Chinese Superstition- Physical Oddities and Polycoria

Following on the last post about Chinese number superstition, I decided to do another on a related topic. So ancient Chinese had various fortune telling methods, one of which was looking at people’s facial features. For example, long ears or a long gap between the nose and the upper lip were considered a sign of life longevity. Today, I’m going to talk about one particular physical oddity, the condition known as polycoria which is where someone has two pupils in one eye. Note, however, that in ancient China, sometimes people were mistakenly thought to have polycoria when they have moles inside their pupils. 

So what is the superstition around polycoria? Well, it is thought that polycoria is the sign for lords, Emperors and paragons of virtue and learning. Now, how does that tally up with atual history? It does somewhat. 

For brevity, I will just list the five most prominent historical figures (this is according to me so don’t quote me for precision *wink*) by chronological order of birth:

  1. Yan Hui- the top disciple of Confucius, died at the age of forty, praised for his virtue by his teacher and lauded by later generations
  2. Xiang Yu- commonly known as the Conqueror of the Western Chu, a feudal lord vying against his sworn brother Liu Bang (who later founded the Han dynasty) for control of ancient China after the collapse of the Qin dynasty (the first official dynasty under which the whole of ancient China was united as one land)
  3. Wang Mang- originally a government official of the Han dynasty, he seized control of the throne and founded the Xin dynasty which lasted a scant 14 years 
  4. Li Yu- last sovereign of the Southern Tang dynasty, which occurred during the turbulent period known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period where the northern and southern part of ancient China were continuously split, right before the founding of the relatively long and prosperous Song dynasty. He was a famous poet but generally considered an incompetent ruler. 
  5. Zhi Di- third emperor of the Ming dynasty, fourth and surviving eldest son of his father who founded the dynasty. He usurped the throne from his own nephew, who was son of his eldest brother and the Crown Prince (but died before his own father). 

Dissecting Character Grids (5)- Memories

Here, I think we are starting to get to the meat of a character, an important aspect that shapes a character’s personality, worldview etc. Before I dig into actual tips, I think this aspect is generally easier to fill for a character who’s older or with a wide variety of experiences. Or maybe that’s just the way I tend to conceptualise important memories.

I tend to think within life stages: childhood, coming to age, adulthood, middle ages etc. So in general, they often span the following aspects:

  • life/deaths experienced
  • coming to age ceremonies
  • love relationships incl. marriages
  • personal triumphs/tragedies
  • first time experiences

To be honest, I usually just let my mind wander across different life stages of a character and it will eventually throw up enough memories. Not sure that I can add further to this other than that I refer to Relationships and Past-times in a pinch.

Dissecting Character Grids (4)- Past-times

Firstly, I’m back! Well, actually this is my 2nd week back but you gotta give me some slack since I went straight back to work on Monday after arriving back in Melbourne on Sunday 10am. I didn’t realise how tired I was until I was nodding off on the train back to home after work while standing last Wednesday!

Anyway, back to this post where I will provide some personal tips on how to brainstorm how characters tend to spend their time. Essentially, I cheat a lot since I think about the following questions/prompts:

  • key individuals from the character’s social circle and the normal activity that character tends to do with each
  • hobbies of the character which usually come from talent section
  • activities that the character tend to on a day-to-day basis besides self-maintenance activities so could include housechores, a particular occupation/living etc.

And that’s it, short and sweet today.

Dissecting Character Grids (3)- Moods & Feelings

If you followed this blog from the start, you would know that I started off with just character moods but then I found that often what I put down is not a mood but rather a feeling (yes, I’m pedantic with definitions and technicalities). I tried to just focus on moods but it didn’t work and thinking about it some more, I don’t really think that I need to be making such fine distinctions since the goal of the character grids is just to brainstorm. So I just changed the label instead.

