The Bridgebury Blog

The story of a girl and her books.

Passionate Characters

I like words. I like writing, I like reading, I like rolling new words around on my tongue, in my mind. As a corollary, I like punctuation. I think I’m going to get a semi-colon tattoed on my wrist, because I just like semi-colons that much. (I really really do.)

On the other hand, my fiance likes video games. He is a pro at call of duty, but even more impressive is his ability to watch the market on EVE online for hours at a time looking for someone who has priced their spaceship for sale low enough that he can make some ISK off buying it and selling it at the market price. And he loves doing that sort of thing. He’s done it in every MMO video game that he’s ever played.

I can’t understand how he finds that search so engrossing that he can spend hours doing it, and I don’t think he quite understands how I can sometimes spend a whole say sitting on our living room couch, reading.

The point I’m trying to make here, is that I believe that everyone has one (or maybe two, or three, but at least one) thing that they love doing, that they can lose themselves in for hours at a time. Everyone. And it may not make sense to you, you may not understand how they get their enjoyment out of it, but they do, and the feeling of enjoyment, of flow, is much the same, no matter what the activity is. This goes for people, but I also believe that it goes for characters as well.

The main character of my novel-in-progress, Rowan, is a ship designer. She loves sketching airships, loves making sure that all the parts inside fit and work together to create a great flying machine. This is the job that she wants to do for the rest of her life; this is the thing that she loves doing. When she has free time, when she is alone, this is what she likes to do.

Don’t get me wrong, Rowan is a lot of other things. I spent hours and hours trying to figure out this character, planning her physical appearance and personality and family ties before I realized what she loved doing – and the thing is, it’s what she wants to do with her free time that told me the most about her. It’s the thing that she wants to do that informs what choices she’ll make, how her family treats her, which will off course in turn affect her as well… And so on an so forth.

The point I’m trying to make here is that its a shallow kind of character that doesn’t have wants, likes, and goals. That doesn’t have a passion. Because who do you know that doesn’t have a passion for something?

I Need A Reason for Boston

I didn’t really want to write a blog post about the events surrounding the Boston Marathon. I probably shouldn’t. I’ve got no ownership of the tragedy; I don’t live in Boston, I might run a marathon, eventually, but that’s a hazy sort of dream at the moment. My dad is going to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon next year, and I admire that. But I didn’t lose anything, I’m sure I have no clue what the people of Boston are going through right now, mentally. I’m also no expert on crime or terrorism or safety. So what on earth could I possibly have to contribute to the subject? Not much.

And yet, I feel like it would be disrespectful, somehow, to write the post that I had planned for today, considering what’s going on.
I do have a couple of things to say: Like so many other people, my thoughts are with the people of Boston today. I hope that no one else gets hurt. I hope that things come to a peaceful and just conclusion before too much time has passed.
I also have to say, selfishly, that I hope that at least one suspect is captured unharmed, or at least alive. Because the thing that continues to prey on my mind is the fact that we have no idea why so many people were hurt, why those people died. I want to know why those boys (and it feels odd saying it but it’s true, those boys are younger than I am) did what they did.
I’ve been told that the bombs that they placed were designed not to kill, but to maim legs. I don’t know if that’s true. But if it is – it’s sick, what that implies. To go after the legs of a bunch of people running a marathon – that’s almost worse than aiming to kill. I’m not sure if it is. Like chopping off a writer’s hands… I don’t want to think about it. And that’s not for sure anyway. Just speculation.
But I want to know why. I want there to be a reason, any reason. Not a good one, because there can’t be good reason, not for this, but a reason. Bad, stupid, fanatic, any reason. Because without a reason, my mind is going to assume that they enjoyed it, and that’s why they did it.
And a world where people kill for no reason at all is a very scary kind of world to be living in.

Tics and Character Development

Reading Tina Connolly’s book Ironskin has got me thinking about how I differentiate my characters from one another. You have to be able to differentiate your characters, because if the reader can’t tell your characters apart – well, how are they going to like them, root for them, any of that necessary stuff? (Yes, I just called character development necessary stuff.)

Anyway, you’ve got to do it. I’m sure you already knew that. The question is how you’re going to do it. How they speak? How they don’t speak? How they interact with other people? The clothes they wear? That’s all up to you. Ironskin has me thinking about character development because there’s a particular example of character development that has stuck with me, because I’m honestly not sure if it worked with me or not. It was almost a little too weird. But maybe the fact that it stuck with me shows that it did?

