Category Archives: characterization

Self-Insertion

Every time I see this phrase, I feel like it’s a little dirty.

“Oh, go self-insert!” 

Yeah. Sometimes my brain is a 14 yo boy (although admittedly my 15 and 16 yo girls would make a sailor blush at times. Dinner conversations are frequently… interesting.) Anyway, I was talking about writing, not sex. Although….

Robert Heinlein famously said about writing to do it in private and wash your hands afterward, a clear parallel to a much more intimate act. If we follow that line of thought through, we come up with writing being a pleasurable act for the author (we’ll leave the other side of the equation out of it for a moment) which seems reasonable, because why else would we inflict this kind of effort and angst on ourselves? So yes, in a sense we the writers are, ah, F*&ing ourselves. It’s all a mindf*&k, though.

But does that make the main characters of our books a self-insertion? The more common, less literary term would be Mary Sue (or Marty Stu), which is outlined by TVTropes (here be dragons, or at least TymeEaters).

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She’s exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She’s exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her “flaws” are obviously meant to be endearing.

She has an unusual and dramatic Back Story. The canon protagonists are all overwhelmed with admiration for her beauty, wit, courage and other virtues, and are quick to adopt her as one of their True Companions, even characters who are usually antisocial and untrusting; if any character doesn’t love her, that character gets an extremely unsympathetic portrayal. She has some sort of especially close relationship to the author’s favorite canon character — their love interest, illegitimate child, never-before-mentioned sister, etc. Other than that, the canon characters are quickly reduced to awestruck cheerleaders, watching from the sidelines as Mary Sue outstrips them in their areas of expertise and solves problems that have stymied them for the entire series.

The problem is that while somewhat obviously this is a deeply flawed, highly cliched character, it’s not always the case when a critic snubs a book for containing a self-insertion. A Mary Sue lacks a growth arc, first of all. She (or he, in the case of the Marty Stu) springs onto the scene perfect, and being practically perfect in every way, has no desire nor need to change and grow into the role the author has set them into.

Chuck Gannon has been criticized for his main character, Caine Riordan, being too skilled, and obviously a wish-fulfillment character. I can see why – Caine, in the books, is a very competent person. But I’ve also met and talked with Chuck and I know that he is a brilliant man, behind a humble approach. And I know that he has friends who can do everything Caine can, and more, so for him to write this character came naturally. Where it stretches readers beyond belief is actually in the fact being stranger than fiction department.

Our own Peter Grant caught flak for his Steve Maxwell character being a ‘golden boy’ who could make no wrong moves. Peter thoughtfully considered the criticisms, and added flaws to Steve, but thankfully he didn’t break his hero in the process. It took me a while to put a finger on what I liked about Steve, but it finally clicked in a recent conversation about favorite superheroes, and why so many of us like that other Steve, Captain America.

Captain America (I unequivocally reject the Hydra version) is a nice guy. He’s a superhero, yes, but he’s also a guy you feel like you could sit and have a cup of coffee with, telling stories, and that he’d get up to go rescue a kitten, and it wouldn’t come across as too-good-to-be-true, he’s just that nice a guy.

Coming back to the pleasuring oneself aspect of authorship, yes, simply writing a character we could insert ourselves into ,and escape the humdrum world into a more perfect place would be a masturbatory experience. However, I’d like to think that ideally, writing is more akin to a shared pleasure experience. We’re not creating a book we’ll be taking to bed, after all. No, we dress it up, straighten the seam on it’s stockings, and watch it sashay out the door… and waltz into the arms of a reader. That is the goal of writers who are publishing. A two-way street of mutual enjoyment.

I’ll not take this too much further… just know that if I can write something that makes my readers happy, it makes me happy. So yes, I am inserting some of myself into my work. And writing a heroic main character who wins through the obstacles placed into his path, growing and developing into a better person as he does so? My fans like that kind of thing. So do I. I don’t like dark, brooding characters for whom nothing ever goes right, and the universe is out to get them. I’m sure there are readers out there who do. Hopefully they can find the writer for them, because I’m not the one.

Writing is perhaps the ultimate mindf%$k. Was it good for you? Because it was good for me…

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, characterization, WRITING: ART

Don’t Derive to Market

LawDog has gotten a slim but gut-bustingly funny volume of his police stories off to his editor, and is now oscillating between writing down more tales of Africa, working on an urban fantasy… although, can you call it urban when it’s in small town Texas?

