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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Dialogue w/o explatives? (Page 1)

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Author Topic: Dialogue w/o explatives?
Ethereon
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I'm wondering if anyone has any tips about how to have authentic sounding dialogue without using explatives or resorting to cheesy pseudo-explatives (ex gosh-darn)or made up explatives (ala Battlestar Galactica etc).

Mild explatives are increadibly common in regular non-emotionally charged speech, never mind angry/frustrated outbursts. When I imagine a heated exchange and then try to remove the questionable language the result sounds very flat or fake. If I have the characters use a broader vocabulary to express their anger etc this also seems unrealistic.

Argh. Any suggestions?


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Teraen
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It sounds like you want to avoid profanity?

Making up unique cursing is hard, and usually sounds fake. Red Dwarf and Clockwork Orange are the two that spring to mind that managed to pull it off.

It has been said "profanity is the effort of a weak mind trying to express itself forcefully..." I try to avoid using profanity in my works for this reason. I think of it as a crutch for lazy attention to dialogue. Of course, many characters HAVE weak minds, and so would tend to use profanity. But I look at it as a challenge for myself to force myself to write more descriptive dialogue.

There are those who vehemently disagree, and say the only way to have authentic dialogue is to have realistic profanity. I don't think that is the case. For instance, I am a fan of the old Twilight Zone series. Public standards were a little stricter back then, so they didn't allow profanity. Yet many of the dialogues were very dramatic. (I admit, there is a distinction between spoken words from actors and dry words on a page...) The point is that you can look at hesitation to write profanity as a limitation, or an opportunity to improve dialogue. As dialogue is frequently cited as the most difficult aspect of writing to master, I like the challenge.

But moving on to your actual question... You want to know how avoid swearing?

In my current WIP, I am trying to invoke (or is evoke?) a sense of the old Roman Empire in my reader, so I looked up actual Latin insults and changed it around a bit. I was able to find ones that sound offensive to the ear, but aren't really offensive, either because they really don't mean anything in Latin cause I changed it, or it isn't what I would consider offensive (like calling someone a mushroom.) The Romans also considered themselves better because of their culture, so calling someone a barbarian or unshaven were insults. In this case, there was some lower class of people and insults were directed at associating the insultee with the lower group, ie guilt by association.

Association with a historical group isn't always a realistic option, though. In general, perjoratives and swearing tend to follow common themes. They reference certain bodily functions or products or anatomical pieces, or certain offensive substances (like garbage or whatever).

Cultural differences also make a... er... difference. In Montreal, for instance, religious words are used for cursing. So you have words like Moses, sacrament, and tabernacle used. So insults and cursing tend to violate the norms of the society. You can use this to your advantage. For example, if you are writing scifi where people are more advanced intellectually, calling someone an idiot would have a worse connotation than we associate with it.

Of course, all these assume you want to create a sense of swearing-without-profanity in your work. The real challenge of avoiding profanity is avoiding even the substitutes swear words. Part of this involves the world you choose to write about. Pirates would be harder to dialogue for than monks in a monastery... (or would they? Maybe there are some really pious pirates and some really evil monks... That's a free prompt if anyone is interested...)

You can always avoid quoting the dialogue. For instance, instead of

"(insert profanity of choice)-ing pirates!" Bob the monk shouted.

You simply write:

Bob the monk cursed and slammed his fist on the table.

Or

"Filthy pirates."

Or whatever.

Try paying attention to dialogues from TV and other written works, and see how they manage to use language without swearing. Try massaging deeper meaning into your characters' discussions. You may surprise yourself. Profanity works in part because it is something so low that anybody can read what they want into the word. Trying to be more explicit with meaning without being more offensive is the trick.


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Teraen
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Disclaimer:

I didn't mean to imply that I have actually pulled this off. This is just how I am approaching the issue myself.


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genevive42
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Well, it depends on what world your characters are living in. If it's present day and you're writing for an edgier market that won't mind the expletives, then go ahead. But know that you may turn some people off.

But if you characters are in a completely different world or time, I would expect the expletives to be different.

So the difficult task is to make up expletives that suit your world. If your world doesn't have bulls, then you wouldn't have bullsh**, but you might have bantha fodder. Stay true to the tone of your world and you should be okay.


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Teraen
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By the way, one more point I wanted to make. High artsy fartsy literary types may insist that profanity is needed to make something realistic, but since many people find profanity offensive, and since those who don't usually aren't offended if profanity isn't present (do they even notice??), you are limiting your future audience if you include lots of profanity. Keeping it clean keeps it more likely to be popular. Just a thought.

Some other resources in case you are interested in exploring more on this:

Insult swordfighting:
Inventive insults by OSC. These are effective. Some of the rhyming ones I consider silly. But others are good. I wish I knew why 'cause then I could write like that...
http://ansible.wikia.com/wiki/Insult_swordfighting

General dialogue advice:
http://fictionwriting.about.com/od/crafttechnique/tp/dialogue.htm

Essay on writing without profanity:
http://thedabblingmum.com/writing/fiction/profanityornot.htm

Essay from a SciFi author:
http://www.sfwriter.com/ow08.htm

A contrarian view to my opinion:
http://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/1380716-Profanity
(Contains lots of...er... examples of profanity, in case you don't like that sort of thing.)


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TamesonYip
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I liked this quote:

Profanity, at its core, is best used as violence without action.

