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Unrestrained

Unrestrained

We write our books in certain settings, worlds, cultures. They all impose restraints on our characters, which they have to live within, or break, and deal with the consequences.

Last winter, in a moment of frustrated “I don’t have any ideas!” I set out to write something, anything—something I could throw away later without caring.

I wrote a “Mirror Image” story, where my usual Good Guys were bad, and the Bad Guys were good. Yeah, I went Full On “Spock with a goatee.”

It was _really_ fun. My Hero, totally unrestrained. No brakes.

Mind you, being me, I wound up with explanations, and redefined “Bad Guy” in this context.

But I also learned—via my long suffering Beta Readers—that it was a great story.

At eight months remove, I can see that the reason they liked it was that my character threw off all restraints and went full bore to get what he wanted. What _he_ thought was right. _No_ Cultural restraints. To &^%$ with the law. _No_ diplomacy. Totally over the top, full on blood bath, and torture when nothing else worked.

Unpleasant in real life.

Essential in fiction.

Don’t let your characters be hemmed in by convention. Remove their shackles. Let ‘er rip and deal with the consequences later. Take it over the top. Just make sure that what your Character wants, most readers will agree with. And your readers should be positive that the “Other Guys” deserve what they’re about to receive.

And then show the absolute best/worst/bloodiest your Character can be. Throw his heart, his soul, and his body into it. Go to the max . . . then find even more, and get him over the top!

That’s what your readers want.

 

What character went full Evil Twin? Ra’d, of course! Let’s face it, he’s got the potential. Here’s how it happened in _one_ universe . . .

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Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Lesser Lights

So another week has vanished with little to show for it apart from the usual explosions at work (why yes, that server we’ve been agitating to have replaced for the past five years really is overloaded and obsolete. Why do you think it keeps crashing in peak time? And no, it really isn’t a good idea to format your flat-file data so that one record type allows leading spaces and the linked associated record type doesn’t. What makes you think you doing this makes it my problem?). That of course means it’s time for another instalment of the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide, this time a quick look at the “joys” of minor characters and how to “promote” uppity ones into the unexpected corpse that just derailed your hero.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: the Lesser Lights

Minor characters, we loves them we does. Particularly with ketchup.

Oh, not the redshirts, at least, not only the redshirts. Fine, yes, I do enjoy redshirting people who irritate me.

So, you’re going to be running into any number of minor characters through the course of the story, everything from the fellow who sells you overpriced drinks at that fancy resort to your favorite bartender in the grimy dive you usually frequent. Oh? Sorry. My subconscious seems to live in Evil Bastard Central, and that place has more grimy dives than a mud wrestling competition.

At any rate, minor characters typically fall into a few broad categories, whether you’re a plotter, a pantser, or somewhere in between. There’s your named minors, usually people who have some kind of importance to what your majors are doing – the hero’s valet, the villain’s favorite general, the bartender the hero pours out his woes to… These guys will serve multiple roles so that you don’t overload the poor reader with seven hundred names in as many sentences, and you’ll usually flag them with a reminder like “the leader of the elvish ghosts I enslaved”, just so the reader doesn’t need to scootch back forty pages to the last time said character made an appearance. The risk to pantsers is that the named minors can very easily take on their own life and take over your story. More on that later.

Unnamed minors usually get a distinguishing ‘flag’ of some sort. The one-legged beggar, the short (or tall) guard, that hot redhead down at the bar (I think my subconscious is thirsty). They’re generally functional bits that serve a purpose but are mostly forgotten as soon as they’re out of sight.

Then there’s the local color – these aren’t usually characterized as individuals, but as groups, and mostly show up when the story is playing tour guide. They help to fill out the sense of a world beyond what the main characters see, and a culture that isn’t ours. Of course, they, like all the other minor character categories frequently end up in the final one I use…

The corpse. Yes, corpses can have character. If it’s hot and there’s no refrigeration, rather a lot of it, and quite robust. The thing is, the corpses serve multiple purposes too, and that’s apart from the value as future fertilizer. The state of a body tells your main something about how it got to be one. If it’s upright and walking around, there’s probably a necromancer somewhere nearby. Recently roasted, you start looking for anything that’s combustible. Lots of bodies and blood, you’re probably looking at a war zone or a very enthusiastic group of bandits.

Naturally, the easiest way to deal with a named minor who tries to take over is to make arrangements for him, her, or it to become a corpse. That isn’t always possible. Sometimes it turns out – particularly if you live in extreme pantser pants – that the person you thought was a named minor character is actually one of your mains. This can be traumatic, and in extreme cases lead to the Epic With Everything.

The way I see it, if this happens to you, you can go one of three directions. You can roll with it, see where it takes you, and clean up the mess when revision time happens. Alternatively, you can promise the uppity named minor his/her/its own book later, conditional on good behavior now. The third option is the corpse – which can also serve as a warning to any other minor characters with Ideas.

