Monday, May 27, 2013

Developing Characters - The Opening Shot

Everyone has an opinion and blogging has provided everyone an avenue to express their opinion - or I wouldn't be here, right? That does provide an invaluable store of resources for the writer. I've been at this for nearly fifty years. As with my cooking, I like to check other recipes against what I have been doing to see if there can be an improvement. Blogs from other writers provide a wealth of suggestions: 1 cup of 10 things of this, a pinch of 3 things of that, a quarter cup of 6 things of the other. It can become confusing, but by watching for basic threads a writer can pick and choose how to better develop and proceed with their story. As I am focusing on the characters at the moment, that is where I will plant my feet.

Previous discussions looked at building the physical characteristics of a character without looking too hard at the inner person. The character arc stresses moving a character along, progressing from point A to B and maybe beyond. Usually that  entails improvement, like boy changes attitude to get girl, girl gains strength to defeat monster, rotten gets worse. What the writer wants to avoid is creating someone who is too perfect - the way they look, the way they act, always being in the right place at the right time, doing the right thing, and never losing his hat (like in the old B-grade horse operas). Characters, like real people, should have motives and goals and be multidimensional.

Looking over a huge list of writing suggestions is like staring at a library shelf of books on how to make chili. (Four feet of 150+ books and everyone containing 50+ recipes.) However, one blog caught my eye when it suggested that the writer should shown the main character in conflict at the very beginning. I am fanatical about openings. They should pull the reader into the story right away. I will discuss that in more detail in a later blog, but wonder if in A Pirate's Legacy: Order of the Brethren, have I done that while introducing the characters? (As a reminder, this is a work under construction, so it is fluid.) The story actually starts during a dark and stormy night. I love messing with editors and nay-sayers. The first couple paragraphs describe a dream as it occurs. While the story itself is in the past tense, this dream is in the present tense, at least for now.

     Mariah isn’t sure where she is. It’s dark. Perhaps in the beach house, or on the beach, or in their bedroom. That doesn’t matter. It is her husband’s smell, his strong arms encircling her body, his lips gently caressing her neck. She hopes it’s on the beach. That’s where all their children have been conceived, and it is time to have another baby. Then there is movement behind his broad shoulders, something coming toward them, cloaked in black, indistinguishable. It grabs his arm and begins pulling him away. Her hand locks onto his other arm with a tenacious grip. She will not let him go. Not again. He looks at her and smiles. She fights to resist, but knows it’s useless. Releasing his arm, anger fills her breast.
     The apparition hands him a sword. It’s broken. Her husband gently takes her chin in one hand and kisses her upon the lips as tears stain her cheeks. As her husband and the spectre begin to disappear into the blackness Jean-Paul runs to his father and takes his hand. She tries to scream, NO, but the sound is drown by the explosion of cannon fire. They are lost in a sea of blinding light until seeing a body laid out on a table. It is covered by a white clothe, only the feet exposed, bare and motionless. She knows those feet and screams.
     Mariah awoke with a start, her hand immediately reaching out to where her husband lie. He wasn’t there. A brilliant flash of light followed by deep, rolling thunder rattled the house as the dream continued to weigh heavily upon her mind, clouding reality. Breast seething with anger and pain, her heart pound as the cold perspiration of fear caused her to tremble. It was only a dream, but a terrifying dream. Not finding François where he should lie caused her heart to beat harder and faster.
     She called out, but the loud, cannon-like crack of thunder muffled her cry followed by more flashes of lightning. A figure silhouetted by the white light stood at the iron railing looking outward. It was her husband, feet apart, hands behind his back as rain pelted him and the wind whipped his nightshirt. Mariah relaxed a little. He did that whenever a storm buffeted the island.
     It had been three years since he was last at sea. How filled with joy she had been upon seeing the ship return. How filled with fear as only Hassan, Alessandro, and Filipe came ashore.
     “He has gone to France to see his grandfather. He will be home in a month’s time,”Alessandro said, but that didn’t lessen her disappointment.
     The three were very different from when they left to rescue Hassan. It was now Prince Hassan who bore himself more erect, Filipe more confident and mature, Alessandro no longer the lonely, widowed soldier, a beautiful Arabian girl clutching his hand. His wife.
     François returned changed as well, feeling more at peace knowing his surrogate family accepted him, but not changed in the habit of standing upon the veranda, reliving the times he remained upon the quarterdeck holding fast to the wheel, piloting through tempests ensnaring his ship. François spoke some of his adventures. She knew he missed that life while doggedly holding fast to the commitment to sacrifice whatever the sea offered to stay near his family. The dream continued to haunt her though, as she watched him until the storm moved on and the rain and wind subsided.