(Picture a satyr before a rural-county Texas judge. “You can’t sentence me! You don’t believe in me! I’m a mythological creature; I can’t exist!” “Boy, I saw weirder things than you in the sixties. Now, you’re up for theft, public intoxication…” )

…anyway, and half a dozen other projects that keep crowding into a writer’s brain. As we were discussing life, the universe, and everything (including him yelling at the “police gear up for a raid” scene on tv, “Why are you loading your weapons? Why are they not already loaded?”) , he paused to ask why certain books in a genre we’ve both read feel so… divorced from reality, and so thin.

Ah, LawDog, says I, the word you’re looking for is “derivative.” The kindliest interpretation is that the true groundbreakers in the field created a field, because the subgenre barely existed, or was still coagulating, when they wrote this weird thing they loved. So they were widely read, and drawing on a lot of different sources, and pulling together many different things. Then came authors who loved the world the first one created, and wanted to put their own spin on it. So they drew on other sources, or re-interpreted the first one’s sources as well as the first author. But then, then came people who loved the second wave of authors, and hadn’t read outside the subgenre… and so their pool of resources and interpretation to draw on is extremely shallow and limited compared to the first or second wave.

This extreme shallowness is often seen in fanfiction, where the inexperienced writer loves their one show, but hasn’t done any digging into the source materials the writers pulled from to create that show and world. If all you know of Meiji period Japan comes from Kenshin, then you’re not going to have a very great pool of knowledge on how and why that world works… and when a writer fills in the gaps with their own world and assumptions as they wander off script, it’s often profoundly wrong (including one fanfic assuming Kenshin was set during Europe’s Dark Ages… because feudal! *facepalm*)

Kris Rusch has a slightly different take; she says the original groundbreaker slipped past the gatekeepers somehow, and when it proved to be a breakout success, the publishers looked around to find similar books that were written on spec by people who just loved the genre. When they started being published, and there was a large demand, then other writers would jump on the bandwagon, briefly read the top books in the genre, and crank out something in a similar style without knowing or loving the genre. This is the sort of “writing to market” that she decries.

With the indies slipping past the gatekeepers, the truth is probably a mix of these, and other reasons. How do you make sure that you’re not falling prey to this?

1: Go Deep. Read the oldest depths from which your genre sprang, not just the last 20 years. Find the good stuff that inspired the books that inspired the books and films that inspired you.

Jeffro Johnson started reading his way through Appendix N – the list of sources Gary Gygax listed as his inspiration for Dungeons & Dragons . Many, many a current fantasy novel treats Dungeons and Dragons as the foundation of their world, upon which you can either build, or try to subvert (with a brief nod to Tolkien, who came before.) The retrospectives are now a category up on the Castalia house blog:
http://www.castaliahouse.com/category/appendix-n/page/11/
or in kindle book: http://amzn.to/2nVJ4Qa

What he found was nothing like the “standard fantasy novel” you get now, and nothing like the stereotype of “pulp scifi” that some quarters burn in effigy without ever having actually read. It’s worth reading some of what he found as a transition – but even more so, it’s worth reading everything on Appendix N itself! ( http://digital-eel.com/blog/ADnD_reading_list.htm )

(And let me sigh here and note that when following this advice and reading Jack Vance’s Tales of a Dying Earth (http://amzn.to/2oPHezs ) I had to keep breaking out the dictionary. I thought I had a fairly good vocabulary, but if this was the stuff “the common man” enjoyed in the 1950’s, my nose has now been painfully rubbed in just how far our education system had fallen by the time I went through.)

2. Go Deeper. Go back to the original legends, myths, histories, trading routes, wars, cultures…

Alma Boykin recently posted a snippet of a fantasy that’s been battening around her brain as the result of reading academic papers and monographs on medieval trade:
https://almatcboykin.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/bad-muse-not-again/#more-4965

When’s the last time you saw something like that, compared to “He paid five copper for the meal, and two silver for a room.”?

3. Go wide. Read about things far outside your field. Orson Scott Card is reputed to have said one of the best ways to get inspiration to is to pick something you don’t care about at all, and then research it in depth.

