I recently came across an article on classic character archetypes and the shadows of them. It delighted me because I can imagine such characters easily. On the other hand, can’t we make more challenging figures and broaden our scope just a bit?
For example, a classic male archetype is the Protector. Every roll played by the Rock Johnson falls into this category or its shadow, the Thug. The story is as old as David and Goliath. However, I can’t think of very many female characters who stick to this type. If they happen to trend this way, they slip into the Amazon; think, Xena, Warrior Princess, and her shadow ends up being Vigilante.
The only true way to avoid becoming cliché is to put an unexpected twist on it and hope for the best. I hope to address all eight female and male archetypes eventually and how to alter them for the better, or at least put a sufficient spin that they make you reconsider the idea at all.
Someone once asked me, where do you come up with your ideas? For me, the insights I use usually arrive as inspiration. I first have a character, full of flaws and weaknesses. Then I consider how I can have my character grow and change to develop out of those flaws. When I first started the Wise Ones series, I had created a weak young girl who grew up as a humble goat herd. She did not believe she would ever be anything other than that. Her present meant she belonged to her father until her future husband. He would be another goatherd, wandering into town and take possession of her. She would simply belong to her new husband. She never dreamed anything else was possible. This girl would have to go through some dramatic changes to become her potential. That is where the Wise Ones came into being.
This inspiration for change sent her down the well, like Alice. She would need to go to find her new powers without knowing she even had them. In a way, that’s an analogy for how I write as well. I don’t know where I’m going, but I go because I feel I need to. I’m that little mousy girl, wondering why she’s going through the process.
Since beginning this writing journey, I have grown from this mousy, frightened little girl into a person who can speak about writing without blushing. Am I a confident, regal and poised queen like I want my character to become? Probably not, but I am pretty good at faking it now.
Sometimes the idea of writing an entire book feels like a D-Day invasion, complete with fake tanks in alternative landing sites. Each sentence is another soldier tossed up onto the bloody beaches and his bullets the individual words, randomly scattered at an unseen idea. Few will make it ashore. However, if you go into writing with that kind of attitude, Hitler would rule the world by now. No, you’ve got to think differently.
Unlike most authors, I don’t insist I need to write actual ideas every day. If I do, much of what I create ends up in the trash. I won’t waste the effort. Instead, I plan in my head. I think through what I want to accomplish with the next scene (shove), decide how I’m going to do it, (shove) and only once I’ve got that scene conceptualized, do I write it (shove). In the summer when I’ve got the time, that can be a two or three day effort. In the school year, it could take me a month to write an entire scene. I don’t get frustrated. I’m moving forward.
Using my method, that Sisyphus level load becomes much more manageable. In other words, don’t let the prevailing wisdom force you into doing something that doesn’t work for you. Your sentences don’t have to die horrible deaths on the battlefield. Be patient and it will come. I’ve yet to lose a war, even if every battle is a small one.
I just returned from a writer’s conference where I was teaching a class on expanding on characterization. My theory was that you needed to know everything about your character so that you could ease their change from one kind of person to another. I used Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader as an example of what not to do. That part made sense. The rest, not so much.
As a result of that and some other recent experiences, I’ve learned some painful lessons about myself as an author. Authors tend to be introverts who would rather watch people from a distance than have a decent conversation most of the time. Indeed, waiting for the class I was to teach just after lunch, I sat in the green room with one of my favorite authors, and never said a word to her. (Jennifer A. Nielsen). I then went into my class and made a fool of myself. I babbled and can’t remember half of what I was supposed to say. Why?
I was wearing a mask to protect myself. That wasn’t me. This mask shows the cool, confident teacher who knows all about her topic. I only realized why I did it a week later and can take off the mask again. Why do I do that? As far as I can judge, I mask up because I am a storyteller. Dissembling is the coin of the realm. My tales don’t have to be the full truth. They don’t have to make strict sense in the real world. They just have to entertain and if I’m lucky, teach a little.
I am often ashamed of how I wear the mask. Please forgive me. I swear its someone else. Split personality? Just don’t let me get into a group of three or more people or I’ll be that insane person again.
