Saturday, November 29, 2008

Thoughts On Plot 4: Uncovering Character And Setting

There's an argument as to whether our natures are due to nature or nurture -- to our genetic inheritance or our environment. The argument, like many of these old standards, is bullshit. Our natures are due to our genes expressing themselves in the context of our environment -- you can't divide the influences. They're holographic.

So with that thought in mind, here's a new definition of plot to chew on -- plot is the result of a character expressing itself in the context of its setting and circumstances.

When I first ran across this notion it made perfect sense to me. My response was to develop a character, make up the setting, figure out some circumstances which would bring the character into conflict, and then let things work out.

This isn't a bad way to start a story.

Here are some thoughts on creating the character. The most important question you need to answer about your character is what do they want? Hell, it's the only important question. You don't need to answer it right at the beginning -- but you do need to keep it in mind. Without a driving need (or some facet of their person that drives others -- see below) a character isn't going to be all that useful to you.

A mistake that I've made and that I've seen over and over again is that of making a passive observer the main character. This almost never ends well. The character sulks in his room and ponders and no matter how well-written it is, it's as dull as dogshit.

The only really effective way out of this one that I've seen is to take that passive observer and give him a kick in the butt. Force him out of his safe place. Get him into trouble. This worked in The Phantom Tollbooth. It worked in A Confederacy of Dunces. It works in just about all of M.R. James's ghost stories.

The reason it works is that it removes the character's passivity. Like it or not, your character cannot be passive.

Unless, of course, their presence in some way stimulates another character -- Bartleby the Scrivener is a good example of this. Being There is another good example of a passive character around whom conflicts swirl. Only use passivity when it stimulates conflict.

Just remember, no trouble, no story. Ain't no way to delay that trouble coming every day.

Okay, a few thoughts on character creation. A lot of people place a great deal of importance on backstory, on knowing how their character grew up, what their favorite soda is, etc, etc. If this works for you, great. There have been times when this approach has served me well.

But I've found that an intuitional approach is the best for me. If I can see the character, if I can hear their voice, if I know how they'll react to a situation, then I'm good. By allowing them some privacy from me, I'm also allowing them to surprise me. The only reason working out backstory has ever been useful to me has been that it can bring you closer to that kind of grip on a character -- it's meaningless in itself. At least that's how it works for me. Look for the character, listen to the character, let the character explain themselves to you. Act as though the characters are real and you're just observing them.

Of course one of the reasons that works out for me is that I'm a character in most of what I've written. What can I say, I make a good pulp character. By putting myself directly into the viewpoint position it's easier for me to interact with my marginally-more imaginary characters. I do this and then they do that and then I do this. I'm going to study acting at some point and I'm certain it will give me some useful techniques for this kind of projection.

Now the first question you need to ask about the setting is, how does it affect the characters? And again, it's the only really important question. If the setting doesn't help to drive or ground the story, then it's no good. In a story with action/adventure elements you want an environment that provides a variety of physical challenges for your character. In a character-driven story you want settings that both establish and reflect the inner life of your characters. Don't any setting without having a clear purpose in mind.

But here's the trick. You don't need to start out with that purpose. Just as you don't need to know what your character's drive is. As long as you know these things by the time you're through writing you're in good shape. Malleability is the key here -- be willing to change things, even big, central things, about your characters and setting as you work. I'm not arguing against outlines as long as you don't let them get in the way of an organic creative process.

In fact it's not bad to dump the idea of creativity all together -- much of the time when I work creatively I do so with the unconscious assumption that I'm not making things up, I'm uncovering stories and pictures and songs that were there in the first place. For me, the creative act is exploratory rather than seminal.

Pre-planning -- outlining, character backstory, etc. -- is not so much a matter of framing a house as it is a matter of prospecting, taking core samples, observing the terrain.

My paleontology fixation is revealing itself there. It's like finding a little patch of bone here and another one here and then when you start digging you find that they're part of the same skeleton. Maybe you find a beautifully preserved section of jaw that isn't part of the skeleton you're trying to uncover. Don't fit it in, set it aside and save it.

You might find the rest of it some day.

Hey, Kids! Free Novel!

This was one of the images that developed into the cover for the first issue of Swill. It's assembled entirely out of inkblots. Gonna do a series of these as prints and I'm gonna call them Rorschach Dreams.

