On Writing

Warning: rambling may take place. I’m not sure if there is even a point to this.

Usually, I don’t write about writing because it bores me. I had created a different post instead and then I pressed publish and it logged me out. The post took about and hour to do, though, so I’m no hurry to do it over again.

So. Uh. Here we are.

I was reading some reviews on Amazon about a few books I am either about to read, or have read. I look at those reviews mostly because I like to see what people thought of characters. It helps me develop my own characters better. I think making someone seem real is the most difficult part of writing, especially in fiction that takes place in a magical world because you have to imagine reactions to things you’d never have to face.

Recently, I’ve noticed an influx of female characters in YA novels that people say are either unrealistic or bad role models. So I was wondering what you (the readers) think.

Personally, I don’t really care that much if a female lead lacks a trait (courage, self-confidence, smarts) if the story is good. I mean, has anyone every complained about the fact that Ron Weasley was a total slacker? That Frodo was a whiner? No. And it’s not I look up to Bella or anything. She’s just a girl, just a person. As we all are.

Still, I feel like girls are always, always getting the short end of the stick. If they’re too confident, they seem bossy (0r another B-word). If they’re pretty, they’re always the school slut. If they’re normal looking, they’re wracked with insecurities. And if they have brains and beauty, they’re unrealistic.

Some of these things are not true, of course. The whole school hierarchy is totally self-imposed by students. Queen Bees do not exist anymore. People just like to hang out with people who are like them based on various traits (interest in fashion, love of music, academics, ect). Nothing puts me off a book more than when a girl meets the prettiest most popular girl at school and she’s either a jerk or an angel because it works like this: there is no one chick in charge. And more importantly, most kids just don’t care.

So what does make a girl “realistic?”

Well, first, I personally don’t think she has to be bursting with self-confidence. Most girls like who they are, but won’t admit it. When I write females in, they are basically all the same, but with little variations. Which I think is how people are in real life.

For example, my best friend and I are really, really similar. But we have slight differences that make us into two seperate and recognizable people. When it comes to chosing friends, she places an extremely high value on knowledge and education and being smart, and while I value those things a lot, I find that ability to care and be compassionate more endearing. Because of that small difference, we act in our own unique ways, even though we laugh at the same jokes, like the same clothes, and watch the same movies.

So as I write female characters, they tend to have a base of qualities I don’t think any girl should be without. I like my creations to be:

1. Clever. Being brainy can be a defining trait, but at square one, usually they are just clever.

2. Pretty. Which probably sounds weird, but I honestly don’t think people are ugly. It’s all based on preference. I mean, I look at parents and I think, I would not be married to him, but his wife obviously loves him and thinks he’s handsome, so who am I to judge?

Remember up above when I said the girls with both beauty and brains often come across as unrealistic? Well, I suppose if you just stopped it there, they would be.

A lot of authors don’t though. But they go in an opposite direction, piling on other generic adjectives (friendly, cruel, kind, sleepy) to make their characters seem alive. Honestly, I don’t think it works. 

The same goes for boys.

But first, a tangent. In books, I think a lot of readers believe that a boy can get away with being homely, but a girl can’t. I don’t think that’s true. Remeber how beauty is all perception? Well, if the boy falls in love with a girl, no matter what she is described as, he’s going to find that beautiful, and his feelings for her will make her feel more beautiful in return. So it’s not really that all girl characters are gorgeous but that people perceive them to be. And that works both ways.

(Edward Cullen might actually be a hideous beast and Bella and the girls in Forks might have a fettish for large noses and cross-eyed boys. See what I’m saying? Perception.)

Okay, so getting back on track, if piling on adjectives doesn’t work with girls, it shouldn’t work with boys. From what I’ve reading recently, guys tend to be arrogant and handsome, or cute and quiet. What is it with these old-school stereotypes? I mean, sure these ones are more realistic than the Queen Bee thing, but from what I’ve seen in life there are more to boys than good looks. 

Yet, adding qualities to these main guy characters always seems to whittle down into giving them a mysterious past and “secrets of their own.” Actually, this happens with both boy and girl characters. Which I think is stupid. Why?

Well, no matter the gender, I think the only way to defy character stereotypes is to make them real. How do you do that? Not by giving them ajdectives (funny, smart, ugly, mean). But by giving them habbits and finger twitches and weak ankles and uneven teeth and dialects and a tendancy to hit walls when they’re angry.  

