The Suitably Anti-Social Writer

I used to think it was a huge liability that I don’t get along with a lot of people in casual, everyday conversation.

Turns Out, I Just Like Getting Work Done

It’s not that I can’t so much as I find it kind of sort of a complete waste of time. Unless, of course, I’m practicing my group management skills or researching character types.

I just hate casual chitchat. Such a waste of time. When I was a kid, I saw how people did this weird thing where they “hung out”, or just, you know, sat and talked about nothing at all and seemed happy about it.

Shooting the Breeze

Like a naturalist among an alien species, I hunkered down to figure out what the shit was going on.

Because why didn’t each of those individuals peel off from the nonfunctioning social group and go into a corner to write? It was so strange to me.

That’s What I Liked Doing

I went through a long period as a young person where I decided there was something wrong with me for not taking satisfaction out of wasting time, so I tried really hard to fit in and do like the other people did. I tried to waste time, you know, and talk about popular whatnot.

It was so boring. Also, I got very little work done. Ugh.

Super Non-Productive

Then I got more into directing and found out (hurray!) that it’s a lot more interesting to play God in a group, and that most people are also bored and want to play that sort of conversationally-directed game.

When I say play God, I really just mean that I took control of the conversation whenever appropriate and made it functionally useful. You know, like actually about reality, and/or about actual emotional phenomena inside me or the other people present.

Like Public Improv

That turned out to be great for character research, for making lasting friends, and for being not-bored. Plus, after a long conversation like that, writing is exciting and fun (because you’re all revved up from actually meeting new people and knowing what they’re like on the inside.)

Anyway, the point of today is that if you, like me, find social groupings sort of useless, perhaps you will also find, like me, that going with the general flow of boring, staid behavior leads to an enormous drop in your writing production.

Like, A Big Drop

In short, if I try to be conventionally social, my word count plummets. And I don’t mean, “oh, I got a few less words written today!” I mean, like, “Oh, my usually quota just eked out to a measly ten percent, and I don’t even care because life feels meaningless.”

Which, over the course of several days, adds up and means a lot less completed work. Ugh.

And Less Usable Work

If you’re wondering why I talk about writing so much, and I only have two books out, that’s because I want to make a good impression, and I have twenty-some-odd complete manuscripts that I’m sitting on that are, for various reasons, not yet satisfactory for public consumption, and I’m tinkering on my official publication style. Luckily, I have an excellent editor.

Anyway.

So, In Conclusion

Avoid other people at all costs, unless you’re prepared to take charge of your interactions and use them to further your craft. Investigating human nature, discussing reality, or actually getting any kind of relaxing social good out of interaction is great, but if you’re just hanging around because you’re supposed to, out of some perceived need to fulfill social obligation, run away!

You’re reading Victor Poole, and no, I’m not really a hermit, but maybe I will be when I’m old and rich. Tee hee. In my current book, I think Gilbert’s gang trial is not going to go super well today.

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Dysfunctional Families Are Wonderful Fodder For Fantasy

Today I’m thinking about Delmar’s uncles in Talbos.

Uncle Thorn, Uncle Elan, and Uncle Fallor

I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about uncles lately, without at all meaning to. Apparently that’s a theme in my current work. Delmar’s got, um, three . . . four uncles. One of them is a leechy hanger-on married to his aunt, so hardly counts as far listing out a family tree.

Delmar’s youngest uncle is the worst, but the two in the middle are quite nice. One of them, the man in the middle, is in charge of the city guards, and the older one is in the awkward position of handling power without having any right to it.

The Fourth Uncle Is The Kind Of Guy Everyone Ignores

The thing I love about dysfunctional families is how quickly everything changes when one person lays hold of a new romantic partner.

Fresh blood, emotionally speaking, disturbs the dynamic between all the older predators, and the younger, weaker people jostle to see how many scraps they can collect for themselves.

Power, Control, and Status

Have you ever watched a herd of horses assimilate a new member? There’s a lot of biting, and squealing, and chasing of the new horse into corners to be beat up and cowed. Ha ha! Horses being cowed. That’s funny.

