I’m sure I’ve mentioned it before. I’ve become one of those cat ladies. I went through my Dropbox recently to clear up space, and much of it was pictures of cats sleeping. Multiple pictures sometimes of the same catnap. But going through the pictures made me remember what my cats were like when they first got here– especially my grey cat.
Our black cat has always been a little rambunctious. The first time we held her at the vet’s office where we adopted her from, she jumped off my boyfriend’s shoulders to jump onto a shelf full of neck cones. We were alone in the room, just us and the cats, and immediately, Jay and I felt like we’d committed a minor offense of some sort. “Cat, you can’t do that! Get back here!” My boyfriend fell in love with her immediately.
The cat that I would choose happened to be the exact opposite. He was timid. They put him in my arms and warned me he was a “bolter.” That’s why they shut us in the room. So when he ran off, they could find him again. He froze in my arms, tiny claw digging into my skin. When I put him back down in his cage, he hid behind his food bowl, every so often popping his head up to see if I was still there.
My timid kitty is the one who most got me thinking about personality. Growing up around pets (mostly dogs) I have always accepted that they each have a unique personality, and that once an animal is gone, no other animal will replace it. But watching these two cats, I became amazed at how much personality they have and just how much it can change over time with the right nurturing.
This previously timid cat now stands up on higher ledges to meow with determination when it is time to feed him the good food at night. He uses his purrs to manipulate us when he wants to come into the bedroom. He stands in our way in the morning when he wants attention, no need to really ask for it. He still slinks into my lap though when I sit on the couch with some hesitation. And if he gets outside, the world that used to scare him actually intrigues him, and he will walk away from the door, but never too far.
I assume this is just because of his environment and us. He has learned that he can trust us. He can trust our friends. When people come over, if he knows and trusts them he will flop over and wait for them to give him belly rubs. (The flopping over is cute, and I have to tell people he’s doing this to for the first time what he expects them to do.)
Trouble has made me see that personality, at the base, is simply how we respond to stimuli. His first response used to be to run and hide. Danger’s first response was to run up to the thing and start sniffing at it, possibly slap it with a paw.
Of course, it gets much more complicated with humans, but the same basic idea seems to hold true. I’ve watched my niece and nephew grow up, and I am constantly amazed to see that so many of the mannerisms they have as adults now are exactly the same as when they were little toddlers. The way they often react to things now is similar along the lines to the way they would have acted as kids. (It kills me when I get my big nephew to sputter out a laugh that resembles the laugh he had at age five.) The difference in humans though is that we change what we want to change. If there is something we don’t like about ourselves, we can work on disguising it or controlling it. I used to be shy and had trouble looking people in the eyes. Over time and through practice, I have learned that making the first strike at welcoming a person into my space helps make the other person feel comfortable which makes me feel better as well. But that shyness hasn’t left me. I still feel the tug of it in any interaction I do. It’s quieter if I’m in a space that is all my own (like my office), but it is incredibly loud if I’m somewhere I don’t feel comfortable. And some days I don’t want to deal with that little battle, so I simply won’t.
So I’m thinking I need to look at my characters a little differently. I need to take note of their stock response and then examine how the events in their life affect that natural behavior as well as what they’ve done to change their own behavior, if they’re conscious of it at all.
Recently, there was a Pete and Pete cast reunion. Remember that show? I used to love it because of quirky characters and a reality that wasn’t based in real life and yet still held truths. (Like the meaning behind a driver’s side elbow.)
The creators of the show did an interview where they expressed surprise that a large portion of their fans were actually female.
…the ones who were the most affected and were trembling and just wanted to hug you were girls. I don’t think we ever really wrote the show for them — probably one of its flaws, looking back, is that we didn’t do as good a job as we could have with Ellen [Big Pete’s best friend], giving her more to do and taking advantage of [actress Alison Fanelli]‘s comic chops.
Listen, male authors, screenplay writers, commercial makers– you don’t have to write for us. It’s also doubtful that you have to write for men. Just write a good story with good characters and that’s more than enough.
I’m not meaning to pick on the creators of the show. It was an innocent throw away comment. They just mean that they really wished they’d used the female character more, but because they assumed their audience was made of boys they focused on the boys. Which is understandable. How often are people told to write for the audience?
Here’s the thing– the sex of a character doesn’t matter. I can read a book and identify with challenges facing male characters. Often, those challenges aren’t even linked to their sex, it’s an outside force forcing the story. Men can do the same! I’ll admit that I was surprised by the number of men who’ve read my story and actually enjoyed it. So I’ve fallen into this same thought process too.