The opening two paragraphs describe a dream. We all have them from time to time. We learn of Mariah's love for her husband and desires for the family, and a threat to that life. Some people put great store in the meanings of dreams. A bit of research into the meaning of dreams incorporates hidden suggestions of what may come in this story. Also, we see that François has a strong attachment to his family, but also to his past.

Unlike previous stories, the opening or hook, extends for several paragraphs. Some external reviews will see if this works to keep the reader's interest. The idea is to introduce the main character, François, as more than a two-dimension. He lives the life of a gentleman plantation owner devoted to family with ties to a pirating past that won't let him go.

In this story I want the characters to carry the story. In that, it is important to introduce conflict, both internal and external, be sure the character isn't too perfect, that he has motives and goals, and is realistic by being more than two-dimensional, and progresses.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Backdrop Influences Characters

Previous discussions about characters touched on physical attributes and arcing behavior. This might be a good time to discuss the story time and location as they affect characters.

The time your story takes place dictates a great deal about how a character behaves and speaks. The A Pirate's Legacy Dolphin series takes place in the early 1600's. As this is a novel with an historical perspective, it is necessary to know what is going on between and within the major players - Spain, Portugal, France, England, and The Netherlands. Much of the action is set in the Caribbean, but events in Europe have a decided effect on what happened in the New World.

In Order of the Brethren, the major player country is England as it begins to encroach upon Spanish claims in the New World. The Dutch are in revolt against Spain so we see Dutch Jews appearing as pirates. (These were descended from Jews expelled from Spain in 1492) Some English colonies are just beginning to appear in North America. The island native populations have been largely decimated by Spain. These include Arawak, Taino, and Carib, however there are still remnants lurking about in out-the-way places.

Finding the costumes and customs for Spain and England during this period is relatively easy with both written descriptions and paintings. Not so for the natives. Some information has been documented on the Internet, but it takes digging, and some important tidbits are salted away in the most unlikely sites. It was necessary to reconstruct a few details from documents and photos taken in the early 1900's.

Knowledge of the types of ships, their operation, and sea lore is readily available right down to the loading and discharge of cannon, and cleaning of the ship's hull and the ever aromatic bilge.

A writer must also watch how their characters speak. Dialects can add a degree of color to a character, but be careful. Too much can slow, confuse, and frustrate the reader. In a previous book, The Urchin Pirate, one character is a Dutchman. Thanks to Google translator it was possible to select words as would have been used while speaking English, yet not completely bog down and lose the reader.

Entering the kitchen, she found Mr. Amstedt sitting at the table, a steaming mug of the black liquid in hand.
             "Goedemorgen, Lady Evreux," he said, rising quickly, bowing slightly as two gnarled fingers touched his forehead in a salute.
             "Good morning, Mr. Amstedt."
             "I hope m'Lady do not mind. A habit I have since developing a taste voor de foul brew."
             "Not at all, Mr. Amstedt, but it really isn't all that foul. It smells wonderful." 
             "May I fetch m'Lady a cup?"
             "Thank you." She took a seat across the table from where he sat.
             "Jou still have de look of vorry." 

In The Brethren, a seaman is accused of murdering his captain. By clipping his "ing" words gives the flavor of his origins

          “He deserved to die. It be worth dyin’ knowin’ he’s burnin’ in hell.”
When captured, Francois is taken aboard the victorious ship. It is owned and operated by a Scot.

          “He was manin' the gun that first fired upon us.” Captain Douglass' reply was brusque, his usual manner. “I dun no consider ‘im that harmless. He’ll be under guard ‘til the doctor says he can be placed in irons.”

          “Then what?” Mr. Guzman asked.

          “I’m no sure.” The captain was obviously wrestling with the dilemma. “We can no turn ‘im over to the authorities on the islands comin’ up. He’d mouth all over what happened and then our secret would be out.”

Of course, Spanish is used, and at least in the United States many words are recognizable. As most of these characters come from the south of Spain, it is necessary to use words, phrasing, and spelling appropriate to that region. 