I don’t think tips really needs to be provided for coming up with moods & feelings for characters (other than an Excel sheet of moods&feelings candidates, I will put up a link to a Google sheet containing candidates for selected aspects of characterisation at the conclusion of this particular blog series) but I do think it is useful to think about two categories for moods & feelings:

  • The character norm: this is moods & feelings that a character tend to experience in his everyday life. They convey a sense of personality and how a character tends to behave
  • Story-event-driven: this is moods & feelings that a character experiences as particular story events happen to them. These might reinforce the character norm or might come into conflict with the character norm. I wouldn’t worry too much about whether it’s one or the other at this stage but this might be an useful area to consider later on.

By the way, I’m going on a 3 week holiday to China at the end of next week so there will be no posts during that time but I will come back. This series will continue and there’re still more author interviews lined up to go alive once I’m back so stay tuned for them and more!

Dissecting Character Grids (2)- Talents & Flaws

So this is the 2nd post in the series where I dissect specific components of the character grid, a method I use to flesh out my characters. Since I tend to fill in Talents and Flaws in a block, I’m just going to combine them in a single post.

Before I delve into the tips, I want to firstly say that I interpret talents as skills/capabilities and in broad terms such that an inability or low skill level in something also goes under Talents. Does this lead to unbalanced characters with more flaws than positive aspects, you ask? I would say no, you will see in a minute.

In general, whether it’s talents or flaws, I tend to brainstorm a mixture of 2 distinct categories: major/story driving ones and minor/innocuous ones. So this is one of the tricks for keeping a character balanced; give them flaws/inabilities but they don’t have to be major ones and can have nothing to do with the story. The goal of the character grid is just to brainstorm character traits to get a better sense of how characters are like and relevance to the actual story is actually secondary here.

Now, let’s consider minor/innocuous talents and flaws. I usually draw them from 3 sources (there’re more that one can think of but remember these are personal tips so not meant to be exhaustive. In fact, I would appreciate it if anyone can leave comments that expands on what I put down here):

  • artistic (including calligraphy, poetry and literature)/musical pursuits  ie. whether someone is good/bad at drawing, playing a specific instrument etc.
  • the physical senses: sight, hearing, smell and taste. So far I don’t think I’ve made use of the touch as a sense but unless the character happens to be blind or has a specific occupation, I guess it wouldn’t occur to me to think that a particular character has a superior/inferior sense of touch relative to the average person
  • personal habits and past time: For innocuous flaws, I usually fall back on things like sweating, snoring that are personal habits, character traits like tendency to spoil loved ones or hold grudge depending on rough character orientation on the good/evil spectrum and in terms of talents, I drill down to details like good/bad at a particular childhood game in a pinch

Turning to story driving talents/flaws, I usually think about the following sources:

  • Fighting skills (weaponry, strength, stamina, dexterity, speed, magic powers etc.)
  • What I call reactional abilities such as:
    • Decision-making: how fast they can make decisions, are they rash in decision-making or do they weigh all of the pros and cons, what factors impede them from making an informed, rational decisions as the norm
    • Social interactions: leadership skills, negotiation/bargaining skills, are they stubborn/prideful
    • Ability to adapt to new situations and speed

The last part of the puzzle to character talents/flaws for me is that I constantly remind myself that most things in life is double-edged.

Dissecting Character Grids (1)- Relationships

Now that I’ve been using the 10 by 10 Character Grids for a while now and found that I liked them as a way to let me get into my characters, I thought I will start a series to explore each element of them in greater details, which is basically creating a tips series for different aspects of a character.

I’m starting with Relationships because I’ve noticed that I tend to get to the full 10 items on this aspect of a character grid relatively quick. But before I get to the tips, let me answer first the question of what would I have achieved by the end of brainstorming 10 aspects on a character’s Relationships?

