• What Ghostbusters Can Teach Us About Writing Female Characters

    I am a massive Ghostbusters fan, and I have been for quite some time now. When news of the Paul-Feig-directed reboot came up in the world, I had fixed feelings about it. However, when I heard that the reboot would include a star-studded cast of powerful ladies, I got a little more excited. I was optimistic, if not cautiously so.

    What Ghostbusters Can Teach Us About Writing Female Characters

    You see, for the longest time—and I’m sure you’ve noticed this—women haven’t exactly had the most coveted roles in film and television. Maybe you’ve heard of the Sexy Lamp Test. Basically, what this “test” does is ascertain the strength and depth of the female characters in any given medium. If the character can be replaced by a sexy lamp with no real issues or effects on the plot, then the female character is considerably lacking in depth. Any women who do have some kind of depth are usually relegated to familiar, comfortable roles, such as the shopaholic, the ditz, the slut, the nerd, and the sexy sidekick.

    Ghostbusters changes all of that. In the female-led, character-driven reboot, Feig puts Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones in positions of respect. Wiig, McCarthy, and McKinnon all play intelligent, capable scientists, while Jones’s character puts in hours as a long-suffering  MTA employee who works hard to do her job no matter what—even if that means confronting some ghosts. These characters are not only women I could see walking down the street day after day but also most definitely worth looking up to. I kept thinking, I want to be her when I grow up, even though I’m already (technically) grown-up.

    Another thing I love about the film is its depiction of female friendship. Throughout the movie, the Ghostbusters develop a close, familial bond built on trust and mutual admiration. There are no love triangles, no catfights, no betrayals or name-calling. Instead, the woman cheer each other on, utilize each other’s strengths to work together as a team, and help each other out in every battle that takes place. I can’t remember the last time I saw female characters in a movie getting along like this. It is such a refreshing change of pace.

    Dear @paulfeig, I love you. That movie was everything I wanted and needed as a woman, and more. Thank you. ❤️ #Ghostbusters

    — Briana Mae Morgan (@brianawrites) July 19, 2016

    What I love most about Ghostbusters is its potential to change popular culture. If the film does as well as I hope it does commercially, it serves as a statement to Hollywood that people want female-led films. We want to be entertained, certainly, but we also want to see strong, capable female characters banding together to save the world. We want to see friendships, teamwork, and heroism. More than anything, we want to see women who are real.

    When developing female characters, I hope to keep in mind the way I felt emerging from the theater after watching the new film, and that is triumphant. Ghostbusters succeeds not only at an entertainment level, but also from a cultural-critique perspective as well. It serves as the spark that could ignite the powder keg of traditional, male-driven filmmaking, and more than anything, I want to be around to witness that explosion.

  • How I Create Characters Now

    Reflections

    I’ve been wanting to share now I create characters now for a while. I’ve written several different posts about characterization before, but my methods have changed even since writing Blood and Water (remember Sean’s journal?). When I first started writing—or rather, when I got serious about it—I thought you couldn’t create a well-rounded, three-dimensional character without compiling a detailed character inventory. I sorted through and collected dozens of questionnaires like this one, this one, and this one. They covered almost every aspect of humanity imaginable, from birthday and height to fears and aspirations. Some even included space for you to draw or paste a picture of what your character looked like.

    I never used these questionnaires. They intimidated me. Whenever I tried to fill them out, I got stuck. My brain shut down. Why did I need to know how long my characters’ showers were, what they liked to eat for breakfast, or what their favorite smell was—especially if it wasn’t relevant to the book I was writing?

    Answer: I didn’t. I’m not saying that these answers aren’t relevant to some people, or that these questionnaires never work, but they sure don’t work for me. No, not at all. I get so bogged down in coming up with the “right” answers that I don’t let the characters breathe. They become inorganic. They lack reality. I hate that.

    Every character I’ve produced with the help of a questionnaire has turned out flatter than the state of Florida. While writing Blood and Water, I threw the questionnaires in the trash, asked the characters direct questions that related to the novel, and listened to the answers in their own words. Sure, it sounds hokey, but I don’t care. It works.

    Before I started writing Reflections, the characters were knocking around inside my head for several months. For me, the characters always come first. Rama demanded that I tell her story. She revealed just enough of herself for me to get started. She continues to reveal herself as I write more and more.