I’ll just get to describing it, shall I? The little girl character, who is supposed to be a little weird, given, on several occasions , is said to “clack.” I think that this is meant to describe a noise she makes with her tongue. I think because I don’t know, because I can’t find a place where the book actually says she made the noise with her tongue. I could have missed it.

The problem I have with saying that the little girl “clacked” is that every single time I read that, I was thrown from the story. I couldn’t picture it. Couldn’t hear it. Or I could, but it just seemed like such a bizarre response to what was going on in the novel that I had to backtrack and ask myself, “Did I read that right?”

And every time, yes, it did actually say that she clacked.

Now, I’ve never met a little girl that clacked. This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Or that they shouldn’t exist in a fantasy novel. It’s just… something like that, a strange habit of one of the main characters, requires a little more explanation than what was given to the “clacking.” Which, from what I read, was just about none. And if the explanation distracts from the story, maybe your character shouldn’t have that particular tic. In my reading of Ironskin I would say that the clacking did distract me from the story. It threw me every time.

However, you do have to differentiate your characters. And maybe, just maybe, I need to take into account the fact that the author might have meant to do that. She wanted this little kid to be weird, even weird enough to make me go ‘really? now that’s weird.’ And if that’s the case, it did its job. But why? Why would you want to do that?

I’m not sure there’s a real answer here, or even a solid way to judge one way or  the other. Whether or not it works for each reader will be based solely on preference, temperament, and other individual traits. Maybe there are people that read Ironskin and didn’t blink once when a little girl clacked. All I can say is that it didn’t work for me, but it also got me paying better attention to how I develop and differentiate my characters.

What about you? How do you make your characters unique, or what have you seen out there that has or hasn’t worked for you?

The Happy Protagonist

I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project, and will admit that I got a lot out of it. I relish the thought of being able to make my life a happier one by changing my attitude rather than my life. Changing an attitude, while I don’t want to say easier, is certainly a less obtrusive solution. It requires work on your part, but you can do it yourself. That appeals me.

But it’s also got me wondering about whether or not you could have a protagonist for a novel, or even a short story, that has this attitude. Laughs, doesn’t blame others, doesn’t look to others for approval, always follows their passion, does little things to make themselves happy, is very polite to others… I keep wondering if a character like that would be boring, or maybe insufferable in their perfection.  Of course, this is taking the ideal to an extreme. No one is like that all the time. But what if this character was? Would there still be tension enough for a good story?

Of course, as soon as I brought this up to my fiance, he said that the main character from American Beauty was a perfect example of this kind of person, and there was still tension, but the tension was in that this character’s way of seeking happiness was destructive to others. Now, I haven’t seen this movie; it wasn’t on netflix when I tried to watch it as research for this blog, so any of you who have seen it should chime in down in the comments and let me know what you think about that example. I will say, that I do see how that could work – a conflict between the character and the social environment around him. But I can’t help but think that this character wasn’t exactly using Gretchen Rubin’s attitude for happiness if his happiness was so destructive to those around him.

But on a similar note, I can see how a person at peace with herself could draw conflicts to herself because those around her are not that at peace with themselves, and find her poise and carefree nature frustrating, or are just plain jealous, or plain just don’t understand it. Actually, that description makes me think of a book I read in high school, Stargirl. So there’s that. I guess I’ve got two examples there.

The lack of tension, then, is in the character themselves, but not in the story that you create around them, because no matter what the character’s temperament, you can always find someone or something to conflict with them. And then there’s also the possibility of taking such a character and seeing how far you can stretch that happiness before it breaks, and they’re broken. But that would be a much darker story, if still an interesting thought experiment.

Does anyone else have anything else to add to this? Have you written a happy protagonist, or read about one? How was it handled?

Frank Underwood: A Reason to Care (Spoilers)

Warning: This post contains spoilers for House of Cards. You have been warned.

I have always been fascinated by what I generally think of as “spiky protagonists.” These protagonists that aren’t really nice, aren’t good, have a moral compass that is just a little – or more than a little – off. We shouldn’t like these people, shouldn’t continue to root for them, but we do. But why?

Frank Underwood is a perfect example of this type of character. He is not a nice man; we know this from the start. About 30 seconds into the first episode, he kills a dog. Given, the dog has been hit by a car, and one could argue that it’s a mercy killing. But puppies = good. Puppy killers = bad. (I’m sorry Frank, but that’s how it goes.)

