Saturday, July 27, 2013

Creating Characters: How Do Their Thoughts Influence Their Choices?

In the middle of an ordinary life, there comes a time when one faces a decision that changes the course of that life forever. That window of a moment only lasts a few days or less. The choice that person makes dictates how his/her future will play out until they encounter another moment when another decision must be made. Ultimately, you can get to know someone (real or make-believe) in a very short time span because of this.

When establishing my characters for my story, I like to play around with their cognitive behavior and personality traits. What emotions preoccupy them and how do these feelings influence their choices? When I think about how they think, I can usually grasp an understanding of their biographical history and how their environment influences their emotions. This in turn, leads to their decision making process. After all, the choices that a person makes are what define their characters.

Let's play around with this theory a bit: I've been writing, re-writing, revisiting my first novel Exit Renner for years. The story centers around a character in her mid-twenties suffering from an entry-level career burnout and the mundane routine of "the system." Her youthful idealism from college is dying, and she feels trapped in the glass ceiling of the corporate world. She begins to consciously transport herself in different time warped planes and gets inside different people's spirits. She becomes a tea plantation owner at the turn of the century, a Buddhist monk, and a lottery winner of her future self. Each character she encounters plays a significant role in her own desires: power, spiritual wisdom, sexuality, and money. Although her bizarre space-time experiences allow her to escape from the mundane, she soon realizes that all roads and tranverse planes in the universe lead to only ONE PLACE (this answer is revealed only to the readers who  will actually ever read my novel - seriously, READ something, people).

So we'll call this character the Transverse Planes Traveler. She will have an actual name, but I haven't decided that yet. Instead of accepting the reality of life (working for at least forty years until retirement with almost very little satisfaction, raising a family during uncertain times, adapting to the routines that make one bitter and resentful, etc), she challenges it through her consciousness and subconsciousness. She "escapes" the world not so much with a decision-making moment in her ordinary life, but through a cognitive level of subconsciousness and consciousness blended together that heightens her awareness of parallel universes and tranverse planes. She begins to travel in and out of other beings, influencing them with their choices, and therefore changing the course of other characters' histories. So now I have a character who transitions into other characters. They will be the ones who will reveal the conflicts in the plot. They are the ones who will determine if they will use their feelings or logical reasoning to make their decisions. The choices determine their actions. Their actions will determine the course of the novel, so even though I have always struggled with the plot (which teachers always call the "meat" of the story), I don't sweat it as a writer. I always begin with the characters. They are the ones who will determine the plot. Not me (the writer).

I'll introduce you to another character favorite. Unlike the Transverse Planes Traveler who has been with me for over a decade, I just met this one recently. He is The Wanderer. He doesn't belong in my Exit Renner novel, but he belongs somewhere in this space-time traveling thing somehow. I don't know exactly how he belongs there yet, but that's okay. I'm still getting to know him. He has conventional good looks, but this isn't why I (as the writer) like him. Okay, maybe it's part of it, but not entirely. I am tempted to go into details in describing his looks, but I'm a little worried it will end up sounding like 50 Shades, which is not! No. Uh-uh. No.

But here's a sketch of what he looks like (let's giggle like schoolgirls for a bit): Naturally tanned all year round. Broad shoulders. Gorgeous abs with beautiful tattoos. His body tells a story in itself. He wears a crucifix around his neck that he keeps hidden around his white shirt. On the left part of his chest, a tattoo of Christ hanging on the cross surrounded by weeping women, one of them most likely is the Holy Mother of God. On the other side of his chest, a monstrous fire dragon attacking the snakes and on the lower left side of his abs, gentle angel doves flying gracefully around a rose over a defeated dragon.

Now back to our focus - the choices that characters make which dictate the plot. The Wanderer is a world traveler. He cannot settle down. His amazingly good looks have not provided him with good luck. He's always melancholic. Even his guitar strumming is depressing. To the casual observer, he is a bachelor not wanting to settle down. He can pack up his bags at any given time and set out to any adventure, whether it's sailing along the Mediterranean coast or volunteering in a poverty stricken school in Manila, he does not stay in one place nor does he establish any meaningful relationships for a long period of time. To the careful observer, though (in this case, the careful observer is the narrator in the story - the writer) he spends most of his days traveling in search for an aswer to a question he himself cannot begin to know how to ask. All he knows is the gravitational pull he feels to follow a path that leads him all over the world in search for an answer. He doesn't know the question, but he knows he's looking for the answer to it. He feels a strong sense of destiny.

One of these two characters will die. I don't know who and how. They will die, though. But before they do, readers will know that they have choices they will need to make within a very short timespan given a particular moment. Maybe the choices won't be obvious because of all the circumstances or events surrounding them. They seem to lack control, but that's not true at all. Their choices will dictate the events. They just have to find them and...CHOOSE!