Gary A. Braunbeck

I am willing to use profanity, but it needs to be the right impact at the moment. I do have a tendency towards using light British cusswords though (ie bloody- I feel like that can kind of fit as a curse word for lots of cultures because of the nature of blood).


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KayTi
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I use a "she cursed under her breath" kind of style for my YA sci-fi works. I spare the reader the curse word, just let them know that my character knows it.

I actually use it to some comedic effect in my WIP - I have a bum/hobo character refer to the mc with the explanation "talks like a sailor, that one..." (where the mc has only ever cursed here and there, without me actually putting the curse words into dialogue, leaving it all up to the imagination of the reader.)

Works for me.


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rich
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That's a great quote.

But it's really very simple: If your character swears then have him/her swear. If he/she doesn't, then don't.

rich (swearing since '86)


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axeminister
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And now - the opposing faction.
I don't swear. Not never of course, it's just now how I talk.
It's because of this one time, as a kid, I was watching The Incredible Hulk and I said the word Hell and my mom freaked. I mean freaked. There are some things you don't ever recover from.

Plus, I've always found it more creative linguistically to not swear. In high school it was especially difficult when we had to read books aloud and I refused to say the curse words. Then again, if a few hair strands are out of place someone is going to say something during HS.

My characters swear, but not often. I've adopted a pg-13 philosophy when it comes to my works. One F bomb per book. After that there's some light swearing, but I feel that without the F's in there, the others aren't noticed as much. Plus, there isn't much. Even for my serial killer novel. So far, one F, in a very strategic place.

Many comedians swear like crazy, but watch Bill Cosby or Brian Regan. Maybe Stephen Wright also.

Try watching a lot of stuff like Law and Order. TV shows do it just fine.

Let the core of the argument or disagreement be what they talk about and keep the expletives/insults out of it.

Axe


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Ethereon
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Thanks folks. That's some very useful info.
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tchernabyelo
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Also, it's expletives, not explatives.
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TamesonYip
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One other thing to keep in mind with cussing- swear words often change over time. What I might say when mad is different than what my grandmother (who might have just as salty a mouth as me) might have said. Depending on the cussword, you might have a dated feel to the word. I found in my ancient civilization fantasy, sometimes I really felt like my character would have responded by looking at the guy and saying F you, but reading it aloud, that felt wrong for the culture. So, I had to spend a lot of time thinking about other ways to phrase it that would be in culture.
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Robert Nowall
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I suppose it depends on whether you use the words as nouns, verbs, or adjectives.
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tchernabyelo
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Many words can be use as all of the above. Some years ago, on the terraces at a Sheffield United, I swear I heard a fellow fan shout "Chuffing chuff the chuffing chuffer!"

And yes, "chuff" is a mild swear word in Yorkshire.


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Ethereon
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Thank you for your attention to spelling and mechanics tchernabyelo. It's always appreciated!
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rstegman
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Keep in mind, that insults change with time. moron, idiot, geek, Nincompoop, each were hard hitting at one time, real insults, then lost their power.

In my Waxy stories, I have a teddy bear who enters his pillow to get party favor type toys for them to play with. when He is searching inside, you will here "butterflies, cream puffs, bicycles," which is his form of cursing as he cannot find what he is looking for.

It really depends on HOW things are said. Say something sharply, and it can be a cuss word.

"go take a long walk off a short pier, Go fly a kite, get lost, are mild insults nowadays but may have been serious insults when they first appeared.

Edited to add a quote. I remember hearing about a proper woman. A friend quoted her as saying "there are times when Damn is just not strong enough."

[This message has been edited by rstegman (edited June 18, 2010).]


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MAP
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I'm with rich on this. If your character swears, then be true to the character. But like everything else, excessive use can be annoying.
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EricJamesStone
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quote:
If your character swears, then be true to the character.

Your character swears only if you want your character to swear. Your character is your creation, and if you don't want swearing in your story, then your character does not have to swear.

Even if your character would swear if he were a real person, that does not mean you must put the swear words in your story. Some of your characters almost certainly would have "um" or "er" or "uh" or "like" or "y'know" laced throughout their dialogue if they were real people, but you do not need to include stuff that is annoying to the reader just because it is "realistic."

You are trying to communicate a story to an audience. If swear words would interfere with conveying your story to your intended audience, then leave the swear words out.


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MAP
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quote:
Your character swears only if you want your character to swear. Your character is your creation, and if you don't want swearing in your story, then your character does not have to swear.

I completely disagree with this. Characters take on a life of their own. You can't force them to behave in a way that is unnatural.

For example: I watched "The Usual Suspects" the other day. LOVE LOVE LOVE that movie. The characters swear, but not excessively. It would have been completely unrealistic to have these hardened criminals never use the F-word. It would be forcing them to behave in ways that they wouldn't. Of course you don't have to write about a group of thugs, but if you do, you can't have them talk like clergy men.

quote:
Even if your character would swear if he were a real person, that does not mean you must put the swear words in your story. Some of your characters almost certainly would have "um" or "er" or "uh" or "like" or "y'know" laced throughout their dialogue if they were real people, but you do not need to include stuff that is annoying to the reader just because it is "realistic."

