You’ve Got Personality

Elrond INTJ

Hey!  I resemble that remark.

It’s that time of year again! Our town is having Trick or Treating today, and it’s cold and rainy. So rather than sitting out in the garage with a bucket of candy, like we used to, we’re going to do the same thing we did last year and just leave a bag of candy on a lawn chair at the end of our drive with a sign saying, “Please Take One.” That’s probably good enough, don’t you think?

But I’m not just talking about Halloween. National Novel Writing Month starts on Wednesday, and S and I are ready to start writing. As we’ve mentioned before, we’re working together on a joint project this year. But I’ve also thought about maybe doing a side project as well. Hypothetically speaking, it might possibly be a novel for S’s Christmas present. (Don’t tell her!)

Anyway, I was sitting around a few days ago, thinking about characters for this new novel I might possibly be writing, and I was trying to think of personality traits for them. S mentioned before that we’ve started doing Myers-Briggs tests for our characters, and we’ve found that really helpful. We don’t necessarily take the tests as gospel—we still reserve the right to say, “Oh, I don’t think that quite sounds like her”—but it gives us a list of personality traits that often seem to clump together in real people.

For example, one of the POV characters in Magnificent Kingdom, the story S and I are working on together, is an ENTP. On various sites online, the traits of an ENTP are listed as: “Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outgoing. Resourceful, creative, and enjoys debating issues and values. Good at solving new problems. Able to analyze concepts and turn them into strategies. Astute with regards to others, disinterested in conventional ways of doing things.” (I assume the site meant “uninterested,” but whatever.) “Bored by routine.”

Having a list like this is always helpful, because if you sit down and try to think of personality traits for a character, it’s hard to see a larger pattern: “She’s clever,” you might say, or “she’s resourceful.” Okay, sure. But what else is she? Doing these tests helps you come up with a fuller, more rounded personality for the character.

The trouble, as I discovered when I was doing these tests for my main character a couple days ago, is that a lot of these online sites are a little too nice about the characteristics that they list. They’re clearly intended for people to use in typing themselves, and the sites are obviously trying to phrase everything in the most complimentary way possible. When you read the traits of all the different types, they all sound like marvelous people, and suddenly it occurred to me, “What about the negative traits?” So I did a quick Google search and found a site that specifically listed both the strengths and the weaknesses of each personality type. For ENTP, they are: “Poor follow-up skills,” “argumentative,” and “easily bored.” The last two are basically repeats from the list of positive traits (“Bored by routine,” and “enjoys debating issues and values.”), but once you see them phrased as negatives, you start to think, “Oh, I bet she thinks of herself as ‘enjoying debates,’ but other people might see her as being ‘argumentative.’”

“Poor follow-up skills” is entirely new, though if you think about it, it’s kind-of implied by “Good at solving new problems.” (Only new problems? As opposed to finishing her work on old ones, you mean?) When I read that to S last night, we both agreed that this fit the character, and that it was a new and interesting facet to her personality that we hadn’t considered before. She’s a good person, and she tries to look after another one of the POV characters. But she doesn’t follow up with him very well, which has disastrous consequences for everyone. She’s constantly being distracted by exciting new things, and she forgets to keep her eye on the ball, as it were. She never finishes an old task; she’s always running off to start new ones.

And speaking of finishing tasks, I need to wrap this up so S and I can go shopping. We’re thinking of buying a new coffee pot today. The old one is in pretty bad shape, and I had to drink tea for breakfast today. Not that there’s anything wrong with tea, but it’s not the same as coffee. And NaNo is the wrong time of year to be without coffee!

See you again next week, though it’s only fair to warn you that our updates will probably be a bit shorter in November, since we have novels to write!

J

A Second Opinion

tumblr_n39lbxWWRN1tnl7e1o4_1280

A slide from a presentation created by http://wordsandchocolate.tumblr.com/.

