Writing post: Characters. Bad characters.

Writing has been going well lately.  I have been able to work consistently on the book and am making some slow progress through the most recent of chapters.  The only bummer is that it’s not exactly what I want it to do or say, but for now, I’m going to trust that as some First Draft work and just move on through it, rather than grind to a halt.

It has given me some thought about writing certain kinds of characters.  Everyone who has written stories knows about character arcs.  Or at least they should.  Usually this pertains to the hero, who undergoes a journey and their character overcomes conflict and winds up changed at the end.  But what about villains?  The bad guys of your story.

I have one particular bad guy I have been working on recently, who is truly just awful.  They are more of an elemental evil than anything.  But this recent chapter I have been working through involves their past, and for whatever reason, I decided to make the character more of an amalgam.  The character in those days had the seed of being awful, but in adding more depth to this person, I have made them more sympathetic.  In adding some traits of people I have genuinely admired, I think this will give the villain of this story some depth, and if I am successful, it will make their fall just that more devastating.  It might even show the main protag in an entirely different light.  It’s weird to sorta muddy up some very good memories in real life with such a terrible character.  But not everyone is all bad.  That’s how you get past static, one dimensional characters.

I have also scrapped some ideas that I had been working with, specifically a Jekyll/Hyde type character that pushed the boundaries of the steampunkery of the story.  I just didn’t like how it played out.  It was superfluous.

The story continues to grow and evolve.  Particularly around the characters.  They seem to be driving the plot more than anything.  The original plot that I had was pretty contrived.  So, for this story, I’m going to have a world, throw these characters into it, and see what they do with it all.  At least this way, the story feels more organic.  Lived in.  Not just a predetermined mess that ends only one way without any consideration for the characters living in that world.

In reading news, I finished Steven Pressfield’s book “Turning Pro.”  I didn’t like it as much as “The War of Art” mostly because so many of the concepts were already covered in the latter.  Not only were they covered, but they were investigated deeper.  This seemed like a repeat, almost like a workbook to accompany the textbook, along with some anectdotes from Roseanne Cash’s book, and for whatever reason most chapters were only a page.  At most.  It read almost like a list-type article from some clickbait you would find online.  For $9.99 on Kindle, I wasn’t impressed.  This was the third Pressfield book, and probably the last I will buy.  I liked the concepts he pushes into the light of the creative mind, but the whole book can be summed up with one sentence.  “Turning Pro means changing your attitude from that of a amateur, to someone who works with consistency and dedication until they get it right.”

There.  Saved you ten bucks.

The thing about the concept of Turning Pro that bothers me is the emphasis on sacrificing your friends, your family, everything you know to chase an obsession and find fulfillment in your creativity.  Am I the only one who read Faust in college?  At the end of you life, sure, you might have achieved all of your professional goals, but what is the point if you are alone?  If you gave up new experiences? All for the sole purpose of being a “Pro” at one thing?

Writing isn’t everything.  It isn’t even close to being the only thing.  Sometimes it’s just something we do because we like doing it.  Some writers hate writing.  They find it is painful.  To them, I say why torture yourself over something like this?  It shouldn’t hurt.  Honestly, as much as I love writing, I wouldn’t mind selling out for a giant check to a Hollywood producer and using that money to buy a really cool house, afford trips to anywhere I wanted to go in the world, or make sure I could live comfortably the rest of my days.  Writing will always be with me.  Whether it is sketching out a poem when I watch leaves fall from the trees, or if it is a story about witches and gunfighters.  I carry it with me wherever I go, but it isn’t my entire identity.  I think there could be something to be said about anyone letting a passion consume their identity.  Kinda like a superfan who paints their house in the colors of their favorite team.  Or someone who drives only one kind of car because of brand loyalty.  I like to do a lot of other things more than writing.  Like living.





Things that stay with you

If you know me, you know that I am a very sentimental person.  Sometimes I live in my memories.  It’s a place I like to hide, a doorway that I run through in the night.  There are triggers for this, not in a Millennial, “Oh noe I’m triggered!” kind of way, but more in a way that I find I am walking down the street and the smell of a certain kind of perfume,  air before a rainstorm, or even cigarettes, or baking bread will ignite something in my mind.  For a second I am far away, swept back in time.  The haze and fog of the years are parted and I’m 17, or 20, or maybe even 7 again.  Smell is a very powerful trigger.  Perhaps one of the most deeply rooted in our senses, and one which we take for granted.

There are all sorts of other triggers too, but music has to be a close second to smell.  Today I am listening to old songs I love and letting the nostalgia wash over me.  This song in particular can stir up all sorts of memories.  I was 17 the first time I heard it.  A friend of mine had lent me Mother Love Bone’s album, which at the time was everything they had been able to scrounge up for the band.  The lead singer, Andrew Wood, entered rock Valhalla after a heroin overdose at the dawn of grunge.  MLB’s music was pretty much just hairmetal with a bit of blues and some drop D chords.  Jeff Ament, Stone Gossard, and others that went on to form more popular bands such as Pearl Jam, Screaming Trees, and the grunge supergroup tribute to Andy Wood which was Temple of the Dog.

I know about this stuff because back in the early 90s, I ate, drank, and breathed the stuff.  I’m not going to get into Green River and all the other spinoff groups, or how Andy and Chris Cornell of Soundgarden were roomies in Seattle (too late!), or how this music brought the stagnation of metal and hard rock out of the glam years of spandex and Aquanet and back to just some guys who could play a couple chords and went from their garages to packing stadiums.  No, Mother Love Bone is more obscure stuff, reserved for music snobs and people who never got over being 17.  At the time, this music encapsulated an era for me.  One that I continue to revisit if I smell desert flowers, the diesel exhaust off a bus on a city street at night, or when I just want to go to a quiet place.  Like a long drive in the middle of the night, at the edge of nowhere, just to clear my head.