If your character was a modern day teenager, I would expect a little "Like" and "You know" in their dialog, but not excessive, just enough to give a flavor for their voice. The same with "er" and "uh" if the character is a nervous person. I know people use "um" and "er" excessively in real life and writing real dialog would be annoying, but you have to sprinkle in a little of this if it fits the character. The same with swear words.

You have to let characters act and speak like living, breathing people otherwise they will seem unrealistic.

Believe me, I learned the hard way that at some point you define your characters enough that you lose all control over them, and it is no longer what do I want this character to do, and more what would this character do in this situation.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited June 19, 2010).]


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
Characters take on a life of their own. You can't force them to behave in a way that is unnatural.

Metaphorically, characters take on a life of their own. In reality, they are not real people, and as their author you have to power to alter them to suit your story-telling purpose.

Let's say you're writing a children's picture book, and one of your characters just takes on a life of his own and starts using the F-word. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that isn't going to work for a children's picture book. If you want to sell that book to a children's book publisher, you change the character so that he no longer says the F-word. It's not forcing the character to behave in a way that is unnatural because there is nothing natural about the character -- he is a figment of your imagination.

The characters that "take on a life of their own" are great, as long as they are working in the service of your story. If they are not, then you have to show them who the boss is.

quote:
You have to let characters act and speak like living, breathing people otherwise they will seem unrealistic.

No, you do not have to let them to speak like living, breathing people, because the dialogue of living, breathing people is awkward and annoying when accurately transcribed. What you really want is to create the illusion of realistic dialogue, in the service of telling your story to your intended audience.

Look, for all the authors who want to include swear words in their stories and who are writing for an audience that doesn't mind swear words, go ahead and do so. It's no skin off my nose. I'm just trying to make it clear for authors who do not want to use swear words that there is absolutely no artistic requirement that they do so "to be true to the character" or "to be realistic."


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wetwilly
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A quick explanation about the following post: I don't mean to insult anyone or call anyone stupid or anything like that. I just disagree with something that was said, and want to share my thoughts, but I just spent the last two days refinishing my hardwood floors, and I am too pooped to figure out the most innocuous way to say it. Please don't take offense. Just because I disagree with the statement doesn't mean I think the statement is stupid.

As writers, we have this weird pseudo-mystical idea that our characters and stories have their own wills, and we don't have control over them. Our characters behave as they want to behave, or the story took on a life of its own and came out the way it wanted to be told.

This makes no sense to me. Your character is not a person, it's a non-existent construct of your imagination. You made it. Anything your character does comes from your head, not its own (which does not exist). The idea that characters have their own wills is illogical. You created them from nothing to serve your purposes. The idea of you compromising anything because a figment of your imagination demands it is really weird.

In my opinion, when our characters surprise us, it's our subconscious desires and beliefs surfacing through the weird little psychological game we're playing as we write. I don't think that warrants letting our characters "do" whatever they want. You're the author and its your story, and if you don't want them to cuss, then damn it, don't let them.


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MAP
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quote:
Metaphorically, characters take on a life of their own. In reality, they are not real people, and as their author you have to power to alter them to suit your story-telling purpose.

It seems like it should be this way, but I don't think it really is. I heard somewhere, and in my experience it is true (I don't remember who said it and I am paraphrasing) "It is only when our characters cease to obey us that they really live."

When I first heard it I thought that was silly and seemed like crazy writer talk, but now I see that it is logical.

We give our characters personality traits and specific characteristics. Once these become well defined, our characters will not do anything just because the plot demands it.

An animal activist will not shoot a puppy just to further the plot. Of course you can tweak the situation so that she would shoot the puppy like give the puppy rabies.

That is a stupid example, but I hope you see what I mean. We can't force our characters to act out of character just to further the plot. Characters who are just slaves to the plot come off as inconsistent and unrealistic.

I did this with a MC of one of my stories, and I got feedback from people saying they couldn't get a feel for her and that she felt inconsistent. It took me a while to realize that I was forcing her to do whatever my outline wanted her to do. I had to go back through the entire story and either let her behave the way she wanted to or alter the situation so that she would do what I needed her to do. It was tough, and required a lot of thinking. The other way was much easier, but now she has a well-defined believable personality.

quote:
Let's say you're writing a children's picture book, and one of your characters just takes on a life of his own and starts using the F-word. Well, I hate to break it to you, but that isn't going to work for a children's picture book. If you want to sell that book to a children's book publisher, you change the character so that he no longer says the F-word. It's not forcing the character to behave in a way that is unnatural because there is nothing natural about the character -- he is a figment of your imagination.

I don't appreciate your sarcasm.

Look, I am not saying you don't write with your audience in mind. But if you have a gritty character, you have to portray them how they are. I would say a gritty character doesn't belong in a picture book, and if such a character manifests himself, he shouldn't just be censored, he should be removed completely.

quote:
The characters that "take on a life of their own" are great, as long as they are working in the service of your story. If they are not, then you have to show them who the boss is.

Some people think the characters are the story. If you don't care about the characters, then why do you care what happens in the story. This is how I feel as well.

I know not everyone feels this way, but I think you will always have a better story with well-developed characters.

quote:
No, you do not have to let them to speak like living, breathing people, because the dialogue of living, breathing people is awkward and annoying when accurately transcribed. What you really want is to create the illusion of realistic dialogue, in the service of telling your story to your intended audience.