And yet, and yet. He’s the main character, and we keep watching. We are invested in him and we want him to achieve his goals, and while the means that get him to that goal may not appeal to us, we (well, at least I) never stop cheering for him.

Why is that? How have the writers of this show managed to draw us so far into this character despite the fact that we’re not like him, probably at all?

Part of it may be that we wish that we were like him. Do we wish that could stop caring about the consequences of our actions, that we could be cold-blooded enough to use the people around us like the pieces on a game board? He is certainly powerful, lives a life of luxury, is charismatic, is like-able, at least on the surface. Is that enough? We want to be him, in some way, so we cheer him on? Yes, but that’s not all.

There’s also the clever little asides that Underwood has especially for the audience. He explains things to us, he is honest in his interactions with us as he is not with the characters around him. He’ll roll his eyes, shoot us a meaningful glance, tell us his deepest secrets; “I despise children – there, I’ve said it.” Let me put it this way: relationships between people deepen through sharing and trust. You can even actively make a relationship deeper by sharing of yourself, by showing trust. Underwood does both of those for us, the audience, and on top of that, we rarely see him be that honest with anyone else except with his wife.  It’s a clever thing that the writers have done with this show: they’ve had Underwood go through the motions of creating a relationship with the audience, and on top of that, he makes us feel privileged, as even the president is not. And it works. It makes an immoral character like-able. We maybe don’t like what he’s done, but we like how he’s treated us, and we’ll continue to follow, to watch, just to find out what happens to him.

And isn’t that exactly what you’re looking for in a story, whether you’re reading or writing it? A reason to care what happens next.

Learning About Words In Words: Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

I really wanted to write a blog post about what I learned from reading Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire. I wanted to grow, as a writer, and one of the best ways to do that is to read critically, right? And if I knew I was going to write a blog post dissecting the work, maybe I would try to read more critically. Such was my thinking. I did not want to write a review, did not want to judge the book. I just wanted to highlight my takeaway.

Unfortunately, like my experiences in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Department, this is a lot harder than it sounds. It is really fucking hard to pin down what you learned from a book, at the nuts and bolts level. This isn’t history, or science, where it’s dates and facts and ideas. This is something that I find exceedingly hard to quantify. It’s about the words, and the storytelling, and the characters. But it’s something more than just that, because a book is more than the sum of some characters doing things, it’s more than the way an author uses cliff-hangers or doesn’t. Or apostrophes. Or semi-colons (That’s me. I love semi-colons.).  Or bigger words.  It’s a whole entity, a framework of words. It’s a pattern, and a rhythm. Not heard, but… something else. Experienced. Thought. A rhythm of thought. In any case; it’s hard to describe what exactly you learned from a book in words. Or at least it is to me. I think I know what I learned; I can feel it in my gut. But ask me what exactly I learned, and I can’t quite explain it to you. I just know exactly it’ll feel in my own work.

It’s a bit like the way I write. A lot of the time, I feel like I’m navigating a foreign terrain with my eyes closed. I know what it’s supposed to look like (I do have an outline) but I’m still reaching out with my toes at every footstep, testing the ground, measuring it, trying to get a good sense of this place that I’m making. The same way with characters; I have character sheets drawn up, but I’m still working, every day, at sliding into their skins. I’m trying to feel my way into understanding them. And when I do finally find my way inside, that’s when I’ve found the right pattern of words to encapsulate them. And that’s when the words flow, when I’ve got this tenuous, fragile sense of who the character is, what the story is, and I’m holding it so carefully, afraid of crushing it.

But I’m getting off topic. This is supposed to be about Out of Oz.

So what did I learn? I learned something about the pattern of hopeless stories. I internalized the feel of an ending with no real resolution that was still vaguely satisfying. It felt very open-ended, and I’m still exploring whether I liked it or not. I also learned that if you have less resolution, people will end up thinking about your story more than if everything is very pat. I got a good look at some patterns of words that fit very well with what I generally thing of as ‘spiky’ characters – my favorite kind. Those will be particularly helpful with my novel.

But I think what I get the most from any book is a new variation on the structure of a story, a stretching of my idea of what a story could be. But this, of course, is a vague takeaway, and nowhere near satisfying. My apologies.