The same kind of procedure happens in an unhealthy family (and let’s face it, a lot of families are run on poor authority and corruption). A new body shows up, connected to an existing member, and the head honchoes start to sniff around and pick fights, testing the waters to see how much they can get away with.

Delmar goes to see his uncles in Talbos, and he brings Ajalia with him. Chaos ensues.

Examples

Clumsy Construction (Bad Writing):

“Do you think your grandfather will come to see you?” Ajalia asked.

“No,” Delmar said. “He will send my uncle.”

“Who is your uncle?” she asked. “The one who manages the guard?”

“Yes,” Delmar said. He gestured with his chin to the entrance that lay ahead of them. “That is him now. His name is Elan. He is my father’s youngest brother. I do not think he will like you.” Delmar clammed up now, because Elan was drawing near.

Ajalia saw that Delmar’s uncle was near him in age; Elan wore a trimmed brown beard, and had eyes that were reminiscent of Simon’s hard dark eyes. Delmar’s blue eyes, Ajalia thought, had come from somewhere else in the family, since he resembled neither his father nor his mother. Coren, Ajalia thought, had looked rather like Simon, like Elan did.

Elan strode through the courtyard towards Delmar. He spared a glance for Ajalia, who was partially out of view behind the horse, and then turned his full attention to Delmar.

“What do you want, Delmar?” Elan asked sharply. Ajalia saw that Delmar’s uncle put little store in Delmar’s new position; she looked at Delmar out of the corner of her eye, and saw that Delmar was not embarrassed by his uncle’s rudeness.

“I’ve come to negotiate a renewed succession with the king,” Delmar said. Ajalia was quite impressed; she had thought, ever since Delmar had frozen up during the confrontation with the guards, that Delmar would be a mute accompaniment to her negotiation, but she saw now that Delmar was going to take the lead on the matter. She hoped that he was prepared for how ugly things would turn, if Elan did not like what was said. She began, very quietly, to gather up long veins of magic in her hands.

Elegant Construction (Good Writing):

“Will king Fernos agree to see you right away?” Ajalia asked. She was standing just to the right of the black horse, her hands folded and her best slave-face in her eyes. She looked exotic, expensive, and very discreet, even with her clothes wet through from the rain.

Delmar, astride the horse, glanced down at her with a smile, his hair and fine clothes still damp from the recently-ended downpour.

“No, my grandfather doesn’t see me officially. Now that I’ve come for an actual audience like this, he’ll put me off as much as he can. I imagine he’ll send one of my uncles, to see how much of a mess I am.”

“Your poor uncles,” Ajalia said softly. Delmar laughed and shifted in the saddle. Ajalia’s black horse made a heaving sigh that jostled Delmar. “You’re sitting well,” Ajalia murmured in the old Slavithe tongue.

“Thank you, darling,” Delmar replied in the ancient tongue, his mouth twisting in a grin and his reddish-gold stubble making an alluring shadow over his jaw. “Oh, here he comes,” Delmar said, switching back to regular Slavithe and nodding towards a young man stalking with clear impatience through the farther arch of the courtyard. “That is Elan, third son of the king, and master of the guard. He’s probably going to hate you,” Delmar whispered.

“Thank you,” Ajalia said, and she sank into foreign-slave mode entirely, her expression smoothing into a pleasant, docile kind of readiness. She saw Elan glance irritably at her as he drew near the enormous black horse and exquisitely attired rider.

In Conclusion

Embrace dysfunction in the families of fantasy environs. Humor and drama lie therein, and however awful bad families are in reality, they make wonderful fodder for fiction. Exploit them. (Bwa ha ha, etc.)

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m in the midst of stylistic rewrites. Come back soon for more novels. Like, a lot of them. Cough, cough.

Delmar, And Where He Comes From

So I’ve been working on a really cool fantasy series, complete with languages and all, for most of my life. The main guy is Delmar, and the girl’s name is Ajalia. I couldn’t figure out for the longest time what she really was, or where she came from, but I knew they both ended up together as young adults, and there was always a shadowy third figure, another man whose name I could never pin down.

