My Writing Process: Brainstorming Characters

It’s a short post today.

When I sit down to come up with a new story, one of the first things I think about besides a contest or collection’s theme, or the overall genre elements and interesting ideas I want to explore and include, is the characters. For me it boils down to, not what the main character cares about most, but who. Ultimately, I think we are all motivated to do the things we do in life because of the people in our lives that we care about (or even dislike or fear) the most. We feel most threatened when our loved ones are threatened, and most distracted, sad, or frustrated when they are hurting, or when they are absent or don’t return our affections. Orienting my characters’ main plot objectives around the people they care about most has become a valuable tool that has helped me generate dynamic characters. These characters may appear to be very concerned with one particular goal on the surface, but they are ultimately motivated to do what they do (including some really bizarre things) because of their relationships.

Stories are Human: Explaining My Writing Process

An author friend of mine mentioned on Facebook a little while ago that a concerned mother at one of his book signings came up to him and seemed to hold a strong view, in his words, that “any books not based in fact (read as “fiction in any form”) was not worth reading.” I gave my thoughts in the comment thread of this post, but wanted to bring them up again because I love what I’ve learned from experts about what story (including fiction) is and why it is so valuable.

From an evolutionary psychology perspective (my favorite way to look at things), our capacity for language (grammar in particular), for imagining the impossible, for developing crazy-sophisticated technology, and for experiencing morality are all connected through our capacity and need to establish and maintain complex social bonds. This means that we humans have the incredible capacity to convey sophisticated internal sentiments, concepts, boundaries, and experiences to one another in a way that incites complex physiological (sensations, emotional resonance) and social reactions in one another. With that in mind, the power of story is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Fiction really does have the power to open our minds to new possibilities, gives us better tools and alternate perspectives to approach and solve problems, and allows us to see our everyday activities and interaction in a new light. Fiction does have value–incredible value. Like other forms of artistic expression, it’s a fundamental part of what makes us the incredible creatures we are.

What’s been fascinating for me as an author over the years is to sit on (and sit in on) panels with other authors and listen to them describe how they come up with great stories–from Larry Correia and Kevin J. Anderson, to Michaelbrent Collings, Candace J. Thomas, David Butler, and Angie Lofthouse (among many, many wonderful authors I’ve had the privilege to come to know in person). While many share similar strategies, no two authors visualize, plan, or build their story elements exactly the same way. At the heart of any story are emotions–conflicts that need to be resolved. But every author has their own flavor of conflict that we like to see and create. The things that motivate us to convey these ideas also vary.

We have different life experiences, different challenges and interests, different things that matter to each of us (or that frighten and bother us, in the case of writing horror). As a result, no two authors will have exactly the same style or approach. It isn’t always easy to deduce how to develop our own styles simply by listening to other authors describe their creative processes, I’ve discovered. Developing my own style has taken a lot of practice: a lot of getting down the basics, a lot of honing, a lot of trial and error. But taking notes and pondering how a variety of others do what they do–from setting up an opening scene with a great plot and interesting characters, to dealing with writer’s block and time-management–has given me a little window into each author’s soul, if you will, as well as strategies and insights into how to tap into my own “reservoir of genuine” to build my own creative writing skills.

I think its good practice for me as a writer to describe my creative process from time to time. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post, I expect that my process will continuously change over time as my views and understanding of writing fiction continue to expand. This means I may change my mind on strategies that I think work well, or on my overall approach to the creative process over time. I think that’s a big part of the adventure of discovering and developing one’s own voice and style. Explaining one’s individual process to others is a skill unto itself, and one, I think, that often takes a bit of courage. We writers and artists recognize that we are still learning and growing, and that we (depending on how novice we still feel about our skills) may be trying to share suggestions or discuss things we aren’t really that experienced in or familiar with yet. In truth, no one of us mere mortals is omniscient, and there will always be some skill or concept area that even the most skilled expert has not yet developed an understanding for. But the more we make an effort to explain ourselves, the easier it becomes to understand the merits both of how we’ve figured out how do things and how others approach things, and the more confidence we gain in our abilities to help others grow as well.

To this end (sharing what I know, and gaining more confidence in my explaining/teaching skills), I’d like to share a few  posts in the coming days here on my blog exploring some of my own current writing process.

Look for a post on my approach to brainstorming characters early next week!

Science, Fear of the Unknown, & H. P. Lovecraft’s Cosmic Indifference

I had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion on “Science in the Universe of H.P. Lovecraft” at Salt Lake Comic Con FanXperience last month. As I have a story coming out in Redneck Eldritch this month, I thought it would be fun to revisit and expand on some of my thoughts that I had the opportunity to bring up on that panel.

H. P. Lovecraft’s life and worldviews are so interesting to me, aside from his fiction. Some have speculated he may have had what we would diagnose today as Asperger’s syndrome or Autism. In what I’ve read of both his fiction and his life, it is my impression that he was a very vulnerable writer who candidly integrated some of his deepest personal fears and phobias about sea creatures, foreigners, and losing his sanity into his fiction. Something that fascinates me about him is his brand of atheism, termed a “cosmic indifference” philosophy, which also colors his fiction in interesting ways.

As a scientist of faith myself who is hoping to study and contribute to the fields of paleontology and human evolution someday, I’m concerned about rhetoric from both radical New World Atheism that specifically decries religious and spiritual convictions as delusional, disingenuous, and destructive, and Intelligent Design proponents who subvert the scientific method to “prove” the existence of God. I feel that both of these extreme philosophical attitudes perpetuate misunderstandings about compatibility between science and religious beliefs.