Can I Help My Library?

I remember a time before the cuts.

I remember that line on the Chicago Public Library’s webpage next to a book that said “Not Checked Out” – I remember when that meant something.

Yesterday, when I entered the library, nothing seemed amiss. The books were on their shelves, the librarians were quietly working behind their desks. My plan was to be in-and-out as quick as possible – I was supposed to be working, and had taken a detour while on some errands. I had a list of three books that I wanted, all written in my notebook, with call numbers, authors, all the pertinent information. The Folly of Fools by Robert Trivers, Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal, Moxyland by Lauren Beukes. All three were listed as “Not Checked Out” on the library website. I thought I was safe. I was wrong.

Yes. Yesterday I went to the Chicago Public Library and found none of the books I was looking for, despite the fact that the website told me that they would be there. I mean, come on. The internet said so. And yet they weren’t there.

The librarian behind the desk was sorting books when I arrived at her workstation, and she didn’t pause in the slightest to answer my question.

“Those books were checked in just this month, and we’re just now beginning to sort the books that were turned in on February first.” I’m guessing that’s not for lack of trying. So there you have it: the library is nearly a full month behind on shelving books.

But when did this happen? I will admit that I hadn’t been to the library in a while – a little over six months, to be honest. I got a nook sometime last year, and I had been using it for less than savory purposes, to be perfectly honest. I will admit that this thought crossed my mind: I don’t pay for books at the library, why should I pay for them online?

I’d never been in the habit for paying for most of the books I read. I read a lot; at least a book a week, and sometimes more. If I paid for all of them, it would be a very expensive habit, definitely too expensive of a habit for a middle school, high school or college student. Now, graduated, I find myself with a job, yes, but also student loans whose monthly payment is actually higher than my rent. Still not much money for books. And there’s no way I’m giving up books.

So I admit that I did some things that I’m less than proud of, especially as an aspiring novelist. Chuck Wendig changed my mind with this post. You should definitely read it. So anyway, non-new-years-resolution: No More Book Pirating. And back to the library. And actually buying the books that I really like.

Only it’s a little hard to stick to, when I can’t get the books on my list from the library, thanks, I think, to the recent budget cuts to the Chicago libraries. And I feel awful over not getting worked up about them when they happened. I guess I’ll have to get used to waiting, and go in with a longer list next time.

And, thanks to a friend’s recommendation (he’s got more faith in government than I do) I’ll be writing to my Alderman. It’s the least I can do.

My Morning Routine

A couple of days ago I took my love of lists and organizing a bit farther than usual – and actually wrote out a list of everything I need to do in the morning, in the order in which I ought to do them for maximum efficiency. Because I am all about efficiency.

Also, I’m never really sure how anyone can wake up five minutes before they have to leave for class, or work, or whatever. It doesn’t work. I need that first five minutes to really wake up, and then there’s so many things that you have to do to be really ready for the day ahead, especially when you occasionally like to wear makeup. But it’s also not just about primping and cleansing and all of that. There’s a good amount of business that goes on in here before I ever run (walk purposefully) out the door. As you’ll soon see.

To begin, I wake up at either 6 or 6:30 on weekdays and 8 (mostly) on the weekends. After waking, in order, I:

1. Drink a half glass of water on the couch in the living room as I wake up.
(I’m trying to drink more water after coming to the realization that I’m usually half-dehydrated. Plus, water tastes so good first thing in the morning.)

2. Do 10 minutes or 45 minutes of Yoga.
(This is less for the calming effects of yoga, and more because it’s exercise I can do quietly, in the comfort of my own home, without anyone have to see me sweat and gasp and occasionally screw up. I do that a lot. Especially on balances.)

3. Start coffee.
(So it will be ready when I finish showering and cleaning up.)

4. Morning Cleansing.
(Meaning all the stuff I have to do in the bathroom. List to follow.)

  • Put in contacts.
  • Brush teeth.
  • Shower or wash face if I’m not taking a shower that morning.
  • Do my hair. (This is easy, since my hair is boy-short.)
  • Moisturize my face. (By this point it’s starting to get all dried out from showering/washing my face.)
  • Put on Deodorant.
  • Put on make-up if desired. (No, I don’t always wear make-up.)
  • Wash and moisturize hands. (Otherwise they’ll get cracked.)

