I saw some actors talking about their craft; employing “The Method”, and was taken how some of the simple ideas these actors used in crafting their parts could be used by me when creating characters for my stories.
The first thing I look for is someone compelling; a character I, myself, would like to read about and follow through three hundred pages of story. It’s so difficult to be original when the ground is so well trodden but generally I like to look for a “hook”; some interesting angle for the character, whether it’s physical or mental, for the reader to grab onto right from the beginning.
In movies, sometimes a character is not very well fleshed out. He appears in the story, says his lines to further the story and then might get killed by the hero of the movie. How some actors motivate themselves and provide themselves wth some depth for their character, is something I have focused a lot on while creating characters for my stories. Sometimes you might introduce a small character to provide a helpful nudge for the story but it’s important to still make that character as three dimensional as possible when writing them or it will come off as a plot device and draw readers out of the story. So, I like to write down a rough thumbnail sketch to provide the physical attributes and some character points. It’s also at this point that I like to give myself a little general history of the character to inform their choice of speech, attitude or whatever when dealing with other characters. Now, while I might never explain why one character was rude to another (in so many words) I know myself why.
And then that’s when I go back to the Method Actors. One actor said he kept things in his pocket, items that would never be brought out or featured in a scene but items which informed him about his character. This is something I actually use for my characters. I can tell you what’s in their pockets and why it’s there and I use those things as touchstones for the characters and their pasts.
Doyle Godwin, the main character in my story Monsters, is a detective and there have been so many detectives over the years it’s almost impossible to make yours stand out from the crowd. I am a fan of the old school stories about Hunchbacks, Phantoms and Frankenstein Monsters, people or creatures set aside from normality by their appearance and the prejudice against them. In most cases this forced exile twists the characters internally and sometimes far more than their outward appearance and they become the personification fo the hatred against them. With Doyle I wanted someone who had accepted his disfigurement, not happily but, he did what he had to do to get on with his life. I wanted the reason for his condition not to be rooted in some horrific fire or something done to him from some outside force but for it to be from inside him, his own body rebelling against him to such an extent he would be deformed and that’s when I saw a documentary on a woman suffering from a disease similar to the infamous Elephant Man, whose body from the waist up was normal, but from the waist down is horribly swollen, twisted and deformed. It amazed me that the disease could so specifically target a region of the body, her legs, and mutate it in such a way that it didn’t look like it belonged to the woman. I admired her determination to find an answer to her problem but the hurdles in her way were almost insurmountable and the most often mentioned “cure” for the problem was amputation.
I researched this condition some more and found a name for it, deciding to afflict Doyle with the same condition but a little differently so that he could still be mobile and in such a way that he would immediately frighten those who saw him. So, Doyle’s genetic make-up conspired against him and twisted one side of his body, turning a normal boy into a twisted monster. And those choices informed the character and made writing him all the more easy because now you have to show the reader the difficulties in his life and show what he does to compensate for his disabilities.
Doyle is a favourite creation of mine, not least because he’s in a story I’ve actually seen to completion. He’s more fleshed out than characters I’ve created in the past and more interesting because of it. And best of all, I know things about him that haven’t been revealed yet and perhaps haven’t even been hinted at yet because those are the things he keeps in his pockets and those are secrets to be revealed another day.
Doyle can be found in the book Monsters:
So, Cap will be joining the ranks of the Marvel Universe here in the next couple of days which I’m excited about (of course) but it again begs the question why none of the female characters seem to get the same treatment by the Movies.
Okay, Marvel is just getting going with their new film universe and maybe one day they’ll be able to snatch back all the characters they had to pawn off to keep the comics afloat but, they’d better do it quick or the damage will be done.
I’ve read comic book for 25 years and I can say, without shame, that some of my favorite characters of all time are female. And no, it’s not just because, for the most part, they are drawn by men for men to look at and so wear the most inappropriate and revealing costumes ever.
There’s a great tradition of tough, funny, sexy and powerful women in comics that doesn’t seem to translate to the small screen. They’ve tried, and tried…and tried but each and every time they derail themselves or just don’t even get anything off the ground.
