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Characters and Personality (Theirs and Yours)

The topic for the blog chain this time, started by the lovely Leah Clifford, is

Are your characters real people to you?
How much do you really know about them?

Be sure to check out Kate's response (she's the blogger before me in the chain) and Michelle's response (she's the blogger after me in the chain) as well as the responses of the other bloggers in the chain -- they're listed to your left.

Are your characters real people to you?


And sometimes I tie my brain in a pretzel thinking about the nature of reality, and -- sparing you the philosophical Rube Goldberg machine -- what I end up with is, Do I have any proof that they're not real, somewhere, somehow?

I mean, it often feels like I'm just writing about what's happening somewhere else, because I know when I've got it "right" and I know when I've got it "wrong."  (Though I don't always know how to fix it when I've got it wrong.  I always feel like I need to listen more carefully.)

Other writers have that same experience, though they might not describe it in the same way I have.  They refer to it as "automatic writing" or as "listening to the Muse" or (if they're psychologically minded) as "flow."

How much do you really know about them?

A lot, though I don't learn it all at once. 

Some writers' books and magazines encourage you to learn all the mundane details about your characters, but I don't really care what kinds of grades my characters got in high school or what their exact weight is or every last job they've ever held.  I focus on personality characteristics, fears, terrible secrets, and especially on little details that don't seem to fit the rest of what I know about them. 

For example, I have a character who's hotheaded, blunt, and prefers people to be a little afraid of him.  So when I learned that he was bilingual, a practicing Catholic, and adores his cat, I was intrigued.  Learning about why the face he presents to the world is so different from who he is underneath was important, not only so I could write him "accurately," but also because it drove the plot foward.

I tend to learn so much about my characters that I have to write a lot of it down somewhere so I don't forget, but also so I don't accidentally "contaminate" my characters with how I would do things.  Here's a piece of one of my novels' character sheets (sorry it's ugly, SnagIt tries to create a small file).  I used the RPRF descriptions to help myself make the list of personality qualities in the middle column.  (Read more about how to use it for your own stories here.)  I have also been known to give my characters personality tests.

To me, one of the most intriguing things about learning about characters is how much I learn about myself while I'm doing it.  After all, even if it feels like I'm channeling something from outside myself, I know that in reality the stories come from somewhere inside of me.

And each character reflects a different aspect of my personality.  Carl Jung would have said that only by learning about and accepting that each of those characters is part of the whole self can we learn who we really are.  In other words, your hero must confront his dark side, but to create a truly dark villain, you must delve into your own dark side.  So your villain reflects your own darkness.  Likewise, your hero(ine)'s love interest is likely to be based on your own idea of what's attractive.  So the love interest acts as your hero(ine)'s anima or animus, but is also a reflection of your own.

Narrative therapy theory argues that we create our own reality with the stories we tell about our lives.  When we tell stories, we flavor them with our own perspectives.  If I am in a car accident, when I tell it to my friends, I don't focus on how fast the cars were going, the angle of impact, or the amount of debris on the road.  I focus on how I felt and the role I played.  I might portray myself as a victim, or as unfairly accused of doing wrong, or even as a hero for helping the people in the other car afterwards.  The way I tell my story becomes my reality.

I believe that the stories we tell as writers both reflect our realities and help form them, too.  So as a writer, ask yourself what kinds of characters you like to create, and what (possibly hidden) aspects of yourself make those kinds of characters so compelling for you?

You might be surprised what you learn about yourself.  And your willingness to dig around in your own subconscious may reveal even more about your characters, as well!

Archetype Site Updates

Added some fresh articles and updated the Deviant Art Prompts!

You should also check out RallyStorm, a new website by the creator of the wonderful QueryTracker.  On RallyStorm, writers can set up private critique forums for their readers.  And QueryTracker, of course, lets you track queries sent to agents, as well as share information with other writers about agents.

ISO A Few Good Ideas

Our blog chain is picking up new members, which is really exciting. Rather than list them all here, I'm going to direct you to the blogroll column to your left, where new blogs are still appearing!

Though the genres topic was tough for a lot of people (including me), Elana's wonderful question has nearly doubled our blog chain!

The question: Where do you get your ideas?

Now, I took one look at that and started looking forward to everyone else's answers, because I feel like I don't have enough ideas. (Which is kind of ironic considering that Archetype Writing has a whole Muse section...or maybe you know now why it does.)

The truth is that I have plenty of things that catch my attention, it's just knowing what to do with them.

So...I collect ideas kind of like burrs. Some things just stick to me.

Sometimes it's a line from a song, like HL Dyer and Mary have experienced.

For example, I love that bleak line from Bush's Machinehead: If I had it all again, I'd change it all.

That just seized my imagination and wouldn't let go. I can't tell you what the rest of the song's lyrics are, but boy, that line...

Especially because I tend to think of disasters as learning experiences, I was intrigued by the idea of an outcome so bad a character would give anything to start over. By the idea that someone would be willing to take any outcome but the one he got.

