When it comes to characters, especially minor characters, it can be a challenge for writers to think of them as they should appear to do, themselves. Stick with me on this one – the thing is, minor characters don’t ‘think’ of themselves as minor characters and nor should they. In order for them to seem believable, they need to have backstories and lives like everyone else. The readers don’t need to be aware of this, but writers most definitely do.

As with many other things that overthinkers like me think about, I attempt to project this notion onto everyday life. Every person we come across, is a major character in their own circle, and yet we don’t often think about it. Everyone has a backstory and full lives of their own.

Don’t misunderstand, if you’re anything like me, I don’t departmentalise my life or friends within it. I don’t label some people as work friends, some people as school friends, or other people as friends of friends, etc. When you come to a future party of mine, I’ll likely consider you as a friend, and you’ll meet my other friends, whom I may have met absolutely anywhere. It’s the extrovert in me.

No, an example might be the neighbours next door who you’re not that acquainted with yet. I don’t always pay as much attention, but my husband knows everything that goes on in the neighbourhood, especially the obvious things – the comings and goings of those across the street. We know some of them by name, but not all. Some neighbours have become known to us by their most common behaviour or attribute. It’s not a perfect system.

And you know what? If I was a betting person, I’d say that they’re doing exactly the same what we’re concerned. Why wouldn’t they? It’s human nature. Although, one thing they’re probably not doing is wondering about our lives, any more than a fleeting thought that comes to them. That trait is likely reserved for writers and… no let’s be honest – probably just writers.

When we’ll think about the year 2020 in years to come, it will almost certainly be easiest to remember it for one thing only, COVID-19, and all the devastation it has caused.

But when it comes right to it, is that all we should remember? Were there not some things that happened that could carry a positive label, if only on some level?

If we were to consider working from home in isolation (not the nature of the work, but the concept itself), a lot of us have pivoted in the ways we do things now and have gained skills we wouldn’t have otherwise gained; companies have realised the benefits and viability of remote working on a major scale; dressing for one’s day, that may involve casuals only, has become the norm; and we actually have the time to do what we enjoy such as write, bake, exercise, and [fill in the blank here].

Something about 2020, the ‘villain year’ of our lifetime, reminds me of the challenges writers face when creating villains in fiction too. You see, wiriters may start off revealing only the characteristics which make us dislike those characters, the unredeemable qualities we like to hate. But what fun would it be, if those characters aren’t eventually humanised in some way, as we learn about the backstories which made them who they are. And even if we tend not to agree with their current actions, we may just gain a level of understanding that if revealed effectively, results in us identifying with those characters in some minor way.

I can only hope that when we look back on the year 2020, that we’ll recall some redeeming qualities of connectedness in an unlikely ‘virtual’ reality of sorts, charity in general, and the undeniable human spirit in times of adversity, such as 2020, which in some ways brought us all closer together.

The Coronavirus has really done a number on us, hasn’t it? Don’t get me wrong, the impact on some of us hasn’t nearly been as drastic compared to people who have lost their jobs, or those who are sick or who know someone who is sick or worse.

But nevertheless, we’ve felt it.

Approximately eight months ago, I started working from home full-time. I remember going to a stationary shop to buy sticky notes, Sharpies and highlighters on the day that we were told, to finish the synthesis of the app user research I had started weeks before. I grabbed whatever I thought I might need for four weeks or so, from my locker at work. Surely it wouldn’t last that long, I thought.

Right.

And it wasn’t long until all non-essential businesses closed, concerts and stage productions were cancelled, and supermarkets were suddenly out of essentials, as people started to stock up on things. And we were buying what we needed online.

Most days, the streets were quieter than on any other day we had experienced, even Christmas Day. Everyone just stayed home.

As the weeks went by and we realised that this wasn’t going to be over any time soon, working from home started to feel isolated, most of the time.

I dreaded the fact that my husband worked at a hospital (and still does) and the fear that came with it on a daily basis. And I tried to ignore the term ‘the new normal’ as much as I could, although it carried an unmistakable uncertainty that I didn’t care for.

All I wanted, was to be able to return to the pre-COVID way of life. And it was impossible not to rethink most things. After all, how could the way we see ourselves remain unchanged?

As dramatic as it sounds – for a while, it felt like our anchors were missing – the metaphorical grounding that keeps us steady. The ‘not knowing’ was debilitating.

We couldn’t see most people face-to-face – family or friends or colleagues. It was ‘virtual’ or nothing. We, as extroverts, couldn’t rely on the energy of others, like we used to, to just be. The borders closed. Crowds were out of the question – concerts, sporting events and musicals, and the support for those who earned a living that way – gone.

But in time, some things started opening again. We were able to see some family members and friends (those who were not overseas or interstate), and the city seemed to have life again, most of the time. We started to do some of what we used to do.

However, we’d had to rebuild our sense of selves in the process.