Okay, I agree with this to some extent. Real living dialog would be boring (I already said this in my previous post), but you need to let some of the character's voice come through. I've always said to not use swear words excessively. Some people swear every other word. That would be annoying to read, but to have that character never swear would be unrealistic. Sure you rein them in a little, but you need to give the impression of how the character would really speak.

quote:
Look, for all the authors who want to include swear words in their stories and who are writing for an audience that doesn't mind swear words, go ahead and do so. It's no skin off my nose. I'm just trying to make it clear for authors who do not want to use swear words that there is absolutely no artistic requirement that they do so "to be true to the character" or "to be realistic."

And I would argue that if you don't want to use swear words then don't create characters who would use them.

I am going to stick with the mantra, "Be true to your character."
Your story will be stronger for it. Of course this is JMO, take it or leave it.

[This message has been edited by MAP (edited June 19, 2010).]


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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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This is something that we may need to agree to disagree on.

If I remember correctly, Lajos Egri, in his book THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING said (paraphrasing here) that if a character doesn't do what you need the character to do in a story, fire the character and use one that will.

On the other hand, I am inclined to encourage writers to change the situation so that the character has to do what is needed for the story (it can increase the conflict and provide the character with a powerful dilemma, and that can make the story more powerful all the way around) rather than have a character do something the character wouldn't do without some other compelling reason.

Consider, if you have a gritty character and you don't want that character to swear, and you can figure out something interesting to add to the story that would motivate the character to not swear, you just might have added extra depth and complications to the story.

And clarifying the motivations can help the reader care about the character more, as well.


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Merlion-Emrys
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EricJamesStone, if I may ask, what genre do you primarily write? Science fiction, fantasy, horror, none of the above?
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Eric James Stone has had his science fiction and fantasy stories published professionally since he was in Writers of the Future in 2004. See his bibliography for a list of his published fiction.


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KayTi
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quote:
I am going to stick with the mantra, "Be true to your character."

I'm going to go back to what I said before, which is you can be true to your character without actually inserting curse words into your dialog. Refer to them as swear words. Have the other characters cringe or react to them. Make sure that character has action beats that really deliver the emotional point (and if they aren't emotional with their swearing, all the more reason to insert action beats that juxtapose the swearing with lighting a cigarette or what have you.)

Just because your character swears doesn't mean you have to make the reader hear it. They just need to know ABOUT it. (if it's relevant to the story.)



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EricJamesStone
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Merlion-Emrys, Kathleen linked to my list of publications (Thanks, Kathleen!), but to answer your question more specifically, I write science fiction, fantasy, and a bit of (mostly humorous) horror.

I've never had an editor ask me to add swear words in order to make the dialogue more realistic, not even for my story that focused on modern-day Irish-American mobsters. And I've never had an editor ask me to take swear words out, because I've never used anything stronger than "Hell" (and even in that case it was being used to refer to the actual place, rather than as a swear word.)

I have occasionally done as KayTi suggests and let the reader know that the character swore without quoting the character verbatim.


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rich
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Since MAP seconded(?) me, I'm going to be a little more expansive.

ALL characters we write about have some of us in them. If Eric James Stone doesn't swear, more than likely his characters won't swear because he's interested in those types of characters. (And I have no idea if Stone swears like a drunken sailor or not.)

The point is that we tend to write stories that interest us, and those characters that interest us. I'm a big fan of Joe Lansdale and every single one of his characters swears like a drunken sailor.

I still think (and will leave it at the "agree to disagree") that characters do take a life of their own as we figure out who they are, and what they do. Yeah, we move them around as story dictates, and if the character isn't doing what he/she should be doing in certain situations then it's up to us as the author to ensure we get the right character involved (as someone alluded to earlier.)

Personally, I've got no issues with characters swearing. And those that know me can attest that if a character is swearing in a children's book, I'm probably the guy that wrote it.

(The other side: Know your audience. If you're writing YA, then you don't want to have people dropping F-bombs left and right.)


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TrishaH24
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I follow the rule that you don't swear in YA unless it's absolutely necessary, but it has always bothered me to some extent because when I was in high school (albeit that was almost ten years ago now) there was more swearing in the halls (and even in class on occasion) than on the tv shows I watch, in movies I saw and in my house combined! And I wasn't living a sheltered life by any means. So I don't understand why there is such a fuss about words like "damn" or even "crap" in YA when nearly every 14-18 year old says (or at least HEARS) worse at school on a regular basis.

So yes, I think dropping the F bomb is still more or less unacceptable in YA (and has to be used for a good reason in adult mainstream work) but it rubs me the wrong way if I have a character say "Crap!" in YA and I get reamed for it.

Ultimately I don't think there are any hard and fast rules for swearing. But there are fewer good examples for books with "fake" swears out there than there are books that used swears as a way to flesh out characters.


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Elan
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I'd like to offer a broader perspective on this discussion.

Believe it or not, cussing a lot in everyday non-emotionally conversation is NOT a universal fact of life. In fact, until the past decade or so, even in the USA it wasn't common.

I will be the first to admit that I'm not a puritan, nor a purist. I cuss myself. I have been known to use the F-bomb. But I'm also 50+ years of age, and can assure you that, taking a big picture view, using gutter-language regularly in day-to-day conversation is a recent cutural trend.

