Date published: 8/3/2019
Written by: Katie Youmans
Produced by: Wil Williams
So. We’ve got our producer. We’ve got our story bible and all our plans set. But now it’s time to start writing–which means it’s time for Katie to start writing for characters she didn’t come up with. This week, hear about how to overcome the anxieties of working with a story someone else already has roots in, featuring some truths and advice from Eli Barraza of The Whisperforge.
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A quick heads-up for this episode. While we do keep it relatively light, this week’s subject matter does touch on anxiety and imposter syndrome. Please be gentle with yourself, and glance over the transcript ahead of time if this is something potentially troubling for you. As always, you’ll find it on our site.
We’re going to be discussing . . . writing other people’s characters. And all the joys, uncertainties, moments of terror, and deeply rewarding results.
Remember what I said last time, when I joked that writing other people’s characters can sometimes involve a lot of screaming into the night? Turns out, I’m not alone in that. For this episode, I reached out to Eli Barraza and Danielle Shemiah, both brilliant writers with The Whisperforge, and both responsible for making me cry at my desk at work with their stunning work on ars Paradoxica. They know firsthand how nerve-wracking, and how rewarding, the process can be.
Now, due to a mixup I made when reading over our schedule, I didn’t reach out to Danielle until it was a little bit too late for this episode, but if you’d like to see what she had to say on the matter, and to read the interview with Eli in its entirety, consider joining us on Patreon and helping us reach our goal of 25 patrons so we can start writing The Hearth, a blog where we can get into even greater detail on our process.
I asked Eli about her initial reaction to being brought on to the ars Paradoxica writing team.
“My initial reaction was internal screaming that I had made enough of a good impression to be brought aboard and then more internal screaming as I realized I’d have to learn how to write these amazing characters who already felt so real.”
Based on what I know of the audio fiction community, I think it’s a safe bet that many of you have interacted with fanfiction at one point or another. Maybe you’ve read it, or maybe you’ve written your own. If you’ve dipped your toe into that particular pool, then you know how deeply satisfying it is to get a comment from a reader about really nailing the characterization in something you’ve written. Those warm fuzzies, all because a complete stranger on the internet liked the words you used.
Now imagine that comment came from the author of the source material. And was your friend. And that they were reading your drafts as you wrote them.
One of the main characters in VALENCE has a very . . . particular way of expressing himself, and in spite of having gotten to know him over the course of our tabletop game and in the scripts Wil has written, I’m still not completely confident writing him.
Hey Wil. So, how does Finn words? How he words? Does anyone know? [laugh] Scientists are still unsure! Oh god. Oh he out there livin’ his life though. Oh . . . I will get better. I’m not good yet, I will get better. Until then, I’m just gonna . . . put notes on what info he needs to convey, and then . . . I’m gonna ask you to come fix it! [laugh] ‘cause holy shit! He a goblin.
And that’s ok. Some characters are always going to be more complicated than others.
I asked Eli about “Plasticity”, the first episode she wrote for ars Paradoxica, and how it came about because of concerns over not getting Sally Grissom–the main character–quiiite right. The episode focuses on Petra instead, and is a stunning and poignant episode, giving us a thorough grounding in Petra’s backstory.
“I didn’t write Sally Grissom until I had to and if you told me we’re getting the gang back together for one last ride, I still wouldn’t write Sally Grissom unless I had to. That woman is a tour de force and I’m eternally grateful that people think I did a good job contributing to her character. So if I had to go back, I would still commit to my approach of avoidance. I think a lot of us wrote elements of ourselves into the show because that’s what we know and that’s what we wanted to see in this story. By writing Plasticity, I gave myself an anchor from which I was able to get my bearings. Having a character I know incredibly well definitely helped in getting a better handle on the other characters.”
[laugh] “Anchor”. That’s an ars Paradoxica joke. [goofy laugh]
One of the major characters that you’ll meet in VALENCE, Mahira, is not in the original source material. I took the lead on creating her, and I have absolutely used my familiarity with her as a way to make myself more comfortable writing the other characters that I don’t know in the same way.
. . . ok, so it’s 10:something on a Sunday morning, and I am not telling you which Sunday morning, because that would be admitting that I let it go this late without having nearly as much done on this episode as I wanted to have done by now. Uh oh! Um . . . yeah, so. Writing other people’s characters? Uh . . . is hard! It’s extra hard when you really like and respect that person who wrote them, and so, fucking up those characters feels like it might be a personal affront to your friend! Even when that friend has assured you that, nah! We good! We’ll work together and take whatever drafts happen, and make them ready for people! But . . . anxiety a bitch. Anxiety a stone cold bitch who does not care, so . . . there-th-this doc is just peppered with notes like “Help! This doesn’t sound like Sarah yet!” Uh . . . ‘cause it doesn’t, and I’m right, and I should say it.