    That’s one of my favorite things about the writing process—listening. Receiving information, taking it all in, and then analyzing it to figure out what I can and cannot use. For me, writing is primarily a journey of discovery. I follow the seeds of the story and the players where they lead. I let them do the talking. I worry about fixing inconsistencies later.

    So far, that seems to be working just fine.

    How do you create your characters?

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    How do you create your characters? Check out @brianawrites’ new process. (Click to tweet)

  • Character Journals: Sean Wu

     
    London architecture

    In my last blog post, I mentioned that I’d learned a lot about Sean by writing a journal entry. Since a few of you requested to read the entry, I’m happy to oblige. Some of the original entry contains spoilers, so I’ve only included part of it below. Still, you should be able to get a grasp of his character. Small content advisory, on account of language. Enjoy!

    Fucking bastard could’ve told me long ago that he was dying. We could’ve gotten him some fucking help—I don’t know where, but we could’ve done. Bloody selfish git.

    I can’t fucking believe it—first my parents, then my sister, now Jay and maybe Maia. Everything I love is falling apart. The only good thing I’ve got going is Melanie—the girl that I fancy beyond conscious thought. She keeps my world spinning. She and Jay have always kept me grounded.

    If I lose him and Maia, I’ll lose some of the only people who remember me.

    And I know Melanie will take it harder—though I hate to admit it, she’s closer to him. At one point, I know they fancied each other. Part of me wonders if I should let him have her. I love her, but I would do whatever it took to make him happy. If he knows how much he means to me, maybe he’ll be keener to look for a cure.

    I’m a total arsehole, but I can’t fucking help it.

    My best friend is dying, and I’m so scared of being all alone.

    As you can see, it doesn’t take much writing to make progress. Before this exercise, I saw Sean as selfish. I didn’t see why he lashes out at everyone around him. Now, I understand. He’s using anger to mask his fear, to keep his friends from seeing how terrified he is.

    I understand Sean now. I can see why he acts the way he does. In turn, that helps me portray him more accurately; more authentically.

    As writers, authenticity is something we should strive for.

    What do you think of this exercise? How do you get to know your characters?

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    Learn how one journal entry changed @brianawrites’ perception of one of her characters. (Click to tweet)

  • How to Get to Know Your Characters

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    I’ve gotten so far into my first draft of BLOOD AND WATER that I know my characters better than I know myself. I can tell you who like what and why and how, who belongs with whom, how he got that scar, how she learned to drive… you name it, I’ve probably got an explanation for it.

    Today, though, I realized I didn’t know my characters as well as I thought. My story came grinding to a halt in the middle of a scene. I was paralyzed. I couldn’t write. What was wrong with me?

    Luckily, I remembered a post my friend and critique partner Rae had written about interviewing your characters. My other friend, Stephen, recommends writing journals to figure out your character’s thoughts and feelings. I had nothing to lose. I decided to try both.

    For me, the journal exercise seemed to be the most effective. The interviews were nice, but I wondered how much of it I was leading, rather than letting happen organically (that sound absolutely crazy unless you are a writer). Without spoiling anything, I’d like to share some things I learned about my characters as a result of this effort.

    Before starting, the character I knew the least about was Sean. He’s hotheaded, explosive, and prone to melancholy. I’ve never written anyone was moody as him. At the same time, Sean can be downright charming around his friends. I didn’t know how to reconcile both sides of his personality.

    That’s where the character journal came in. I put on my novel playlist, closed my eyes and thought for a minute, and then opened them and got to work. My fingers flew over the keyboard, keeping time with the music. I forced myself not to hesitate. I didn’t let myself edit. After all, these were not my thoughts and feelings – they belonged to Sean, and who was I to censor them?

    Most of Sean’s entry contained explicit language. That’s because it’s a diatribe against the unpleasant reality of the narrative (vague to keep from spoiling). While writing, I learned that he isn’t selfish at all, as I had assumed. He isn’t angry for the sake of being angry, either. So many people he loves have died already, and he can’t bear the thought of losing anyone else. He doesn’t want to be alone, and whenever he thinks he might be, he lashes out in frustration.

    Moreover, he doesn’t want anyone to worry about him, so he masks his fear with anger.He’s loyal and would do anything to make his friends happy; he’s an absolute people-pleaser, which makes his behavior even more problematic. He doesn’t see that his actions are driving away the people he loves most in the world, the only ones who can save him from being alone. He feels them pulling away, and he doesn’t know why. He’s absolutely terrified. Who wouldn’t be?