Ajalia the Slave, Delmar the Inheritor, and Halez the Lost Prince

The whole story has always been a nebulous something-or-other, like a complete world that has existed at the edge of my consciousness ever since I started to try to write.

Luckily for me, it turns out that my training in theatre and classical rhetorical structuring opened up my access to my subconscious, and the world is now writable. I mean, I have written it, the first part.

Because Halez Has More Adventures With Them, After This Series

I self-pubbed the first section of the series last year? The year before? But as I said earlier somewhere on my blog, my editor (love you, Mr. Editor!), who is a genius, got upset at some emotional hiccups in another manuscript, and we had some very productive discussions about my shitty way of letting down my female characters.

Turns Out, I Repress My Females Once In A While

Anyway, Ajalia had the same problems that were showing up in this other book, so I pulled the entire series and am working on fixing up things now.

It’s so super exciting, because the framework is all there, and all I have left now is visual cleanup and repairing the structural damage to her characterization.

Sigh, etc.

Anyway, I promised to talk about Delmar, and where he comes from. He’s always been the clearest character, in my mind. Ajalia has powerful magic, but Delmar is more of the straightforward, innocent dude who learns that he really needs to stand up for himself and take up the mantle of protecting his people.

Delmar is a prince, of a sort, but without a kingdom, really. He’s the eldest child of a match between the disinherited crown prince of Talbos and the only daughter of Tree, the ruling dude over Slavithe.

Tree Is Called the Thief Lord, Because the Founder of Slavithe Stole Thousands of Slaves, and Became Their Lord

Slavithe is the original city, founded by a mass migration of runaway slaves, and shortly after Slavithe was established, the political shit hit the fan, and a lot of the ruling elite among them moved over a chain of black mountains and established a second city, Talbos.

Talbos and Slavithe depend on each other, as they’re mostly isolated from the rest of the continent, but both cities pretend the other doesn’t exist. They’re like uncomfortable symbiotic parties who trash talk each other at every opportunity, and feel superior and shit.

Talbos Is Much More Civilized and Formal

Delmar should technically be in line to inherit the ruling position over Slavithe, but he’s been scorned and rejected by his father all his life, because Delmar is good-looking and clever and popular, and so his mom and dad, being jealous, slimy, and unpleasant people, have half-starved him, and neglected him, and made him into a family clown. Delmar’s dressed badly, when Ajalia meets him, and his hair looks awful, and he truly believes that he’s too stupid to inherit.

Delmar has two younger brothers, and the second oldest brother, Wall (yes, that’s his name), is slated to take over Slavithe someday. Delmar, in the beginning, having swallowed the Kool-aid, and being a genial sort of person, thinks this is a natural and lovely outgrowth of his own stupidity.

Ajalia Gives Delmar A Haircut, Of Course

Ajalia shows up in the city, finds out who Delmar is, and gets to work on him. Delmar’s father isn’t too happy about this, and his mother . . . well, Delmar’s mother turns out to be a very powerful, dangerous sort of person, and Ajalia has to match wits with her.

But we’re talking about Delmar today. So on the one hand, he’s the eldest son in line for Slavithe, and on the other, he’s the firstborn child of the former crown prince of Talbos, and grandson to the current king (who is a very interesting person).

That King’s Name Is Fernos

Delmar’s father, the former crown prince, really wasn’t supposed to be trouncing around in Slavithe and seducing Tree’s daughter, and this led to Delmar’s father being banished from Talbos, and disinherited.

Luckily for Delmar, and for Ajalia’s sneaky plans for political takeover in both cities, the next in line for the Talbosian throne is a washout, and the king of Talbos proves amenable to persuasion on the topic of reinstating Delmar’s genetic right to the throne.

Because Delmar, When Cleaned Up And Given Moral Lectures, Is Awesome

There’s a long heritage of magic in Slavithe, and in Talbos, for both cities were founded by people who practiced nature worship and shaped the stone and earth. The peoples in both cities have faded in their knowledge of such powers, and most of the Slavithe priests can’t do magic at all anymore. The Talbos priests hide out in the black mountains, and many of them have been captured by the king of Talbos, who is doing shifty things about using magic in secret.

