Thursday, January 28, 2016

Guest Post: The People I've Invited to Live in my Head by Jenn Burke

Jenn Burke, one of the co-authors of the amazing sci-fi m/m series, Chaos Station, is taking over the blog today to talk about characters. These two authors have created incredible characters in their books (go read the series, if you haven't review for book #4 can be found here) and it's fun to see a tiny glimpse into their process. So enjoy...

The People I’ve Invited to Live in my Head
One of the best things about being a writer is dreaming up characters for a new book. Let’s be honest, trolling the internet for inspirational pictures of men is so not a hardship. But that moment when your characters flip from specs and traits on a page to a full-fledged person in your head is amazing—and maybe, just a little annoying.

Because sometimes, they just don’t shut up.

In the shower. As I’m falling asleep. When I’m at the dayjob. Constantly I get poked and prodded by these people I’ve invited to live in my head, offering me suggestions about what they should do in the next scene, or criticism that no, they would not act like that, thank you very much, rewrite that bit.

But’s part of the magic of writing.

It helps to have a well-rounded idea of who your characters are before you start putting words on paper. I have a spreadsheet I use with pertinent details, and each important character gets their own worksheet. If it’s a series, I keep all characters in the same spreadsheet, so I can easily flip back and forth to ensure the main characters from the first book are still represented correctly in the second book. I’ve also been known to add worldbuilding info to these spreadsheets if needed.

So here are the details I find important to know for my characters:

·       Name – This is essential, of course. A name has to represent the character, but also be a name that isn’t going to trip up a reader. If you’re writing spec fic, especially, consider the pronounceability of made-up names. A name full of apostrophes might look cool on paper, but if the reader can’t figure out how to pronounce it, it’s going to throw them out of immersion every time they see it.

·       Casting – If I’ve found an inspirational picture of a model or an actor that captures my impression of the character, I’ll include the name here for reference and/or link to pictures.

·       Nationality – Not always important, depending on what you’re writing. For my work-in-progress that features American and Canadian law enforcement, this is an essential bit.

·       Alignment – My roleplaying roots are showing. This refers to the Dungeons & Dragons system of alignment. It helps me keep in mind how a character will react. For example, a lawful good character will act with compassion and a strong sense of honour, but within the boundaries of established laws. A chaotic good character will do whatever they need to in order to bring about change for the better, regardless of laws.

·       Physical description – I have a separate line for each of: age, eye colour, hair (colour/style), skin tone, build (lean, athletic, muscular, height, etc.), markings (tattoos, piercings, scars, etc.).

·       Marital Status – A character who’s divorced or widowed will have a different outlook on life than a single guy.

·       Occupation – A baker is going to have a different personality than a cop. Unless the baker used to be a cop. All this information goes here.

·       Sexuality – Regardless of whether you’re writing LGBT or heterosexual fiction, this shouldn’t be assumed to default to “heterosexual”.

·       Background – Cultural, racial, financial. I put details in history, but this is a quick reference. It will colour their reactions to everything.

·       History – This is the character’s pertinent history, from childhood. What events shaped him into the person he is at the beginning of the story? If there is an important sequence of events, I might also add a timeline.

·       Good traits – You know when a job interviewer asks you to name your strengths? That’s what this is.

·       Bad traits – Flipside, this is that “what’s your greatest weakness” interview question everyone hates. You need to make these bad traits real, because although readers will like a character for his good traits, the bad ones he’s able to overcome will be why they love him.

·       Hobbies – These may or may not get detailed in your story, but they help to colour the character in your head. For instance, a highly physical cop who does word puzzles in his spare time is just that much deeper than you first expect.

In the Chaos Station series, Kelly and I each dreamed up one of the main characters—Zed is mine, Felix is hers—and we write their POV scenes exclusively (though we both write our third POV character, Elias). Here’s an example of Zed’s good/bad traits from the profile I created before we started writing the first book of the series.
Good traits: Noble, self-sacrificing; when he commits to a cause, he commits all the way; loyal; protective; stubborn. Easily believes and supports big causes, understands the large picture.
Bad traits: Rich boy. He can be selfish and entitled and occasionally resents his lot in life; he was supposed to be a hero, not a damaged ex-soldier who was tossed aside when he was no longer needed. Ruthless and deadly soldier. He hates that he has the capacity to make difficult, awful decisions, but knows that someone needs to do it. Lost. He’s on the edge of giving up and just finding someplace to die. He's tired, burned out, disillusioned.

In Inversion Point (Chaos Station #4), we see flashes of Zed’s resentment at his lot in life, particularly when he’s confronted by Felix’s ex, Theo Paredes—the guy he might have been, had his service in the war gone in a different direction. Even though I created this profile for Zed as he was at the beginning of Chaos Station (and he’s grown over the series since then), it was really satisfying to be able to pull on this thread, four books later.

What do you think of this list? Anything you’d add or change? I love seeing other writers’ processes, so please feel free to share in the comments!

Inversion Point
Book four of Chaos Station

Zander and Felix's relationship has been to the brink and back: the Human-Stin War, imprisonment and death/resurrection. Zander's death, to be specific, and the experience has left him…changed. The mysterious race known as the Guardians chose to revive him and appointed him as their emissary. A high honor, but he could do without the group of would-be cultists following him around the galaxy.
When a recently discovered species destroys a stin probe, Zander's new role soon commands all of his time and focus. The human ambassador—Felix's ex-lover, much to Zander’s annoyance—pulls them into strategy talks aimed at preserving galactic peace. Soon everyone is relying on Zander's Guardian tech to telepathically communicate with the strange aliens.

Only Felix seems concerned with the strain piling up on Zander, but he has his own resolve tested when the very stin that imprisoned him show up to a summit. Zander and Felix will both have to find a way to face their doubts and preserve their love—while preventing another galaxy-wide war.

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Jenn and Kelly met in 2009 through a mutual infatuation with a man who wasn’t real. After all but crashing the video game’s forums with daily dissection of their obsession, they started writing together, discovered they really liked writing together and began plotting stories in worlds of their own creation.

The CHAOS STATION series aren’t the first books they’ve written together, and they’re pretty sure they won’t be the last. As long as their so-called smartphones keep making autocorrects that trigger brainstorming sessions, they’ll have enough character ideas and plots to keep them writing for years to come.

Connect with Jenn: Twitter | Facebook | Website
Connect with Kelly: Twitter | Facebook | Website

Prize: The first three books in the Chaos Station series, Chaos Station, Lonely Shore and Skip Trace and a $25 gift card to the online bookseller of your choice.

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Thank you, Jenn, for sharing with us today!!


Jenn Burke said...

Thanks so much for having me, Christi! Always a pleasure. :)

Jen said...

I love your spreadsheet! That is so like something I would do (although I am not a fiction writer).

Thank you for sharing it. And thanks for writing such a fantastic series. :-)

ShirleyAnn said...

Wow so much information being a reader I find it so interesting when I find out how much work goes into writing a books.

Jenn Burke said...

Thank you, Jen! I'm so glad you're enjoying the series. :)

Jenn Burke said...

Kelly and I have a folder FULL of tidbits about the Chaos Station galaxy, from station names to colonies that were destroyed in the war to a start map of human, ashushk and stin territories. Worldbuilding is a really fun task! :)

Jenn Burke said...
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