    Once I finished writing, I was ready to dive back into the novel and finish the scene. Armed with understanding and a renewed appreciation for my characters, I finished my session in record time and had to fight the urge to keep going. I wanted to end things on a high note, feeling confident in my abilities again.

    The next time you can’t wrap your head around a character, try talking to them. Ask them how they feel, what they think, and why they do what they do. If you don’t want to come up with questions, feel free to let them vent. Little by little, they’ll reveal themselves to you.

    How do you get to know your characters? What do you think of this technique?

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    .@brianawrites struggled to get a grasp on her characters. Then, she discovered this helpful technique. (Click to tweet)

  • Where to Find Character Names

    Photo Credit: Benjamin Staudinger on Flickr

    One of the most difficult aspects of writing is coming up with character names. This process doesn’t seem like it would be tough, but it is.

    Where can you find original names? How do you keep them from sounding fake? And if you’re using the names of real people, how can you do that without offending anyone?

    I’ve tackled those questions in my own writing life, and I want to help you simplify the character-naming process.

    With that in mind, here are some sources I like for finding character names:

    • Baby name books and websites. When I first started writing, I used this method for most of my character names. You can find baby name books in thrift stores like Goodwill for less than a dollar in most cases, or you can visit any of these three websites.
    • People I know. Be careful when using this technique. You don’t want to take the exact name of someone you know. I like to mix and match, taking one first name with a different last name.
    • Famous figures in history/literature. Again, you should be careful not to use exact names here. One of my favorite name combinations is Dorian Jay; Dorian from THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and Jay from THE GREAT GATSBY.
    • Movie/television credits. I watch a lot of movies, so this is my current favorite method for finding character names. Take one first name and mix with one last name. Since the names belong to real people, you don’t have to worry too much about them sounding made-up.
    • A character name generator. These two are my favorites. The first one even allows you to generate different types of names, such as fairy, hippie, and fantasy names.

    Character names are one of the smallest details of your writing, but also one of the most important. Armed with these tips, I hope you’ll have a much easier time picking names for all your fictional pawns.

    What do you think? How do you come up with character names?

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    Blogger @brianawrites shares her tips for coming up with character names. (Click to tweet)

  • Maleficent and Writing Villains

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    The other day my mother and I went to see Maleficent. In spite of not knowing much about the film going in, she and I both thoroughly enjoyed it. From the cinematography to the makeup to the characters themselves, everything was wonderful.

    What captured my attention most of all was Maleficent.

    Why?

    Because she was portrayed as a sympathetic character rather than a one-dimensional villain.

    I’ll refrain from spoiling as much as I can. All you need to know is that in this version of the classic tale, we get much more of Maleficent’s backstory. We see her as a young faerie and learn about the events that have hardened her heart. It is easier for us to understand her (otherwise questionable) actions because we know her past experiences and have a better sense of her wants and motivations.

    Most importantly, Maleficent is dynamic. At the end of the film, she is a different woman than she is toward the beginning. Once again, I don’t want to spoil, so that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    Maleficent was delightful, refreshing, and entertaining. While watching the film, I also learned a great deal about writing likable and three-dimensional villains. Whenever you want to add depth to your baddies, make sure they have a backstory, clear motive for what they do, and some kind of arc.

    If the villain hasn’t been changed by the events of the story, then what is the point for the story at all?

    Have you seen the movie? What did you think? What do you think is the key to creating quality villains?

    P.S. The 4 “A”s of Characterization, How to Develop Stronger Characters, and How to Get into Your Characters’ Heads.

  • 11 Steps to Crafting Characters

    Woman Writing on Laptop

    I hate character profiles.

    Don’t get me wrong; I understand their value, I just don’t feel like I have the time to fill out every single detail laid out on the page. Is everything relevant to what I’m working on? I don’t think so.

    If you’re anything like me, you wish there were some way to create realistic characters without going overboard. If you’d rather not wax poetic about your protagonist’s shoe size or most embarrassing nightmares, all is not lost.

    Want to make your characters stand out from the page? All you have to do is follow these eleven simple steps.

    1. What role will this character play? Protagonist, antagonist, love interest, what?
    2. What is their name? Nickname?
    3. Where are they from?
    4. Gender?
    5. Age?
    6. What’s their background? Family history, wealth, significant life events?
    7. Race/ethnicity?
    8. Sexuality?
    9. Personality? Good and bad qualities?
    10. Likes and dislikes?
    11. Goals/hopes and fears?