I remember being young when I hear this song.  But oddly enough, it’s a song that continues to follow me through the years.  There is something timeless about it that grows with me.  Something new I get out of it every time I hear it.  Sometimes its just a quiet moment on the highway while my kids are asleep and I am left alone with my thoughts.  Music is the best way to show someone who you are in a very abstract way.  For a brief moment, the music you carry with you is like a river that you pull with you across a desert, and when you meet someone, your rivers converge when you share your music.  Sometimes there are rapids and other times, it is a pure moment when everything just flows together perfectly.  When you hear their music, it opens up doors in the fortress of your heart you had forgotten there were even rooms for.  It opens up the curtains and lets light pour in.

Nostalgia loses its potency the more you revisit those memories.  After a while you can become desensitized to the moment they brought back. You remember the remembering and not the emotion or true presence of the moment.  This is what is painful of nostalgia.  It’s the dream that fades away, leaving when you awake and wondering why you can never return there.  That’s why it is best to keep creating new memories, living new experiences.  We don’t just get those pearls of perfection a few times in our youth or young adulthood.  We should keep looking for them as we go.  They are abundant.

As a writer, I tend to get lost in my memories.  I document them in subtle and not so subtle ways in my stories.  Sometimes I run the risk of getting lost in those times, of letting them pull me under and sweep me away.  Sometimes I have to detach, stop writing, and come back to the Now. Sometimes when I write those moments, they are spent, like striking a match and letting it burn.  The life and fire of that moment gone in a flash and all that remains is knowing that the moment was used well, though now it is flat on the page.  It now belongs to someone else.

Sometimes it’s important to not be greedy with memories and hoard them.  When I am gone, those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain (thanks, Roy Batty, for that gem).  But sometimes you should be careful just how much you give away.  Keep some to yourself, but as a momento, not as something that keeps you from growing. It isn’t good to have moments that are insurmountable either.  Keeping those treasures around just means you are holding on too tightly to the past.  When you do that, you can’t reach out for what comes next.

What do I do with all this garbage?

Today is a more melancholy post.  I’ll make it about writing, because as you are about to see, that’s what writers do.

There is a movie out there called “The Whole Wide World” it is about pulp writing legend Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and half a dozen other characters who probably deserve as much attention as the iconic sullen-eyed Cimmerian, who tread the jeweled thrones of the Hyborian age beneath his sandaled feet.  In one scene, Bob is telling Novelyne Price, the author and hero of this story about his job as a writer.  He tells her about how he’s had lots of jobs, and clerkin’ in a store is about the worst thing a man can do.  He goes on to say that when he writes, he’s the boss and the typewriter is the employee.  He’s not wrong about that.  But it gives an outsider a peek into the mind of a writer for another reason.

I know lots of writers who have been malcontents like this.  Maybe myself included.  Jacks of all trades but masters of only one: the written word.  Many writers have a problem with authority, with foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds.  Each has the ability to absorb experiences, pain, emotion, and the human condition, and regurgitate it onto the blank page.  You have to have equal parts of order and chaos in some cases.  The chaos comes from wading through a world full of people, experiences, pain, and then ordering it together and producing something about it somewhat suitable for others to take in and process themselves.

My own characters are infused with reflections of experiences I have had, snippets of stories others have told me, more information than I know what to do with.  So, it all winds up in the stories.  Some granular bit, some hint, some big joint of beef.  So, when artists are asked the annoying question of “Where do you get your ideas from?” the answer is “everywhere.”

Like any chemical reaction, there are waste products.  Sometimes taking in all this information and filtering it results in the by-products of depression, overthinking, anxiety, anti-social behavior, heightened emotions, etc. is the heat, waste material, and grey water of the whole process.  That sounds like a horrible experience, doesn’t it?  For many, it would probably be worse without an outlet for the creative process.  Think of an industrial factory that just burned coal all day, produced smog, and polluted the water without even having electricity, shiny basketball shoes, or crystal glassware to show for it.  Having a writerly brain without putting it to some kind of use is like a saw mill that just produces saw dust.  Hence the ordered part of the mind.

I have had lots of jobs. Some worse than others.  I’ve scrubbed outhouse floors, driven trucks, waded through mosquito infested swamps to pull old fenceposts, sat on my butt in an office for years, sampling every gradient of the emotional spectrum from fear to boredom.  I have lived a life.  Not always easy at times.  Sometimes I have been a lot luckier than I deserve.  This all makes it into the stew.

It isn’t always obvious how.  In this world, here is a place I get to decide how and what to deal with.  Every frustration, every victory, how it all felt, and the consequences of decisions…and even sometimes how they might have been handled differently.  If I am not destined to have adventure or excitement, that doesn’t have to be true for my characters.  And if I am not anywhere near living a comfortable life, maybe they deserve one…eventually.  So much of life is getting from point A to point Z.  The order is unimportant.

Life is like a story.  We are the authors of our stories too.  We are given the plot, the characters, the conflict, and it is up to us to decide what to do with it all.  Do we want a happy ending or a sad one?  Robert E. Howard lived a tumultuous life and died young.  Unlike Conan, he wasn’t strong enough to conquer his demons.  The point I’m laboring to make is that everything is a choice.  We have a choice of how we want to solve our problems, who we ask for help, and how we overcome our obstacles.  This is why real life is so much better than fiction.  And sometimes scarier.  Definitely weirder.

My advice, if you choose not to take things personally, make it about the writing.  It is happy to consume anything you can give it.  Pain, love, loss, exuberance, contentment, nostalgia, madness…all of it. Let the writing feed and keep going.