So how could all those novelists and movie writers of yesteryear possibly have had an interesting plot without cussing? It's because they focused on the plot, not the cussing. Yes, the plot CAN exist without profanity. I swear! (Metaphorically.)

I just wish someone would tell my next door neighbors, who stand outside smoking and chatting with each other, using variations of the F-bomb every other word in a loud and penetrating voice, that it's not necessary to speak in Profanese. We have small children who live on our street.

And it truly adds nothing of value to the culture to lace profanity into EVERYthing thing we read, see, or hear. It does the opposite, in my opinion. It sullies our culture. What will future generations think of us, and our novels? Your written words may outlive you. How do YOU want to be remembered?

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited June 21, 2010).]


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Merlion-Emrys
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Here, I will just say that my characters, at least, generally take on lives of their own. I'm not even that strongly character focused of a writer...and not at all in the "the character is the story" camp taste wise. But I find the idea that our characters are simply "figments of your (our) imagination" to be, honestly, a slightly strange view for a creative writer to have. I believe they are more than that, pyschologically and metaphorically at least. Probably more, but then, I'm a mystic and a spiritualist, not a rationalist or materialist.


That being said the profanity issue is both simple and complex. As someone, rich I think, said our characters have a lot of us in them and its true.
I grew up in a household where profanity was simply not allowed, period, ever. I've never really got in the habbit and it doesnt come to me naturally. So, there is very little in my writing...even in some cases with characters that many would say "should" use it. But when they talk in my head, that isn't how they talk, so that isn't how I write them.

I think the bottom line in this...and many things is be true to your writing, your style and your characters and to *bleep* with what others think.


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tchernabyelo
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"Believe it or not, cussing a lot in everyday non-emotionally conversation is NOT a universal fact of life. In fact, until the past decade or so, even in the USA it wasn't common."

I think that statement may be true for some social classes/groups.

I think it's far from true for others.


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Merlion-Emrys
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I'm pretty sure it has become more widespread with time though, judging from my experiences and the related experiences of my parents and grandparents.

It has certainly become much more widely accepted in a wider range of circumstances.

But there are definitely groups...and again, situations or circumstances...where its always been pretty normal.


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babooher
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Merlion wrote "I'm pretty sure it has become more widespread with time though..."

I agree. In fact, I think that it is completely ubiquitous in some circles, so ubiquitous that it is almost invisible.

And that is why I don't think you need it. Curse words just add to the word count and not the overall effect. They are throw-away words in real life, so using them in dialogue is just a waste. The reader won't notice unless you use some other lame interjection.

I'm a teacher. I hear everything under the sun as I walk the halls. For a student to cuss means nothing. They do it in place of other interjections like "uh". Now, if I dropped an F-bomb,which I haven't, you can believe jaws would drop. Because of my judicious use of the words, the words have more power for me.

As writers we must empower our words, not waste them. Make sure each word counts and if you truly need to curse, the mature reader won't give a damn.


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Teraen
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"Because of my judicious use of the words, the words have more power for me."

This is going in my list of quotes about writing. Very profound. You have my gratitude for thinking it and typing it...


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MAP
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Wow, Babooher, very profound. Thanks for sharing.

Love your subtle reference to Gone with the Wind.


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wetwilly
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quote:
But I find the idea that our characters are simply "figments of your (our) imagination" to be, honestly, a slightly strange view for a creative writer to have.

Really? I honestly don't know what other view I could possibly have. The character is a construct that I dreamed up. Regardless of the process I went through to develop it, it's a figment of my imagination. That's simply what it is. What else could it be?

And, in case it matters, I do tend to fall in the "the character is the story" camp in my personal tastes.

And to Elan, who said

quote:
I just wish someone would tell my next door neighbors, who stand outside smoking and chatting with each other, using variations of the F-bomb every other word in a loud and penetrating voice, that it's not necessary to speak in Profanese.

If not you, then who?


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Elan
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quote:
If not you, then who?

I'm picking my battles. I'll be happy if they will just drop the overall volume down. I've had to march over there in my bathrobe to inform them that, sitting in my house with my doors and windows closed I still can't hear my television over their car radio (which was so loud I stood beside him while he was working on his car screaming "HEY YOU" at the top of my lungs and he still didn't hear me until I timed it to scream during a moment in between the teeth-rattling boom-boom-boom.)

If they ever figure out the whole inappropriate volume level issue, then I won't HEAR their running conversation of F-bombs.

Continual cursing, continual noise pollution, continual dumbing down of society... *sigh*... It's our job as writers to rescue them from their own idiocracy.

[This message has been edited by Elan (edited June 24, 2010).]


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Robert Nowall
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I'm thinking in real life, you've got to be careful how you approach your neighbors about almost any sort of behavior you'd like curtailed...because you and they will all be there for some time whatever you argue about, and who knows what'll happen if you complain?

I like to limit my use of profanities in my fiction, because I think they lose all emotional force if every other word is the "F" word.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
Really? I honestly don't know what other view I could possibly have. The character is a construct that I dreamed up. Regardless of the process I went through to develop it, it's a figment of my imagination. That's simply what it is. What else could it be?


Ohh there are many possibilities. Here's one:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tulpa

In "The Mothman Prophecies" John Keel relates that apparently an apparition strongly resembling the radio character "The Shadow" was frequently seen in the neighborhood of the guy that wrote/created the character.