While academic groups like the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program wish to persuade more Americans that the concepts of evolutionary biology need not pose a threat toward individual religious and cultural worldviews, I believe these extreme attitudes are not the only obstacles to such goals. Science fiction entertainment often flatly pairs radical atheistic themes and attitudes in negative ways with scientific exploration time and again. These themes of conflict between science and belief are becoming deeply ingrained in our broader culture, and no place more effectively than in the sci-fi horror and thriller genres where, one might argue, Lovecraftian themes of cosmic indifference are most frequently emulated.

Whatever influence Lovecraft’s storytelling may have in tying anti-religious sentiments to science in our current cultural mindset, his worldview also strikes me as a genuine and historically significant one that I feel is absolutely worth dissecting and understanding. Something else that fascinates me about his fiction is that it often fixates on fear of the unknown, and mankind’s ability to comprehend the universe. Howard Lovecraft lived in a time when the world was becoming more trusting, unified, and reliant on science and scientific methods to quantify and understand the universe. As my favorite Wikipedia article puts it (I know, I know, it’s not scholarly, but it’s been a great discussion-starter source): “Lovecraft portrays this potential for a growing gap of man’s understanding of the universe as a potential for horror.”

In my mind, faith and fear of the unknown and the unknowable feel like fundamentally supernatural concepts—which seems counterintuitive when Lovecraft’s stories are considered trendsetters for our modern brand of “scientific” horror. The reason Lovecraft’s stories are considered scientific rather than typical supernatural horror, however, is because his characters make painstaking references and appeals to scientific evidence or rationalist thinking, even when that ultimately still fails them. It’s the reasoning in their approach to their problems that makes the horror conflicts scientific rather than paranormal from a literary standpoint. Interestingly, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written a hundred years earlier than Lovecraft’s tales, evokes a similar sense of horror and caution about the potential unseen dangers and consequences of an attitude that we can control and comprehend everything through science, or “play God.” But it does so with the exact opposite motive of rekindling a sense of the sacred and the profane.

Imitating Lovecraft

It was important to me in writing “Mine of the Damned Gods” to try and capture Lovecraft’s themes of cosmic indifference, and the horror of trying to make meaning out of universal insignificance in my own way. I love using transformation scenes in my fiction in general because they evoke visceral questions about the sanctity of from and the fundamental or indivisible qualities of core identity. What makes me me? And is there a part of me that is not only more than a composite of trillions of individual cells that happen to look and function a certain way, but that would persist if my physical form were to suddenly, completely, and irrevocably contort into something else? How does our fear of mutilation relate to a sense of core identity, and why is the concept of a sudden shift in an individual’s physical form–from one species to another completely alien form–so effectively disturbing in this way?

It was also important to me to bend the tropes that paint misconceptions about how evolutionary processes actually work in particular, and that otherwise make evolution look like a bleak reality or a callous tool scientists (or alien invaders) might use to justify disturbing and cold-blooded activities. In my story I attempted to portray evolutionary processes as “natural,” creatively free-form, and hopeful (however blindly or futile for the sake of the horror narrative). In contrast, the “unnatural” and “damning” horror of my characters’ transformations into unfeeling cosmic entities is portrayed as constraining, annihilating, disorienting, gross, and anti-evolutionary.

There’s a lot more going on in my story, of course. Being a retelling of Oedipus Rex with a pinch of the German Legend of the Water Goblin blended in, a redneck tale, and, ultimately, a horror story meant to entertain, I had a lot of bizarre, creative fun with “Mine of the Damned Gods.” H. P. Lovecraft’s stories have captured the imaginations of many and contributed to modern science fiction literature and culture in broad and significant ways. Writing a Lovecraftian tale has both expanded my own storytelling skills and allowed me to explore themes of cosmic indifference in fiction with deeper appreciation for that point of view and its influence in the genre of scientific horror.

2015 Year in Blogging

I find it intriguing to look at my yearly stats for this website, from which posts were viewed most often to where in the world my readers live. I’ve made my 2015 year in blogging report, generated through Jetpack by WordPress, public for those who may be interested.

Most popular posts this year included writing prompts from 2013 and discussions about the amazing ingenuity I’ve discovered in fellow human beings. I’m getting a lot of traffic through a trackback on the Idaho Museum of Natural History site, which is awesome, and through my Salt Lake Comic Con portfolio. And I appear to have quite a few frequent readers outside the U.S., particularly in Brazil and broader Europe–thanks for visiting!

I’ve enjoyed evolving this blog as a place to discuss cool things that I’ve read and encountered, to review and promote the work of fellow authors and artists, to share updates on my fiction and the events I attend, and to express some of my thoughts about the world as they relate to writing, creativity, and what it means to be human. My life path hasn’t followed at all where I expected it to go after graduating from college in a natural science field. But I love learning, something I’ll always be pursuing, and I’ve enjoyed sharing my journey as a growing author with all of you on this blog. As I’ve expressed frequently to my friends, family, and followers alike, thank you for your support, and for believing in me. You mean the world to me. While the year is quickly drawing to a close, I’m looking forward to sharing lots of exciting writing news, reviews, and curious thoughts here on Slithers of Thought in 2016.

For now, feel free to check out these highlights and stats for what you all liked best on Slithers in 2015:
http://jetpack.me/annual-report/56990136/2015/.

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