That’s all a very long and interesting story, but the pertinent part, for talking about Delmar, is that he is a joining point between the ancestral magic of both Talbos and Slavithe, and has a generational claim to the power of the prophet who founded Slavithe and the great leader who built Talbos.

The Original Thief Lord, and the Falcon Who Begged Magic From the Sky Spirits

Ajalia doesn’t believe magic is real, when she meets Delmar, but he uses his basic, rudimentary powers to save her life, and she wakes up to the reality of magic pretty soon after that.

My fantasy world is so cool.

Anyway, I have to go back to work now, but that’s a little bit about Delmar, who is eventually (SPOILERS!) the Lord of Slavithe, the reigning king of Talbos, and the prophesied Dead Falcon who ascends into the sky kingdom and restores balance between the spirit people and the land below.

SIGH

He also falls in love with Ajalia along the way, but that was sort of inevitable from day one, as her eyes are so intense.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and the third character in their group of adventurers is Philas, whose true name is Halez, the lost prince of the neighboring kingdom of Saroyan, across the sea.

 

When Directors Use An Alcoholic Girl To Play . . . An Alcoholic Girl

I keep thinking about this director I had once. I only worked for her the one time, because she was one of the single most deplorable human beings I’ve ever encountered in my life.

She Was A Mother, Wife, Abuser, Liar, And Cheat

She taught theatre classes part time at a local college, and I knew a lot of her students. The whole situation was a mess, because she was a very bad person.

Enter The Drunk Actor

I keep thinking about one of her actors, who had some substance abuse issues that nearly no one knew about. This director, the bad lady, she had a trick of getting vulnerable actors into her office and playing a sympathetic mother figure, and then later on, weeks later, she’d use the secrets she learned in private to humiliate her actors in front of their classmates.

And She Called This, “Teaching Acting”

She did that to this one actor, the one who was trying to not be an addict anymore. I just keep thinking about the student, who was being preyed on, from one side, by a couple of gay actors who harbored the kid after binges and sort of helped her hide things, and on the other side by this evil director.

The director got fired from the college, finally, over some ethics and sexual tangles, and she moved on to try and take advantage of other theatre people somewhere else.

Good Riddance, I Say

I remember being in a rehearsal with this student, the addict, and no one knew about the problem yet. The whole situation is just sad, you know? And there’s something about this kid being used by heartless young men on the one end and this older matron vampire on the other that makes me feel irritated.

Me And My Significant Other, The Super-Impoverished People (At The Time)

My partner and I ran a sort of accidental halfway house for troubled actors at the time, not officially at all, but people showed up at our door a lot, and sometimes they spent the night on a spare couch, or came to be fed. That happened a lot, actually. We helped a lot of sad, lonely young people who were lost.

We Never Knew About This Addict

I’m irritated at this addicted actor’s parents, honestly. I’m angry that the kid had no sense of safety, of knowing who to trust and where to turn for help.

I guess it would help if I explained about me again. I was bred deliberately as a sort of sexual plaything, and never had an actual family. My breeders had a rudimentary grasp of–not style, exactly, but they understood that culture was important, and they preferred their owned objects to have a veneer of class.

Because We Were Bait, And Icons

So I educated myself, because I’m not an idiot, and I don’t like to be beaten much. Partway through giving myself a well-rounded grounding in world literature, at the age of about eight or nine, I started to figure out who was safe, and who wasn’t.

Dangerous Vs. Stupid

My uncle, for example, was a very dangerous man, very powerful, very polished, and you would never, ever peg him as a homosexual. He had a great flair for dramatic camouflage, and seems to be the penultimate family man. Super responsible. He’s getting to be rich now, and he’s very accomplished in the way of legal theft.

Then there’s my particular handler, a very violent kid who was allowed to beat me when I was a child.

