Creating a Character Profile for Mike Coffey: #StoryMOOC Week 3

To finish Week 3 of the MOOC, “The Future of Storytelling”, my creative task is to publish a detailed profile of an original character. I must also provide a bit of “evidence” – some artifacts – of my character’s online presence.

This is an exercise in Transmedia – creating fiction across multiple media simultaneously – so that a character has resonance and persistence in social media and elsewhere, outside of his/her fictional universe. This, I believe, gives the character some extra depth, and can also assist online marketing efforts as well.

I have chosen to profile “Mike Coffey”, a significant character from my first novel, “Owe Nothing”.

Here’s Mike Coffey’s Character Profile:

StoryMOOC_Chap3_Character_Profile (PDF)

Here is Mike Coffey’s blog, where he describes some of the events in his life:

Mike Coffey’s Blog

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Getting closer to writing again…

Other than the occasional blog post, I haven’t written anything of consequence, personally, in close to a year. So goes my on-again-off-again relationship with creative writing.

The stopper (or slower-downer) for me this time has been a preoccupation with  money (re: earning more) and enduring a series of extensive repairs and renovations to our condo.

Our building was built in 1995, and that, coupled with the fact that our suite is on the ground floor, makes us prime targets for receiving water from the world outside (a cracked cement planter adjacent to our bedroom), and from the upper floors (a broken pipe a few stories above).

These leak damage repairs began in November, and were finally completed in February, so we endured a few uncomfortable months living in our guest bedroom with all our master bedroom and en-suite bathroom contents piled up over our ears throughout the rest of our place.

My inner grateful voice told me many times “at least you weren’t unemployed this time”. Yes, dear inner grateful voice, that is true and I am indeed grateful. When things break and you don’t know how long it will take to fix them, it’s a good time to count your blessings.

Reading fiction is one of the best forms of escape from stress or grief that I know. I have been trying to finish Hugo’s classic novel “Les Miserables”, and it’s reminded me of the meaning of true suffering and sacrifice. How can one compare a leaky condo to being homeless, ostracized, or physically and emotionally beaten down? I had a hard time beginning this novel, and at first found Hugo’s writing style rather hard to take, since his voice tended to switch from narrative, to period history, to philosophy, or to personal polemic. It requires a great deal of patience and perseverance,  but the reward is a deeper comprehension of his characters and the world in which they live.

As inspiring and beautiful as “Les Mis” is, it’s a monumental novel for a part-time reader like me. After months, I’m not even halfway through the epic.

The only writing I’ve been doing in recent months is business communications, and editing/reformatting training manuals for a much-appreciated contract. My inner creative mind has been eclipsed by my inner pragmatist. Of course, this delights my inner grateful voice no end, since in addition to blessings, it can also count a few new dollars among its reasons to keep on smiling.

I’v finally started to hear the voices of my own characters calling to me as well. I haven’t worked in the world of Jack Owen for a long, long time, but it’s starting to feel like writing time again. I’ve neglected Jack’s world for too long.

God, it’s getting crowded in there with all those bloody voices. But, they’re telling me good things. I just have to keep listening.

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On Research and Creativity: Archetypes and Inspiration…

I’ve been revisiting and researching famous stories and hero myths, starting from the most recent, pop cultural stories and their influences, and then digging down deeper into personal territory, furrowing paths that lead me to my mother and father, and to my images and beliefs of myself.

I’m a fan of pop culture, comic books, and sci-fi – not all of it – and during the years when I grew from a kid into a teenager, I absorbed a lot of pop culture stories and artwork. Here are the particular works that affected or influenced my outlook as I was plodding through my angst-fueled tweens through teen-hood:

Star Wars:
I had just turned eleven, and this movie was a religious event for me. I read magazines about the movie’s plot and its production, collected every bubble gum card in the series, and collected some of the action figures. It had aspects of the Wizard of Oz, along with a somewhat gritty “used” aesthetic that made it feel worn and lived in. I wanted to live in it. It was the last movie I ever saw with my mother, and the last movie that she ever saw outside of a hospital television. For Mum, Dorothy left the farm in Kansas to see the world. For me, Luke left the farm on Tatooine to find his destiny.

