shirts from time to time, he also wore other clothing that had far more character.

While he loved to bring in joy and mirth, he wasn’t goofy. He had an innate sense of when to bring in laughter and when to be serious and listen. He loved kids, and while I heard he experienced bullying as a child, he decided to turn it around and put joy in its place. He was a good and intelligent conversationalist with deep insights. The beliefs he held included loving and wholly embracing who he was. Never once would I say he was annoying. He just knew. And he was pervasive, so much so that when the ripples went out last week from the shock of finding out of his untimely passing, various friends were surprised to find that another of their friends had known him as well. He was everywhere and the words most people used to describe him were: wizardly, witty, wise, joyful.

Make you characters come alive so the reader is invested. If you only have a few words, or limited space, choose those words well. Stephen King has done this very well, even if it was particularly annoying to get into a character in just two pages and find that on the third page he died. Instead of giving dry descriptions, it’s best to show character through movement, expression, dialogue and appearance.

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Andrew Brechin was the sacred jester, bringing mirth to many. He would make a great story character. Photo: Tanya Kozak

Andrew knocked at the old church gate, black feathered wings tied to his back and a glint in his eye. He leaned forward expectantly, then looked back at the camera, trying to suppress a smile. Giving up, he turned and stuck his tongue out. With this external view, you get a sense of the character, the surroundings and the attitude. So in a page or less you can define a character and if you’re writing a story, you can drop small pieces of description in as the character moves or talks. A little goes a long way in the reader’s imagination.

As you write characters into your stories, remember this: Even your villains have to live and while they may want world domination, they may also suffer from a runny nose and lumbago, and love kittens and blueberry pies. No one, not even a stereotype is all bad or good. We are made up of shades of grey and of all colors of the rainbow. Andrew was. Not only did he bring light into lonely dark places, he brought rainbows as well.

I plan to use Andrew one day in a story, either as a villain or a good guy. He’d be tickled pink and purple to know that he lives on.

I should also mention that Andrew will move on to become one of the Great Old Ones. He is being cremated in his baby Cthulhu suit.

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Writing and Cultural Appropriation

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From time to time an author is accused of cultural appropriation, where they write in or about a culture other than the one they are most familiar with, their own. Cultural appropriation can take on many nuances, from intimations of racism and bigotry to naiveté and misconceptions of history.

An example of cultural appropriation could be a white person with Maori tattoos, a person from India eating smoked salmon, the women of the Middle Ages wearing turban-style headdresses (from the Middle East). In this sense one culture adopts aspects of another culture. Throughout history, this has always happened as one group migrated or conquered another group. Blending languages, religions, styles and eating traditions were just some of the ways in which culture was appropriated.

In the world today, especially in Western culture, relaying and exchange of information as well as goods is swift and nearly universal. This means that after a certain amount of appropriation the culture assimilates or becomes a melting pot. This is neither a bad nor a good thing but it is just the way humanity adapts. We are always attracted to or repulsed by something new, until we get used to it.

In writing, cultural appropriation has usually had negative connotations. In other aspects of politics and life, when it’s mentioned in the media, it usually has a criticism attached. Sometimes the criticism is justified, say with a white writer whose story is about blacks who are only all ghetto, given to gang activity and play basketball on the street. That story may be playing off of stereotypes and only show the people in a negative light. It is usually when a writer of another culture, and most often a white author writing about another culture, that the term of cultural appropriation comes out. W.P. Kinsella is well known for writing stories involving Native/First Nations people and he’s white. I don’t believe he’s ever been blamed for cultural appropriation because he doesn’t stereotype everyone and he makes them real and three-dimensional. The criticism usually happens if someone writes of another culture but does so with cliché characters or stereotypes.

Often as not the accusation will grow to ridiculous proportions, such as; you cannot write about blacks because you aren’t black. You can’t write about women because you’re a man. I was once told by another writer that I couldn’t write about old people because I wasn’t old. Now I might not have written something well or in the correct viewpoint but in fact if we started pointing the finger and saying we could not write about gender, race, culture, religion or lifestyle other than our own, then we would all be writing about ourselves. The stories would be autobiographical and all characters would have to be us. I often roll my eyes when I hear the term. While I believe in honoring and respecting all people, and trying to avoid saying “you’re wrong because you’re not doing it my way,” I also do not believe that I cannot write about or include another culture than my own in the stories I write.

It has become the politically correct thing to say the moment a white person (usually) writes about anything other than their own people. And interestingly enough, it’s usually tossed about by other white people. Definitely when we write we are responsible for not perpetuating stereotypes and racism. However, if I’m writing a period piece and the character is thinking or talking within his time and it serves a purpose to move the story forward, then I must write that character accurately with attitude and vernacular, no matter how offensive it is to our modern sensibilities. And in fact, I’m most likely making a point, or indicating some horror of the past by including such a viewpoint. It is important that before we start painting everything with the cultural appropriation paintbrush that we understand the context and the message. It is one way we can understanding of events, cultures or people different from us, by writing about them, and putting ourselves in their place.