I’m not saying I’m against a character who is defined by their gender. I think it’s just important to stop thinking in black and white. Writing about a woman who has to deal with a choice between two men is not necessarily a bad topic so long as you’re not turning the characters into flat and tired stereotypes where the men are all dogs and the women are all beauty obsessed with ticking biological clocks that cause them to shank their best friend.
In defense of Pete and Pete, even though they say they weren’t thinking of the girls watching the show, Susana Polo makes a great point on The Mary Sue.
…Pete & Pete did right by its female characters: in a show that was entirely about the weirdness of suburban life, it never tossed off a stereotype to anyone. There was no stuck up, pink, and frilly older sister, and I don’t think the show even ever had a creepy cat lady. Female characters in Pete & Pete were never defined by their gender, femininity, or a relationship to a main character…
And that’s how you make a great show for kids, where the characters can just be characters.
Here’s a crazy thing. I was just looking through some of my digital notes (I tell you my notes are everywhere!) and I came across this picture of a whiteboard diagram I did for one of the stories. What you see illustrated here is one story told through the relationships of the characters.
This is how I work when I get stuck. I am definitely a pantser, but that doesn’t mean I won’t try plotting before I write a story. I did, and it didn’t work in this story’s case. I knew something was off. Rather than look at the planned events for the story again or continuing to just stab around looking for the story through writing, I decided to make a diagram of the character relationships.
To other writers, this probably doesn’t sound that crazy, so I imagine this is more of a post for readers. A behind the scene look at the things that are tried in order to understand a story better. In my case, I feel that my writing focus (my story spirit) will always be contained within the personal relationships of the characters. Though I hope to always write an engaging story with a satisfying ending (which doesn’t always mean a happy ending), the most important thing to take away from any of my stories will always be these relationships. My whole thing is exploring normal people in an extraordinary world just to see what normal people can do when pushed. I don’t believe people know what they’re capable of until they are pushed.
Anyway, I thought this would be fun to share. I’m still working on this story. After I did this diagram, I let the story stew while I went back to edit an older story. When I came back, it all became so clear to me I wrote the first-half draft in a week. I say first half draft because I managed to get the events down, but I need to work on layering in the personal relationships. Because that is the important part to me after all.
So just a question of curiosity, what do you consider your writing focus/story spirit? Do you find it changes with the story or is there something that you’re always focusing on?
Yesterday, my boyfriend, who was reading through the new version of that story I keep whining about, said to me: “I’m on the dirty part. Even in a short story you managed to work in a dirty part.”
To be fair, it’s not all that short. It’s over 20,000 words and nearly 60 pages printed! That’s enough for a dirty part, right?
Still, I did go a little red in the face and tried to explain how I anticipated hearing something about the dirty bit. I’m pretty sure I just ended up blaming my writing partner in crime. (Sorry, Laura. You know how it goes. Blame the one not present and all that.)
The sex scene is an interesting beast. It sort of gets a lot of baggage piled up on it. Most writers say they have trouble with the sex scene. In fact, when I mention anything about including sex in any of my stories, I sometimes seem to face this unconscious attitude that a sex scene suddenly turns a book into erotica or something. I can’t really explain it, but I’ve hit on it more than once and the person speaking never seemed aware of the assumption, so maybe it was just me reading into things. But there does seem to be some sort of bias against the sex scene in regular fiction that is not romance or erotica.
Sex scenes are fun for me to write. I’ll confess, sometimes, as one of my exercises, I’ll write a sex scene between two characters who may or may not be involved. Some surprising things about a character can come to light from these experimental romps. Either about their character (Do they lead in bed or are they led? Are they pushy? How far do they push?) or about the situation.
I do have a couple of tips when it comes to the sex scene.
1. Assume the reader has basic knowledge about sex. I never write about organs or how they fit together. I don’t talk about positions. The focus is instead on the physical details of the scene as the characters are feeling it. I consider these anchor details that will help elicit a memory or a fantasy from the reader.
2. It’s not really about the sex. Okay, so maybe it is, but I find that boring. I prefer to get a deeper glimpse into the character. (Wow, no pun intended there, but feel free to snicker away at that!) Sex is a moment where the character may let down their guard or even pull their guard up more. How they behave in bed can speak volumes.
I’m not a pro, but I do enjoy an interesting sex scene. (Again with the snickering.) It’s sort of a strange topic and a little embarrassing. The next story I’m working on might also have a sex scene. Oh man, I don’t want to hear what my boyfriend will say when he reads that one.