Back in the seventies they had Wonder Woman on the telly…not for long but she was there. Take away all the campy stuff and the cheesy stuff and, although there wouldn’t be a lot left, you are still watching a show about a powerful female. She’s in charge of herself, and sometimes in charge of Steve Trevor, doing good for goodness sake and all the while looking like Lynda Carter. Despite the cheesiness, Lynda Carter became an icon as Wonder Woman and the measure to which any future Wonder Woman is held.
Fast forward into the movies and now we see similarly powerful females being brought to life by current or future Oscar winning actresses and somehow…nothing quite works.
The X-Men gave us Storm, the beautiful and regal weather goddess. In the comics she loses her powers and still kicks Cyclops’ ass for the right to lead the X-Men. In the movies her hair is all wrong so they fuss with it, and her accent, for three movies and despite constantly being told what a great person she is we never see it. X2 had her best moments but she was never in the same ballpark as the big players and that’s not right.
Halle went on to win an Oscar so surely its not her acting thats the problem? Catwoman was a horrible movie but again, when the plot of a female “superhero” movie is based around make-up then you’re off to a terrible start.
Jean Grey, arguably the center of one of comics’ most famous stories: The Dark Phoenix Saga. This story is still constantly referred to in the X-Men comic books and is as important to the X-Universe as “The Dark Knight Returns” is to the Batman canon. Inevitably, after some good lead up work they blew it in the third movie. Jean Grey became an angry, mute woman who killed both her boyfriend and mentor and stared menacingly…or just disinterestedly. The great sacrifice which the whole Phoenix story was built around was reduced to a fireworks display during a terrible battle scene and try as they might, the actors just couldn’t make me care one iota about anyone’s fate.
Elektra is a ninja assassin and a pivotal character in the history of Daredevil. In the movie she’s a pissed off daughter (with mad Alias fighting skillz) and, the minute she and the blind dude started kung fu fighting in the playground, the writer and director should have been fed slowly into a mincer. It worked out well for Jen and Ben in the end since they now have two lovely little girls but really…not good. However, they weren’t finished there because they thought, lets just shove this square peg into a round hole and make an Elektra movie which has little bearing on either Daredevil or on the comic book she is from…let’s create a mirror universe Alias girl…where she’s a killer assassin for hire…with a heart.
I love Jennifer Garner, she’s gorgeous, a good actress and could kick my butt while simultaneously eating a bowl of cornflakes however, these were not well written and she should’ve punched people violently for making such tripe.
It goes on and on and most recently we saw a lacklustre showing of strong women in the newest X-Men movie. Emma Frost, currently one of the best female characters in comics was put in the able boobs, sorry hands, of January Jones who proceeded to be terrible. She was cast primarily because she could play a blonde with big boobs and sadly that’s about all she brought to the table. However, again the writing was awful for her character. Powerful telepath who is captured, walks up to a mirror and cuts a circle out to address the men behind it…why she didn’t then fry their feeble brains I don’t know.
Mystique was good though. Her relationship with Beast was forced but her relationships with the two leads was great. Again, I’m not going to complain to vociferously but, Mystique may be proud of her “natural” form, I guess some people can enjoy how they look but she still doesn’t feel the need to wear clothes?I get that she doesn’t want to conform but no clothes at all? I guess if it’s good enough for Rebecca Romijn it’s good enough for Jennifer Lawrence. The added tracking shot up her body as she changed, I guess was just the icing on the blue cake.
Studios argue that audiences don’t want to see tough women leads. They point to turkeys like Catwoman and say: “See, told you so.”. Even more recently, Sucker Punch didn’t light up the box office and it’s got nothing but ass-kicking women in it…again though I would point to the writing. They look good - Sweetpea especially looks like she can use a gun - but they are dressed in pigtails and short skirts; in the lead character’s imagination they work at some kind of bordello and while she dances (to distract) she wanders off into another dream realm where she’s still dressed like a teenage boys fantasy…as she kicks ass.
