Podcast Ponder 2: Writing Excuses


Writing Excuses: 9.13 Three Pronged Character Development

First let me introduce this podcast. It’s one of my favorite writing podcasts, put together by published authors Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Mary Robinette Kowal, and the creator of the hilarious comic Schlock Mercenary, Howard Taylor. Since I started listening to this podcast, the quality of my writing has skyrocketed.

This particular episode, along with its companion episodes (links at the bottom), introduced a brand new concept for me that I have since used multiple times. The Three Pronged Character Development concept is comprised of three sliding scales: 1. Sympathy Slider, 2. Competence Slider, and 3. Proactivity Slider.

Since listening to this episode, diagnosing character problems has become so much simpler and quicker. In this first episode, they introduce the concept and give a few examples of characters with varying Slider levels to start off. It helps to show why we like certain characters and not others. It’s a fun exercise to try yourself, too.

For example, they explain how Harry Potter’s Competence Slider and Proactivity Slider are both low while his Sympathy Slider is quite high and how JK Rowling accomplished that. They do the same for other well known characters as well.

When they get into moving sliders around to improve characters, it instantly helped me understand what I was doing wrong with my own characters and how I could fix it. Which brings me to another big point they make. This concept is not necessarily ideal for developing characters from the beginning, though it can help. It works best as a simple diagnosing tool and I can attest to its value and usefulness.

So if you’re having trouble figuring out your characters, or you want to make them more relatable, or you’re just curious about character developement, then I highly recommend giving this episode a listen. Then check out the companion episodes where they talk about each Slider in depth. I guarantee your characters will thank you.

Ep 9.25: Adjusting Character Sympathy
Ep 9.26: Adjusting Character Competence
Ep 9.32: Adjusting Character Proactivity

The 4 types of knitters


I learned to knit when I was about 10 and have dabbled with it off and on ever since. I’ve made wash clothes, scarves, hats, gloves. At one point I even learned to crochet (gasp!).

I also know quite a few knitters and I’ve learned that there are basically four different types.

Type 1: Pattern required, fiber snob

These knitters yarn shop in two interchangeable steps. 1. Find perfect yarn. 2. Find perfect pattern. Sometimes they find the pattern first, sometimes they find the yarn. But rest assured, they cannot leave the yarn shop without both (or at least not without plans for fulfilling the other step). There is hardly ever any free styling for these knitters. If it doesn’t have a pattern, they won’t be knitting it.

They are also yarn snobs, or as my mother says it, fiber snobs. There is nothing fake in these knitters’ projects. You’ll never catch them fingering anything acrylic, polyester, or synthetic. If it didn’t come straight from an animal or plant, they won’t even notice it. (Unless the tags are missing, but they don’t talk about those embarrassing moments.)

These are the most organized, structured knitters you’ll ever meet. Give them a pattern and they’ll find the exact yarn needed for it, then churn out a perfect sweater that looks just like the picture. (Don’t tell my mother, but fiber snobs also find the softest yarn.)

Type 2: Pattern required, fiber opportunist

These knitters need patterns as much as Type 1s. Give them a skein and tell them to knit whatever comes to mind and they’ll panic.

However, give them a pattern and they will knit with whatever is available. Oh sure, they love exploring yarn shops as much as any knitter (it’s a therapeutic experience, feeling all the delicious yarns), but they aren’t picky about what it’s made of. If they like it, they’ll take it.

These kind of knitters almost always go for the pattern books first. They love feeling the yarns, but are rarely inspired without a pattern to look at first. They’re also a lot of fun to explore yarn with since they touch first and read tags second.

Type 3: Free spirit, fiber snob

These knitters are commonly seen sitting in waiting rooms, bus stops, and coffee shops while their needles seem to have a mind of their own. They never need a pattern, and some actually find patterns too confining, but they will knit from one if they happen to like it. They also never knit with anything fake and a good chunk of their wardrobe they made themselves. (It’s not uncommon for these kind of knitters to be health foodies as well.)

They’re constantly creating and often find ways of putting discordant things together to make something surprisingly beautiful.

Type 4: free spirit, fiber opportunist

These knitters are generally hobby knitters. They find patterns confining and overwhelming and almost always prefer to knit without them. They’re less concerned with learning new stitches and techniques as simply knitting whatever they feel like.

These are the knitters you see most often in Michaels and Walmart (though they’ll wander a boutique yarn shop for fun too), and they aren’t nearly as familiar as fiber snobs with the horror of needing more of a particular yarn only to find that it’s been discontinued. Any kind of yarn will do for them and they don’t really care if what they’re making doesn’t come out just right. They simply enjoy the experience of making something with their hands.

For my part, I’m an occasionally snobby Type 4. It’s unavoidable when your mother is a brilliant Type 1. (Love you mom!)

Any other knitters out there? What type of knitter are you?

A hidden message in Monsters University

If you know me, then you know I’m slightly obssessed with Pixar. Their movies, their storytelling techniques, their support of young talent, pretty much everything about the studio. But don’t worry, this post isn’t going to be a big fangirl fest. (Though I could fill up several posts.)