So I'm looking for a few brave readers. I've been turning it over in my mind and I've decided that it would be a good idea for me to try and get the opinions of a few fresh readers before I launch into the next revision of the book. I'm not going to be doing a serious, major rewrite -- but I need a fresh set of eyes to make sure that things are entertaining, understandable, consistent, etc, etc.

If you'd be interested let me know and I'll send you a copy of the manuscript. Of course if dozens and dozens of people express an interest I won't be able to send out copies to everyone -- but the first five people who are willing to at least try and read the book will get a bound hardcopy.

Here's how it starts out.

Far overhead millions of souls swarm in incandescent clouds that drift and cast a light that shifts and wanders, one moment so bright that I feel the heat of it, the next so dark I can’t see my fingers on the fretboard of my bass. Their voices, massed and distant, form a hum that throbs and makes my bones itch. The sound is faint but penetrating; I can hear it through the music in my headphones, hear it all through me.

Beyond the clouds the sky is a dead black membrane stretched tight as a ripe boil. I can feel it as though it’s part of my own body, taut and heavy and delicate. Every so often a ripple runs through it and nausea twists my belly as a painful sweat breaks out on my forehead.

The van, a bronze Econoline, is parked deep in the canyons. A few souls have drifted away from the clouds and found us. They drift around the van in slow loops, occasionally swirling close, drawn by the music. For safety’s sake Lulu has us plugged directly into the laptop, bass and guitar with no amplification at all, so it isn’t the sound of the music that’s pulled them – it’s the music itself, the act of playing. They hear it transmitted through our souls, the souls of the living.

We’ve set up where we can’t be seen from a distance, where whatever sound we make won’t carry. My work boots are planted in ground made of tiny bones that crunch like gravel underfoot. Around us are great skulls both human and animal, ranging from waist-high domes nosing up from the surface like sprouting mushrooms to foothills and then mountains rising until they frame canyons with cliffs that sweep up for thousands of feet.

This is the Limbus and these are the Bonelands and we came here to rock.

If anyone's interested, let me know. This offer will run through December; I intend to begin the rewrite in February.

To receive a copy of this novel, go to my profile to find my email contact information. Send me a request for a copy and your preferred file format (.doc, .rtf, PDF) and I'll shoot it off to you; I'll send hard copies to the first five people who request them.

For more information on the novel, go here.

Pull Up Your Socks, Oafboy

This is the official logo for the Dizzy Toilet Devils. Intentionally.

So I've been out of commission for the last little while. It's been a combination of back and crazy -- the two do so like to link their moist little paws and walk side by side.

I haven't been answering my emails, I haven't attended classes, I haven't posted here, I haven't done any writing or art. It hasn't been the kind of thing where I'm nipping little bits of flesh off of myself and terrifying strangers; rather, I've been blank. Absent. Without volition or will of any kind. The kind of thing where I can spend hours absentmindedly pacing back and forth between the television set and the refrigerator, carefully and deliberately failing to make up my mind as to any course of action.

Part of it has to do with the season (you'll hear me blaming the seasons for my mental condition on a regular basis -- I have a different crazy for every part of the year). Part of it has to do with hitting a stage of completion on two major projects within a few days of each other. Part of it has to do with a failure to take proper care of myself.

But it's been too damned long and I need to pull myself out of the slough of despond. I'm gonna start by putting up a couple of posts here, then answer my emails, then get to work on the Swill material, then get the Anomalocaris drawing back in the game.

One step at a time, oafboy. One step at a time.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Horror! The Horror!

Well, after spending the early morning with the missus I decided to turn my attentions to preparing for the next print day. First I made a folder for the files I was going to bring in, then I started to drag and drop. And I was only able to find a couple of the Bonelands pieces that hadn't been colored and printed. I went through all the files; I had only the three above prints unfinished.

So I went mad. I worked until they were all done. Not an impossible task given how far along they already were but still. And now I'm almost done. All I have to do is print the last batch of these and the show's ready. Then I print the big canvas piece and I'm set.


Anyway, I'm kind of amazed that this is happening within a few days of the novel's finish. I'm starting to feel as though I've got my shit together for the first time in my life.

Let's see if it goes anywhere...

More plot tomorrow.