Hollywood need to won up that they phone a lot of this stuff in. James Cameron has consistently written strong female characters who can hold their own with the toughest guys but still get to be feminine about it.
Hollywood needs to try harder.
As I’ve mentioned before I’m lucky to have a friend, let’s call him Andrew (that is his name after all), who often appears to be one step ahead of the game. Knowing that I was writing a book he passed on his wisdom about a website called Createspace since, he’d recently assisted his father in getting a couple of books self-published through that website.
A quick browse around and I saw that the steps to self-publication were relatively straight forward but time consuming so, I prepared myself for further re-editing…
Since getting a book deal is very difficult normally, online publishing or self-publishing is the way to go if you’re not willing to wait to be plucked from the slush pile by an agent or publisher. There are obvious arguments about the benefits and drawbacks about going the traditional route so, here are a few that I’ve learned along the way:
Using a Publisher
1) SALES AND MARKETING - You can’t make a living at being a writer without selling books and the biggest asset to selling books is still through a publisher with their army of contacts, both nationally and internationally. They also provide advertising which will get your book seen by as many people as possible in as many places as possible.
2) EDITORIAL assistance is huge. Publishers again have an army of industry professionals to provide you with in depth feedback to “fix” what’s wrong with your book because despite what you think…there’s something wrong with it.
3) Having an AGENT…which is usually the step before finding a publisher…is important because now you have someone on your side. Agents have lists of publishers who might be best suited for your story. Not all publishers publish the same stuff. So, if your grand science fiction opus is to be made into a best-seller your Agent will find a way to get it into the hands of a publisher who has a track record with that type of story and, importantly, is interested is promoting it.
4) Publisher’s will sometimes pay an ADVANCE against sales of the masterpiece you’ve written. Massive advances don’t normally fall into the lap of a newbie. What a new writer can expect, at best, is somewhere between five and fifteen grand.
5) Rarely something happens where your book (or the Pitch for your new, as yet unwritten, novel) draws the interest of more than one publisher. When that happens you can get a BIDDING WAR for your book and that’s when you could end up with a sweet book deal right out of the gate. Bidding wars rarely get to the heights reported in the news, unless of course you are a marketable name.
6) Establishing FANS of your work is important for longevity and this ties in with what the publisher can do for you by effectively marketing your book and getting it out to the people who like your work. Fans will come back again and again and there’s nothing like repeat business for a writer.
1) Finding an AGENT is tough. There’s whole herds of them out there but they are all up to their necks in manuscripts, and you have to imagine a good many of those unpolished gems are just unpolished crap. Even if you believe you’ve got the next Harry Potter on your hands you have to find an Agent who matches up with what you want and need. If you find that one special Agent now you have to sell yourself to them, or more appropriately sell your book but, be aware, you are marketing yourself to them. If you write non-fiction it helps if you are important in the field you have written about. Fiction writers can’t always claim to be experts on unicorns or intergalactic space monsters but an agent will look to see if you have any marketable skills beyond your writing talent. For instance, if you are a quantum physicist and you’re writing a science fiction story about wormholes…this is something an Agent will like. If you’re writing a thriller with an FBI agent on the case and you’re ex-law enforcement, this is also something an agent will love.
Submitting your manuscript to an agent is also a huge ordeal. They have certain standards you must conform to before they will even consider reading it. Many will not take blind submissions but want you to write a brief overview and maybe include the first few pages as a teaser of sorts. If they like what they see then they’ll ask you for the whole manuscript. All agents are different but most have procedures to follow and then there’s the waiting time, sometimes several weeks.
2) Getting DISCOVERED takes time. Even with an agent your book might go round the publishing houses and not generate any interest. Publishers mostly deal with agents and won’t deal with you until they’ve accepted your manuscript and made you an offer. Then they’ll throw the heft of their editorial might at you and still they might not think you’ve got a world beater on your hands. They will want to make their money on it but they will be more inclined to push harder on something they think will do well. As you can see with any quick look in a bookstore or online store, there are thousands of new books coming out all the time and millions of writers. Publishers want to make money so they will focus on the money makers first and then squeeze you in where they think you’ll fit. And of course they will drop you if your books don’t sell, regardless of how good they are.