Sneaky Grey Areas

You see, when your parents are really your owners and breeders, and if they have any brains at all, they realize pretty quickly that siblings can hit each other, and nobody calls the cops. So we got sorted out, essentially, into who could hit whom, and when, and why. If you kept all the unspoken rules, you didn’t get hit much.

Now, my handler is a violent prick, and a dumb fuck, but he’s very sweet in his deepest soul, and if he’d ever had the guts to fight back against our owners, he might have turned out a little bit. All the evil in him comes from outside, from manipulation external to his actual soul.

As Opposed To Being Originally Evil, Himself

He’s still completely forfeit as a human being, to my mind, because he never did fight back at all, and because he’s a coward who prefers to thrust vulnerable parties in the line of fire rather than face any discomfort himself, but if everything about him was different, I wouldn’t mind him so much.

What I’m trying to say is, I can trust my handler, and I could never in a million years trust that particular uncle. My handler was predictable, and very dim. My uncle’s evil always came from right within his own heart, and he was not good news.

Back To This Alcoholic Girl

Anyway, so I keep thinking about this theatre kid, this miserable, mostly-functional alcoholic, and how the kid didn’t understand the basic, rudimentary lesson of survival among predators: That you have to know which evil dudes to run and hide with, and which to avoid like the plague.

The alcoholic girl was always hiding with the wrong kind of gay guy, and didn’t realize how that was making everything worse.

They Were Selfish Dudes

Not being a stupid person, I never tried to extract the addict, after the truth came out about the problems, but if I could go back in time, I would certainly have done a few things to go after and disable the other kids who were using her as camouflage, and getting her beer on the sly.

The one major gap in my education as an owned object was how to let myself hurt bad people. I can, of course. I just don’t, almost ever. If I went back in time, I’d use my sneaky gossip skills to take apart the shitty methods those boys were using on that poor girl.

And Also

In other news, in my current book, Crikey has made friends with his uncle Max’s new husband, and they are bonding while waiting for the gang trial to run its course.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m writing a science fiction romance about a wild-game hunter, a crime lord, and an alien girl with white, furry wings and a beautiful tail. 

Abuse Handled Incorrectly In Fiction

Abuse works when it’s explained.

I was reading someone’s story today, and I put it down after the first chapter because the key moment, the whole pivot of the character development, fixed around some badly framed child abuse, and I didn’t want to read a story that had such a clumsy approach to abuse.

So As A Reader, I Jumped Ship

My current series has a lot of abused characters. I’ve got a man who was neglected and beaten as a child, and several old men who were used as sex slaves when they were teenagers. Their backstory shapes a lot of the action in the book, and has everything to do with the choices they make and the way they turn out in the end.

Plus, They’re Gangsters

I have no problem with reality; I have a big huge problem with stories where abuse is handled with implicit approval, or is handed on towards the reader without any groundwork or framing at all. For example, in the story I was reading today, a mother slaps her child, and it forms an awful root of shame in the kid. The slap itself should have been fine, but the mother had been framed previously as a good character (a protective, helpful person to the child).

That’s Terrible Writing, And Poor Storytelling

Changing lanes in the middle of a scene, and giving previously protective characters actions that are outright damaging and abusive, without any framing or contextual buildup to the harsh action, is disruptive and bad storytelling.

Example

Terrible Writing:

Lena made the soup and laid out four little bowls. The children came in from playing, and she helped each of them wash their hands at the kitchen sink before ladling out the stew and giving each tyke a lump of bread to dip in their soup.

“Martha stole all the pebbles,”  the oldest child explained.

“I didn’t!” the littlest one snapped.

“She did, and she ate one of them,” a middle kid proclaimed.

“Martha, give me those rocks,” Lena said, her voice stern and kindly.

Martha delivered up colored glass pebbles with an impatient sigh, and Lena … (add in violent action that I am unwilling to write because it damages the reader to drop unframed abuse into a scene).

Good Writing:

Lena stirred the soup and leaned out the kitchen window.

“Martha!” Lena called sharply.

“He made me!” a childish voice screeched back.