What am I saying? It’s actions that make characters different. What a person does says more than a hundred page description on their personality and physical appearance: it’s one thing to have an author say they’re funny, it’s something else entirely to have me in sitches whenever they talk.

There is, I believe, no perfect character. No ideal model. Though I have a base recipie I start with, I add scowls and twitchy-laughter, and tone things up and dial things down depending on who I want the person to be. And most importantly, I try to show personality by the choices they make.

And yes, some of my characters (even main ones) are cowards. Some are scared of death. Some are quite mean. Some are violent. And these characters aren’t always the bad guys. I think good people have bad qualities in them, but what makes them good is they try to overcome them. What makes them real is when they don’t.

The differences from one character to another may seem small, but I think they add up. Especially since how different are you, really, from the person next door? In the end we’re all human. And it’s the little things that count. Whether you prefer werewolves or vampires. Cheese over cream. Life over death. And everything in between.  

–RI

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8 Comments

  1. Algernon

     /  January 12, 2011

    What I believe defines character realism is subtlety on two scales. First, as you have said, is the actions of the characters. Adjectives thrown out by the author — whether in a narrative given in-book, or a description of the character placed on a blurb — have a rather negative effect. By that I mean those kinds of descriptions constrain the character. It 2-D-ifies them. It gives them an outline, and a base, and not only just stops there but prevents the character from developing further. The flesh of a character, I believe, is built upon the story itself.

    Take Hermione from Harry Potter. In the first book, the only direct description given of her is that she has bushy brown hair, large front teeth, and a tendency to use a bossy tone, and this depicts what someone would see if they had just met her: a “once-over,” surface-judgment type thing, I guess. Her personality, backstory, traits and tendencies and the such were not presented to us in a single 3rd-person narrative, or even a few chapters; nor were any of the characters painted this way. Instead, over the course of seven books, through everything the characters experience and all of the subtleties in the presentation of each character, we are left with a cast of life-sized souls, built with their triumphs and follies and every small thought, action, and hesitation in between.

    The second scale is subtlety in words. When I write, I feel as if I must craft the words together. I feel as if I am smithing something delicate: every hammerstroke is a word, and it is the collection of them, in their careful placement and deliverance, that create a flawless, potent blade. Metaphorically. I believe that this has to do with the psychological concept of framing. Every subtle difference in phrasing may deliver a subtle emotional undertone, and collectively make or break a character in the reader’s mind. I guess I could say that a collection of subtle creates a mural of profound. Or something like that. You see? Bad phrasing. Careless or skimpy writing on the author’s part never manages to flesh out anything.

    Did all that sound okay? Ideas flounder and wilt when I try and put them down :(

    And it seems to me like the threshold of my “character radar” — the point at which I consciously start to appreciate a good character (only for characters whose points of views are not shown) — is the point where I start to wonder what a book written entirely in their point of view would be like. I have considered a Hermione Granger and the Deathly Hallows before. Heh. It isn’t as tacky as it sounds….

    Well maybe it is.

    Hmm. I hath rambled. Would you grace me with a response?

    Reply
    • Ri

       /  January 12, 2011

      hell yeah i will grace you with a response! it’s bloody brilliant, what you said. i completely agree that the first description of a character is just like you said– a once over. (and sometimes a snap judgment.) often times when i get to know characters well, i can’t stop reading about them. and what sucks is sometimes a story has a good character, but they’re held back by stiff 3rd person narration which can really suck the life out of people. i honestly think 3rd person is the most delicate kind of writing there is because it’s so much harder to get the character across. first is easy because side comments and thoughts flow more naturally, you know? so when 3rd fails, i end up wanting to hear it from their point of view.
      (and if i could have harry potter from another’s pov, i would choose ron; i think he has the hardest life, and it takes him 7 years to get the girl!)

      i definitely know what you’re talking about when writing. it’s sorta like sifting through sand, searching for the right words. i am continually changing my descriptions and passive scenes around because i never feel like i’ve got them quite right. those parts are where you can lose a reader and it’s so hard to make it sound good but also sound like you and not some 18th century snob.

      the second hardest thing for me is keeping my characters in…character. sometimes, i put too much of myself in them and they end up doing what i would do, not what they would do and it numbs the story. writing mistakes and personality is so key, so delicate….

      so i really hope you’ll get this reply. i never know how or if my comments get back to readers. thanks so much for commenting! they really do make my day :)

      have a good one
      –ri

      Reply
      • Algernon

         /  January 12, 2011

        I’ll be sure to comment more in the future. I enjoy reading this blog. You have a great voice.