Of the many things they are excellent at, overlapping story arcs is a big one. It’s most obvious in their ability to tell stories that appeal to both children and adults. It’s evident in every single one of their movies, including Monsters University, the sequel to Monsters Inc.

For those who haven’t seen it, it’s a story about two very different monsters, Sully and Mike Wazowski, and how they learn to work together to achieve their dreams. Although, if you haven’t seen it, you should probably go watch it before reading the rest of this post.

Don’t worry. I’ll wait.

Is it done yet?

Now?

Okay, let’s continue.

Beneath the many obvious themes is a not-so-obvious underlying message this movie makes. You see, even though all Mike has ever wanted in life is to be a scarer, he never actually becomes one. Not even in the original movie is he a scarer.

Most kids movies usually involve some form of the theme “you can be anything.” Ratatouille, The Lego Movie, How To Train Your Dragon, Planes. (Okay, so I’m obsessed with animated movies in general. What can I say? I’m a nerd.) And there is absolutely nothing wrong with those themes.

The sursrising message Monsters University shows kids is that it’s okay if we don’t achieve our dreams. It shows them how to continue on when hard work and dedication isn’t enough. It’s the personification of the quote, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land in the stars.”

Mike didn’t become a scarer. He didn’t even manage to graduate from Monsters University. But he did learn that not achieving his dream didn’t make him worthless. He learned to see worth in who he was, rather than who he wanted to be.

He didn’t become a scarer, but he did end up working for the company he admired so much. He learned that even though he didn’t reach the moon, he still wound up in the stars. And the stars are a pretty awesome place to wind up.

Podcast Ponder 1: I Should Be Writing

I Should Be Writing Ep. 378: Preparations

This episode of I Should Be Writing is actually a good one to start with if you’ve never heard the podcast. About halfway through, she explains what it’s all about and even a little about her other podcast, Ditch Diggers. One of my favorite aspects of this podcast is how each episode feels more like a conversation with Mur Lafferty than like she’s imparting invaluable wisdom from some lofty pedestal. When I feel alone in my struggles, I can come to this podcast and feel like I’ve got someone in my corner rooting for me.

In this episode she talks about her struggles with being prepared and how being a pantser (writing by the seat of your pants) makes that difficult. Even though I’m an outline junkie, I can still relate to the constant state of unpreparedness. No matter how much I outline, research, plan, etc. I never feel ready to start writing or keep up with this blog. For instance, this post was supposed to have been written this past weekend, but I never actually got around to it until yesterday. In fact, I’m typing this up while my two year old is climbing on me and shoving a bottle of kids vitamin gummies in my face. (For the record, he’s already had two and I know all too well what too many of these can do to your digestive system.)

I suppose part of that unpreparedness has something to do with all of the various responsibilities life and motherhood come with. It’s exhausting trying to be prepared all the time! And any time I’m fully prepared in one area, I’m therefore lacking in another.

Mur addresses this as well with her example of feeling ready to record a recent Ditch Diggers podcast episode, only to discover an important part she’d forgotten to prepare for. It’s like getting the dishes in the sink done only to find more in another room later on. Or finishing a school worksheet only to get marked down the next day for not doing the work on the back you hadn’t realized was there.

Then she brings up the usefulness of checklists. I have to admit to a bit of a chuckle at that point. Not because it’s not a fabulous idea or an excellent tool. I know they work wonders for many people, but even though I enjoy making lists (outline junkie, remember?), I have two main problems with them. 1. I always lose the lists or can’t remember which app I saved them in, which means I spend more time looking for the lists than using them. 2. The minute I make a to do list, something major inevitably crops up to put a huge dent in my plans for the day. Like the results of too many vitamin gummies.

Mur then spends the last half of the episode giving practical suggestions and tools to help prepare for writing. She never says you have to do any of them to be a successful writer, though. They are simply tools and methods to try out in order to figure out what works for you. I use some of them and am intrigued by others. Mostly though, I’m just grateful to know I’m not the only one who doesn’t have it all together. That any time I’m feeling like a failure and that I’ll never amount to anything, I can always turn on this podcast and be reminded that not only am I not alone, but that success isn’t dependent on always being prepared for everything.

Do you ever struggle with being prepared? Or are you one of those rare breeds who manage to remember everything? More importantly, have you ever had too many vitamin gummies? It’s quite unpleasant.

Introducing . . . Podcast Ponder

I’m a busy mom of two little boys, so I rarely have time to sit and read anymore. As a result, I’ve migrated from reading about writing craft to listening to podcasts, like Writing Excuses, Manuscript AcademyDitch Diggers, 600 Second Saga, and many others. Now I can learn about writing while doing dishes, folding laundry, and hunting for that special sippy cup that I swear looks like all the others.

While brainstorming ideas to write about here, I began writing down my thoughts on some of these episodes for fun. Then I thought, why not share them with all of you? And Podcast Ponder was born.

So now, every other Wednesday, between author interviews, I will share about a recent podcast episode on which I’ve been pondering.

Check out the links above for a sneak peek at what I’ll be pondering about. And let me know what you think about them.

Is Your Character An Acquaintance Or A Friend?