Life continues to be hectic at Unicorn HQ with house selling and hunting and legal paperwork you just don’t even want to know about. But even with all the madness, J and I are doing our best to get ready for NaNoWrMo, which somehow is only a week and a half away. Luckily the outline is done, but in our world the prep only starts there. We also have several maps and floor plans of important locations, and earlier this week we finished dividing who will be writing which chapters. (At 83 chapters, it was never going to come out even. J, for the record, is writing the extra chapter.)

We, of course, also have detailed character sheets. Depending on how vital a character is to the story, the profile could be as simple as a Myers-Brigg type with a quick bit about physical appearance and where the character is from. But for our six POV characters, we spend a bit more time. We’ve discussed the form we created for characters before, but since we’re always tweaking it, here’s the latest version.

Age:
Born (year and place):
Family:
Likes/Dislikes:
Physical Appearance:
Talent(s):
Other Characteristics:
Other Facts:
Voice:
What does he want:
Why he wants it:
Willing to do to get it:
Fatal flaw:

For a minor character, we may only list one or two Likes/Dislikes and a single vital Other Fact, whereas for a POV character we’ll have a dozen Likes/Dislikes and list their entire education, important travels, and other events of their life. Also for the POV characters, we do the character beat up found in My Story Can Beat Up Your Story.

Thematic question:
Antagonist’s answer:
Hero’s 4 Questions
Who is the hero?
What is he trying to accomplish?
Who is stopping him?
What happens if he fails?
Antagonist’s 4 Questions
(Same questions as Hero)
Central questions:
Physical Goal:
Emotional Goal:
Spiritual Goal:
Relationship Character:
Antagonist:
Protector:
Deflector:
Believer:
Doubter:
Thinker:
Feeler:

Because life is so crazy at the moment and we don’t know if we’ll have time to reread the entire outline together before NaNo, we thought we should at least read through the character sheets for our six POV characters. But we also added one more list to think about that I recently ran across on Tumblr. It covers the 5 P’s of creating characters.

Physical
Psychological
Personal
Personality
Practices

Each of these headings has several aspects to think about when creating a character. J and I like this checklist a lot, and it was a fresh way to look at our characters one last time before we start writing them. Of course, once we start writing them, the thinking will just move to the next phase, but at least we feel ready for that to happen.

~S

Not Quite Sticking the Landing

Halt and Catch Fire Fall Quote

Well, not fall, exactly, but maybe a little stumble, right there at the end.

It’s been a busy weekend here at Unicorn HQ. The big excitement this weekend was the series finale of Halt and Catch Fire, though that didn’t turn out quite as we had hoped. More on that in a minute. First, the other news. As I’ve mentioned, I’m teaching a new class this semester, and I have to drive almost two hours to do it. That eats up a lot of my Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. At least S had a chance to do some laundry while I was out, so at least one of us did something productive.

Today we’ve been cleaning around the house. Doing it all at once would just be too depressing, so we’re doing one room a day. Or at least that’s our goal. We haven’t quite been meeting that goal, but it’s still a lovely goal to have, all the same, don’t you think? I certainly do.

Pretty soon we’re going to have start thinking seriously about our NaNoWriMo project again. We developed the outline and the character profiles back during July Camp NaNo, but we haven’t looked at them in a couple months, so we’ll need to review them and talk a bit more about who is going to be responsible for writing which parts. But that can happen another time. Right now we’re resting after cleaning our living room and slowly working our way through a pair of well-deserved Bloody Marys.

When we haven’t been cleaning this morning, we’ve been dissecting the Halt and Catch Fire finale. As I put it to S last night before bed, it was a three star finish to a five star series. It wasn’t horrible, but it certainly could have been better. Last week, S said, “assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time.” Well, they didn’t quite crash, but the landing was a bit bumpier than you would hope for.