And now, everything is changed.

Working from home feels normal, and it’s going in to the office once a week that seems strange. There is a level of institutionalisation that has occurred, even in our own homes. (I try not to overthink that one)

We’ve become more comfortable in a virtual world than ever before, with family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers, al be it in a professional context.

And it may have changed us more than we would like to admit. I, for one, am entirely content with my own company, and I’m so much more inclined to connect online. And when I do see people face-to-face, I appreciate it more than ever before.

Although the notion of the new normal still feels uncomfortable, and we still mourn our pre-COVID lives, has it become easier?

May be. Some days.

And we are not alone in this.

Everyone is in the same boat, or on the same planet, as is the case in our scenario, no matter who. And yet, I really can’t get my head around it, or work out how to feel.

But that’s okay.

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In 2015, scientists at the Australian National University proved that at a Quantum level, reality does not actually exist until we measure it (i.e. we observe it).

This got me thinking – wouldn’t it be something, if this wasn’t solely true at the atom level?
It is almost impossible to ignore and effectively not observe someone giving their opinion, solicited or otherwise. Whether it is an opinion in the media, or a conversation face-to-face or via a channel we all seem to communicate now – video.

And why do we take on the impact of what someone says, as if it is 100% objective and true, when in fact it is impossible for that to be the case?

Expert opinions excluded – how does one manage to not be as affected by all the subjective messages out there and therefore effectively exclude it from one’s reality?

If you figure it out, let me know.

But in one scenario at least, we as writers do have control over how fictional characters react. Unlike atoms and some people’s ability to departmentalise an experience to the point of avoidance, fictional characters are not as lucky.

If it wasn’t for dialogue, body language or action delivered in a deliberate or conflicting way by an opposing character, it would be pretty challenging to inject conflict into a scene, right? And conflict in writing is essential for us to turn the page.

This is what I’m doing right now with book no. 2. Giving a reason for readers to read on.

How are you going? Are you doing okay?

I have been working from home since social distancing started, i.e. since March. And outside of work or spending time with family or doing normal things, I have been editing Book 2. And this is the unusual part – other than writing the first 9000 words, the remainder of the book had been written completely on my smartphone, together with finishing one round of editing.

I am relieved to say that it’s close to being sent to my editor for a structural edit.

How very Gen Y, I hear you say.

As you may know, something as portable as a smartphone seems to integrate seamlessly into our daily writing lives and not just to keep social media feeds semi-populated. Whether you are sitting on a train, are in your lunch break at work, or waiting for your car to be serviced – basically, you are one mobile optimised app away from writing or editing a few sentences.

In the past, I would have had to carry my laptop around or if I happened to be at home, found an opening in my day, not tainted by procrastination, to write or edit on my laptop. But it seemed challenging to fit something like this in unless a conscious effort was made to do so.

For some reason, it is not the case with a smart phone.

And the question I cannot help but ask is – what else can you incorporate in your daily life, resulting in near effortless progress? Because, you love it, right?

Exercise – for one. How I miss incidental exercise. But what else?

On an aside, how different would self-isolation have been had COVID-19 happened pre-2007?

Have you ever wondered why different people have different tastes in music?

No?

It may very well just be me. But I believe that not unlike everything else in life, our experience of music is subjective. Our likes and dislikes for things like movies and food, which is most definitely linked to how we perceive these things, also translate to music. The way we interpret music is different from one person to the next.

And as time passes, our experience of music does not just vary from person to person, but for the same person too.

I only have a vague memory of this, but apparently when I was 4 or 5, I used to get up before anyone else on the weekend, find the old Sony Beta tape for the Sound of Music and watch it over and over. It is probably not surprising that I have always loved music and that my taste in movies was largely influenced by this, especially at a young age. But when I listen to the same songs or watch the same film now, my experience of the music is very much impacted by my understanding of what it means and the circumstances that underpin it.

It is not difficult to sometimes find yourself longing for the innocence of the past long gone and the simplicity in which we lived at the time. And now, as our world has changed overnight with the Covid-19 pandemic and at such a broad scale.

So, do our circumstances shape the way in which we interpret music, above all else? Perhaps.

Have you listened to music lately? From my perspective, it affects me in one of two ways right now. It either reminds me of a time when our everyday lives weren’t restricted to our homes, the doctor and the supermarket; or it gives me hope that we might soon be able to go back to our normal lives, in whatever state that might be.

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Coming up with character names, especially minor character names, can be challenging. Long after protagonists’ names have been established, an unexpected change in the plot can result in having to name another character when all you want to do is write and instead, it breaks the flow of writing.

Then I get distracted by the origins of names and that’s another half hour gone.

Recently, I’ve been doing a fair amount of family genealogy research and of course, the most important bit of information to know about a relative is their name, usually found in a paper trail left behind. My rellies were generally ‘from’ or ‘van’ somewhere, which gives additional clues and also makes their birthplace easier to find and research. Useful for genealogy research – not for naming characters and getting on with it.

