You Can’t Stop The Signal.

To quote a Joss Whedon line. Yep, huge Firefly and Serenity fan here. Although, as soon as I wrote the header I swear I heard Village People singing ‘Can’t stop the music’. Anyway, it’s true that you can’t stop the signal, but it’s equally true that you don’t have to tune into it.

For the last few days I’ve been toying with the idea of writing about creativity and where my ideas come from, because I have a process that often works for me. Some people get a story idea and then find the characters needed to tell it. Others develop a character and then find a story to fit around it. Others do both, and some find a specific theme they like and find a thousand ways to tell it.

In CogWorld, the tentative title of the manuscript I’m working on, I had an idea for a character. She’s been rattling around inside my head, avoiding housework and burning pots and pans, for about six months. The thing was, I didn’t have a story I wanted to waste her in.

Elements of ideas started coming together and sticking, like shit to a blanket. I’ve always been fascinated by good steampunk art, and then one night right in the middle of doing something else, I saw CogWorld, and I had a place for my character.

Back in late April, Chuck Wendig asked us to write a few paragraphs about our protagonist. Here’s mine. You’ll have to scroll down a little to see it, if you’re interested at all.

So, Miriam who becomes Miria but to me is Miri, is finally coming to life. A few of you who know me outside of this blog know that I occasionally use visual prompts to get more insight into my character. I find an image that looks to me like who I want to describe, and that image adds dimensions. Sometimes, too, I consider the characteristics of people I know, or I imagine the characteristics of people I bump into, and those imaginings help me to create other characters.

I think that if you do this, you make your work as a writer more fulfilling, because you have prompts to work from rather than doing all the hard work of creating from scratch. I can tell you that in CogWorld I am developing Miri from a real person who has the qualities I want her to have. I’ve also come up with six other characters so far who have qualities I want to portray, and some of you I’ve discovered in here might be surprised to know that those characters are based on some of my perceptions about you. To be clear, the characters are not you – I don’t know you – but I think we all form some sort of perception about people we interact with. Now don’t go getting all literary and ‘best behaviourish’; I’m not writing for your posterity, unless you want to be a steampunk, that is, and you’d probably never guess correctly anyway because I’m pathologically opposed to being obvious.

I’ve always found that my best stories come from the characters, and not from having a story and fitting the characters into it, if you see what I mean. One of the best ‘supporting actresses’ I’ve ever written was based on a woman I never even spoke to, but briefly saw in Frankfurt Airport (Germany) between flights. Her look and body language while she spoke to someone else I don’t know just rang a bell with an idea I had, and at 38,000 feet she came to life and I knew with certainty how she was going to live, act, respond, and die. Yes, I killed that character, but usually they live.

So, over the last month or so I’ve had a fair few non-blog chats with other people who like to write. It’s not for me to tell you how to improve; I haven’t had a bestseller, you know? And this isn’t advice I’m giving you, either. I’ve just been thinking for a few weeks about how I imagine and construct stories, and all the ones I like the best have strong characterisations. My page stats here and elsewhere also tell a story, as unreliable and misleading as page stats can be. What I know, unreliably, is that 88% of all the big hits happen when I write in the first person, even though literary types tend to sneer at FP. Fuck them; they don’t have to read my stuff then and I eagerly await seeing their shit hit #1 on the NYT Bestseller List.

Averaged, over 90% of the comments, likes, stats, etc, go to the stories that have strong emotions. Strong action never rates as well. All we have to do is go blog hopping to see that the more popular blogs are the ones that have a strong emotional content.

But I don’t want to discuss page hits and stats; they were just illustrating a point. If you’re writing for your own enjoyment and you like having a bit of fun online with others, the pressure is off and rules of writing don’t apply. If you want to be an ‘author’, then maybe it’ll help you to broaden your horizons and consider other ideas, if yours are fixed and unsatisfactory to you. Some people write a story and the characters are just there to transport it. That’s an awful lot of pressure to put on a story idea. Me, I’m a lazy writer. I develop characters and let them do all the heavy lifting, letting them and their experiences and perceptions tell the story. Many hands, and all that.

So if you haven’t already considered it, you might observe people in their native habitat, conceptualise them into a character you find interesting, and see where those characters go when you throw them all together.

Okay, back to CogWorld.

Stay shiny.

21 thoughts on “You Can’t Stop The Signal.

  1. Good advice. The part about strong emotions having more impact than strong actions is true for most people I know (and untrue for a couple of good friends who told me that “emotions are boring, action is good.”)

    Don’t ask why but your post brought to mind Isaac Asimov’s “The Author’s Ordeal”.

    I never start with a story idea either. It’s always a word, an image, a song, a single action of an imagined character. After that comes the fun part: discovering the story as I write it.