“Put the rocks down, Martha. Don’t! No!” Lena said. The sound of high-pitched squeals, and a long, drawn out shriek of indignant agony flooded through the air. Lena sighed and put down her spoon. She went out of the kitchen and returned in a moment, holding a struggling girl of three.

“Jill said all the blue ones are mine! She traded me!” the little girl shrieked.

“You cannot throw rocks at people, sweetie,” Lena said.

“I will kick you in the face, Nana!” the girl cried. Lena sighed and carted the child away to a farther room.

When the kitchen was empty, a boy of nine poked in his face and looked around.

“She’s gone,” he hissed. He and another little boy with very dirty hands crept into the kitchen, laid hold of a basket of rolls, and departed with stifled giggles.

Lena came back into the kitchen, glanced at where the rolls had been, and went outside.

In Conclusion

Reality is better than artificially contrived abuse, and violence is always acceptable when framed appropriately, and when it is either coming from an immature person or an evil, depraved entity. Unframed, floating abuse does not make for compelling backstory, and characters really perform poorly when made to do violent acts purely for drama in the plot.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current project, Crikey’s uncle Pops is coming to visit today. Pops is in the bad practice of mixing barbiturates with alcohol, and Crikey doesn’t know Pops is a booze hound. I think Crikey is going to find out today, and Crikey and Pops are going to have a falling out. I’m excited about that.

The Fool As A Touchstone In Plot

A nonsensical, foolish character is a valuable tool to illuminate and frame morality and provide context and perspective to a novel’s plot.

What is a Fool?

Stupid characters are delightful, even more so when they are able to be laughed at without emotional pain.

I knew a kid a long time ago. He was blind, because of an accident with a gun. He was a very nice kid, but very stupid. I never made fun of him, and I never saw anyone else make fun of him, either.

On the other hand, I knew another boy who was not blind and who made a game of trying to give himself homemade piercings with safety pins.

Lots of people made fun of that kid (I don’t generally make fun of people, so I didn’t, but other people did). No one, including the piercings kid, got particularly ruffled over the process, because he knew he was being stupid and didn’t care.

Shakespeare’s Fools

Bill of the pirate-style earring had a knack for using smart, morally sound people as fools, which does a couple of things to his plots:

  1. Using a morally clear character allows the fool to act as a frame of reference for the plot as a whole
  2. Everyone in the whole story says whatever they are really thinking to the intelligent fool, because there’s no social pressure when you’re talking to a walking dumpster fire

Fools in Contemporary Fiction

How can you make your very own walking dumpster fire? There are a few key elements here.

  • Your fool should be more damaged, in terms of past abuse, than any other character
  • Drinking helps
  • The fool must have processed, in a healthy manner, nearly all of his own emotional pain
  • Some reference to sexuality is usually wise

Examples

Terrible Fool

Rodgen drew the covers of his bed over his face most comfortably and sighed as he slept heavily through the alien alarm.

His roommate, Baris, had already gotten up and was almost ready to put on his shoes. Baris had no idea how Rodgen could sleep through noise like this. I wish I could, Baris though, and he pulled on his sock. The alien slave ship made an uncomfortable rock to the side, and a wave of alien water leaked through the door and crashed over the whole room, spilling into Baris’s open shoes.

Rodgen, not waking up much, spat some drips of slippery alien water out of his mouth and turned over to go back to sleep.

“Rodgen, my shoes got wet!” Boris said irritably, looking down at his soaking shoes.

Rodgen, being asleep and very wet, did not reply.

Baris was tempted to throw a soaking shoe at Rodgen’s head, but he put the wet shoe on instead, and felt angry at himself for not leaving his shoes in the cubby where they would have been dry.

Excellent Fool

Rodgen pulled the covers of his bed over his face and pretended not to be hearing the blasting alarm. He knew the aliens would dump something wet on him if he didn’t get up this time. They’d warned him, and he didn’t care.

Damn, how I hate Monday mornings on the alien slave ship, Rodgen thought, as he braced himself against the inevitable bucket of amniotic fluid that crashed over his head when he didn’t get up in the first minute.

Rodgen spat some drips of burning alien fluid out of his mouth and tried to go back to sleep.