6. Change out of robe and into clothes.

7. Prepare breakfast.
(Lately this has been vanilla yogurt and granola. Yum!)

Then, while I’m eating my delicious breakfast and drinking coffee, I:

8. Process my inboxes. This includes:

  • notebook
  • email
  • physical inbox on my desk

9. Review today’s schedule.
(This is usually the same. But it’s nice to know that if something had changed, I would be reminded of it here.)

10. Review To Do Lists.
(A reminder of things that I’ve been meaning to do.)

11. Decide on 3-5 Most Important Tasks.
(3 on weekdays, 4-5 on weekends. I borrow the idea of Most Important Tasks (MITs) from ZenHabits, which you should check out. One of my MITs is ALWAYS working on my novel for an hour.)

12. Update my budget to include any money I spent in the last 24 hours.

13. Work on my first MIT until 7:55am.

14. Pack my bag for work and leave for the day.
(Of course, I don’t stop working at 7:55 and pack my bag for work on weekends. On weekends I just keep working until I finish! Exhilirating.)

I always like to hear how other people plan their days, or plan anything in general, or don’t plan things at all. So definitely feel free to let me know how you get yourself ready in the morning!
(Or, you know, that you think I’m crazy for planning out my mornings so specifically. That’s fine too.)

5 Goals for 2013

1. Get Married. Yes, by the end of this year, I will be Victoria C. H. Anderson instead of Victoria C. Hughes. You can thank Dave for that one. But I really want this to go off without a hitch, and planning a real wedding instead of eloping is a lot of work. So there’s one slot in the goals gone.

2. Continue to work on my novel every day. I can’t say that I’ll be finished by the end of the year, because who knows how longs these things take, especially the first time around. But I’m definitely going to keep at it, every single day.

3. Commit to and follow an exercise routine for an entire year. I can’t say that I want to lose weight, but being in better shape would be nice, and I have a bad habit of dropping exercise routines after as little as a week. Hopefully a little yoga every morning is something that I can keep going, unlike running or biking.

4. Blog a couple times a week, and in the process figure out what I actually want to blog about. That’s what this blog is for! Hopefully sometime this year I’ll be able to change the tag line of this blog to something other “Focus to be Determined.”

5. Keep my apartment clean. If I can just take 15 minutes a day, and keep the apartment clean, I will be a happy, happy Victoria. I don’t know if it will really take that long per day – it may be more or less, but I need to stay on top of maintenance chores like laundry and dishes so I don’t feel like I’m getting buried in mess on a daily basis. 

10 Things I’m Glad I Did This Year

1. Graduated from college a year early. Student loans are bad enough without an extra year to pay on them. And plus I have so much more free time.

2. Went to WindyCon for the first time. This reassured me that I wasn’t the only sane-and-yet-insane lover of sci-fi out there, and also that my writing was readable and enjoyable.

3. Reached out to people to talk things out instead of just writing in a journal and fuming. Talking – not yelling – is a much more efficient way of dealing with problems than just hoping that things will change.

4. Reached out to the people that we hired at work. I never would have known what awesome people I was working with if I hadn’t had the courage to make conversation beyond teaching them, and even act a little silly sometimes.

5. Stuck with my job. Even though I’d like to write all day long, a steady paycheck and a job that stays at work is really nice to have. And plus, my bosses do make me feel appreciated.

6. Went to that Behemoth concert with Dave. Even if the fans were a little rough, it was definitely an experience, and Dave obviously loved it. Completely worth every moment that made me think I was going to be trampled to death. :)

7. Went with my gut instinct and bought Dave that Beer & Bacon tasting. And this one isn’t just because Dave was happy, either. That was some super-quality beer and bacon.

8. Re-read the Fountainhead. Reading it as a mature adult released me from a couple of hangups I’d had on it – when I was younger I wanted so badly to be exactly what Ayn Rand’s characters were, and I was always disappointed that I couldn’t seem to be that perfect. Reading it again, I realized that no one can be that perfect, and stopped getting so down when I wasn’t.

9. Kept going with my novel. My progress may have been variable throughout the year, but I never gave up, and that’s a really good feeling. (Sidenote: I’ve been working on this novel for over a year now. Maybe close to two. I haven’t been keeping track. Wow.)

10. Moved in with Dave. Not to be sappy, but it’s so comforting to live with someone who loves you and supports you, and makes home a place you like coming home to. Much better than either an empty apartment, or any roommates that I’ve ever had.

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