The scenes between Donna and Cameron were all fine. But there were probably too many of them. And the resolution of their relationship came at the expense of Joe, who basically disappeared for the length of a Bible during the last episode. The Donna/Cameron storyline feels as if it came to a satisfying conclusion. But Joe just wandered off, and when we saw him, he was hanging out with random people we didn’t know and had never met before. Where was his resolution with Donna? With Cameron? With Haley (who could be seen as a surrogate for Gordon)? What we got was a letter written to Haley and read by her to Cameron, which would have been fine if there was going to be another episode after this. And we got a scene of him teaching a class, which would have been a fine place to leave him if there was going to be another season in which he could reconnect to the other two main characters. But this was the end, and it just felt very strange and unsatisfying to leave him there. As S and I decided last night, the show really needed to show him getting a phone call from Cameron, asking for some unspecified help on Donna’s exciting new idea. Just something to assure the viewer that he and Donna and Cameron will continue to have a relationship moving forward, because the heart of the show has always been the relationships between the main characters. It’s a little disappointing that the writers seem to have forgotten that, and right after we’d complemented them on doing it so well last week, too.

So it wasn’t as good as it could have been. But it wasn’t terrible. It certainly wasn’t the last episode of Justified, but at the same time, it wasn’t the last episode of How I Met Your Mother, either. It’s not like it took our love for the show and stomped on it. The bottom line, I suppose, is that we’ll probably still buy the whole series on DVD or Blu-ray. We just might not watch that last episode very often.

J

When Four Is Greater than Fourteen (or Nine)

HaltandCatchFire

The amazing main cast of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire

So, last night J and I were watching TV. First we watched Halt and Catch Fire on AMC and then flipped over to Ovation for Versailles. Afterwards, we talked. A lot. (I am so tired today. You would not believe.) Versailles is a show I’m particularly attached to, even though I find it incredible frustrating at times, and we discussed what works, what doesn’t, and how we would change the show. (For instance, put Louis and Philippe in a room, and I’m in heaven. Other characters, well, not so much with a lot of them.) On the other hand, we can’t stop talking about how perfect Halt and Catch Fire is. Next Saturday is the two-hour series finale, and assuming they stick the landing, it will rank as one of our favorite shows of all time. So, what makes HaCF different from Versailles?

Joe and Cameron and Gordon and Donna

HaCF never forgets that it’s a show about four people. Yes, there are great insights about the birth of the tech industry, but the first season never scans as an 80s nostalgia show any more than this season reads as the story of the birth of web browsers in the early 90s. Yes, these characters are products of their time, but the show is never about their time; it’s about the four leads. Bos is there (and Toby Huss is listed in the opening credits) to hold Joe, Cameron, Gordon, and Donna together, especially when the story keeps the four characters apart, but the show is always firmly about the main four. Every season sees some new characters added to the cast: Tom in Season 2, Ryan and Diane in Season 3, Katie in Season 4 (as well as the expansion of the roles for Joanie and Haley), but they are only part of the show to enhance the viewer’s knowledge of the main cast. These additional characters never threaten to take over or become some hideous Cousin Oliver.

A good example of the show’s focus on these four characters is the latest episode. One of these lead characters dies at the end of the previous episode, and this entire ep is what happens the day they all go to the deceased character’s home to begin packing. Some shows might take a scene or two for the grief and mundane tasks of those left behind, most likely after a very nicely staged funeral. But HaCF skips the funeral. We are told the service was lovely, and then move on to an entire episode of actually dealing with the death. It’s what this show is about, and why I love it.

MICE

In the terminology outlined by Orson Scott Card in Characters and Viewpoint, HaCF is a Character story. It never tries to be anything other than a Character story, and it does everything it can to be the best Character story possible. Where I think a lot of TV shows (and novels and movies for that matter) go astray is when they don’t understand what kind of story they are telling. I blame Game of Thrones. (And Lord of the Rings, as well.) Sprawling stories with a cast of thousands are the big thing these days. And the ones that work, like GoT and LOTR, work because they are Milieu stories. The cast of GoT is huge, and the individual characters are often amazing and complex, but it’s not a Character story. GoT is the story of Westros. It is a story about place, just as LOTR is the story of Middle-earth. If either of those stories tried to be Character stories, they would be so fundamentally different as to be unrecognizable. Just as HaCF wouldn’t mean nearly as much if it were a Milieu story of the 1980s Austin tech scene.