Superman, the Motion Picture:
A year after Star Wars landed, another big cinematic event for me. Christopher Reeve inspired me that a man can be an honest, virtuous hero, impervious to negative influences and corruption. He gave the most convincing, wonderful performance, and the movie’s physical and optical effects had reached an amazing level that convinced me that a man could fly.

Famous Monsters of Filmland:
This was a science fiction/fantasy/horror movie magazine that showed me that movie monsters were brought to life by actors, designers and writers, and that movie monsters could be funny as well as shocking. The magazine’s editor, Forrest J. Ackerman, was lovingly referred to as “Uncle Forry” by me and a whole generation of young fans and future movie makers. Real life provided me with enough real scares and true monsters, but Uncle Forry made his world fun and safe.

Archetypes – Parents and Other Important Grown-ups:

My parents, only one generation younger than their wise elders, seemed to contain all the chaos the world had to offer, and served it up around me far too often. Mother and Father were the seat of drama and hot emotions in my life. My father could be gentle, but when challenged or threatened would become authoritarian and rigid – someone to fear and obey. My mother could sometimes be fun or spontaneous, but was most often depressed, uncommunicative or just unavailable.

My grandparents were all dead by the time I was twelve. I only got to know one of them really well (my maternal grandfather). I’m also grateful for the careful attention of my father’s aunt, who gave me and my sister quiet, safe times to learn, draw or just hang out. I had learned from watching how each of them lived that life could be uncomplicated, rational and peaceful, with simple joys like a brisk walk while sucking on a fresh peppermint.

Later on, a couple of years into adulthood, I’d encounter a teacher who provided me the educational and professional mentorship I had craved. He began as a kind of “Obi-wan Kenobi” to my eager young “Luke Skywalker”, showing me new ways to look at the world around me, and in the years to follow as I matured and accumulated more of my own wisdom, I saw him more clearly as a man, idolized him less,  and liked and respected him even more.

Wise elder figures in fantasy (Obi-wan Kenobi, Gandalf) or familiar celebrities (like Uncle Forry), represented safe and reassuring proof that there was fun, reassuring elder wisdom to be had for uncertain youths.

Each of These Figures Goes into the Mix…

For me, I suppose that the symbolism of my family and life sums up something like this:

  • Parents teach more by the example of their lives, than by anything they tell you about them. Do as they say, but watch out for what they do. In my life, I learned what not to do and how not to live, by watching their living examples.
    • Father: Strong, fearless except when his fearlessness is in question, and moral, except when his morality is in dispute. When he’s good, he’s Superman. When he’s bad, he’s Darth Vader, or Dracula.
    • Mother: Beautiful to look at, a songbird to hear, but unstable and unreliable. Tragic and flawed. Someone to love en absentia, and then posthumously. Referred to in the past tense, even during her life; zombie-fied and burnt out, like a poor, patchwork Frankenstein’s monster
  • Grandparents tend to be wiser than their children, and tend to mourn and regret their antics, even into their adulthood. Because of their roles, they can provide comfort, but are often ineffective at being parents to their adult kids. The old wizards and warriors have had their day, and must yield the field to their younger counterparts – for better or worse.
  • Teachers tend to be the most objective and reliable source of information and inspiration. They also represent the emotional oasis that is school and higher learning in general. They don’t get involved directly with any of the above.
  • The Hero/Heroine of your life is you (in my case, me). You take everything you can get, learn all the lessons, suffer all the trials, and watch all the examples of each of the above people in your life.

This is the raw material that has gone into the characters and events in my own fiction, such as Owe Nothing, and its sequel, The Two Sisters.