I ended up with a character so desperate to do the right thing that he makes all the wrong choices. Eventually he finds himself responsible for the deaths of those closest to him, for the fall of his nation, and for lifting his worst enemy into power. And that's where things get interesting, because without anything left to lose he really becomes dangerous. (And he's the good guy!)

Sometimes the idea comes from another story. One of my novels was born of a trailer for a movie called The Seventh Sign. To this day, I have not seen the movie, nor do I really know what it's about, but the first time I saw the trailer, something about the concept stuck. I liked the idea of a group of people coming together to try to stop an apocalypse. In my characters' situation, they fail. Miserably. And then they have to destroy what they've unleashed.

(I just looked at the Wikipedia entry for the movie. Definitely not what I came up with. My story's high fantasy. :-)

Sometimes I start with a character. Often I'm intrigued by movie characters. I really liked Ioan Gruffudd's Lancelot in 2004's King Arthur. (For the auditory among us, his last name is pronounced Griffith.) What makes the character especially interesting to me is that Gruffudd hasn't played anyone else like him. (Like, could Mr. Fantastic be any more of a polar opposite?) At one point in the movie Guenevere asks Lancelot if he's thought about taking a wife and having children, and he responds that he's killed too many men to have the right to sons of his own. And that stuck. So I have a WIP with a character kind of like Gruffudd's Lancelot, but in a totally different context, with a different's more the archetype of the character I liked, and Gruffudd's unique spin made it stick.

Sometimes what sticks is a character's plight from a novel I've already finished. It can be hard to tie off all the loose ends, and I don't like Disney-happy endings, because that's not what real life is like. Twice I've had a character who drew the short straw in endings, and I've had to go back and write a new novel for him.

The first time the character lost his family, didn't get the girl, and didn't learn to use the magic he craved. So I wondered...what happened next for him, after he walked away from everyone else's happy ending with nothing for himself?

The second time it happened the character got to be part of everyone else's happy ending, but he had posttraumatic stress disorder, and that doesn't just go away. Since he had gone from second-in-charge to first-in-charge of an entire nation, I figured there were some interesting bumps in the road ahead of him. I was right.

Sometimes something in my own life just has a lot of emotional weight, and I need somewhere to put it, so the problem or experience finds its way into a character's life.

Whenever something sticks, I try to put it away in a notebook where it will stay safe. But some things don't stay in the notebook. A little corner of my brain keeps turning them over, trying out different possibilities, until finally I'm compelled to start writing.

A Horrible Book on Writing

Recently, I started reading Dennis Palumbo's Writing from the Inside Out: Transforming Your Psychological Blocks to Release the Writer Within. The back of the book says Palumbo is a licensed psychotherapist, but I sure wouldn't want him as my therapist.

First he misinterprets psychological data, and then he states -- across the board -- that years of research is wrong, just because he doesn't like what it says. As far as I was concerned at that point, the book wasn't worth the paper it was printed on.

My students sometimes do this. They write compare and contrast papers and conclude them with "I think this research is better/more accurate/more correct than that research" because they like (or understand) one source better than another. You can't do that, not if it's real research.
You can disagree with the researchers' interpretations, and you can disagree with their approach to doing the research, but you can't disagree with rigorous mathematical results. The equivalent would be saying you think the sky would be much prettier if it were sunflower yellow, so you disagree that it's blue. It's still blue, and you just look like an idiot. (Frankly, I think it's sad that students are still doing this at the college level, but I find it downright disgusting that someone who represents himself as a professional in my field would make the same mistake.)

So what is Palumbo disagreeing with?

He states that "it's in fashion again--the notion that the creative impulse, with its accompanying emotional difficulties, is merely the product of a psychological disorder. The current favorite diagnosis for artists, particularly writers, is bipolar disorder--a condition that used to be called manic depression. The most recent book to make this argument was the ifnluential Touched By Fire by Kay Jamison."

But Jamison herself says IN Touched by Fire that "the main purpose of this book is to make a literary, biographical, and scientific argument for a compelling association, not to say actual overlap, between the two temperaments -- the artistic and the manic depressive -- and their relationship to the rhythms and cycles, or temperament..." In other words, she is going to compare creative processes to the processes of bipolar illness - they may or may not actually overlap. In the definitive tome on manic depression, a book Jamison is also half responsible for (Manic Depressive Illness: Bipolar Disorders and Recurrent Depression, 2nd ed.), she states, "the perceived association [between bipolar disorder and creativity] is a persistent cultural belief and one that is backed by data from many studies. All of these studies are limited by their methods, but as we shall see, their findings...are certainly suggestive. It may be, of course, that there is no relationship. Or there may be a link, but not a causal one."
See why Palumbo made smoke come out of my ears? He told us Jamison said that creativity is just the product of a mental illness, when Jamison says absolutely nothing of the sort. In fact, she says the opposite -- the two may not be connected at all, but let's look at the data and see what it says.