[Pained, prolonged, stressed groaning noise]
That’s the soundtrack of me writing, the whole time. That’s just what it sounds like when I’m stressin’.
When we were figuring out who should take the lead on which episodes, I have to admit, there was a moment of “oh, n-no thank you, I’m happy to come in and be the fairy god-editor. No leading episodes for me please!” And then there was a moment of self-recrimination, because Wil is a brilliant writer and Anne is a brilliant businessperson, and I’m. Just me? I’m just me. Or at least, that’s how it feels inside my head.
So when I sat down to start on the first episode I was leading the writing on, that blank doc felt accusatory. It felt like a snitch, waiting to rat me out to my friends. Waiting to tell them that no, I didn’t really understand the source material or the characters, despite loving them dearly, to the point where I would become choked up worrying for their safety in our tabletop game where they appear as NPCs.
Wil and I used Gabriel Urbina’s 33 Question Character Crash Course, which is a series of questions meant to be answered quickly, with no long breaks to mull and get distracted and worry over tiny details. Wil would pose the questions to me, and I would answer as one of the characters.
Remember, all of these characters are theirs. These people have lived in Wil’s brain for years now. They know their birth dates, times, locations. They know these characters’ favorite colors, foods, clothing labels, cheesy memes, musical artists.
So, answering those questions and getting positive feedback was a massive boost to my confidence.
And then I started the actual writing.
As far as . . . things that could help, and definitely have helped me to an extent, Gabriel Urbina has . . . 33 questions to get to know your characters–I did definitely almost say 36 questions . . . which is a different set entirely. But yes, the 33 questions to get to know your character–ehm . . . and so, as part of prep for writing this show, we did do that with a character who I don’t know as well yet, just because I got roughly the same level of introduction to all of them in the novels, but because they are also NPCs in the tabletop game that we’re doing, I definitely interacted with some of them a lot more. Uh, Finn? Makes his presence known. Insistently! Irrepressibly! [laugh]
Ehm, but yeah! So, we ran through those questions with me giving the answers for, um, Sarah, who you will learn more about later, who is a delight. But, y’know, yeah, I love Sarah–I just . . . get real stresso tryin’ to write her sounding like her because she, by design, has a whole bunch of tech know-how, and I . . . don’t. For my day job, I work with an IT department at my-uh-my place of business. And so, I know just enough to be a hazard to myself and others? And not enough to write with confidence, uh . . . but did you know Google is free? [laugh] Google is free, and you should use it!
And so, I have definitely . . . kind of had to find a balancing act between being confident about the-the tech jargon, and being confident making it sound like Sarah is the one saying it and not Google. And . . . [sigh]
This is a brief callout for Wil Williams. Y’know that saying, write what you know? We-we don’t have to do it all of the time, but it do make it easier. Um, I think the main purpose of it now–I don’t know the original purpose of the saying, but the purpose of it now is probably to avoid certain demographics on the internet who . . . have such opinions. And so much confidence in those opinions. And a certainty that we need to know. Those opinions. And, um . . . is it too late to change the show to a coffeeshop AU? Could we do that? [laugh] Uh oh! [laugh]
The funny thing about anxiety is that, no matter how much reassurance you get, it does not matter. You can have one hundred voices all telling you that you’re doing a good job, and that one voice in the back of your head that lives to tear you down is still going to be the one you hear clearest.
It’s some extreme bullshit. That voice isn’t telling you the truth. Your anxiety is not a soothsayer, predicting what’s going to go wrong.
Ok, so. It is July 8th, 2019. I am laying in bed–I’m gonna mute Discord ‘caues shit’s always poppin’ off, making noise. How–this is, like, coming through in the mix . . . [yawn] So. So, I’m recording ‘cause I’m just about to read the first script that Katie did. I-admittedly, I started it, and had a lot of feelings, and then was like “Oh shit! I should-I should record this.” So, I’m doing that now! Um, this is the first time I’ve read, I think anything using my characters? Um, other than a few little snippets from another writer friend, um, a while back. But this is the first time I’ve read something with my characters that will actually be used in a thing, and . . . it’s really exciting! And I really love it. And I just wanted to, kind of, record and get my reactions while I go.