In looking back at my life, and what I’ve made of it, I acknowledge the roles and influences of my parents, grandparents, teachers, idols, and fantasies. They all represent parts of a tapestry (if you’ll indulge me in a weaving metaphor), the threads of which I’ve extracted to knit into something new. The individual threads (snippets of a personality, an action-reaction, a core value, feeling or sense-memory) don’t reveal much of their source, but careful composition allows me to create figures, worlds and events that can resonate for a reader, without devaluing the original threads and those who spun them for me.

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On Writing: Motivating Characters (and their Author)

What is it that will drive a character to take an action?

By this, I mean to ask “What, in the character’s mind/worldview is the rationale that will cause them to do one thing instead of another? For the Author, this includes considering the underlying goal of driving the story in a believable way, consistent with the character’s behaviour as the reader understands it at that point in the story. An Author pulls a lot of strings and balances a lot of balls in order to get these goals to mesh.

For me, this requires either research into the elements that form a character: lifestyle, health issues, career or technical skills, values and religion, speech/vernacular and attitudes.

It sounds like a lot when I lay it all down at once here, but realistically, I only have to focus on one of those categories/areas at a time. In many cases, I can use my own experience to answer questions and narrow down the scope of research. Subjective elements (a character’s personal opinion, for example) is much easier to write – it requires little qualification via research.

Basically, whether I can immerse the reader in my character’s world by virtue of objective-seeming realism, or by using compelling and rich subjective “opinion” based on my own experience, it all boils down to creating an experience that the reader accepts and in which they want to immerse themself.

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On Writing: Visualization and Collage in Storytelling…

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning. I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts.

For me, writing is a lot like an act of integration. Taking disparate chunks of experience and combining them into an assemblage or collage gives them added meaning.

I think that this is what is intended by the word “juxtaposition” in art/design terminology. It boils down the creating a new whole out of a bunch of summed-up parts. The relationships that are created by placing elements next to each other create new contexts and meanings that each element did not originally possess individually.

As I write, I’m transcribing visual scenes in my head into words. Sometimes, I’m acting like a court reporter sitting in a movie theatre, watching my characters speak, smelling what they smell, listening to the sounds of their surroundings, and feeling their emotions. In my head, I’ve already shot the scene as a movie, and now the challenge is to get that scene down on paper in a way that will be powerful and will resonate in my reader’s mind.

Many scenes can be drawn out of snippets of personal experience, opinions, current events, and one’s own worldview or inner monologue. Each of these elements is a small scrap of paper with an image on it, waiting to be pasted down on a board along with other scraps, to contribute a piece to an overall theme.

I often think up the elements or “little scraps” first: an intriguing personality, a moment of tension, despair, or heroism, or a mysterious moment or place. A story is made up of many such individual scenes, each of which must have its own internal logic, beginning, middle and end, and each of which must work within the context of the greater story or plot.

If I can’t see how to use them, a lot of these elements get filed away somewhere for later use. It’s tough to know which elements to bring out of the drawer and place on the table, and which ones need to be kept in the file. Every little scrap is a piece of life experience.

We all have experiences, and some of us have had similar experiences. The challenge for me as a storyteller is to find and create the scraps that will seem familiar to someone else (because I want to know that I can reach my audience emotionally and culturally), and to combine the scraps into a collage of pieces that says these things to my reader: you may know this story, my friend. You’ve read it many times before in different guises. Some things are universal to human experience. You may have heard the story before, but you haven’t heard it from this storyteller in this way before.

Universal things happen to all of us, but come to each of us in a different way. That’s why the story is interesting, and why the collection of parts makes a unique picture on the page.

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On Research and Digging Deep: Setting the Tone for Believability

The raw material of a story or any creative work probably comes from at least two kinds of sources: the Subjective, and the Objective. Somewhere between these two seemingly opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either approach, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

(This is a brief followup on the theme of researching for my next novel, “The Two Sisters”.)

I’ve probably stated this before in previous posts, but factual research is a big deal to me. I don’t claim to be the most tenacious digger of facts, but if, as a Reader, I can’t relate to some level of realism in a story or its characters, the author will easily lose me.