So LET's look at the data and see what it says. (Palumbo never once suggested we look at the data -- in fact, he suggests that science is poisonous to art. Who gave this man his license?)

On the left, above "expected rate in general population," we see that very, very few people develop mood disorders, with bipolar disorder being the least common of all. Then we see a variety of different studies (many of which were not done by Jamison) showing how much higher the mood disorder rate is in creative people. In fact, if you were to average the percentages from the different studies, you'd come up with something like this:

Bipolar disorder shows up at a rate of about 1% in the general population, and at about 5-15% in the general population. But poets, fiction writers, and musical performers have an astronomically significant bipolar rate of 70-77%. And that's actual data, not someone's opinion, so you can't just "disagree" with it.

Clearly, then, there is a very striking relationship between bipolar disorder and creative writing. We don't actually know if one causes the other or if they're both caused by some third factor (like shared genes), but we do know there's a relationship in many people. The data says so, right there.

Palumbo, still running on the (incorrect) idea that Jamison said that all creativity is caused by bipolar disorder, argues that it is "ludicrous" to "claim that the creative impulse comes from any one source...because it undervalues the mysterious, indefinable aspects of the creative act." Then he quotes author John Fowles: " For what good science tries to eliminate, good art seeks to provoke--mystery, which is lethal to one, and vital to the other."

So this guy Palumbo does therapy. But he doesn't read his research carefully enough to understand what it says. Then he tells us it says something it doesn't. Then he says we should ignore what the data says, because science is anathema to art.

So where does that leave all the creative people who are struggling with bipolar disorder? Many, many creative people are afraid to be treated for their psychological problems because they're afraid to lose their creativity. Palumbo is feeding that myth, even as he suggests that maybe they're not sick at all. It infuriates me that Palumbo takes a phenomenon that's well-supported by research and tells us all we're foolish to believe in it, to just get over ourselves.

Clearly HE's never struggled with a mental illness!

A good therapist not only recognizes that some creative people do struggle with mental illness, she appreciates that treating the illness will often improve the person's ability to share his creativity with the world. She is also sensitive to how important creativity is to the individual, and if a medication or a therapeutic approach interferes with creative output, she's going to try to find an alternative.

San Diego Comicon 2008

I promised a post on the San Diego Comicon.

First impression: Wow. There were a LOT of people there.

Things were so crazy when we got to the con on Thursday morning (I missed preview night even though I had a 4-day pass) around 11 that I just wanted to leave. You literally couldn't walk, and I nearly got knocked over twice. You definitely don't want to go down under that crowd; you might not get back up. People always said sorry if they bumped into you, so everyone was nice, but it was just an unbelievable number of people. The last count I heard was 220,000.

The whole thing was 100 times crazier than when I last went a decade ago. Apparently the internet has changed things.

I went to see Robert J Sawyer, my favorite sf author, speak. He talked more about publishing than he did about his books. He said that thanks to the power of the internet, the movie studios have really started to court audiences at things like this, so they create these massive displays and bring in stars...and that has made the Con expand exponentially. I guess, for example, that Hugh Jackman shows up somewhere at the Con every year, but it's not announced. When they announce those things, so many people show up they can't get the celebrities back out.

I only did two panels. The one with Sawyer I just walked into with no problem. The other I had to wait for over an hour and a half to get into, and we were still behind 2,000 other people in the hall.
One of the girls in our group did a ton of panels. I don't know how she survived with her sanity intact.

One of the people in the Sawyer panel asked the author about his integration of philosophy of religion into his hard sf. In addition to his other degrees, he has a M.Div. The person asked flat-out where he stands on the issue, and he said he doesn't normally answer that question, so I was excited when he went ahead and answered it. He said he's a non-believer, but that he sees it as a difference in perspective from others, and he doesn't begrudge people who do believe.

He likened the situation to that of some relatives who are color blind. The color-blind relatives see the world differently, but they don't insist that the color-seeing relatives are wrong. And the color-seeing relatives don't try to force the color-blind ones to see something that they can't.

I thought it was a nice analogy.

Mr. Sawyer blogged about his own Con experiences, including the day he talked. I had taken a book along to ask him to sign, but I forgot it that day. I was doing my best to have my hands open at the Con; next time I do something like that I shall carry a messenger's bag or something. There's been some talk about going to WorldCon in February, and I believe he's going to be there, so I may get another chance.

If you've never read Sawyer's stuff and you like speculative fiction, you're missing something amazing. I don't normally enjoy hard sf, but I love his. And I do love the philosophical questions he raises, and the difficult situations he portrays.

I also visited the Art Show under the sails several times, as some friends were displaying their work. Since I mentioned Gatchaman a couple of posts ago, I'm going to pimp my friend Diinzumo's art (left). She's one of my favorite Gatch artists, and she'd done some amazing new pics for the art show. She says in her own blog that she sold most of the pieces she had up for sale, which pleased me.

Archetype Site Updates

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