For example, Peter’s first published book, Take the Star Road (http://amzn.to/2nVBIMl ), was partially inspired by The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. ( http://amzn.to/2pu5Bka )

Here’s another for you: Rory Miller is the author of the highly interesting book Meditations on Violence: A Comparison of Martial Arts Training and Real World Violence (http://amzn.to/2pJKbyX ). Last night, as Peter was reorganizing books from one bookshelf to another as he moves the reference books from Things for Westerns to Things For Fantasy, another book by Miller popped up on the couch. Violence: A Writer’s Guide. ( http://amzn.to/2oi7IGV ) I didn’t even know this thing existed. But it is an excellent breakdown on what motivates people to violence – from the office gossip (manipulation to get their way) to the bullying SJW (aggressive posturing and speech to get their way) to assault, to murder… and what those people think of other’s use of different levels of force. It’ll definitely force you to think through the eyes of a character completely unlike yourself, and in doing so, make them more real and alive.

4. Go and do yourself.

There is no perfect substitute for actually going to a place, or doing a thing. Because in the going and in the doing are a thousand sensory details, rhythms, habits, minutiae, large-scale considerations, environments, and people that you can use to make your writing come alive.

If you’ve never shot a gun, go to a range and take a basic pistol course with an instructor. You’re going to find it’s as close to the movies as… as, well, most people’s courtships are to Adam Sandler’s romantic comedies. Many police departments offer citizens academies or ride-a-long programs, which prove that real life is nothing like TV, either.

Go hike the unpaved trails, and discover that moving from point A to point B through different terrains is a while lot different than driving. Take a flying lesson, a sailing lesson, or go whitewater rafting. Get your fishing license and learn to fish, or find a climbing gym and get coached through a climbing wall. Ride a horse, or take a horsedrawn carriage ride. Learn to fence. Hey, it’s research! And it’s learning, growing, stretching yourself in ways you haven’t done before, or done in years. Do a chef’s tasting menu, try a flight of wine, go on a distillery tour… check your local area’s tourist literature, and play tourist in your own home state. You’ll turn up the most random and fun things to do – and if you ask more questions, you’ll find people who are passionate about something love to talk about it, and can tell you more than you dreamed existed.

Art is the synthesis of all our knowledge and worldview, mixed with “what if?”, “and then what happens?”, and a creative spark. So increase your knowledge, enrich your worldview, and throw a lot of new experiences into the mix. What comes out will be all the better for it!

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Filed under characterization, FYNBOSSPRESS, Uncategorized, WRITING: CRAFT

…You should enjoy this.

I have a day job that’s awesome. I’m not out on an airport ramp, kneeling in a puddle and having 34 degree rain (F, not C) trickling down my spine from the gap at my collar. (No matter where they park the airplane, by the time you have to work on it, it will be in a puddle.) I’m not balancing carefully on a waterlogged, half-rotten interior roof with a mask over my face trying to shield my lungs from the literal sheets of mold peeling off drywall as we hang tarps and lay pallets, because if we can kinda-sorta weatherproof the remnants of a building, we can use it to store the bargeload of filters coming in. (Nor am I back in that ruin and trying to pull case after case of filters while every movement of boxes or tarps sends a shower of volcanic dust everywhere, in everything.) I’m not in the field, up to my ankles in mud and up to my elbows in tobacco sap and bugs stuck on, trying to swing a machete without bruising or, heavens forbid, breaking any sap-stiff fragile leaves. I’m not stuck in interminable meetings where people are distilled down to their productivity, and all the drama, the tears, the emergencies, the hopes, the dreams, the good or bad luck… is given a thirty-second-per-employee reason to decide whether or not to fire them if they fall below an efficiency threshold.

Yeah, my job has drawbacks. No job is perfect. This job would be a living nightmare for many people… but for me, for now, it’s awesome. And you know what? Those other jobs – they, too, were awesome. There were some terrible moments. There were some wonderful people. They were some frustrations that soured entire weeks. What defines a job as awesome is not the job itself: it’s the mindset you use to react to it.

You should enjoy your job. Like breathing, the people who most enjoy their job are usually the people who were recently not blessed with one. (Air is one of the most underappreciated blissful joys of the universe, as anyone who’s had a malfunctioning regulator or asthma can tell you.) But that’s not just because of income and possibly health insurance. It’s because, as writers, you can also look around and see that your job provides you with close regular contact with people who are completely unlike you. What motivates them? How do they come to decisions? What do they want? How do they deal with problems, frustrations, and unexpected good fortune? What are their speech patterns, and what body language do they use?