  2. Well, get set for more advice then, although why anyone would take notice of anything a random known as Periodically Demented would say is beyond me. 😉

    Don’t push a bad position. Strong chances are you’ll just waste your time and end up with an even shittier story, anyway. Here’s a recent example.

    Last night I was cold, hungry, tired, and zombies were banging on my door. Okay, I was tired. And zombies were banging on my phone, but I’m good at ignoring after-hours calls. So anyway, I found a photo I liked – an old church with ‘mysterious’ lighting outside it. Got an idea for a story, didn’t I? Had no real notion of who the two characters actually were, did I?. Wrote the story anyway and, hey, presto! A thousand words of derivative bullshit. It was ‘Ghost’ meets ‘(Say something) I’m giving up on you’. Filed it in the bin. It was well written, but it was rubbish, and well written rubbish is still only rubbish, even if it is well written. Or something.

    • I take notice because everything you say makes perfect sense to me. (even the stuff I don’t agree with). And now I’m just going to go in a corner and cry. Realizing that I’m perfectly in tune with some who calls himself Periodically Demented can make a wee bit emotional.

      I’ll get over it soon. 😀

  3. Isn’t it funny how we come up with things? My best stuff always comes from a dream I’ve had that really takes hold. Yet rarely does the story stay true to the storyline of the dream. It’s the characters, and maybe sometimes the setting, that tend to grab me. Then I have to figure out what those people are doing there. My current mammoth WIP is a shining example of that.

    Sometimes I need a character to do something, and I’ll have an idea of what that character might be like, but it’s not solid enough for me to describe. So I’ll go looking on the ‘net for a picture, so I can have something to reference. And then sometimes something happens… Case in point, I needed a character to be my bad guy’s bodyguard. He was supposed to be a walk-on character, one scene or maybe a couple, but no big deal. And I knew exactly who would be perfect to “play” him, so I went looking for pictures. Trouble is, as soon as I found the right picture, my perception of the actor (based on all the roles I’d seen him play) suddenly colored the character WAAYYY differently than I had intended. He was supposed to be almost a thug, reflecting the loose-to-non-existent morals of his master. But the only bad guy I’d ever seen this actor play was a Byronic hero. One with morals. One whose honor made him keep his promise to the bad guy because he keeps his promises, even though that promise meant he was stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

    And choosing that actor gave me my favorite character of all time, ever, even more than my protagonist (who I love absolutely!). You’ve seen him already, PD. It’s Deimo. And the actor is Miguel Ferrer. I picked him for that character, and it changed my whole story. It gave my protagonist someone to trust absolutely when she hadn’t been able to trust anyone for over ten years. And it made my story so much better. Far better than I can tell you, far better than I can say at all. You’ll just have to read it when I finish writing it!

    But it’s just as you say–we don’t know those people. It’s our perceptions of them that we use. And sometimes they’re right on target for the real person, and sometimes they’re so off they’re out in the ozone somewhere. The point is that they inspired us to create something, and that is never a bad thing. Even if it’s rubbish that’s only good for throwing out, the act of creation itself is important.

    And there was a Kurt Vonnegut quote that explained what I mean, but of course, damned if I can find it! Oh, well.

    And definitely as Ada said, the fun part is discovering the story as I write it!

    • I LOVE Kurt Vonnegut and I’m a HUGE Ray Bradbury fan. Yes … I’m in love with dead people. I try not to read too much into that. 😀

      Here is another Ray Bradbury quote that, in my mentally unstable opinion, is just brilliant advice for writers: “First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him.” Short, simple, and … you know, brilliant.

  4. In-ter-est-ing. Chanced upon you when I think you looked at something on one of my blogs. I forget which one. Brain cells are dying quickly. I’ve finally admitted I’m not young anymore. I always wanted to write but life got in the way. But now I’m seriously writing. People in my life don’t understand. They say I’m “consumed” by it. How else can you write a story unless you are consumed by it? Eat, sleep and dream about it. Your remark about the emotional things you write about.. For me – I agree. So yes, I think when what you write is an emotional journey then it has an effect on the way they think. I love a good action story but it’s usually forgotten when you read the next one. Action stories are fun. Emotional stories make me think about myself and perhaps change the way I think. It stays with me longer.

    [Edited by PD]

    • Hi Sonniq, and thanks for visiting. I’m certain we crossed paths over at Thumbup and Buddha9s blog. I heavily edited your first comment here because most of it seemed to be promoting your blog and your story, rather than adding to the conversation here. I hope that wasn’t your intention, so rather than mark it as spam I let it through in this stripped down version.

      • No, I wasn’t promoting the blog. If I was i would have included a link. Agreeing with what you said by comparing it to what I’m doing? Sorry if you took offense at that. It definitely wasn’t intended as spam.

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