The raw material of a story or any creative work comes from two categories of sources: the Subjective and the Objective. Subjective material includes events, memories and things of with which you have a direct personal involvement and/or memory. They can also be fuzzy, under-defined, elusive or prone to contradiction – after all, they are your memories – and from my experience, human memory is fragile and subject to change without notice. But, still, it’s yours and you own it, and it’s there to be utilized.

Objective material means, to me, information that has been documented, and hopefully verified, by third parties, associations, papers or contains some testament as to its proof, like scientific research.

Somewhere between these two opposite categories sits the Artist, who must decide how and when to engage either side, and whether to use an unbalanced or balanced approach.

For example, I remember an article by James Bond creator, Ian Fleming, who advised writers that when creating a thriller novel the author must include enough realism to provide a solid base upon which the more fantastic elements of the story can stand. In other words, Fleming said that if you can initially establish believability and credibility in the known and possible elements of your story (the recognizable places, personalities and objects), the reader would be more likely to accept and engage in any unknown or seemingly impossible elements.

This kind of social realism is a core approach that I took in my first novel, Owe Nothing, where I tried to create a detailed, recognizable, and somewhat gritty  portrait of my home town of Vancouver, BC. I tried to kind of iconify settings such as rusted, rotting motels, junk-strewn alleys and fast food drive-thrus. I’ve read some novels which, in my opinion, have almost no scenic descriptions at all; everything is described in between a character’s ears, but almost nowhere else (“The Boys From Brazil”, I’m looking at you).

By contrast, thriller/detective authors like Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett and especially Raymond Chandler, have a way of bringing places to life and almost transforming them into characters in their own right. In “The Lady in the Lake”, Chandler makes you taste the dust inside the deserted lakeside cabins in a little town. In “Live and Let Die”, Fleming evokes the neon sights, blues and jazz music, speech patterns and emotions of Harlem in the mid-50s (at least from the perspective of a middle-aged Englishman). Rich settings like this help to involve the reader in the world to a greater degree, and to legitimize and contextualize the characters.

Subjective work can be more elusive and difficult to feel confident about. I have a major character in “The Two Sisters”, Rose, who in her teen years suffered a horrific personal assault – the kind that I’ve never experienced personally. To create this event for Rose, I had to dig down into a few scared, sad moments from my own youth (as well as read testimonies from other sources) and synthesize the character’s physical and emotional responses, layering them with the in-the-moment sights and sounds that add a level of irony, symbolism and drama, all while relating to larger plot line and themes of the story.

Often, the subjective and objective aspects are intermingled. In her later years, Rose becomes a long-term resident of a psychiatric hospital. I began to describe her appearance and behaviour quite easily, since I based her on my late mother, who was a 14 year resident of BC’s provincial mental health facility, Riverview Hospital.

However, describing the specific medication or intimate details of the day-to-day life of a Riverview resident are much more difficult, and require research to be accurate. Few people will ever try to refute your subjective personal experiences or opinions, but things that are objective, verifiable matters of record are certainly more vulnerable to scrutiny.

It’s the Author’s job to set the terms for believability and plausibility inside the worlds and the characters they create. I haven’t become skilled enough to let my characters push the bounds of believability within their own worlds (i.e. to bust through that invisible wall to the audience, as it were), and use the voice of an incredulous reader (“that doesn’t seem real to me”, etc.) but perhaps one day…

At the end of the day, no work can be perfect. I think that most readers are willing to forgive minor inconsistencies or errors, so long as they believe that the author has made their best effort to get the facts straight and to present an entertaining and believable story.

Related: http://ejohnlovebooks.com/2010/08/research-photos-from-riverview/

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What Independent Author Stacey Cochran learned from self-publishing

I found this article to be a very useful, first-hand account of the challenges and advantages of self-publishing.

I think that opinion tends to be divided between those who feel that eBooks are opening new opportunities for readers and writers, and those who feel that the eReader medium is still too immature and under-refined compared to paper books and traditional book publishing and book selling.

