Today’s installment of Aspiring Voices showcases Maggie Giles, a world traveler and fellow design school graduate. I caught up with Maggie and picked her brain about managing the research required for historical fiction, the influence of travel on writing, and how writing has changed the way she looks at the world.

Photo courtesy Maggie Giles

Photo courtesy Maggie Giles

Paul: I saw from your website(s) that you’re a multimedia designer. Do you think you ever bring a design sensibility to your writing? How is the process for doing design work different from your process for writing?

Maggie: I went to school for Multimedia Design. I did everything from animation to web design to 3D modelling to programming. It was a blast! Now I work in Marketing.

I can’t say I really bring any of my design or schooling to my writing since I feel like it uses two different versions of my creativity. Painting a picture in my head is different than designing a visual for me to analyze.

That being said, my process for both is pretty similar. Each has a planning stage. I need to make a skeletal outline before getting the details added. Although, one is usually diagrams and site outlines, and the other is character backgrounds and plot lines. [laughs] Eventually it becomes a finished piece of artwork.
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An effervescent Callie Hunter is my guest today for Aspiring Voices. I chatted with Callie over breakfast about living inside your fictional characters, letting your characters live their own lives inside your head, the differences between writing screenplays and novels, and why going to nursing school may be just the thing her writing career needs.

Journal BW

Walt Stoneburner via Creative Commons

Paul: Tell me a little about what made you start writing with the intention of sharing with other people.

Callie: Even as a kid I liked to write stories, but it only became an intention to share when I wanted to build on the foundations of my characters. Sure, I have a character, but how would they interact with others? How would they grow and adapt to new challenges? I really learned that sharing my writing was a good idea when I discovered roleplaying. But that didn’t teach me the correct way to write, and taught me very bad habits. But with that practice, I learned to build a good character and give them elements of realism.

It wasn’t until I turned that character into a novel that I desperately wanted to share with writing workshops, mostly online, as there aren’t many close to where I live, sadly. If I share my writing and other people enjoyed it? That’s what drove me to keep trying, learning from mistakes and producing higher quality work.

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This week’s edition of Aspiring Voices finds us talking to the fascinating George Wells. George’s work has been featured in Spark: A Creative Anthology. We collided minds to talk about using personal experience as fuel for writing, using family and friends as blueprints for characters, how to establish a setting so that readers will accept implausible events and what inspired him to move south of the border.

Pared - Guadalajara México 2007

Lucy Nieto via Creative Commons

Paul: I saw from your website that you were told by teachers growing up that you were a writer, but it took until you were around forty years old to sort of own that label. What do you think made being a writer a thing that you feared and what allowed you to overcome it?

George: I’ve suffered from self-esteem problems and social anxiety disorder for most of my life, something that I still struggle with. I was a terrible student, but when I did do my assignments, my teachers praised the potential of my work. My reaction to that, given those problems, was a fear of the attention I was receiving. Instead of focusing on the positive attention, my mind went straight to “attention”, and I backed away quickly. 

When I went to college, I was doing a little better, and signed up for a creative writing class. I dropped out after a month. Again, I was getting a lot of positive feedback on the few opening scenes and character sketches, but I felt so under the microscope that my old anxieties were plaguing me again. I started to get sick just thinking about the class. I wouldn’t write another word of fiction for 20 years.

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sinister

thetrial via Creative Commons

book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?