Most of us know a shark circles its intended victim and sometimes will bump into him or her to test the reaction. I’ve used this metaphor in my writing as a way to introduce my antagonists. Usually the villain is either an innocent seeming character, hidden from suspicion in a fine layer of geniality, or else, lost in a crowd of other mayhem. Either way, they get a chance to ‘bump’ the protagonist.
For the longest time, I felt reluctant to even venture into the mind evil enough to wear the label villain. I felt more capable of writing a host of personal or situational struggles for my protagonist and avoid a specific evil. However, my cowardice faded with Drake in Ley Lines. His unwholesome attraction to a hanging was the shark bump I needed. He never interacted with his intended prey. He wanted to test the waters and discovered a much more vulnerable and tasty victim awaited him. I loved writing his loathsome thoughts and greedy desires. Gailin had no idea, but I did. Shark bumps are priceless.
Fraud, flimflam, fake? Sometimes that’s how I feel. I have been invited to be an instructor at the annual Storymaker’s Conference May 12-14 in Provo Utah. Authors like Brandon Sanderson, Brandon Mull, Lois Lowry, and Jennifer A. Nielsen present there. It’s an intimidating prospect no matter how you look at it. Why did I even suggest I could teach something like writing to other writers with probably the same amount or more experience?
Then I remember something important; writers are introverts. They push themselves hard just to get out of their comfort zone to attend a conference and listen to speakers. They won’t tear me apart because their innately imaginative natures allow them to put on my shoes. They don’t want to stand in them any more than I do. They are pretenders too.
I have one trump card they might not have. I’m already a teacher. Every day I perform in front of a much harsher audience of 140+ middle-schoolers and try to teach them English. A pack of authors who know what it means to use the clay of words to make a pot of prose; that will be no problem. I keep telling myself that. I might never feel comfortable in front of 750 writers, but I know how to pretend I’m comfortable.
It’s a classic conversation starter at dinner parties and church socials: “So, what do you do?” Sometimes I cannot control it and the response falls out of my mouth automatically. “I’m an author.” Then I instantly regret it.
“What do you write?” they ask, completely unaware of the deadly weapon they have unwrapped.
“Oh,” I reply with a smile, “nouns, verbs, and maybe a smattering of adjectives. Rarely an adverb.” I get them chuckling and avoid the dreaded awkward elevator speech they expect me to provide. They want me to tell them about my book in one three-minute presentation. Can you imagine introducing one of your children, in just three minutes. It’s more difficult than writing the book itself.
Then there’s the audience. Is this person someone I want to buy my book? Are they a movie producer or publicist? Are they going to be impressed? Do I want them to know more, or do I want out of the elevator so quickly I’m hitting the nearest floor button and electing to take the stairs?
Every year at the state fair, I have a booth in the book tent to sell my novels and sign books for those that have come to get the next one. I can recognize my audience and get them to come closer with a single question.
“Anyone in your family love dragons?”
I’ve never met a reader who doesn’t love the idea of dragons. I’ve got them to come over, but now I need to pull out my elevator speech. It must be adjusted to what I can perceive from just their clothing, age and attitude in that moment.
For the grandma with teenage grandkids spending the summer from out of state: These are clean fantasy books that teach a good moral. For instance, in Talismans, the main character finds that her best friend is a thief, and she must confront her because it is the right thing to do. And if she cannot do that, she will lose the love of her life and destroy the Land she is sworn to defend.
There’s the moral she wants her grandchildren to learn.
Sometimes the audience is a middle-aged woman who wants a little romance. Instead of selling the romance, I tell her about the choice of Vamilion in Ley Lines. He took the magic when he was only a young man, trying to protect his family. He didn’t have time to read the fine print. He is now frozen in time, and his wife has kept aging. Fifty years later, he still loves her and wants to be faithful to her, but magic is now nudging Vamilion to find the next Wise One. And he will fall in love with her.
And that is the smidgen of hopeless romance the audience craves.