When you’re creating worlds inside your head, you’ll be populating them with people, doing jobs. The more you understand why people make decisions that you wouldn’t, and reactions unlike yours, the more your worlds and characters will become real. The better you can describe their body language and replicate their dialogue, the more lifelike they’ll seem. And the more aware you are of the intricacies and minutiae, the conventions and processes of your job, the specific terms and phrases… the better you’ll be able to look for and provide those anchoring details to describe another job and make it come to life.

And if you don’t have a job? You probably have other ways you’re in contact with people, other groups you’re in. If you don’t? Study the movies. What details do they use that make another place, time, or people seem real? What just falls flat? Watch the same actor in two different films, back to back – and watch what he changes to convey two different characters.

…and remember to enjoy yourself, and count your blessings.

26 Comments

Filed under characterization, FYNBOSSPRESS, WRITING: LIFE

Slog

I see in today’s paper that Australian research identifies me as a ‘slogger’ – a bloke who would like to work less but needs the money. And there I thought I was just a lazy beggar who would like to fish a bit more often.

The interesting part to their whole schpiel – which didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, because I am not a pigeon and they have a desperate need to put everyone in pigeon-holes – was that it seemed to hinge aspiration and reward… and that it was plainly very, very viewpoint orientated.

According to them, I would be less well socially connected, and less adept at it than any other group. Now I’m no Kim Kardashian (just in case you failed to notice the beard) and I’m a failure at twittering my every moment and movement (including bowel, or, after alphabet soup, vowel). But I have if anything too good an actual social life and chat to too many people the book-of-faces.

I’m a writer, I like to watch, to listen, to study people, to think about what they say, and why they say it. This means I can better grasp what a character – who is vastly different to me in every imaginable way, and possibly some I would rather not imagine – would plausibly react in the bloody awful mess I put them in my books. I am kind like that. I mean, here I am playing god, I could at least have them win the Lotto, meet Mr or Miss Right, and live happily ever after with a large library and enough Chateau Lar Feet (as this is Dave Freer writing, not something common like Chateau Lafite) and Magret de Canard with a black cherry reduction, to at least die happy. Nooo, instead I put them in awful positions (some not even in Kama Sutra) facing certain death, usually sober and before dinner. Yes, I am a miserable bastard. Being one is a tough job, but someone has to do it.

Of course, tough jobs are supposed to pay well (which would put me on the wrong side of the pigeon-hole margin). Sadly, no one else seems to think it a tough job (one of these point-of-view things I alluded to). In terms of aspiration, however, I’ve never come across an author who didn’t aspire to being rich and successful. I’ve met an awful lot who aspire to be Castle on TV – rich famous and living the good life without all the tedium of actually writing. I’ve met others – and I’d put myself among them, who would do the job if they didn’t get to write, and fair number who could certainly have been richer than an author is likely to be, if they’d chosen a different path. Some of them even realized that before they went down the writer’s path.

Now, sloggers (according to pigeon-holers) work because they must, and don’t earn much, or ever hope to earn much. Yet… all novelists, for at least for a substantive part of their job are literally sloggers. Producing a book (let alone a career as an author) is a long-haul process. And part of any long haul process is sheer dogged determination – or plain old-fashioned slog (unless you are Castle, and that only happens on TV.) Even if somehow you do make every ounce of writing your twentieth novel a thing of joy (and yes, I manage to end up loving my books, even those I wished I had never agreed to write), there is still editing and proofs, and then inserting the proof corrections.

And even those of us who love the writing itself are faced with horrible parts of it. For me the most difficult is writing the ‘links’ between the scenes which I have to make sure maintain continuity – usually complex – and yet must be short, clean… and the reader is barely aware of. There is always a resentful part of my mind that says ‘I am working my butt off to make this slick, clear… and virtually invisible. You would only know it existed at all (if I have done it well) if it wasn’t there. Like the servant who actually did the cleaning in the society hostess’s home (and listens to her being praised for it), there is a degree of resentment that my hardest and, IMO some of my best work is something that is only good if no one knows I’ve done it.