  2. Alice the Anomalous

     /  January 15, 2011

    Hiya! Long time no talk (I have no idea if these comments actually get into your email, but anywhoo).
    It’s a shame that your first post got erased. I’ve had that happen so many times, I’m surprised I haven’t flipped my table over yet.
    I’m not going to be boring and agree countless times with every part of this, so here I go. After I finished the Hunger Games not so long ago, I did the same thing as you and went on amazon and other sites with reviews to see what others thought of the book, mainly the characters and such.
    This somehow connects to what you said about girls getting the short end. I read one review saying that Katniss was too “boring” because there was a lack of emotion from her. I haven’t really seen much of this stereotype (the emotionless=boring one). Well who said she HAD to be a waterfall of emotion?
    And with Bella! With her, people say that she’s a bad role model and blah blah blah. While I may not like her, who was the person who said that she was SUPPOSED to be one? I think it party comes from expectations that are set too high. I mean, these girls can’t be perfect (there I go again, repeating what you said). The readers aren’t perfect either. Just sticking it there.
    I’m such a hypocrite, my expectations are quite high too.
    For me, I need time to get to know and love my characters. I get frustrated when authors rely on archetypes or stereotypes to form a character because it’s just kind of lazy. Sometimes it works if they’re given little quirks here and there and become their own person. Other times, we get what we get and get on with the story. There’s always a lot of potential and then it’s just swept away and ignored by plot (not to say that plot development isn’t good). While the plot is going, it might move away from the center character and tell what’s going on somewhere else with another chracter. And that’s fine, but when the main character has my interest, I expect to see more of them. When the plot “gets in the way” there isn’t room for the special little things that add up.
    The opposite can be true too. The character developement is on steroids and it gets in the way of the plot and ultimately no story is told or is told in a mediocre way. BUT with great character(s) :D I guess what I’m trying to say is that with a nice blend of both, it gets better.
    I forgot to add in the factor that the two are woven together.
    Did I just clog up the comment section with useless…commentary? Why yes I did. Useless rant over.

    Reply
    • Ri

       /  January 15, 2011

      Oh Alice,
      you never fail to brighten my day with your opinions :) I agree, you have to strike a perfect balance. And OMG yes! With Katniss, so many people say that she was totally emotionless and it’s like, well she lost her father at 12, has to feed her family and watch kids die every year in the Games, only to have her sister, the one person she cherishes more than anything, get picked to go in. Those kinds of events require a strong character, not some moony cry-baby. What were people expecting her to do? Gush? I don’t understand why readers have to hate on non-outgoing characters. Like, I read a book once where people complained that the main character was timid. Shy people exist! They should be featured in books too! I liked Katniss a lot. I thought she was brave.

      Reply
      • Alice the Anomalous

         /  January 15, 2011

        Exactly! Why can’t people understand that just because the character’s aren’t exactly carbon copies of themselves doesn’t mean they’re bad!
        I wouldn’t go so far to say Katniss is emotionless. She’s under stress and who has time to react with over-emotional declarations of misery when they’ve got a job to do!? I mean, you can always be weepy AFTER you get it all over with. Oh, the logic. And plus she had an emotional thing with her mother before she went to get all dolled up for the games. Did people just skip that?! And the thing with Rue too. I have counter-examples for those people. *riots*

        I haven’t read the other two books yet, should I keep going? I’m not sure what to expect.

      • Ri

         /  January 15, 2011

        definitely read them. they’re pretty good. the last book was a little long in the middle, but the emotional drama is intense. but when you read the end, if it’s not totally what you expected, you should read these fanfics that these people wrote (i have them saved in my favorites) because they’re really well-written and because they provide an expansion on the ending. i’ll link you. if it becomes necessary. but, definitely read the rest. i love peeta btw….i hope you do too.

  3. Well said, Ri! You are one hundred percent correct. All that “show, don’t tell” stuff is really true.

    “I think good people have bad qualities in them, but what makes them good is they try to overcome them.” So true!

    Reply

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