Do you see the power of an elevator speech? You need several to meet the needs of the audience, not the book. Be prepared to adapt it no matter who you speak with and hope it doesn’t go thump at the bottom of the elevator shaft.
Talk about first-world problems; I’m up at 3:30 in the morning writing about skin tone because I’m an author and that’s what we do sometimes. How do you reference skin tone of a character without using terms like chocolate or caramel, silk or satin?
I write mostly fantasy or science fiction and balk at writing real world words in this. Up till now I’ve simply ignored my character’s skin-tone because I couldn’t dredge up an appropriate word. I justified it as something that should be left to the imagination. After all, it’s said that most people in Africa assume Jesus is Black because they are, even if they know He was Jewish. Now, with our world so divided over some of these things, and publishers demanding we write more representative of wide peoples, it’s become a flaw in my writing. So how do I explain my character’s skin-tone without ripping my readers back into earth-bound explanations. There’s no coffee in my worlds to which to compare. And don’t tell me eggshell please.
I am at this stage. Summer is over. I am back at my day job. All I do toward writing now is edit, so I save something I haven’t edited in a long while to pursue. It’s like encountering a completely new author. “I didn’t write this, did I?”
The thing is, writing is like raising kids. Once they’re ‘out of the house’ they are impossible to influence and change. They are on their own. I dislike their flaws. It seems impossible not to want to change and improve them. I love them all the more because they are published, but they have become strangers; friends at best and irritating, haunting reminders of my failure if disappointments.
So I read them as strangers after a year of writing something else. I like them better this way. I’ve get to encounter the charm hiding inside. At least the discovery is welcome and I love, or at least tolerate them again.
Several people have approached me about the idea of writing a memoir, asking if I could ghost-write it for them. Thus far, I’ve smiled and equivocated. Here’s the reason why; I don’t write for others. I write for myself. So, I decided to write this blog and give some advice for these erstwhile authors.
First, do you have something that someone needs to hear? I love reading the biographies of great people, or unique people. Is there something in your story that will inspire me in my own life? If so, be my guest and write your story. However, if I would be as bored with your story as I would be on my own, maybe you should take the interesting bits you’ve thought of and put them in a journal and be satisfied with that.
Next, if you do have an interesting life and great insight to share, there’s got to be a theme or purpose. I’ve read Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and loved it, not because Bonhoeffer was famous, which he wasn’t or did great things, which he didn’t. I loved it because he fought Hitler in a passive way and never left his values behind. That’s what’s important. And when it comes to insight, I will read books about people that are doing things that are difficult and will require guidance: publishing, adopting children, learning to fly. I’ve read these books because they are what I intend to master. I read them because I want to try these things, not hear someone’s experience on this.
Now, if you have a theme or purpose, here is my advice: 3×5 cards. You will tote those cards around like many people cuddle our phone. Every time you get an idea, remember an incident, recall an anecdote, you will write one or two sentences down on that card. Then move that card to the back of your pack and look at the next blank card, craving the next memory.
I did this once because I adopted my children through state agencies. I adopted children ages eleven, seven and six. This was an unique experience and I feel I have a story to tell of how my family adapted to this decision. Also, the state wanted us to keep a track of incidents that happened so we could share these things with my kids’ therapists. And so, I carried around those 3×5 cards. I wrote packs of cards about what happened.
And then I stopped. I despised recording the alarming, horrifying, perplexing things my children did in the first few months after we adopted them. I let it go because I found myself recording all the negative things and missing the good things. You know, human nature allows the bad to fade and just hold on to the precious moments. It’s a healthy survival tactic. So I stopped writing what happened with my kids.
Then I started the 3×5 cards again after they grew up and left home. This time I took what I remembered and filled a whole pack of cherished memories that made raising those difficult kids worth all the scary and distressing times. Someday I will pull it all together to craft a memoir about adopting older children with horrific pasts. One day I will share that unique and important story. The time will come when I can look at those cards, organize my purpose and tell people why it should be done. However, that time is not now. For now, I am still gathering the good memories, and I still carry a few 3×5 cards just in case.