The Tranverse Planes Traveler's path leads to already knowing the answer to her own question. The Wanderer doesn't even know he is asking a question. All he knows is what he feels, so he is "lost" in a world of infinite possibilities. This is what makes him depressed. Although he feels a strong sense of destiny, he has no sense of direction and therefore feels he cannot arrive at his destination. This is all determined through his cognitive process. I'm thinking about how he thinks. His thoughts will lead me to write what happens to him, and you better believe I'll be observing the people around me.

My next goal is to think of names for them. I've changed Transverse Planes Traveler's names several times already, and have not fully been satisfied with them. She's a girl who has always played by the rules. But a taste of the corporate world has left her resenting the rules, so I want her name to have a certain spunkiness but also let it be somewhat conventional. The Wanderer is new, and I'm okay with calling him that until I get to know him better.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Motherhood: Messing it Up With the Money Talk

After a decade of stepmotherhood to a son, age 15, and 8 years of motherhood to a daughter, I'm pretty sure I'm still messing it up. I'm pretty proud of them, though, in spite of the stuff I've messed up along the way, they're doing just fine.

Sometimes, there are things that come out of my mouth in front of my kids and I think, "Did I really just say that to them?" It happened yesterday. I'm a little embarrassed.

I had a conversation with my little girl about super powers. It started off the same way I would start my young writers' workshop classes: an open-ended question type of writing prompt that would allow them the opportunity to expand their thinking process without any restrictions. So I asked her, "If you could have any super power, what would it be?"

Her answer was simple yet profound, just as I would expect it to be from an incoming 3rd grader. "I want to understand the language of animals and translate it to humans."

She explained the logistics to me, saying that she alone would be able to read captions in the air when animals made sounds, which would then be formed into words that only she could see. She would then translate their language into ours so that humans and animals would have a better understanding of each other. I was satisfied with the answer and expected to move the conversation along to another topic if she wasn't already bored with talking to me. She took it a step further, though, and asked me what I would want if I could have any super power.

Without even batting an eyelash, I knew exactly what I wanted: "I would like for my thoughts to be manifested into reality."

A pause. "What?" She asked.

I clarified. "Well, let's say I wanted a mango shake. There's no mango in the house, and we have to get the blender out of the shelf. I'm too lazy to go to the store and buy mangoes only to come home and make it. But if I had that super power, all I'd have to do is to think about a mango shake, and ta-da, it's there! I can drink it!"

I was pretty optimistic that it was a really cool thing. I could think of a bunch of stuff I'd want! "Let's say I want to be at the beach instead of sitting here on the couch. I'll just think of Boracay or Florida, and poof! There I am!"

She wasn't satisfied with my answer. She came up with various scenarios in which I would encounter problems surrounding my super power. She said, "What if your power only lasted for a day and you had wished yourself into a far away place? How will you bring yourself back?"

Then I revealed something in my response that could have possibly marked the first time she became skeptical of her mother's opinions. I saw it in her eyes. I couldn't take it back. I said, "Well, if I only had the super power for one day, I'd make sure I would think of having a ridiculous amount of cash and turn it into reality so that I can have money in my possession. Money can get you out of most situations, except of course, death."

What the hell?!? Did I really just say that? The look on her face confirmed it. Much to my pleasant surprise (Thank you, God) she respectfully used her words and her independence to have a very thoughtful debate with me. "No, Mom, that's not true. Money can't get you out of greed. Having that much money can make you greedy."

Long pause. How do I respond to that? How can I teach her that there is a fine line between using money to benefit your life and other people's lives, and being addicted to the power that comes with it? How do I tell her that in this world, opportunities come so much more often when you have the money? Is that even true? Am I the one who has misplaced values about money? Too many questions. I had to be mom.

As a mother, I needed to understand her thought process. She is very strong minded. She is a decision maker. She is confident. I know I don't want to mess THAT part up. I also know she is still developing her youthful idealism. Her values. Her moral choices. She is defending the values she has been taught to the very person who taught her in the first place. That very person is now contradicting herself.

I then reassured her that her mother wasn't greedy. I told her that I wouldn't really wish for a "ridiculous amount of cash," but maybe a "very comfortable amount of cash so that we could sort out any issues and still have plenty left over to live a good life and help others."

She agreed that it was a "normal" desire to wish for that and clarified in her own way of expressing herself that there was a difference between a normal desire to have enough money to live comfortably vs. just desiring all the money in this world and keeping it to yourself while the others do not have any.

Whew. Good save, but then she asked, "How much money would be normal for you to want, Mom?"
Oh for the love! I don't know the answer!!! Stop asking me questions. I will never do writing prompts with her again.

It was a good question, though. I'm curious to know what other people's responses would be. "How much money do you want to make you stop wanting more?"