This fellow’s travails in self-publishing and book marketing provide a practical example of the pros and cons of being an independent author and book publisher.

http://blog.firebird-fiction.com/guest-post/guest-post-independent-author-stacey-cochran-on-what-hes-learned-about-self-publishing/

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Preview Owe Nothing Free, on Google Books

In the spirit of “try before you buy”, I invite you to read a preview of my novel, Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

Owe Nothing is my non-mainstream look at Vancouver: an adventure novel based upon real people and places that I knew when my family lived in dodgy Kingsway Motels for over a year. The names of the people in Owe Nothing are fictionalized, but the people and events are inspired by reality…

All ow me to introduce a few of the main characters…

Jack Owen
A young guy looking for adventure, and an escape from his lower-class rut. By accepting a bizarre job offer, he soon discovers that the back alleys and rooftops of East Vancouver hold more mysteries than he may be able to hide from his Dad or his Sister.

Parminder Singh
Jack’s buddy from work, and his companion through some bizarre surveillance tasks that they’ve been recruited to do for a man they’ve never even met. Parm’s not sure if this is on the up and up, but he’ll do it for the money.

Mike and Chris Coffey
Brothers, and friends of Jack from the neighbourhood. They’ve got to find a way to get rid of their violent alcoholic step-father Ted, without their mother Regina finding out. Maybe Jack can help them…?

Check out the rest of Owe Nothing, on Google Books.

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Are Video Book Trailers a Good Idea?

Are video book trailers a good idea? I actually debated this question while I pondered the progress of my online book marketing campaign. In retrospect, it seemed funny that I actually pondered this at all.

When I first envisioned the kinds of activities it would take to market a novel, I imagined things like press releases, printed interviews, serialization, or an email campaign. I was thinking in textual terms, for a textual medium.

It seemed rational, but in truth, it was a limited, literal approach, and it ignored a key aspect of modern life: we live in a multimedia, multi-modal world. Reading text is only one of the modes of apprehension that we use in any given day. We also listen to radio, podcasts and music, we watch TV and video, and we interact with others remotely through telephone, text messages and online, through email and a myriad of other channels.

In one way or another, I’ve been involved with the production of graphics, video, animation and interactive media since graduating from art college in 1989. I think I had a stereotypical mindset about the written word; perhaps I assumed that novels, a traditionally linear, text-only medium, must be marketed in a linear, text-only manner. This seems odd, since it’s in my nature to take a multi-disciplinary approach – to think laterally, and to jump any conceptual fences that present themselves.

I remembered a lecture by Dr. Tom Hudson, one-time Dean Emeritus at Emily Carr College of Art and Design, and a man who was a major influence on my education. Tom Hudson cited philosopher Bertrand Russel, who claimed that about 65% of all knowledge was achieved visually. Tom Hudson went on to say that with the advent of television and the explosion of information systems, the percentage was probably now closer to 80%.

He said that before 1990, in an ancient and wondrous time about 5 years before the first web browsers come onto the scene and before the World Wide Web came into people’s lives.

Now, in 2010, you can watch (and record) video clips on your cell phone. Media is becoming small, more portable, less expensive, and more integrated. Video and interactive media are being distributed everywhere today. Tom’s words brought modern multi-media marketing approach into focus.

So the question is are video book trailers a good idea for independent book marketers and authors? I’m answering with a tentative Yes.

Here’s a couple of discussion threads on the topic:

http://bookmarket.ning.com/forum/topics/how-effective-are-video-book

http://bookmarket.ning.com/forum/topics/the-impact-of-book-trailers-on

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Book Trailer Video: Owe Nothing

Check out the new book trailer video for Owe Nothing:

http://ejohnlovebooks.com/books/owe-nothing/owe-nothing-video-trailers/

This captures a bit of the humour and intrigue of Owe Nothing. I think I definitely see more video trailers in my future…

(Apex Reviews, and GhostWriter Extraordinare)

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