3) SELF PROMOTION is a huge part of being a writer (who wants to sell books). Agents and publishers will be fond of the self-promoting book whore and less so about the shut-in mole-man who refuses to come out into the daylight. As someone who would have difficulty promoting a peanut butter sandwich I’d made, this is a difficult aspect whether you have a publisher or not. Book signings or readings at public places might be in your future and you have to be able to talk to groups of people and shamelessly plug your book as you go. Often, after I’ve told people I’ve written a book, I’m asked: “Is it any good?” It seems like a reasonable question but it’s hard to stand there and just blurt out, “Yes, it’s fantabulous. If you read something better this year I’ll eat my hat!” Instead there is an awkward silence, a pause as you weight hubris against humility and wonder, “If I say it’s good and they read it and hate it, then they’ll tell everyone I’m a big, fat liar and I’ll never sell another book ever….aaaaaahhhhh.”
Of course, that’s not exactly how it plays out but thoughts of mediocrity often wafted through my head. So, in the beginning I answered the question like this: “I think it’s good.” Trying to let them know that I wouldn’t foist any old mince on them, that this is a prime cut of beef…in my opinion. What it sounds like to others is, “Meh!” which won’t sell you many books. Publishers don’t like to try and sell books that are “Meh!” so you have to instill in yourself the belief that your writing is at least fine and that the book you’ve toiled away on is good. At the very least it is good.
4) The ADVANCE is not all its cracked up to be. The big names get the big advances. James Patterson inked a massive book deal and got paid handsomely for it, not because he’s a better writer than you, or Stephen King for that matter but because the publisher knows when they put out his book it will be number one in the best sellers list and they’ll shift millions of copies. He’s also insanely prolific so on top of his sales he will also put out six or more book a year. It’s a straight forward calculation…James Patterson gets the huge advance. Everyone else is treated in much the same way, if you have a track record they will offer you deals based on how much product you can shift for them. New writers shouldn’t expect anywhere near the million or hundreds of thousands offered to the big dogs. Five to fifteen grand would be common for an advance if any is offered at all. Since predicting a best seller is relatively hard (unless you are a marquee name) publishers don’t want to be too much out of pocket so, lower advances. If your agent has lined up interest in your book with a film or TV studio that can be used to get more money up front but again that’s probably the exception rather than the rule.
So I chose the path to self-publishing and I will explain some of the traps and treasures I found on the way next time.
So you’ve got your idea and you sit down and start typing up a story.
Then one day, after several months of tippy-tap on the computer keyboard you finally reach the end. Only, it’s not really the end.
Something I discovered very quickly about writing is that finishing your story is only the beginning of the next phase. Now, if you don’t want to write a book and the story is just for you, and will sit quietly gathering electronic dust particles on a hard drive somehwere, then you are finished. Move along, there’s nothing more to read here. If, like me, you wanted to not only finish something but see it bound in the form of a book and sitting on a shelf in your messy office space then you next begin to wonder if what you’ve just finished is any good. Did you just waste weeks or months of your life writing some unholy mish-mash of bad grammar and terrible prose or, is there something there that deserves to be bound and placed on a bookshelf?
That’s when the re-writing begins.
Luckily for me I have a particularly patient friend who is also foolish enough to offer help from time to time. Such was the case with my story Monsters. The re-writing was bloody to begin with, with whole swathes of clumsy dialogue and ham-fisted description erased permanently from the record. When the dust settled it was time to read the story again and see what I had left.
This process continues through several long night and early mornings until finally I had a version that I was happy with. Or I was sick of re-writing and wanted it all to be over. One or the other.
So now I have a word document and need to transform it into a book…
…time to begin again…
This is the first entry in what I hope will be a continuing enterprise. I will egregiously plug my writing, and the books that are borne from that, but will also regularly pontificate on a great deal of other nonsense from movies, comic books, television and whatever else I can lay my mind grapes on.
I hope you’ll follow along for fun and we’ll see what happens.