I remember another story...and I can't remember if it was in "On Writing," or "Danse Macabre" or referenced in a book about Stephen King's work I was looking at, but apparently a writer...I can't remember who...was vacationing or something and had had an idea for a new story but hadn't got to work on it. The cabin where they were staying caught fire...and he was awoken by what appear to be one of the characters from the story he had contemplated (there was more too it than that but this was some time ago I saw it.


All that aside, I think at the least our characters often have greater pyschological substance than simply figments. The unconscious gets involved in creativity a lot. I think often our characters may sometimes be manifestations of different parts of ourselves. And while yes we're doing the writing and are theortically in control...it may not always be conscious control. I think most or at least many of us have experienced a character...even a whole story...go off in ways we didnt really intend and trying to "force" it to do what we'd originally thought of produces not so great results. That may well be the unconscious getting involved a bit.


I guess to me for a writer to call his characters nothing more than "figments" is much like a painter calling his brushes nothing more than sticks with bristles or my muscian dad calling his guitar a hunk of wood with strings. Technically true, I suppose, but rather incomplete and overly dismissive.


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
I guess to me for a writer to call his characters nothing more than "figments" is much like a painter calling his brushes nothing more than sticks with bristles or my muscian dad calling his guitar a hunk of wood with strings.

For me, for a writer to believe that characters he has imagined have wills of their own is much like a painter saying his brush moves by itself or a musician saying his guitar plays itself. As a figurative expression about how the artist's unconscious can affect expression of the art, it's fine. But if the artist starts believing that is literally true -- well, that's good fodder for horror stories.

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tchernabyelo
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I don't see the analogy between characters and brushes/guitar. Brushes and guitars are surely analaogous to pens, or cumpter keyboards - or just possibly to words (though I'd tend to say words are the equivalent of notes in music, and probably strokes of the brush in painting). But to characters? Characters are not tools of writing, they are components of it.

Broadly, I'm with Eric. While we may say "oh, so-and-so wouldn't do that" when talking about our characters and their refusal to act the way the plot needs - well, you have two hoices. You either change the plot, or you change the character. People who are plot-driven will take one course of action, people who are character-driven will take another, but ultimately it's the author who created the character and the story and the author who has to resolve the issue if he's created incompatibilities between them.

(Or if you're a Hollywood screenwriter, you ignore the incompatibility completely... figuring no-one will notice, or care if they do notice...)


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wetwilly
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OK, I guess there is the possibility that our characters are ghosts or some other form of spiritual manifestation channeling through us and getting us to tell fictional stories about them, but unless anyone wants to seriously discuss that possibility, I think we can safely leave that one by the wayside. Consider that idea dismissed.

I think we all agree with the following:

quote:
All that aside, I think at the least our characters often have greater pyschological substance than simply figments. The unconscious gets involved in creativity a lot. I think often our characters may sometimes be manifestations of different parts of ourselves. And while yes we're doing the writing and are theortically in control...it may not always be conscious control. I think most or at least many of us have experienced a character...even a whole story...go off in ways we didnt really intend and trying to "force" it to do what we'd originally thought of produces not so great results. That may well be the unconscious getting involved a bit.

That is still a figment of your imagination. I guess we could split semantic hairs, but the point is that your character is a creation that springs forth from your mind, and the idea that it (which is technically not even an "it," just a non-existent imaginary construct) has it's own mind is, to me, silly. It's a creation of your mind.

I am a musician. Whether characters are analogous to musical instruments or music notes, I don't let either one make the decisions when I'm writing a song. In fact, neither one has ever fought me for control. They both pretty much do what I tell them.

EJS, "good fodder for horror stories"...I think Stephen King agrees. Thence cometh "The Dark Half."

[This message has been edited by wetwilly (edited June 24, 2010).]


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dee_boncci
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On the original question, if some facet your story demands rough language, just use it, in my opinion. If the natural language of your story is offensive to you or you perceive it will be to your intended audience to the point it makes you squeamish, maybe you are telling the wrong story.

And to me the whole notion of a lot of what is characterized as "foul" language is silly. For example, poo, poop, poo-poo, number 2, bowel movement, stool, and feces are all generally acceptable in at least some "polite" social settings. Moving towards the gutter from there you have the intermediate bad ones like crap and turd (might be okay if it slips out in front of Dad, but not Mom). Then there's (quick, cover the children's ears) the taboo, most hideous, "s-word".

They all mean the same thing! So what makes one better than the other besides some arbitrary social norm imposed to segregate the speech of the common people (i.e., the vulgar) from the social elite several hundred years ago?

Most all swear words have an origin in the biological side of human life, and how some got to be employed as simple expletives without a lot of connection to their definition probably says a lot about us. Yet even my sainted grandmother said, "Oh, poo!" when she dropped the pepper grinder into the spaghetti sauce.

I can only think of a very few words, most all of which have strong racist or other hate-based overtones, that truly have a different meaning beyond their polite (pseudo-)synonyms. And though I won't say them them myself, I have no problem if they appear in fiction when they fit the story's characters.

And I think swearing using most of the same terms we have today has been going strong for a long time. I remember years ago I was shocked when I found out what FUBAR and SNAFU stood for, since they came from the generation of my grandparents while I naively thought the F-bomb was a word made up by "bad" people in my generation.


