I lurk in dark and sordid places on the internet where I find writers are wont to gather. Sometimes I say something. Most times I do not.
A while back, someone posted a request for information. Apparently, this person had sent out their manuscript to a few readers, and they’d come back with the critique that the writer needed to work on the character – a point the writer freely admitted to being their weak spot. This writer then posed the question if anyone had ever used Character Generation Software X. On a completely different group, several writers sang their praises for a different software, one for tracking timelines in a story.
I’ve looked up a few of these software items.
I’m not certain I see what the fuss is about. Perhaps it’s because I’m a luddite. I don’t get the fuss about Scrivener, either. Timelines? I draw a line on a piece of paper. I need it more detailed? I pull up Excel and fill in the cells. Plot generation software? Characters? I finagle with them as I go. I find that my characters start out as one thing, but tend to morph into something else by the end of the first draft. Often times the same with my plot. Usually the change is something far more interesting than what I initially planned. If I really have problems with character generation I pull out an old sheet of questions I got in college when I majored in technical theatre. It’s nothing but questions for an actor to answer about their character. Some of it is utterly meaningless to the play, but a lot of actors find it a good jumping off point if they’re struggling to find motivation.
I deliberately used it to write a paper in a play structure class, because the instructor insisted it was impossible to write a thorough background build-up on a minor character in the play we were all given to take apart and examine that totaled 5 pages. The character I chose I had less than 15 lines, and my paper easily hit 5 pages.
I mean, I’m glad there is software out there to help folks puzzle their way through a weak plot point or a confusing character. It’s nice to know that there’s software available to be able to keep a timeline straight, especially if you’re writing sagas (*ahem*).
But I worry that the more software we employ, the less thinking we do about world and character creation. The software does it for us. You don’t have to research condition X. You don’t have to look into the myriad ways in which condition X affects someone’s perceptions. Or a misdiagnosis for another condition and the character dealing with the fallout of the wrong meds. Co-morbidities. You can select character/genre archetypes from lists and pick personality traits from other lists. I want a plot that does this. I want a fucked up character that does that.
My husband and I comment that a large portion of the books we find in stores these days are … boring. It’s almost as if they were churned out in a mill – follow formula X, with a dash of romance and a few cute one-liners. So many fantasy worlds come across as vanilla snooze medieval society type #5. Science Fiction. Urban Fantasy. Historical Fiction. Vampires. Zombies. Romance.
So many of them seem so … cookbook. “First add the flour then add the milk. No! You idiot! You can’t add the milk first! Are you insane?”
I know there are only so many stories (someone once told me 7? Maybe 17? Something like that.) and the only difference between each one is the spin you, the author, manage to put on it.
I know publishing houses and agents have a tendency to edit an author’s work down, often to the point were many an author has complained “It wasn’t my story, anymore,” which does indeed contribute to the repetitive nature of the storytelling (It is a business, after all. If you want to keep that profit margin up, are you going to go with selling a product that looks and sounds like your more successful lines, or are you going to step out on a limb and risk it all on a brand new and untested item?)
But I wonder if what my husband and I see as repetitive, isn’t also a result of things like a the proliferation of “Do-It-For-You” Software. They already have bots writing news stories – not all of them, mind you (I think it’s something like 5-10% as of this writing). All I could think when I read that news story was “Wow. How 1984. Was this article written by a bot?”
And if you don’t get that reference, please go get a copy of Orwell’s 1984 and read it.
I’m not saying the software is a bad thing, but I do wonder if it is taking something away from the process. You discover so many wonderful things when you research things, getting your hands dirty, following leads down dark alleys only to find that may not have been the best way to go for this story, but it brings up an interesting possibility for another one…
Perhaps it’s just the luddite talking.