So how do I come up with Relationships real quick? By essentially coming up with answers to the following questions:

  • What is the immediate family situation like?
    • Both parents still living?
    • How many parents does a character have (I’m writing fantasy, Oriental fantasy especially, so it is possible that I will be writing about polygamistic society)?
    • How many siblings?
    • How many spouses/ex-spouses?
    • How many children?
    • Who amongst these are significants in the life/mind of the character? What are the relationships between them actually like? Is it more in the realm of positive feelings like love and affection or negative feelings like competition and grudges and downright hate? Or a mixture of both?
    • Family values
  • What is the extended birth family situation like?
    • Do any of the relatives play a significant role in the character’s mind/life?
    • If so, what is the exact relationship like?
  • Friendships
    • Does the character have a lot of friends or only a few or none at all?
    • Who are the ‘notables’ in this aspect?
    • Are the friendships reciprocated?
  • Romance/love interest
    • Any? If so, who and how is their current status?
  • What is the character’s overall social standing?
    • What does acquaintances and people who know of the character generally view him/her as? Superior to themselves, on par or below themselves?
    • What is the basis of such a view?
  • General people interaction
    • Attitude towards strangers upon first meeting

Characterisation- Feelings

I’m working tomorrow so my normal Friday post is shifted to today. Today I’m going to share another list I had compiled- feelings. During my novel writing process, my beta reader told me that one of my trademarks is that I delve too much into protagonists’ heads and not enough into their feelings. So during this latest bout of Writer’s Lethargy, I compiled the following list:

·         accomplished
·         agonised
·         angry
·         anguish
·         antigonistic
·         antipathy
·         appalled
·         bored
·         broken-hearted
·         bullied
·         calm
·         care-free
·         cheap
·         cheated
·         compassionate
·         composed
·         confident
·         content
·         degraded
·         denied
·         diffident
·         directionless
·         dirty
·         disenchanted
·         disgusted
·         disillusioned
·         dumb
·         energised
·         euphoric
·         exasperated
·         excited
·         exhausted
·         faint
·         fake
·         fatigued
·         fulfilled
·         gainsaid
·         gentle
·         genuine
·         gratified
·         happy
·         hopeful
·         horrifed
·         indifferent
·         insignificant
·         inundated
·         joyous
·         kind
·         languid
·         lazy
·         lively
·         lost
·         malicious
·         manipulated
·         murderous
·         nourished
·         numb
·         nurtured
·         oppressed
·         overwhelmed
·         pale
·         pampered
·         protected
·         proud
·         queer
·         reassured
·         repulsed
·         rested
·         sad
·         safe
·         sated
·         satisfied
·         self-assured
·         shocked
·         sorrowful
·         suffocated
·         suppressed
·         tearful
·         tested
·         thunderstruck
·         timid
·         tired
·         torn
·         tortured
·         underwhelmed
·         victimised
·         violated
·         watchful
·         wistful
·         wonder
·         yearning

Characterisation- Moonlake’s List of Moods

I won’t be able to post tomorrow so I’m posting in advance today and it is about yet another list I’ve created as a result of my 10 by 10 exercise for characterisation, which is on the possible moods that a character typically goes through.

·         affectionate
·         aloof
·         angry
·         anguish
·         argumentative
·         authoritative
·         avoidance
·         bashful
·         boastful
·         boisterous
·         calculating
·         cheerful
·         concentrated
·         confusion
·         contemplative
·         content
·         demanding
·         depression
·         despair
·         directing
·         directionless
·         disappointment
·         dreamy
·         excited/hyperactive
·         Exhaustion
·         firm/forceful
·         focused
·         frustrated
·         gleeful
·         grumbling
·         grumpy
·         happy
·         hopeful
·         humorous
·         ice-cold
·         intense thinking
·         introspection
·         isolation
·         killing edge
·         lamenting
·         lecturing
·         lethargic
·         lighthearted
·         lightning
·         longing
·         malice
·         mischievous
·         numb
·         obedient
·         philosophical
·         playful
·         quiet
·         reasoning
·         regret
·         relaxed
·         reminiscent
·         restless
·         sleepy
·         stubborn
·         sweet
·         tender
·         unfazed
·         vulnerable
·         wistful
·         worrisome
·         zone out

Characterisation- Moonlake’s List of Personal Values

Before delving into the actual topic of this post, I have to mention that I edited the previous post about Catalyst Events and Elements yesterday rather than going with 2 separate posts on the same topic as previously planned.