So, she started with some notes here–I’m gonna skip past those . . . there’s just so much care. Like, one of the first things in the scene is one of the characters getting another a coffee–like, already having it there at the office, and . . . just like, and it’s kind of before, but just , you know, the fact that Katie knows, like, what Liam’s go-to order at a cafe is. It’s just. She just really gets it. She just really gets it. And she- [laugh] – she totally gets the way that Liam talks, with the way that he’s, like, always stumbling over himself and stuttering, um, which I hope isn’t too much of a spoiler. She just has his voice down pat. And I was kind of worried that, like, people–that people who would collaborate on the script wouldn’t be able to nail that rhythm, but she totally did. And then she gets Sarah down so well too, and Sarah’s, like, hard to pin down. She’s a straight-shooter, but she has a really specific way of talking and Katie got that down so well too. And this is great, she’s, like, totally picked up on things I wouldn’t have picked up on, that they would have needed to do, um, in the previous episode. Like, she has such expertise with the sort of espionage stuff? And breaking in to things, like, she’s way more familiar with that kind of media than I am, and she’s–she just fuckin got all these things. She just fuckin got ‘em.
Oof. Yeah, and her writing for Liam’s, kind of, inner monologue? It felt like a punch to the gut. Um, which is perfect and what it needs to be, because, like . . . because I’m used to I’m used to writing those . . . because that’s just me? [laugh] And so, reading it was-it was rough! That was rough, but in a really good way, ‘cause, like, yeah. She fuckin nailed that.
[laugh] Aww, she gets his humor so perfect too! [laugh] Fuck yeah. Fuck yeah!
See? Maybe sometimes those voices telling you you’re doing a good job . . . might be right. And you should listen to them. And I should take my own advice. But like I said earlier, I’m not the only one out there who worries about these things!
Eli gave me some advice that lines up beautifully with our approach in the Hug House. It’s advice that has worked well for us, and that I suspect can help others too.
“I definitely recommend getting to know the other writers just as well as you know the characters and story. Know how people best receive notes and be clear about how you want to receive notes. It doesn’t matter who’s “right” if no one is effectively communicating. We pour a lot of ourselves into our stories so sensitivity to everyone’s needs is key. I also recommend being in touch with what your strengths are. It’s okay if you’re not big picture, maybe details are your thing that really give the world texture. Maybe you need help on punching up jokes, but you can absolutely nail character motivation. It’s rarely about who’s the better writer but rather whose skills can best address a specific problem. The balance between confidence and humility is hard (I am still working on it myself) but definitely will help so much when working with other writers.”
In breaking down who was writing what episode, Wil and I divvied them up based on our strengths. I mentioned fanfic before, and I have a confession to make. I’m absolute trash for the whole idea of Hurt/Comfort . . . which is a very specific genre. Which . . . you can Google yourself. But when it comes to the episodes that are going to tear out your heart and dance on them, you’ll know I’m the one to blame. I’m also taking on the episodes with espionage and lots of B&Es because of . . . reasons. It’s fine. Don’t examine that too much.
Ok, so, like, I’m recording this on my phone, so . . . sorry. Um, I had to move my bookshelf away from the wall and then move it back after apartment people had checked for things, so, that meant I had to move all of my books, and in moving my books, I realized . . . I am a parody of myself. I have, not one, but two. Two different books on how to pick locks and/or bypass the need for keys entirely. Because, sometimes . . . I guess you have to do crime. But my favorite part of this is that I know where both of those books came from. Both of those books . . . were presents . . . from my father. So that tells you some things. Oh. We’re gonna have to have him as a consultant for all of the crimes that are happening in the show. I can just feel it.
Learn your strengths. Learn the strengths of your team. Hell, if you want, you can structure your plot around those specifically. No shame in making your show a showcase of what you and your team are amazing at. Honestly, that might be the best way to create something audiences will love. And above all, trust in your team. Tell them you appreciate them, and all they do. Chances are, they feel the same way about you.
And remember–there’s a reason you all decided to work together. It’s going to be ok.
Scoring Magic is a Hug House Production. The music this week was by Broke for Free. You can find more on Hug House Productions at HugHouse.Productions.
Hey everyone, Anne here popping in with a heads up that we will not have an episode releasing two weeks from today, on August 17th, because the three of us will be at Podcast Movement in Orlando, Florida, and . . . we’re busy, and don’t wanna put out an episode that day, so just some heads up there so you’re not waiting for one to show up in your podcatcher. We will be sleeping! Because convention. And tired. We will be returning on August 31st with an episode about our casting process for VALENCE, and that’s gonna be an interesting one! We’ve got, uh, maybe some spoilers? I don’t know what I’m allowed to tell you! Just. That’s when we’ll be back. Ok, cool. Thanks! Bye!
You can find Eli Barraza’s work on The Whisperforge podcast collective, where she’s worked on ars PARADOXICA and created The Far Meridian. You can also find Eli on Twitter.
You can find Gabriel Urbina’s 33 Question Character Crash Course on his website, along with his other useful writings on writing.
Music by Broke for Free Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/