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Merlion-Emrys
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quote:
OK, I guess there is the possibility that our characters are ghosts or some other form of spiritual manifestation channeling through us and getting us to tell fictional stories about them, but unless anyone wants to seriously discuss that possibility, I think we can safely leave that one by the wayside. Consider that idea dismissed.


Well, you're free to consider it so of course, but I wouldn't assume everyone will. Not everyone is a rationalist or a materialist. Its a little presumptuous maybe to assume everyone is as willing to dismiss the idea that the results of their creativity may be more than just "figments."

As I said, there are many possibilities. The pyschological ones are undeniable...and we all know the subconscious isnt always under as direct and easy a control as the conscious.

That aside theres the concept of the muse...I think many of us sometimes feel our stories, or some parts of them, are coming in from outside.

Also as I said, I'm a mystic and for me storytelling is part of my spiritual journey so to speak, part of how I try to understand things. I do sometimes feel as though something outside of me may sometimes nudge my storytelling in order to further that understanding.


quote:
That is still a figment of your imagination. I guess we could split semantic hairs, but the point is that your character is a creation that springs forth from your mind, and the idea that it (which is technically not even an "it," just a non-existent imaginary construct)


So, to you, nothing is real that doesn't have a material manifestation. So what about emotions and thoughts? Are they non-existent as well? If characters and stories are non-existent, not even an "it" how is it they have such a powerful effect on people?

quote:
I am a musician. Whether characters are analogous to musical instruments or music notes, I don't let either one make the decisions when I'm writing a song. In fact, neither one has ever fought me for control. They both pretty much do what I tell them.


Well thats fine, but it isn't always like that for everyone. I have many times experienced a story, for lack of any other way to put it, going off in its own direction, sometimes due to characters, sometimes in other ways. I can of course write whatever I want but at these times doing anything other than what the story/characters seem to be "telling" me "they want to do" is usually quite difficult. And I'm not the only one. And like I said, as far as the profanity thing, I write my characters dialogue the way they talk in my head. For me, thats generally without profanity, but I say, write whats in your head.


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rich
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I do write what's in my head, but for some reason people tend to be horrified at the results. And that's just with my comedy.


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johnbrown
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I'm with Stone on this issue of curse words.

The purpose of the fiction industry is not to realistically document human situations. That would be very, very boring. Even when setting is a huge draw, we only depict a small part. The purpose of fiction is to deliver a certain type of experience to the reader.

It's true that the events and people have to ring true to the audience. Belief is a core requirement for emotion, and emotion is what the readers are after. But to do this we don't present the full detail of the situation or person. We can't. What we do as writers is evoke types and modify them. The human brain thinks in types. And what it needs are a few key attributes of a type to bring it up into working memory.

So I don't write the dog was three feet at the shoulder, had such and such a mouth with this kind of hair and breath like this and a weird walk blah blah blah blah for three pages of scintillating detail.

If it's a bit part, I say, "The Edwards' dopey yellow dog was running around the yard with a box of tampons in its mouth."

I don't descibe everything about the yard or the dog or the box of tampons. If you know these kinds of dogs, know "yards" and "boxes of tampons," then you'll get an image from just those few details. If the dog has a larger part to play, I can detail specific actions and reactions and smells etc., but even then all I'm doing is presenting a few details that trigger a much bigger concept in the reader's mind.

Explitives are one method to trigger types, e.g. situations and characters, in the reader's mind. If I want to evoke a certain type of person (crass, violent, etc.) or a person in a certain mood (angry, defiant, belligerent, etc.) I can use profanity and vulgarity to help evoke that in the reader's mind because explitives and vulgarity are common triggers for that type. BUT they're not the only triggers.

For example, go watch PRISON BREAK. The criminal type was successfully evoked in the minds of a very large audience without a lot of explitives. It's because the writers used other things to trigger the type.

Note, they didn't use replacement explitives--"golly"--that would undermine what they we're trying to do. Just different triggers. For something to ring true, it doesn't require we present ALL the triggers, just enough to evoke the type.

So, if you write an angry scene and take out all the cursing and find it feels flat, and you really want to remove the explitives, then maybe what you need to do is find other triggers. Ones that convince you, because that flat feeling is your internal meter telling you the type you were after for the situation hasn't been evoked.

[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 28, 2010).]


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johnbrown
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Oh, and on characters. I've found that the saying "the characters take on a life of their own" is accurate in the sense that a lot of invention occurs as we write and develop, and it can sometimes seem mystical--where did I get THAT idea from? Where did that great bit of dialogue come from?

But that's just the creative process. I think Stone is right that the author isn't helpless. At least, that's been my experience. I think it's more accurate to say that we sometimes get ideas about what a certain character may do or say that are much more interesting than what we originally planned, e.g. suddenly a bit player is taking over the scene because we just now came up with some funny as heck lines for him. Or maybe we just now got to the point where we had to develop the character and came up with the coolest backstory or character secret ever. In the case of curse words, that's just what comes to mind as I'm in the flow.

At that point, we as authors have a choice. We can run with the new direction OR step back and say, hum, my original idea appears to be a bit boring--what can I do to make it as interesting as this new character? Maybe give those lines to the main character in the story? Or we can cut that character or those lines out and use them for another story. If it's swear words that we come up with as we're writing the scene, we can look at the swear words when we're done and say, if it's our desire to do so, hum, those are probably not going to work for my audience. Or even me as an author. So how can I capture the feel without them? And we can figure something else out.