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Writing: What Constitutes Fantasy

Discussion has recently come up on my writer’s list about fantasy stories. One of the members asked a range of questions, not because she needed advice but because I believe she’s had discussions with other writers on what constitutes fantasy. Most of the members had close to the same answers here so I’m listing her questions and how I view each of them.

1.     Should a writer write down to an audience, or just use their own conversational voice?

 I took this to mean, should a writer condescend to, take on an instructional tone in explaining to an audience that may not know as much. Or should the writer use the author’s voice. However, I believe she meant, use your regular writing voice, thought that wasn’t clear. I have elaborated on my original answers.

I’d think neither. You’re writing using characters so your characters should help reveal the world. A character has a personality and a unique voice and depending on the point of view, that will affect what voice is used. You could have a condescending narrator; in that case yes he/she would talk or write down to the audience.

To explain the particular setting/technology/society of a world requires deft revelation, some of which may be through a particular character. Albeit, some exposition is required in a novel, but it shouldn’t be talking/writing down so much as making sure your regular reader understands the functioning aspects of the world as needed to understand the story. Example: I recently edited a book for someone who had all sorts of words/slang about airforce planes but on a level most of us (unless we were pilots) wouldn’t understand. He needed a bit more info in context so that the reader could understand what was going on.

 Unless you (the author/narrator) are an integral part of your novel, the authorial voice should not be there. When author’s drop into their stories it’s disconcerting and pulls the reader out of the world. Terry Pratchett from time to time uses an authorial or omniscient narrator (as you suspected, dear reader). It takes skill to use it in a way that enhances a story as opposed to detracting from in and ruining the atmosphere.  

2.     Should a fantasy novel assume lack of science and technology?

No. Even a world of magic has some technology or science. Whether it interacts with the story is another matter. Cups, weapons, dyes, plows, walls, etc., are all a science when they’re discovered/invented. Pre-industrial societies had science and or technology. Stories that involve alchemists (as an example) often mix science with magical properties. Books have been written where magic and science blend equally.

If you mean the logic/science behind how magic works in a particular world, then yes it still has to make sense and work in the story. But science does not negate magic necessarily.

3.     Should a fantasy novel assume a pseudo-medieval milieu?

No. It can, as is evidenced by numerous novels, but some are of far earlier societies. Some are integrated in later worlds and some are just plain ole alien. I read Brandon Sanderson’s novel, Mistborn, which had a plantationesque era and established magic. There was science as well. I really liked it for being of a different milieu.

Often there is the accepted trope that in a world that is not industrialized, magics develop in different ways within people. But a world could have magical creatures, i.e., not found normally on planet Earth and still not be medieval. Many medieval fantasies fall into parallel world tropes, where it is the middle ages but some element of magic is real. Many take an Earth like world and values but create fictitious places. Everything from the myths of the ancients up to the modern urban fantasies, like Charles de Lint’s (his name came up often in this discussion) are fantasy but not medieval. And really, a fantasy story has a better chance of selling if it is different rather than the same as every other book on the shelf.

4.     Should a fantasy novel necessarily encompass magic?

Again, it doesn’t matter really. Yes or no, depending on your world. A world can just be “other” or different from the world and the past we know, yet have nothing magical about it. It will still fall into the fantasy category. The lines between science fiction and fantasy can be blurry. Anne McCaffrey’s famous dragonriders of Pernseries started out as a medieval fantasy where people in feudal style societies rode dragons that killed the invading threads. She argued that it was science fiction because it was a different world, where originally the humans came from someplace else.

Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover books were similar in that they started out in a medieval style world, where some people had special powers. But as she wrote more and more books, there was interaction with people from other planets and spaceports. Fantasy or science fiction? Yes.

5.     Should magic in a fantasy novel be hard or just part of the norm like breathing?

Depends on if everyone does it, or if it’s a gifted few. Are they born with it or like us, do they go through a crawling stage before walking and then flying? Many books have magical talents begin with puberty. In others, the person must study and earn the talent. It could be a world that has an inherent magic in the way it works such as creatures that change shape. It all depends on what is integral to the plot and how that affects the outcomes and solutions the protagonist must find.

Overall, I’d say almost all of these are not hard and fast. It depends on how the world is set up, what tale you’re trying to tell and how integral magic is to that story line. But questions like these are always goods to ask because as writers, it keeps us thinking and examining what we do. And sometimes it pushes us outside our comfort zones and we move beyond the box.

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