Louis and…

In terms of MICE, I’m not sure what kind of story Versailles thinks it is. The argument for it being a Milieu story is kind of right there in the title, and the cast is large and ever expanding. (The opening credits of Season 1 lists nine actors, which I think under reports the important characters in the season. For Season 2 it’s been upped to fourteen.) And we certainly spend the majority of our time at the eponymous palace, but if it were truly the story of Versailles, then Season 1 would have been about Louis XIII’s hunting lodge in the woods, and Season 2 about Louis XIV’s expansion, Season 3 Louis XV and the escapades of Madame de Pompadour, and we would eventually wrap up with the French Revolution.

But what if “Versailles” is just code for “Louis”? What if it’s a Character story? In that case, the cast needs to be halved. (In a HaCF shaped show of four main characters and a fifth who ties them together, it would have had a hard focus on Louis, Philippe, Marie-Thérèse, and Liselotte with Bontemps nearby.) If not Character, what if it were an Idea story, which is the structure of most mystery stories? The strongest plot element of Season 1 is certainly the conspiracy against Louis, but in Season 2, the mysteries are the weakest parts. The show could also have been an Event story about the Franco-Dutch Wars. This would certainly require expanding the role of William of Orange, a solid choice considering the best episode of Season 2 consists primarily of Louis and William in a room talking, following one of the most famous battles of that war.

But I don’t know that Versailles picked any of these. The history of this era is ripe for the telling of numerous amazing stories, and yet this show doesn’t seem to have settled on which to tell or how to tell it. This leads to some great characters (truly, I will watch Louis and Philippe in the same room doing or discussing anything) and beautiful moments (the previously mentioned Louis and William scenes, for instance), but it doesn’t lead to as satisfying a whole as I wish.

And so…

I’m not saying Versailles needs to be a Character story to be as good as HaCF, but I am saying it needed to pick the structure right for the story they wanted to tell. And as a writer, this discussion has made me more aware than ever that I must know what my story is about and how best to tell it. This is particularly important as J and I head into NaNoWriMo. We’re tackling the largest story we’ve ever told in a single volume, likely running to over 200,000 words with a huge cast, dozens of locations, and spread over several years and many significant events. Even though I wanted to tell this story because of my fascination with the two leads, I need to remember that I’m really telling an Event story, and while I want to make those two characters (and the rest of the cast) as strong and interesting as possible, I can never lose sight of the Event. This isn’t the novel for endless navel gazing, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re writing a Character story, but that isn’t what I’m writing. And if I start writing that, I’m glad I have J to get me back on track.

~S

We’re Still Here

If you follow this blog, you’ve probably been wondering where we’ve been. Real life has kept us rather busy, actually. First of all, S’s mother passed away in late August, after a month in the hospital, and obviously we were more concerned with that than with keeping up our blog. Some of you—the ones who follow S on twitter and many of our writing friends here in town—already knew this. Thank you for your very kind expressions of sympathy.

In addition, late August was when Fall semester started, so I’ve been back at work (finally). I’m teaching a new course this fall, which means a lot more class prep than I usually have to do. If you’ve never been a teacher, you may not appreciate just how much time it takes to prepare for a new class. Once you’ve taught the same course half a dozen times, you can sort-of do things on autopilot. But the first time around, you have to figure out exactly what you’re going to do every day. Most of my usual writing time is now dedicated to reading and taking notes and planning lectures.

But we’re still working on writing projects. S has written and posted some excellent fanfic, and she’s thinking, too, about her upcoming epistolary novel. And then there’s Magnificent Kingdom, which was our project for July Camp NaNo, and will probably be our project for the actual NaNoWriMo in November, as well. It’s going to be a long novel, so it’s hardly surprising that it takes a while.

Anyway, that’s what we’ve been up to. Hopefully we’ll be able to return to our regular posting schedule here soon. Thanks for your patience.

J