There are lots of options, and I've used all those above. But in every case it was the author's choice. There is no ONE right answer with art. Just because we came up with an idea that feels right doesn't mean it's sacred. There are many ways, many right answers, many ideas that work equally well. We just need to come up with one that works within all our parameters. That's what creativity is all about.

I also don't know that characters really are all that different from real people in our minds. Again, I believe we think in types, which means the way we perceive and think about the real person Hitler isn't substantially different from how we think about the fictional Joker in The Dark Knight. Afterwards, we can reflect on the fact that we know Hitler is real and the Joker is just real scary. But in the moment of the experience, I think we perceive characters the same we do as real people. Which is why they are able to evoke emotion in the first place.

[This message has been edited by johnbrown (edited June 28, 2010).]


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tchernabyelo
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There seems to be a possible split here between those who believe the creative process is unconscious and those who believe it's conscious. Although I suspect that, even at the extreme ends of both, there's actually a bit of grey area (no-one, after all, can actually write while unconscious - unless we venture into the realm of "automatic writing"). I certainly know of authors who have tried to use "unconscious" techniques in their writing, but they are most successful (IMHO) when they marry those to "conscious" techniques (I'd cite Grant Morrison, on "Doom Patrol" and "Animal Man", as an example. In "Doom Patrol" he used Burroughs-style cut-up techniques but looking at the vocabulary he was playing with it's clear he made specific choices about what he wanted the results to look like. In "Animal Man" he finishes with a fantastically conscious piece of self-referentiality in which he writes himself into the story and writes about writing in a marvellously lucid ashion, even recounting on the one hand the sad death of one of his cats while at the same time admitting "and I thought, 'I can use this in a story'").

I've never been convinced that my ides are externally inspired, and thus even what might be bubbling out of my subconscious as ideas is very much a part of me. The "muse" idea and "divine inspiration", frankly, are of the same era as lightning being Zeus' thunderbolts, so why we should give them any more credence I'm not sure. I'm not saying the unconscious aspect of creation is not important, but I think simply letting your unconscious dictate to you, and refusing to use your conscious mind to work alongside it (or at least to pretend that you can't - as noted, you need to be conscious to write) is not a technique likely to create great writing. Neither do I think an entirely rationalist approach will work - that way lies the "hack", the writer who analyses what is "successful" and attempts to write based entirely on formula, with no personality or emotion involved. But everyone will have their own perspective on where the best spot is to balance between polar opposites.


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TamesonYip
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I think in some ways character creation is similar to making a friend. Starting out a friendship, maybe my daughter goes and sits next to someone at story time and I end up sitting next to the woman beside the kid. At this point, I would assume (but not know) that the woman is the kid's mom. Based on the area I live in and the woman's dress (let's say flag pin), I maybe assume she is republican. Since story time is at 2pm, I would assume that the woman either is probably a stay at home parent, though an unusual schedule it possible. So, now I ask what she does and she says stay at home, so I assume she probably has a husband that supports her, ask what her husband does, she says no husband, she won the lotto. This conversation continues and I see her every week at story time and then we get together with the kids on our own and eventually we are best of friends. I now have learned she is a devoted democrat and blah blah blah. Some of my initial impressions were right, some wrong. I am also getting pretty good at predicting this person's reactions. What I think she would do in X situation is very different than my guess would have been when I first sat down next to her.

When we build characters, a lot of the details aren't filled in. I might start knowing I need someone with a kid at story time, the general culture of that story time. But after I have written this character for a while, I know tons of details and prior behavior, which allows me to predict the behavior better. While this is still me making it up, the parts of my brain used to predict responses would be the same as those used to predict a friend's behavior. If the story demands a different behavior, I might be confused, just as if my friend behaved out of character. Humans like to predict patterns and behavior. If you give made up data, we'll still try to make predictions based on it.

If my storytime mom were through all these other details revealed to be democrat and my story later demanded she volunteer for the reelection campaign of the local congressman, and it has also been established that the area votes like 80% republican and a democrat never wins, then her volunteering there is going to be a problem- unless maybe she is volunteering only to spy to help her candidate. I could complicate her story like that, or I could go back and say my initial impression was right, she is indeed republican and then I change all the other details that made her vote democrat or explain somehow why she is republican despite x, y and z or I can change her culture so they would have a democrat in elected office. If I chose to have her be a spy, I might very well say, I didn't plan that, my character just went and did it. I could have changed it of course, but not without changing something else and maybe those things were more permanent in my mind and changing those would have been much harder than making character a spy.

The times when I have felt like my characters took over where when I ignored them. In my novel, I have 3 POV characters and 2 of them spend the whole novel bickering so both play heavily in each other's chapter. The 3rd kind of fades to background sometimes. So, I had all these intense chapters from the other two character's POV and got to an important chapter from the mostly ignored character. In the time while he had been goofing off in the background, turns out he hadn't just been riding along thinking sarcastic thoughts. Instead he had wood a non-POV character and they were now in love and getting married. This worked for my story, but was not planned. I could have changed it, but it fit well and I realized that him thinking sarcastic thoughts was not sufficient for him, he needed more. So, I either change my story and give him more of a role or he gets the girl. Of course, once I realized this, I had to go back, add in some hints to their relationship, make her more interesting, etc.


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