There are a lot of resources out there for helping develop characters, whether for a novel, short story, RPG (role playing game), or something else entirely. One of the most common resources is the character sheet. For those unfamiliar with this concept, the character sheet is a form filled with questions for you to answer about your character (e.g. age, eye color, height, hobbies, occupation, goals).

However, there are so many templates out there, it’s tough to know which one, if any, you should use. Some have a lot of specific questions, others are more vague, leaving a lot of room for creativity. Many writers don’t use character sheets at all.

As much as I would love to point you to one perfect character sheet, the fact is, there is no such thing. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another. I’ve used several different templates and sometimes they worked and sometimes they didn’t. Some worked for one character, but not for others.

I eventually came up with my own template that I find works well for me. I’ll go on to explain how I developed it and you’re welcome to try it out, but I won’t guarantee it will work for you just because it works for me. You may even find the whole concept of character sheets to be pointless for you. If that’s the case, you’re welcome to ignore the rest of this post.

Developing The Template

After all those disappointing trials with other character sheets, I decided to take a step back and figure out exactly what I wanted this tool to accomplish, what purpose I wanted it to serve. Obviously I needed to know physical specifics in order to paint a picture in the reader’s mind, but I needed to know in depth specifics even more. I needed to know what makes them tick. Not just the unique things they do, but why they do them. The longer I thought it through, the more I came to realize that I needed to really get to know the character. And not just as a character, but as a person.

With that conclusion in mind, I began thinking about how I get to know real people, how I go about turning a new acquaintance into a close friend. The most important observation I made is that I get to know people by asking them about their life. I listen to stories from their childhood, I ask them about their dreams and passions and how they came to want those things. I don’t just ask about their hobbies, I join them and learn how they do things differently than others. I discuss their opinions about life and the world around them and how their personal experience affects those opinions.

In short, getting to know someone in real life is a lot more complex than asking them random questions, so if I wanted my characters to feel real, I needed a method just as complex. Three dimensional, so to speak.

Creating The Template

I started with the first steps I take in meeting someone new and translated that into the first section of my original character sheet template. The beginning questions are basic and don’t require long, thought out answers because they are, for the most part, self-explanatory. They’re the sort of things you would learn about someone just by looking at them. (An exception is if you’re writing SFF in which the world itself affects your character’s physical attributes, in which case you’d need more complex answers. But that’s more about world building than character development, so I won’t get into that here.)

The next section of my template requires more thought out answers regarding the character’s desires and personality. I often don’t end up filling these out until after I’ve written the last section (sometimes after I’ve started writing the story), as these are things one generally learns about a real person through experience and observation.

And speaking of the last section, that is the most important and in depth part of the template. Aside from the first two questions about their goals, I mostly write short synopses of various childhood moments that serve to make the character who they are at the start of my story. This is typically called back story which is often not included in most character sheets I’ve found.

Whoever we are at any stage of life is who we’ve come to be partly because of our experiences, so to create a character without considering that aspect is simply shortsighted. Our characters don’t come into being fully formed at the start of our stories and they don’t develop their opinions and passions out of nowhere either. Many things happened to bring them to that point and writing those memories down, or at least considering them, is much like having a deep, heart-to-heart conversation with a friend that inevitably deepens the relationship.

Here is an example of my template:

Section 1

Age:

Physical description: (I start with hair and height and work my way down, like giving a new acquaintance a once over. If they’re clothing tells you more about their personality, mention that, too.)

Habits/Mannerisms: (Do they fiddle with pencils, chew their nails, twist their hair, etc.?)

Occupation (if applicable):

Section 2

Personality: (What makes them different from everyone else? If you asked a group of people to describe them with one word, what would those words be?)

Hobbies:

Fears:

Section 3

Short term goals: (What do they want right now, at the start of the story? It doesn’t have to be just one thing.)

Long term goals: (What do they want for their life in general? This doesn’t have to be just one thing, either.)

Backstory: (Here’s where their childhood stories and experiences are explored.)

(Do you like this concept, but prefer more specific questions? Here‘s a similar approach with more of an interview style. Developed by the one and only K. M. Weiland @kmweiland)

Final Thoughts

When I’m creating a new character, a relationship is what I’m really after. I don’t just want to write a unique character that I can describe in perfect detail. I want to get to know them, watch them grow up, know their frustration when they fail their first test, feel the pain of their first broken heart. When I know my characters as close friends, then their unique voices will be that much easier to hear. They will become much more real to the reader.

Since I’ve started creating my characters with this template, I’ve also noticed that I never fill it out from top to bottom. And I never fill it out completely before starting my story. Just as you might learn that a friend is colorblind long after meeting them, there are plenty of things you might learn about your character as you write the story. And as you learn about their childhood, some things in the first two sections might need to be changed to fit the new context.

Meeting new people is a complicated and often non-linear process that is never quite the same every time. So it is with developing characters. This template may work for you, or it may make the whole process more frustrating. It isn’t perfect and that’s okay. After all, the only real rule in writing is to figure out what works for you and keep at it.

Did this template work for you? Do you use something different? Do you have suggestions to make this one better? Let me know in the comments.