Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Hypothesis on the Duality of Character Traits

An idea crossed my mind a while ago about how it is possible for a single character trait to be both an asset to a character and a burden. Or, how one trait can lead to sister traits that can be good or bad.

An obvious example of the first scenario--a trait that is simultaneously an asset and a burden--would be Adrian Monk's OCD and hypersensitivity to stimuli in the TV show Monk. His OCD and hypersensitivity allow him to see clues the cops miss, but they also make his life harder. Similarly, a seemingly good trait can be misapplied to a situation, resulting in an undesired outcome. For example, Henrietta makes cookies for Martha, and instead of seeing them as coming from the goodness of Henrietta's heart, Martha takes offense at the cookies because she thinks they are pity cookies.

For sister traits, take for example Celaena Sardothian of Sarah J. Maas's Throne of Glass series. Celaena is independent, clever, educated, and very competent. She's also rather arrogant and selfish. It makes sense that those traits go together, doesn't it? The same way it makes sense that shyness and insecurity go together, or tidiness and attention to detail. Those traits don't always go together, but it makes sense when they do.

As I recall, this train of thought came to me while I was thinking about how virtues and vices can sometimes come in pairs or groups, and how this might be a tool I can use to help brainstorm character traits. If I know my character is kind, and need a negative trait for him, what's a not-so-great trait that goes with kindness? Some ideas might be being easily manipulated, feeling insecure about always doing the right thing, and being so diligent in the care of others that one neglects oneself. On the flip side, if I know a character has temper issues, what are some good traits that could go with them? Some ideas would be honesty (assuming the character doesn't blow things out of proportion when riled up) and predictability--it often doesn't take long to learn what will upset someone with temper issues. Or, in a different scenario, perhaps I have a character I know is a bit of a rebel, but I don't want her to have stereotypically rebellious traits, so I think about traits that don't commonly go with rebelliousness, such as having a taste for gourmet food or hating loud music.

In addition, these ideas can be used to add conflict, such as in the Henrietta's cookies example. Traits and behaviors can be misunderstood. If you have two characters, you have two different views on the situation, and two different perceptions of the events and actions that occur in it.

That's as far as I've thought on this subject so far, though I suspect there's more I can think about and learn here. Now I turn to you, dear reader. What do you think about these ideas? Have any thoughts of your own to add?

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Fun with Notes, Part 4

Greetings, earthlings. 

Today, after my very long absence from the blogosphere, I bring you another edition of Fun With Notes. Enjoy. Click here to read parts one, two, three, and the Sebastian Edition.


Oh, this looks like foreshadowing for romance… Mwahahahaaa.


Gah, again with the romantic foreshadowing. I’m so mean.


I think I’m going to die from an angst overdose. “It’s so angsty I’m gonna die.” … I haven’t even seen Despicable Me. 

This is the ONE and ONLY time we are allowed to use this simile. 

[For those of you curious, the simile this comment referred to was "he looked like he'd been slapped with a fish." In the last draft, I used it like four times. I know. I know.] 


Um, yeah, you could say that. He FREAKING DIED. 


Yes, tremble in fear as you realize there is now someone ELSE in your way. MWAHAHA!






… Because of stuff I know that isn’t in this draft, but whatever.


Descriptive, Lily. Real descriptive.


This detail? Good. This prose? Bad. Fixy wixy.


And that concludes this episode of Fun with Notes. Tune in next week for a, like, real post with like, (hopefully) useful hypotheses. Kirk out.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Analyzing Mysteries: Clues and Leads

Lately, clue pacing has been bugging me. If you are writing a mystery (like I am), how to you place clues? How do you decide when the detective finds the clues, and which clues she finds? How does this affect pacing?

I still haven't answered those questions, but as I was pondering this, I pulled out some outlines I'd made for two television show mysteries: an episode of Inspector Lewis ("Falling Darkness"--one of the most creepy and complicated episodes of Inspector Lewis ever) and an episode of Elementary ("The Leviathan"--not very creepy, but complicated). I compared them to see how the flow of clues/leads/suspects lead the detectives from the beginning to the end. And I made some interesting discoveries. In Inspector Lewis, there are several plot threads going at once. Lewis follows several leads at once, and the only connection the leads have is that they all involve the murdered woman. To contrast, in Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time, and one lead leads to the next.

I'll talk about Inspector Lewis first. First, I suggest you read this short synopsis (spoilers and all) of the episode (you'll have to scroll down to the bottom and push the "Read full synopsis" button). What I have to say will make more sense if you can compare it to the synopsis.

In this episode, the first half or more of the story is spent following several different leads--all of which are mostly wrong or red herrings. But the way in which the clues are found and leads are followed is a little bit scattered, as multiple leads are being followed at once. Here's a timeline of the leads (note: I made this out of the detailed outline I made for this episode, so it covers more clues than the synopsis. Don't worry if you don't know what clues it refers to, the point of this is to see the "pattern" in which the clues were followed and the fact that they investigate more than one lead until Mary Gwilliam's body is found.)