So, what makes naming characters as important? One reason could be that in real life it may just be the most essential bit of information to know about someone. Like most people, I find myself resisting the urge of an eye roll when someone who happens to have known you for years, calls you by someone else’s name, just because you have the same hair colour, or your names end in the same ‘a’ sound or you happen to be friends. It happens quite a bit.

At the risk of a song being stuck in your head for the rest of the day, this really reminds me of The Ting Things’s song – That’s not my name.

#YouAreWelcome

One of the reasons I think names get mixed up, is that our brains like to group things to make sense of it. This could be by things like similarity, proximity, continuity or closure [Gestalt theory], which makes it even more crucial to give characters names that won’t be confused with that of others, to avoid the ‘who is that again?’ moment for readers, myself included.

So how do you choose a name for a character you didn’t anticipate? All I know is it’s best to keep the shortlist short, otherwise the time it takes to make a decision increases. [Hick’s law]

I told you I get distracted.

It’s 42 degrees Celsius in Adelaide today (107.6 Fahrenheit – I had to look that one up 😊) and only the second day above 34 degrees, so not technically a heatwave yet.

Apparently, you need three days above 39 or five days above 34 to call it one. And although tomorrow is a ‘cool’ 35 degrees compared to today, we’ll enjoy the twenties again soon.
But it’s been long enough.

Unfortunately, much like many other things in life, we can’t control the weather. And unlike other things, we don’t generally try to control it either.

Some people also believe that one of those other things that can’t be controlled, is who we fall in love with. For my characters, of course, the opposite is true. Otherwise we’d still be waiting. Right?

But there is something to it, the fact that most things relating to characters develop organically, out of characteristics long settled. You see, once a character has been established in a writer’s mind (at least mine), it’s very difficult to change their characteristics. And naturally, their thoughts, actions and feelings stem from those traits.

So, who is really in control here?

Okay, still me.

But if we as writers are supposed to write about what we know (to some extent, anyway), isn’t what we know or can imagine based on life, if only a little bit? And isn’t life sometimes unpredictable and doesn’t it fall in the category of things we can’t really control?

We don’t have to settle this right now.

I think this heat is getting to me.

At the risk of sounding like a bad headline, I generally have all the feels when it comes to Christmas. In fact, I’m having one particular feeling right now – I really dislike that I just used the words ‘feels’.

But seriously, I’m usually the first person to put my tree up – as soon as Santa has come to town with the Christmas pageant, in November. And I couldn’t be more excited.

But as the weeks pile on, so does the stress.

What is everyone getting for Christmas? Although, if I managed to be organised, I would have bought the Christmas presents by now.

Okay, so Christmas presents may be sorted, but where are we going on Christmas Day?

And here’s the thing we encounter every year – very few people are as passionate about planning as we are and for most people, committing to an exact time/place that far in advance seems rather impossible.

But, eventually we get it sorted and we have a rough idea about the details of Christmas Day.

So, what are we making (if it’s at our house) or bringing (if it’s at someone else’s) to eat?

And the most important question – who will organise the bonbons?

But the actual reason I’m ready to take the tree down before Christmas is even over, is the fact that my family is in another country, which is a feeling at the opposite of the spectrum of Christmas cheer.

But eventually, the actual day comes… The streets are all quiet, apart from kids and dogs and their new toys outside, and it’s quite okay.

We have lunch, crack a few dad-jokes as well as a wine or two.

And before you know it, everything is back to normal and we’re back planning for the New Year again, waiting for 2019 to feel old.

Example dad-joke:
What does one snowman say to the other snowman?
Do you smell carrots?

As I’m considering the backstories, appearances and other traits of the characters in my next book, I can’t help but think about all the people on our planet and their individual stories, each with their individual challenges and most, I bet, would look forward to things like the weekend, special occasions and holidays, just like the rest of us. I could ponder something like that for days, if only a little bit at a time.

People of the past once had their own stories and challenges too. They also looked forward to things that perhaps no longer exist, and they may no longer be with us. It makes you think, doesn’t it?
Probably best to let that one go. We’d be here until who knows what time otherwise.

But in terms of character development, I sometimes wonder how we can create characters with specific qualities out of nothing. And they don’t stay theoretical either, you know.

Imagine your favourite book, perhaps one you have read more than once. You have become somewhat attached to those characters, right? Now, imagine that you have created and developed those characters over an extended period of time, and you have written and read their stories over and over again, while shaping the words and sentences that surround them, so eventually, it resembles a novel. It’s not hard to imagine how attached you would get, even after only the first draft is done.
So back to the characters in my new book – I think you are going to love them. But I won’t reveal much until they’re more established, just in case his name changes or she develops a quality that is essential to the plot.

But it’s probably too late anyway, especially what names are concerned. I’m already attached.

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