What happens when Joe, a teen prodigy makes drastic changes to his life and attends high school incognito with Mike, an artificial intelligence? His plans take an unexpected turn when he buys a neglected former racehorse.
Bringing Up Mike is a tapestry of intertwined stories over the course of a school year: A teen genius who has grown up too fast, a neglected former racehorse, a bereaved couple morning the death of their son, a girl struggling to attend college, and a former mobster determined to be top dog.
Bringing Up Mike is about people given a second chance at happiness and success and how they become better people and mature.
How did I create the characters in Bringing Up Mike?
I took the advice contained in chapter four—Character vs. Plot of William C. Knott’s 1973 classic, The Craft of Fiction, Amazon ASIN B007PS37U0.
The first thing that William Knott teaches is that you put your characters in trouble and let that drive the plot.
I started the novel with Joe, a teenage prodigy who has created the artificial intelligence that he named Mike. Joe has two problems. The first is that he doesn’t want Mike to be treated as a possession / slave. To do this, he must demonstrate that Mike can pass a Turing test, interacting with unsuspecting people for several months with no one realizing that he isn’t human. Second, Joe is lonely, he hasn’t any family or friends, and lacks social skills, let alone have a girlfriend or gone on a date.
Next, I created a rough character sketch for Joe. He’s seventeen, about thirty pounds overweight from having been focused on creating Mike as part of his Ph.D. dissertation at Caltech. (Why seventeen? I wanted this to be a young adult book). His hair is halfway down his back, he wears glasses, blue jeans, a T-shirt and Birkenstocks. He is shy and tries to avoid being noticed. He rides a bicycle—never having learned to drive.
Where are Joe’s parents and why aren’t they helping him? I decided that his mother died in a car accident when he was very young. His father was a Caltech professor who relied on students to take care of Joe, who died of cancer before Joe graduated from Caltech.
A particular challenge was formulating the character of the artificial intelligence, Mike. My initial conception was that he was like Dennis the Menace, having an emotional age of six, but differ from him in having an enormous knowledge of things. Since Mike doesn’t have the ability to communicate by body language, I decided to have him able to imitate the voices of anyone, making quips based on lines from movies or TV shows, similar to the Genie in Aladdin.
Next, I created a stable of major characters with whom Joe interacts with. Sue, a smart girl that Joe has met online, who is desperate to go to college as far away from home as possible. George and Martha, a couple whose teenage son had died from a soft-tissue sarcoma. I based their skills, interests and personalities as composites of people I was familiar with, and formulated a history / biography for how they ended up being in Shelbyville, Tennessee. In Scrivener, I created a unique character sketches for each. As each chapter was written, these sketches were modified and updated.
Since the novel has many minor characters, I created a single crib sheet showing their names, ages, occupations, and relationships. Grandparents are in yellow, teenagers in red, parents in green, young children in light blue, horses in brown. http://www.askmarpublishing.com/books/bringing_up_mike_files/Characters.pdf To get ideas for minor character’s, I often did Google image searches on ministers, hairdressers, dressage riders; then wrote a description based upon a composite of these images.
Inherent in the major character backgrounds were the elements of conflict—the problems that they had to overcome, e.g. Martha and George’s grief for their dead son, the sparks between Sue and her stepfather, Joe trying to raise Mike without inadvertently revealing who he or Mike actually are.
As the characters interact with each other, they drive the plot forward and define the character arcs, how each is transformed over the course of the novel. To keep track of the conflicts and character arcs, I created a timeline, http://www.askmarpublishing.com/books/bringing_up_mike_files/2014-1-12%20Timeline.pdf
Before I started writing Bringing Up Mike, I worked out a rough version of the timeline, that was modified and updated as I wrote each chapter. You can think of it as initially drawing a map from space, then creating a more detailed map after exploring the territory on foot.
In summary, defining characters in trouble, results in the problems and conflicts these characters must overcome, which creates drama and drives the novel’s plot.
Martha walked to the barn, the shotgun stock tucked firmly against her side, then stopped fifteen feet from the back of the horse trailer.
“Any reason why I shouldn’t shoot you trespassers?”
Three men who were struggling to get the stallion into the trailer froze. The fourth, a big burly man, stood in front of Martha, the horse directly behind him.
“This isn’t what you think. We’re retrieving our lost stallion,” said Sly.
“At dawn? Without asking permission?”
“It didn’t seem polite to wake you up so early.”
“Seems to me you sold him for four thousand dollars.”
“It was a joke to teach the kid a lesson. That horse is worth twenty thousand, I knew the contract wasn’t valid, because he’s a minor.”
“There’s no way I’d let that stallion go back to someone who starved him.”
“He had plenty of pasture! Once he learned not to bite the hand that fed him, he’d get his grain.”
As they talked, Sly edged closer to Martha, then tried to grab her shotgun. Martha pivoted, pointed the gun at the wheel on the horse trailer, and shot.
There was a CRACK-BANG as a burst of birdshot exploded the tire. Startled and frightened, Comanche reared up and dragged Reuben and Sam, who had wrapped lead ropes around their hands. Martha threw herself flat on the ground, followed by the crack of a bullet that stopped Sly in mid-step.
Mark Duncan grew up in Pasadena, not far from Caltech. In high school he spent Friday and Saturday nights at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab (SAIL) and subsequently was a member of the Homebrew Computer Club. He received his BSEE from UC Berkeley. He has worked or consulted for numerous startups in Silicon Valley. He lives in Menlo Park, near Stanford and has written extensively on emerging technology topics. He enjoys photography, movies, theater, fine dining and has visited all 50 states and much of Europe. He is the author of Bringing Up Mike, www.askmarpublishing.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
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