Laura’s friend, Ligeia, is murdered on Halloween night.
Vampire leads (garlic in the mouth and stake through the heart of body—dead ends, never brought up again.)
Stem cells.
Fridge letters.
Stem cells.
Ligeia’s ex and daughter (also dead end that never goes anywhere).
Ligeia’s boyfriend (he proposed, she ended the relationship=motive for him.)
More fridge letters (including "find Mary Gwilliam") and new murder.
Backstory connection to Laura, Ligeia, and house where second murder happened.
Charlotte gets questioned because she lives nearby.
Laura’s past.
Learn more about students at second murder house.
Consider Laura as a suspect.
Students’ suspicions and alibies (or lack thereof.)  
Boyfriend and stem cells--> reveal Ligeia’s boss’s motive (never brought up again.).
Gwilliam’s body found (tie in with fridge letters.)
Gwilliam backstory and clues.
More about students (two of them used to date each other—dead end).
Gwilliam connection to Laura.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam and hospital.
Gwilliam’s past.
Laura’s past.
Gwilliam's past.
Connection: Laura’s past to hospital where Gwillam worked.
Laura’s past.
Laura’s past.
Charlotte identifies one of the students as the guy who got home late the night of Ligeia’s murder.
Connection: the psychic was having an affair with said student, which is why he got home late (dead end).
Connect Laura to hospital-->learn about twins.
Figure out who twins are.
Twins are mentally ill-->tie in to their father.
Lewis gives explanation and conclusion. 

In this episode, anything that isn't Laura's past or related to Mary Gwilliam is a red herring. The stem cell research, the break up with the boyfriend, the psychic, etc. are all red herrings. Until Mary Gwilliam's body is found, Lewis follows several leads that are mostly red herrings. After her body is found, things start to come together.

In Elementary, only one lead is followed at a time. Sherlock finds one lead, asks questions about it, which leads him to the next lead, which leads him to the next lead, and so on. It's far more linear than Inspector Lewis. I'm going to do another timeline like I did for Inspector Lewis, so here's the synopsis for "The Leviathan". (Here's a more in-depth one, but that website has incredibly inappropriate links and pictures in the side bar.) A timeline of leads looks like this:

Crime is committed.
We get backstory on the previous robbery. 
Meet Mr. Green Stick
Sherlock examines crime scene and suggests it wasn't an inside job
Sherlock wants to find who did it in order to find out how they did it.
Sherlock visits old thief in prison-->thief says a dead thief sold info to a master thief.
Sherlock researches master thief, figures out who it is.
Sherlock goes to visit the master thief and spots a clue that proves they have the right guy, but said thief had a stroke two years ago and can’t walk, so it can’t be him.
Back to the original thieves-->only one thief went to trial, the rest took plea bargains.
Sherlock realizes that four jurors from the original robbery had the same skills as the thieves, and one is related to Mr. Green Stick
Theory: jurors copied original thieves.
One juror is murdered-->the stolen diamonds were at his house-->Sherlock's theory was right.
Theory: one of the other jurors killed him for the diamonds but couldn’t find them.
Another juror dies.
Collect DNA evidence on all previous jurors.
DNA doesn’t match jurors, but matches someone else-->she donated bone marrow to one of the jurors, so the DNA sample the cops used (saliva rather than blood) wouldn’t match (this is a factor of bone marrow transplants, don't try to figure it out, it's irrelevant to this exercise).
The jurors did it, crime solved. 

See how this was far more linear than Lewis? Sherlock started out with only one lead: the original robbery gang. From there, one clue lead to the next and there weren't very many red herrings (there were also a lot fewer plot threads). However, like in Lewis, they didn't start to really nail down who it could have been until about half way through the episode.

Some other differences between Inspector Lewis and Elementary:
  • Lewis is a bit more omniscient than Elementary. We see things going on with the suspects that Lewis doesn't see. In Elementary, we only see what Sherlock or Watson sees. 
  • Lewis puts more effort into developing the suspects and their secrets than Elementary does. This is the reason why there are more leads and plot threads. We get a much closer look at the suspects' lives in Lewis than in Elementary. 
  • While this particular Inspector Lewis did involve a recurring character's past, it didn't have much to do with her overarching character arc. In Elementary, there is a side plot involving Watson's mother, which does add to the overarching relationship between Watson and Sherlock. 
So, what's the takeaway of this post? There are multiple ways to structure and balance clues and subplots and leads. How do you figure out how you should structure your mystery's clues? I haven't figured that out yet. What I did learn from this, however, was that I have the pacing of the mystery in my WIP wrong. At the beginning, when my detective finds out the suspect she was investigating didn't do it, it bumps her back to square one. This happens multiple times. I don't like that. It slows things down, and means that she rarely gets to deal with new information. In both Elementary and Inspector Lewis, when a clue leads to a dead end, there are other leads for the detectives to follow that are built on investigation they've done already. I need to figure out how to do that.  I plan on outlining some more mysteries (episodes of Poirot, Castle, and Psych, and the book I'm reading right now--The Season by Sarah MacLean), so hopefully I'll learn more.

What do you, fair reader, think of this? Have anything to add?