    You don’t need a complicated spreadsheet to make a three-dimensional character. Ask yourself these questions, answer them, and you should be good to go.

    What tips and advice do you have for creating believable characters? What do you think of these tips?

    P.S. 4 “A”s of Characterization, How to Develop Stronger Characters, and Where to Find Character Names.

  • From the Archives: The 4 “A”s of Characterization

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    Every writer understands the importance of creating believable characters. Story revolves around people–therefore, characters are arguably more important than plot. Whether you’re writing a novel, short story, memoir, or personal essay, it’s vital that you make your actors as three-dimensional as possible. Consider the following four “A”s of characterization:

    1. Actions. What risks has the character taken in the past? How has he or she treated family and friends? What about enemies? What hobbies does he or she enjoy? What has your character done? What is he or she doing in the story?

    2. Attitudes. How does the character feel about gay marriage, abortion, religion, and other  hot-button issues? What are your characters’ views on the world?

    3. Artifacts. What are your characters’ prized possessions? What shelter do they have? What cars do they drive? What’s the first thing they’d save in the event of a fire?

    4. Accounts. What are some noteworthy anecdotes about these characters? What do other people have to say about them? What rumors have been circulated?

    This is a rough list of just a few questions you can use to generate information for your four A’s. If you want better characters, give this system a try. And good luck.

    What do you think of this system? How do you like to flesh out your characters?

    Click to tweet: Want fully-formed characters? @thecollegenov has some tips. http://wp.me/p2FPLe-EH

  • Where to Find Character Names

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    A few years ago I walked into Goodwill with the intention of purchasing a gently-used sweater. I walked out with a baby name book that made my mother raise an eyebrow.

    “Is there anything we need to talk about?” she asked.

    I laughed and explained to her that I was going to use it to find names for my characters. She wasn’t the only one I needed to explain my purchase to. Any time I whipped out the book, my friends, coworkers, and loved ones all wanted to know what use I had for it. If you’re a writer, you need several resources for character names. While a baby name book is one example, there are several other options.

    A close second to the baby name book is the baby name website. The internet is full of these; they’re cropping up all over the place! Some of my favorites include Behind the Name, Baby Name Voyager, and Baby Names. These sites contain lists of popular names as well as the meaning, history, and origin of them. If you don’t want to go out and purchase a book, you should utilize these free resources.

    Here’s a tip for names that I bet you’ve never heard: the next time you watch a television show or a movie, pay attention to the credits. Pick a first name and combine it with a different last name. Congratulations! You’ve named your character!

    Another great method is to take a stroll through a cemetery and pick some names off headstones. If you don’t feel comfortable using names that have belonged to people, mix them up like you did with the movie credits exercise.

    One of the most difficult things about being a writer is knowing what to name your characters. Hopefully these free resources can help. Happy naming!

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  • Costume Ideas Based on Literary Characters

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    In case you hadn’t noticed, Halloween is close at hand. It’s less than a week away. If you don’t have a Halloween costume yet, there’s no need to panic. I’m happy to help. Here are a couple of ideas based on characters from famous works of literature.

    Hester Prynne

    All you need for this look is a black dress, a white apron, some black shoes, and a scarlet letter. Bonnet and child born of wedlock are optional.

    Jay Gatsby

    Pull off the infamous American Dreamer by dressing in a suit and carrying around a glass of champagne. Be sure to mention Daisy and green lights wherever you go. Also, don’t forget to say, “old sport” as much as humanly possible. Bonus points for hosting a legendary Halloween party without sending out any invitations.

    Big Brother

    Take a piece of poster board and cut out a hole in the middle for your head to fit through. Write BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU in bold letters with a permanent marker. For added paranoia, hide cameras all over your friends and family. And grow some nasty facial hair. By the way, you may or may not actually exist. Keep that in mind.

    Mina Harker
    Here’s another for the ladies. Put on a nightgown, preferably a lacy one. Muss your hair and wear it loose. Apply fake blood to your neck as though you’ve been bitten by a vampire. Faint constantly throughout the evening. Babble incoherently about uninvited nighttime guests.

    I know this post is short, but this should’ve given you a few ideas for your Halloween costume. 
    What do you think? What are you going to be for Halloween?