Jeanine O'Loughlin

Fantasy, Science Fiction & Historical Fiction Author, Blogger, and Geek

Category: Thinking Through My Fingers

Working with Different Cultures

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

We’ve continued to talk about different characters the past few weeks and I think it’s important to bring up culture. There are a lot of things that can define a culture and even what constitutes a sub-culture. When writing in fiction there are a lot of opportunities to create unique cultures to the world you’re writing in, and in some cases the differences might be subtle given the context of the story.

A great example that I’m working through right now is that a project I’m working on takes place in one country. Now in a lot of ways that narrows the scope of my cultural differences. Instead I try to think about the different life experiences that my characters have. Some characters come from rich families, some with religious or political upbringings. Then there are those who come from a poor or middle class and even outsider perspective. All of these considerations affect the culture which the characters were raised within.

In instances where you are writing characters from a more standard definition of culture I encourage you to do your research. What makes these cultures unique and don’t just consider the customs as events that take place, but why they happen. In many cultures traditions are built based on some real life need or expectation. Think of the environment and how that would affect how people live and any religious beliefs that may influence the people. In my limited experience those tend to be your two key factors for cultural development at least at its root base. Then things evolve, take on new meaning as their origins are lost, manipulated, and their environment changes.

If you are writing about an existing culture then again research as much as possible. I often find a friend from the culture that I’m writing about and with a given discussion of disclaimers I ask them to read through it and let me know if what I’ve touched upon is accurate (or “close enough”) and especially if I’ve offended (unless I meant to have a character offend on purpose). The importance is just to try to respect the culture for what it was and represent it in a way that you intend to in your story. Something I hate doing is failing to communicate a perspective I really want to show my readers, especially if it offends them unintentionally.

Happy Writing!

Strong Female Characters

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

Last week I talked about how gender roles can sometimes affect our male leads. Now let’s flip the table and look at female characters. You have your “Damsels,” your “Childless Career Woman,” and your “Bad ass superhero” which you’ll find in just about every YA novel in the last decade.

The Damsel is your wilting flower, your delicate female waiting for her hero to arrive and save her. She’s just a fainting couch away from a Jane Austen novel. This is a generally outdated view of the female lead in a world that has experienced the feminist movement. It’s difficult for me to read through some of these classic tales of Victorian or Civil-War era women without wanting to throttle them. However, to play devil’s advocate this could be a great starting point for a female heroine who must overcome her Damsel-ways in order to grow into the woman she needs to be in the story. Consider Buffy from the TV Show & Comic Book series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In the movie that prequeled the show we see Buffy as a highly stereotyped high school cheerleader who cares more about what shoes she’s going to wear tomorrow than the world buzzing around her. However, throughout the show she has to overcome her acrylic nail and designer purse ways to become the front line against all that is evil.

Another trope you’ll find in female characters is the childless Career Woman. She’s abandoned relationships and the prospect of motherhood to pursue her profession. She’s often portrayed as cold, lacking empathy and emotionally distant from everyone around her. As the recent movie Jurassic World was famously criticized for her arc is one of accepting her “role” as a future mother and partner to some strong male character. I think you can have a cold and distant female lead who learns to express herself to those close to her, it’s a character arc that can fit for any gender, the workaholic man can be equally subject to this as well. I think what’s important here is to ensure that your female character can be strong on her own while still overcoming her flaws and challenges without requiring the assistance of a man to face them. In Kim Harrison’s Hollows novels the main character Rachel Morgan is fraught with her inability to connect with others and focused on her career (as a paranormal bounty hunter). However throughout the series of 13 books she builds relationships with her friends and lovers while still maintaining her independence and competency.

A character we have seen littering YA fiction and subsequent movie releases is the bad ass heroine. A girl with extraordinary abilities faced with world-changing problems. The challenge with this character is the same as our Superhero male. You need to give her depth. What effect do these extreme situations have on them and to let the heroine fail. Make her human as well as extraordinary. Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games books is a great example. In the second and third book we see the psychological effects that these traumatic games and the events around it have had on this sixteen year old girl. Reading through how she handles, and in some cases doesn’t handle, the storm of emotions that she’s put through makes her feel like that person could be real. So you can have that badass woman with the leather pants and a katana at her side, but what really is going on inside?

This may sound repetitive but make sure your characters have depth. People change, and your characters should evolve as they continue through the story. You don’t have to know exactly how they change, but just let it happen. Give the reader a glimpse into what the events of the plot are doing to the character they’re on this journey with. 

Strong Male Characters

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

So I’ve talked about what I think makes a strong lead character; strong personality and connection to the reader. Now I want to talk about specific types of characters. Let’s start with gender-types because most people can identify with a gender. When dealing with a character of a particular gender we need to consider the effect that social gender roles play in developing these characters. In my opinion they shouldn’t have any effect, but we are all raised around this society-driven concepts of what is “male” and what is “female.” I’ve seen it in my -own writing where I’ve subconsciously let these concepts infect/infiltrate my writings. I won’t get on my soap-box of how much I abhor any form of gender-role (if you know me IRL you’ve probably heard me spout off about it before).

Since this ended up being such a long subject matter I decided to split this into multiple posts. So today let’s talk about “male” gender types. The two stereotypes that I’ve found most often in male-driven narratives are the “superhero” and the “emo cry-baby.”