“Rodgen!” his cell-mate roared.

“I’m tired,” Rodgen said from under his blanket.

“You got my fucking shoes wet, Rodgen! Seriously, get out of bed and take a nap on the floor next time! Shit!” Baris threw a soaking shoe at Rodgen’s head, and the impact was, at last, enough to motivate Rodgen to remove himself from his soaking bed.

“I don’t like living here,” Rodgen said with dignity.

“Gosh, and here I thought you were on vacation in the fucking Ritz. Jesus, Rodge. Give me your shoes. Are they dry at all? I’m taking yours.”

General Qualities of a Fool

  • A quality fool has foundational morals and an unerring grasp of sexuality and interpersonal ethics
  • The fool has extensive personal history of abandonment, addiction, or abuse
  • The fool is absurd and/or funny
  • The fool is emotionally detached enough to make commentary on other characters
  • The fool becomes the touchstone of the plot when they encapsulate the essence of the theme in a living body and become, for all intents and purposes, a mouthpiece for the novel’s intent

In Conclusion

If you haven’t got a fool in your current work, think about utilizing one in your next piece. Fools are charming, pleasant things, and if you make your fool the central character, you might accidentally end up writing Hamlet.

You’re reading Victor Poole. Your pediatrician probably hasn’t read this book, but you could read it this weekend.

The Natural Way To Build Character Context

How to use what you already know about people to naturally add intriguing, original context to your characters.

Organic Character Context

When you meet a new person in real life, at first you only know what they look like, how they move or dress, the tone of their voice, and the actual words they say to you. You don’t generally meet someone and instantly know their precise eye color, their favorite memory of a birthday, or the name of the dog they owned when they were seven years old.

Those are facts you might learn later on, if you and the person develop some sort of relationship, whether as friends, colleagues, or romantic partners, but they aren’t things you know right away.

When you build a character with great context, the process, to be organic, begins the same way. You start with a basic introduction, either of the character’s looks or of their words.

Let’s Build A Character Right Now

As an example, I will begin with a gender, let’s go with male this time, and say that his name is, um, Levi.

Now, I’m not going to jump into character charts, or secret planning over here. I’m actually going to treat Levi as if he were a stranger that I was encountering for the very first time right now.

Hello, Levi!

Levi, wearing a denim jacket and a pair of bright pink cowboy boots, along with a very dirty pair of brown leather pants, sauntered into the laundromat looking very much like a gunslinger of old. Instead of a pistol, he was packing two wrapped stacks of quarters in his pockets, and instead of a saddle he had an enormous, noisy black garbage bag of filthy sheets and clothing slung over his back.

Levi swung the garbage bag onto the moderately filthy linoleum, dug a purple bottle of Suds’ Soft detergent out of the mass of dirty clothes, and began to sort through his clothes and sheets. His jaws were busy over a wad of pink bubble gum, which he occasionally snapped and blew into a translucent bubble before bursting and chewing the pink gum back into his mouth.

And Now, Organic Context

When you introduce yourself to a character without predetermined ideas of his past, his predilections, or his particular manner of brushing his teeth, your subconscious goes into overdrive to explain and justify every detail supplied by your working imagination.

For example, Levi chews bubble gum and wears a very ugly and dirty ensemble of clothing. Why? I don’t know why yet, and I also have no specific idea how old he is, aside from realizing he is probably an adult, and might be over thirty.

If we continue to explore Levi, our minds will naturally and organically supply character context that supports our pre-existing details about him.

Adding Context Organically

Why is organic context valuable? Can’t we just slap some authorial homework over Levi that fits our chosen narrative? Well, yes, we could, but that would probably not result in a satisfying story arc or a rhetorically pleasant character in the end.

Your mind is already used to sorting through tremendous amounts of information about people and the patterns their behaviors and habits imply about their lives. Tap into your brain, and save yourself a lot of time constructing painstaking, artificial character context.

If you allow your mind to meet a character from the ground up, just like you meet a new person in real life, your creative vehicle will begin to supply organic context automatically, because your brain wants to understand and label the character, and your subconscious will do that by digging down the roots that you don’t necessarily realize consciously are there.