Dialogue is vital when constructing a character and tells volumes without lengthy description. This can tricky. Listening how people speak from various parts of the world is relatively easy thanks to YouTube, just don't get carried away.

Another important resource is a good dictionary. ( Not long ago another writer was critical about my insistence on having a dictionary available when using Microsoft Word 2010. (The one provided is as anemic as a vampire.) In my case, it wasn't for spelling. The good dictionary also reports the etymology, when a word came into existence and common use. A writer can get away with using modern terms in the narrative, but not in dialogue. For instance, would a character in this period use the phrase/word, "sort of," or "sorta"? The phrase originated between 1200 and 1250. Plenty of time for "sorta" to enter into the vocabulary of individuals in the 1600's. 

Terms are important as well. We are all familiar with the command, "fire," when ordering the discharge of weapons. That term originated about 900, but aboard ships of this time the command was "shoot." Either could work, but being more historically accurate adds to overall flavor of the speech.

A parenthetical note about accuracy. Alcoholic beverages in this era were wine, brandy, and beer. Because of water quality, many Europeans drank a watered down wine. In The Urchin Pirate I referred to rum as one individual's favorite drink. Rum did not come into existence until 1645, some forty-five years after the story time. Oops. A little detail I overlooked. Don't tell anyone and we'll let that slip by.


Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Arcing Characters

In the previous post I began discussing characters. Whether the character or the plot is more important is that chicken and egg thing. One really can not exist without the other. For now, I want to dwell on characters because quite frankly they are fun.

Internet groups often discuss how characters come into existence. Some writers want to use people they know and worry that could cause problems. I'm like Victor Frankenstein who assembles a creature using sundry parts collected from here and there, but my characters are not created before the plot.

In A Pirate's Legacy, Book 2, The Urchin Pirate, the Dolphin is captured by the Spanish and taken to the commanding officer's playroom. Speaking Arabic picked  up over the years, he attempts to pass himself off as an Arab sailor who fell into pirate hands. In an attempt to understand answers to the inquisition, the commander summons an Arab slave. Thus was born Sa'id who was instrumental in the Dolphin's escape and became one of his helmsmen.

In Book 4, The Lions of El Bayadh, Hassan (an orphaned Arab prince) comes to live with the Evreux family and is bullied by Demitrio, a prominent landowner's brat. One of the dons who lives on the western side of El Hierro has a son, Felipe Alvarez, who is an accomplice to the bully as an attempt to fit in, learns an invaluable lesson from both his father and Hassan, and becomes Hassan's close friend. When Hassan is kidnapped and taken to North Africa Felipe joins the rescue team and nearly dies.

I could continue examples, but suffice it to say, characters drop into the story as needed. It is at that point I begin to flesh them out with more detail thus locking them in as actual personalities and in a sense, limiting their actions except for one writing element. As characters they should evolve, grow, learn, and/or change as the plot unfolds as real people do in life. This is referred to as the character arc.  Felipe did.

Let's look a bit more closely at Jean-Paul II, Francois Evreux's first born son. Francois married Mariah on his fifteenth birthday. J-P is born nine months later. (Prior to the Industrial Revolution there was no middle ground. You were a child until twelve to fourteen, and then expected to do adult things.) J-P is four when his father returns after being kidnapped only to see him leave to fight off a French invasion. From that time forward he lives in the shadow of his father, practically glued to his hip.

Francois is a typical parent in that he fails to recognize the boy is becoming an adult; aware that he has certain, natural fears that must be overcome, and unaware that the boy is in a burgeoning love affair. One of those fears is jumping from the Dragon's Back, an eighty-foot high promontory overlooking their private cove. One day J-P overcomes that fear and plunges into the water. All is well, until his father leaves to help his pirate mentor, Hogshead Shaver, rescue his wife and child. Watching him sail off, J-P leaps into the ocean, catches the trailing rope, and comes aboard. Francois is furious, but begins to understand that J-P is no longer a child. He may accompany his father, but no special privileges. He is given a nickname, Curly, so his true identity remains private, and assigned crewmen to teach him seamanship from the bilge up.

Over the course of the story, J-P continues to mature, learning important skills and lessons, and become less timid until at the end he leaves a safe position to join his father and take part in a major battle.