The times of sheer dogged slogging is an unavoidable fact of life for 99.99998% of any author who makes a career out of it. You just can’t let it show in your writing, because your readers are paying you for tedious attention to detail in your work, not for tedium in their entertainment.

Like my laziness… it’s a question of perspective and perception. I’m not much good at just sit-and-do nothing. Hell for me would be sunbathing. I do work long hours, but I have slowed down from 5 hours sleep a night – which is when I wasn’t being lazy. I’ve actually got a rigid system of self-bribery and corruption worked into a structured calendar, word counts – which have timed ‘rewards’ of checking facebook, or working in the garden, or going fishing – yes, I really do book the hours, and even try to enforce some reading, research and even free time. I’m not very good at the latter, but there is a point where you’re either staring at the screen or writing crap you will delete. It is, compared to most office workers, terribly regimented and disciplined – and the boss watches every damn thing I do.

Of course to the reader who is waiting for the next book I’m also a useless, lazy scut who never gets around to it.

So: as usual this is all about writing and technique. And as usual I have been trying to do what I am informed is wicked colonial imperialism – showing not telling. If that’s wicked imperialism, bring it on, I reckon, because it works for readers. ‘Wicked’ is a point of view issue too. What I was trying to explain is a layer of complexity that many writers never quite grasp.

At the bottom end characters are WYSIYG (what you see is what you get) which is lovely when translating e-books, but a bit weak as a character. The character is as they are portrayed – both in how they see themselves, and, identically as they are seen by anyone else. IE. Joe is a hard-working, clever, kind man. That’s how Joe sees himself, and how other characters see Joe. That is also how the readers see Joe. And oddly, comments like ‘unrealistic/ dull/poor/one-dimensional characters’ will creep into the reviews. That may be true, but I have often found this really is an inability to express something the reader is aware of without grasping quite what causes the disconnect.

The disconnect is of course, that what the character perceives themselves as – from their own point of view – is never what others see them as. Many writers manage this reasonably well. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary (another character) sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling.

This is real life. Listen to any dispute and you may think that the two principals are describing a separate set of events. Divorce cases, doubly so. And when you get down to poltics… Well, looking at it from Australia, ardent Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton’s supporters plainly live in widely separated alternate universes which branched off from each other just after there first was light.

Dispassionately, and from neither point of view… exists another real story entirely, with more or less elements from both and things which are in neither viewpoint. Just so with the story in the READER’S head. This is the stage which great authors get to. They understand that they’re working with each character’s perception of themselves, and the other (often multiple) character’s perception of themselves AND of the other characters. All of this adds up to the author carrying his or authorial perception of the character to the reader. Joe sees himself as a hard-working, clever, kind man. Mary sees him as lazy, dim-witted, and un-feeling. Mary sees herself as not popular, and unhappy about this, and far brighter than Joe. Joe sees Mary as happy, loving and understanding, and not too bright. Both of their actions and responses are shaped by own perceptions… and by reality (in this case, authorial reality) The clever author manages to carry through the ‘reality’ that Mary doesn’t care for Joe, but wants to be liked, and is manipulating his feelings. She’s not actually as bright as she thinks she is, or she would realize that her un-lovable-ness isn’t how Joe sees her. But she’s brighter than Joe think she is. Joe, on the hand is hard-working, none-too-bright, but is actually kind.

It’s a multi-dimensional maze, which the reader SHOULD be unaware of as they’re led through. It’s a slog, getting it right, because to do so you will have to enter (at least) three different head-spaces.

This is why head-hopping is a poor idea. It confuses most authors, and that in turn confuses most readers. That is why the discipline exists, not for its own sake.

Of course, it’s never that simple. The ‘authorial’ head-space will quite possibly be not quite the way the reader sees it. When I was writing JOY COMETH WITH THE MORNING I wrote the book from a single point of view (hers) but made it clear by the responses of the other characters to her, that her perspective was not theirs, and that they saw her quite differently – and of course, I as the author saw all of them quite differently.

What I should have been prepared for… but wasn’t, was the range of very different ways readers saw her.

It’s a complex web we weave.

But we set out to deceive.

That’s why it is called ‘fiction.’

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Filed under characterization, plotting, point of veiw, Uncategorized, WRITING, WRITING: CRAFT