So in today’s post, I’m going to share yet another list I had created that aids characterisation- a list of personal values, what is particularly important for a particular character that potentially drive a significant part of his/her actions . This list might not be as comprehensive as that in the previous post. It’s basically made up of items that I had come up with in the process of filling out my 10 by 10 character grids that I had talked about. So anyone reading this should treat it as a post for starting ideas rather than a comprehensive article on the topic.

I’m going to go by alphabetical order this time since it’s quite short at the moment:

  • Affection- mainly thinking of people who want to please others all the time
  • Comfort- not necessarily lazy people but could be for example women who dislikes high heels because they’re uncomfortable and don’t have occasion to wear them
  • Compassion
  • Convenience- people who likes taking shortcuts, people who dawdle on tasks that are complicated….
  • Duty
  • Equity
  • External approval/praise
  • Freedom
  • Happiness
  • Harmony
  • Idealism
  • Independence
  • Integrity
  • Love
  • Materialism
  • Momentary gratification versus long term welfare
  • Moderation- mainly thinking of how likely the person is to go to extremes
  • Planning versus improvisation- mainly thinking about personal preferences for planning or not
  • Power
  • Practicality
  • Security
  • Self versus collective achievement- “self achievers” are more ambitious and seek credits whereas “collective achievers” care about whether they make good contributions to a collective cause the way I see it
  • Self expression
  • Self sufficiency- distinguished from independence in the sense that the ultimate driver for the character is to not rely on others
  • Stability
  • Status
  • Visibility- attention seekers basically
  • Wealth

10 by 10 Character Grid

Today I’m going to share another technique that I learnt from one of these writer self-help books (again the The Creative Writers’ Workshop by Cathy Birch for those interested) that I’ve adapted to my use and found extremely useful in terms of filling out characters. This time, the procedure is really simple: you use a 10 by 10 grid to brainstorm 100 facts about your character on 10 different areas. The original example shown was related to Red Riding Hood and contained information about her in the following areas: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Colour; 4) Music; 5) Talents; 6) Flaws; 7) Moods; 8) Past times and 2 others that I cannot remember but are likely to be other innocuous aspects. After all, the actual book suggested using this exercise as a pure brainstorming exercise. If anything odd comes out, it would have little impact on the actual characterisation while the occasional oddities might even bring out surprises when it comes to plotting.

I applaud this simple idea but I found almost half of the categories too innocuous and of little use in characterisation for me as a genre writer in fantasy. So I adapted them such that my 10 categories are: 1) Physical appearance; 2) Relationships; 3) Talents; 4) Flaws; 5) Past times; 6) Moods; 7) Values, fears and secrets; 8) Memories; 9) Reactions; 10) Mannerisms, quirks and little habits. I found that after my adaption, this brainstorming exercise involved substantially more meditation than its original form which I felt could be completed in one session uninterrupted. My revised form, however, sometimes required me to complete it over 2 days, especially for all of my main characters. A somewhat unfortunate side effect is that I could not find it in myself to complete the full grid for all of the characters in my book and I’ve found it through the hard way that some of the minor cast became quite hard to write when it came their turn to appear in the story.

Still, I feel lucky that I stumbled upon this approach. Previously, I was using a character profile approach where you basically complete a questionnaire about each character and it was just a dreadful experience. I was never a form-filling person but I can be matter-of-fact about that when required. However, this character profile thing just got on my nerves in some inexplicable way. But to each his own, I say. At the conclusion of this post, I would like to emphasise that what I wrote in my posts are purely personal insights into what worked and not worked for myself and should not be taken as broad-stroke advice on writing craft in any way. Thanks for reading.