Artificial Character Context

I had a client several years ago, an author who was working on a project about packs of wild, knife-fighting crime groups in Anywhere, USA. She wanted help to make her project better, and I worked over the draft with her a few times.

She had taken one character in particular, a main female romantic interest, and drawn up a contradictory and artificial context to make the character as pitiable and conflicting as possible.

The Character Forced To Serve Drama

The female character, in the actual work, read like a schizophrenic person, because there was no organic explanation at all for why she behaved or spoke as she did. The author had a predetermined function for the character and set up rigid and artificial constraints around her backstory to force her to create conflict in the plot.

The result was awful, because underneath this artificial context, the natural, organic context of the original character idea was clearly struggling to come through (and was being choked to death by the author’s artifice).

Levi With Artificial Context (Very Bad Writing!)

Levi started his laundry and went to sit down in a plastic chair with a deep sigh, remembering the time on his fourteenth birthday when his beloved dog Rex had perished in a tragic road accident. Levi Nelson, forty-two, was a complex person, and he hated to sit alone.

He stared around the room, which was empty, and then stood up and went to peer into the office door. He thought perhaps he would meet some sympathetic person who would commiserate with his dour mood on this, the anniversary of his father’s abandonment of their family.

A woman was sitting at a desk, combing over a crossword puzzle and looking shallow and unsympathetic. Levi sighed meaningfully, but she didn’t look up with her crystal blue eyes and ask him to explain his obvious sorrow.

Levi, being a tragic and a blasted character, owing to the transient manner of life he led, leaned into the office and knocked at the door.

“Is something broken?” the woman asked, without looking up.

“Hey, you’re so beautiful, and you must have a kindly soul. Do you want to get lunch and fall in love with me?” Levi asked.

“No,” the woman said.

“Do you want to stare soulfully into my eyes?” Levi asked, leaning a little into the door to examine her blonde hair. She made no reply, and he sighed meaningfully and went back to his chair to wait for his wash cycle to finish.

Levi With Organic Context (Good Writing!)

A woman with sparkly silver heels came out of the laundromat office and leaned against a washer. Levi ignored her until he had loaded two machines and started them. He spat his bubble gum into the ratty laundromat garbage can and slid conveniently near to the woman, who was in her early thirties and had a messy bob of blonde hair tied up in a knot.

“Hey,” Levi said.

“You didn’t come in yesterday,” the woman said. Levi’s hand inched sorta kinda near to the woman’s hand. She ignored him, and he grew bold and stroked a finger along a silver bangle she wore around her wrist. The woman stifled a sigh.

“I had to play a private gig until super late,” Levi explained. The woman adjusted her hand so that her skin came under his stroking finger. “Did you miss me?” Levi asked, a hopeful glint in his eye.

“You never missed a Tuesday before,” the woman explained, tilting her head as if she were making up her mind.

“Yeah, but I never got called in to work all night on a Monday before. We didn’t even get back until late yesterday afternoon,” Levi replied, sliding a bit closer. She slid away.

“You could have called,” she said in a reproving sort of way.

“But you won’t give me your number, Val, and you said I shouldn’t call the laundromat,” Levi hedged. She inched a bit closer herself.

“Well,” she said.

“Hey,” he murmured. She made a shuddering sigh and glared at the big windows at the front of the laundromat.

“Well,” she said again. He slipped a bit closer and kissed her mouth. His hand tangled into her hand, and she sighed and snuggled a little against his denim jacket. He pulled his mouth away, but stayed right close to her. “Do you want my number, then?” she asked.

“Mm-hm,” he agreed, and kissed her again.

In Conclusion

Let your brain do what it already does; as soon as you meet a character (by writing them down, and observing as much about them as you would see in a stranger you met for the first time), your subconscious goes to work to explain everything about them, and if you will release into your existing social skill set, an organic and satisfying character context will easily emerge.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m sort of sick today. I have now successfully disposed of my Christmas tree, and it is Thursday today.