Previously, I mentioned Pasquel. He started out as nothing more than someone who ran off to join the pirate circus and become wealthy so to live like the nobility back home in Spain. What he finds is that having and providing for a family gives him all the nobility he seeks.

Nijiru is a former African slave who serves as a helmsman along with Sa'id, but not for long. He is called upon to command the land force attacking the English army holding Hogshead Shaver's family captive.

Neither Nijiru, Pasquel or Jean-Paul are major characters, yet the reader sees them grow, learn, and change. In fact, nearly every character in the story can be an example of the character arc, as it should be. In reality, no character can remain static or they are as dead as the story itself. This is one of the most important elements in a story.

Take a look at your characters. All of them. How are they doing?

Monday, May 13, 2013

And the Writer Created Characters;

Protagonists and antagonists created he them.

Whether they be humanoid or not most stories have something to carry the plot along. I am pleased to report that in Order of the Brethren the characters are human, and in that comes both fun and difficulty. I want my characters to be human in the way they look, think, act, react, and feel.

The main protagonist in the A Pirate's Legacy series is Francois Evreux, AKA the pirate Dolphin. During the course of writing previous stories there appeared  supporting characters--his wife, Mariah, their first born, Jean-Paul, the Dolphin's mentor, Aloysius "Hogshead" Shaver, Margaret "Black Maggie" DuBri, and others, many others. Of course, new characters appear, each stepping up to take their moment or two at the footlights. That can cause problems if the writer is not an adroit juggler.

People who write or think they can write proffer "rules" about writing.Some howl at having too many characters, and would criticize Cecil B. DeMille for using a cast of thousands. I use whatever it takes to move the story forward and manage them as any good general. So, who are some of these people? Where do they come from? What do they know and do? Let me start with Francois the Dolphin.

My main protagonist evolved while researching historical events around the year 1600. New World piracy was in its infancy. It was all the rage in the Mediterranean and along the Atlantic coasts of Europe and North Africa. In book two, The Urchin Pirate, I introduce Francois as a six-year-old orphan footloose on the streets. The bulk of the story focuses on his life at age fifteen. Times were different then. At fifteen you were considered an adult and expected to act like one. That attitude had a great deal to do in shaping and using him. As the story flew onto the electronic page, appearance and mannerisms fell into place. He is cool and calm under pressure, but there is a dark side when someone he loves is hurt, and it is that reflexive response that gets him into eternal trouble. Recording these traits  is a real necessity, therefore I maintain a Character Profile for each and every individual no matter how insignificant they may seem. One never knows if they will appear again down the road, and considering I am dealing with ghosts, just because they die is no reason to brush them aside.

During a recent, online discussion about creating characters, one writer proposed a series of questions. I assume it works for him, but if I went into that sort of detail, I'd never get to the opening paragraph. The Character Profile I use is a modification and amalgamation of several forms.

There is a mug shot of how I invision his appearance, thanks to model agency pics. The pics at the bottom are representative of period clothing. Page one is basic information. In the case of this character, there are additional pages of detailed notes including a life timeline and a genealogy chart. The latter is important because Francois' descendents and some of the descendents of select associates become an important factor in the stories. (Specifically detailed in Book 5, The Bones).

 Pasquel is introduced in Order of the Brethren, and is representative of the attention I give minor characters. Basically, his role is to highlight the customs of the Taino Indians which once inhabited the Caribbean Islands before Spanish decimation.

In all of human history only one individual is recorded as being perfect. The rest of us more or less have issues. That is important to remember as we give our characters life. In the case of Francois, he is a stable rock with a suppressed tendency to uncontrolled rage. Just when he thinks he has a handle on it - bang! There are all sorts of idiosyncrasies and weaknesses available to make a character more believable, just don't go overboard. The other aspect is referred to as the "arc." In short, a character starts out life one way and over the coarse of the story becomes changed. That is something worth exploring later.

Finally, naming a character. In the case of Francois, I came across it in another life and liked it. Evreax is fictitious as far as I know. It just evolved as sounding French. Pasquel came from a list of names popular in southern Spain. My Taino and Carib Indian names came from records of the times. I search the Internet for name lists for certain areas and periods of time, or thumb through my genealogy files to use family names. How a writer comes up with them isn't important as long as he or she thinks they fit the character and would be appropriate for the time.