The “Superhero” is the man who can do no wrong and fears nothing. He is the epitome of everything we (aka society) see as “Male.” His flaws are superficial is often has a very shallow character arc if any, and really is just two-dimensional. Now, what I’m describing is a very extreme version but generally these are the characters who never really express vulnerability to the reader or face their fears. They are always brave and never really stumble in the face of fear or their enemy. They rarely if ever misstep or make a wrong choice. It’s important to let characters make mistakes, it makes them human and real. Heroes that we read about as children always make the “right choice” and live “happily ever after,” but most children have yet to face any hard decisions or made any real mistakes other than getting caught in the cookie jar. As readers get older I think that they want to see characters who are as flawed as they are themselves and see them struggle through. They can conquer evil in the end, but make them fight and take a fall or two to get there. That’s how life works and I think it makes for a better story.

Now the other side of the spectrum is the “Emo Cry-Baby.” A lot of times you’ll see this as the male side-kick to the strong female lead (a Ron Weasley to your Hermione Granger). It’s used as a device to play up “Look how strong she is compared to these boys!” This is equally as annoying to me (don’t worry I’m as much of a Potter-head as the next one of you). If a female character is strong on her own she doesn’t need the caricature of the whiney boy next to her to prove her worth. However, more common (especially in YA fiction) this is the dark-broody mysterious one. Now I love me some broody boys, it’s a staple of paranormal fiction since maybe Bram Stoker, but that character should grow overtime. Do they eventually learn to express themselves in a constructive way, do they learn to accept whatever trauma caused the brood-fest to begin with? You can even flip the concept on its head and take the brooding to a really dark place, maybe they become some maladjusted psychopath that goes on a murdering rampage through the streets of Boston. Take a great normal kid/boy/man and throw him into a vat of tragedy and drag him into a dark broody place. Just make sure that your character changes in some way during the story. For me a flatline brooder becomes annoying by the end of a book and drags a story down.

Again we go back to the basics of, make the character relatable to your readers and allow them to grow and be affected by the events that occur in the story for better or for worse. If a character I’m writing about leaves the same person they were at the end of the gauntlet then they haven’t really grown.

Happy Writing!

What Makes a Strong Lead Character?

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

Lead characters or protagonists are what propel the reader through your story. Now what makes a “strong” lead character? Now a “strong” character doesn’t mean that they need to be a hero type, from my perspective what makes a good strong lead character is someone who has a strong personality and can make a strong connection with the reader.

When I’m developing characters I always try to work on imagining or visualizing their personality. How do they express themselves, verbally & non-verbally? A lot of this information is included in my pre-writing outlines, but when I actually start writing I find that the word choice I use to describe the character and the way I develop their voice has the biggest impact. In an early draft it’s not uncommon for a lot of my characters to sound the same and become this homogenous suite of names within the context of the plot. So as I’m editing i really focus on the voice of each character, trying to project their personality from the page to the reader. I them to draw reactions from my readers, are they likeable, are they annoying, do the readers hate them? If I’m not getting the right responses from my alpha readers I know that the personality isn’t strong enough, or perhaps too strong.

I’ll try and dig more deeply into the different character archetypes but just think that to make a strong lead character does not necessarily mean they have to be the hero type. Your character could be a victim or an anti-hero, but as long as they have a strong personality that the readers can connect with that is what’s important.

Happy Writing!

Creating Diverse Characters

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

The Earth has an estimated 7 billion people living on its surface. That’s 7 billion unique perspectives and experiences. That world is constantly evolving and we as inhabitants of the same planet are becoming more and more intertwined. Many feel our media is falling behind in showing the wealth of diversity we have in our world as a global culture. It’s important to have a wide range of characters at your disposal as a writer for several reasons.

Conflict is what pulls a story together. It’s what brings the plot, setting and characters together and makes things interesting. If everyone in the story was the same then that makes for very little conflict between them, which becomes boring. The interactions between your characters comes off as stale and one dimensional. Diversity in personality, beliefs, physical description all of the aspects that makes a person unique creates a much more dynamic story and set of characters.

Often times when I find myself “fangirling” over something, whether it’s a book, movie, video game etc. I usually find that I’m drawn to the world that the creator has built. Yes I have my favorite characters or places, but really it’s those deep rich worlds that I fall in love with. The fantasy genre wouldn’t be what it is today without Middle Earth and the diverse rich cultures developed within the world. Lord of the Rings wasn’t just about some short guy trying to destroy a piece of jewelry it was about an entire world fighting for it’s survival. A conflict that brought Elves, Dwarves, Men and Women (Eowyn of Rohan!) coming together to face down Evil. The differences in culture, beliefs, and personalities is what made that story so compelling for me. So the worlds that we build around our stories should reflect that kind of richness of people as well as environment.

Readers are all people, and as I’ve said each person is unique. In order to pull a reader into the story they have to relate to the characters of the story in some way. So in order to connect with a broad audience you should be thinking about all the different types of people who will be reading your book. How can you give them something in their own lives that they can identify with, in the context of your world or story. The characters are the most prominent connection readers have within a story. In most stories the characters are the vehicle the reader is taking through the journey you’ve written. If a reader cannot identify with the characters in some way it makes it difficult for them to connect with the story.

As our world becomes more connected we struggle with connecting with each other on more interpersonal levels and reconciling opposing viewpoints and beliefs. We can achieve this through understanding of each other and books are a great way to expose people to that. Diversity isn’t something we should be afraid of but should embrace and celebrate. So branch out and put yourself in the shoes of someone different, it will be greatly rewarding for you and your readers.

Happy Writing!

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