Yes, I know. This is a problem pantsers have. Our characters feel so much like real, independent beings to us that we think and speak of them that way. So long as you know which universe has the feet and the bills you’ve got to pay, it doesn’t matter, not even when your subconscious has a bar tab spanning the entire multiverse of your imagination. That one only comes due in the form of “you will write this story now”, which isn’t too much of a problem unless you’re being paid to do something else now (Welcome to my life, by the way).

A final word on corpses. Don’t be scared of them. Your writing will be a lot stronger if the dead bodies mean something to your hero (they usually mean something to your villain, typically “that’s that nuisance dealt with”). Offing your hero’s best friend has much more emotional kick than some random stranger who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Offing his puppy… well, you’re just a bastard author with godlike powers of manipulating events, aren’t you? (Besides, how can the hero possibly look after a puppy when he’s off adventuring all the time? Seriously. That puppy wouldn’t ever be really his anyway.)

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If You Give A Reader A Cookie

Something I haven’t discussed, in this whole “where should you put your book” is that beyond structure there are reader expectations and… well, reader cookies.

“Reader cookies?” you ask. “You mean some publicity thing?  I have to find all my readers and bake them cookies?”

Er…. no.

Look, the thing to take in account on genre is that usually people have one favorite genre.  They might read others, but they had one they absolutely follow and “eat” like peanuts.  (Years ago Kris Rusch told me that science fiction readers are the narrower readers.  I don’t think she’s right.  I think she said that because most science fiction readers are prejudiced against romance.  but she also said that romance readers read every genre, and all I can say is she must come from a universe where Spock has a beard.  There’s no reason for her to lie, and I don’t think she was, but my experience is exactly the opposite of hers.)

But most readers, when reading genre, learn and come to crave certain points.

There are things in all genres that aren’t logical, they’re just convention and accepted by all writers/readers so that that type of story can be told.

For instance most of us, in most cases, understand that true love takes time and much contact to develop, but you can’t really show that in a novel (Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer comes close.) And you can’t show the many kinds of “true love” that aren’t necessarily romantic love.  There just isn’t enough space, and it wouldn’t make for a good narrative.

So instead, you have a sort of handwavium, like they look, they touch and they KNOW they’re destined to love each other.  Now in modern (written, because even in regencies this happens) romances, it tends to be because they had teh amazing secks.  Which is silly and probably teaches teen girls all the wrong things, but it’s also easy to write/sell.

In science fiction, you’ll have not just FTL — that would be easy — but all sorts of short cuts, gadgets and history that are never explained.

In mystery you’ll have detectives in small towns who solve more murders than the population of the town could stand.  And no one finds this weird.

Now if you’re reading cross-genre, that kind of stuff can annoy you no end. But eventually you get used to it.

What might take you longer to get is the reader cookies, i.e. things readers in the genre really like.

As someone who is making her bones in what could be called retro-science-fiction I do a lot of reader cookying.  Like… burners.  (No, they’re not lasers.  I actually figure they’re some form of concentrated gravity.  Yes, I know what Athena said.  But she’s not technologically literate, and also, honestly, she read a lot of 20th century sf from her father’s library.)  Or flying cars (I want my flying car.)

They’re things I find cool, and I remember being thrilled about when I was a kid reading sf/f, and since I’m center of the SF reader demographic (I’m more askew for fantasy) I figured others would have the same reaction.  Apparently so.

In mystery, particularly if you’re doing cozies, your reader cookies are often tied to the way your detective puts clues together, particularly if it only makes sense in the detective’s mind.

But  more importantly, making sure the reader gets the cookie involves making sure that they get what they paid for as it were.

Your romance needs to be romantic.  even if you’re galloping in other directions, with mystery, and sf and fantasy touches, YOUR COUPLE NEEDS TO HAVE A GRAND, ROMANTIC LOVE, (even if they don’t realize it till the end, which often happens in sweet romances) and there needs to be a happy ever after.

Your mystery needs to be mysterious, and your detective (amateur or professional) needs to solve it.

Your science fiction needs to at least wave at science, and the events must be interestingly futuristic (and no, just growing tomatoes on another planet and having emotional breakdowns about your status as female does NOT count.)

Your fantasy needs to be fantastic.  There must be magic and awe and spells and stuff.  (I fail so hard at this with the shifters.)

Etc.

I mean Dresden Files has a Noir Mystery structure, but yeah, it’s fantasy.  I mean, he’s casting spells, using his SIGHT, working with elves and the supernatural.  And that’s fine, because it’s a fantasy with mystery structure, but all the cookies are fantasy.

You know where this is going, don’t you?

Read the d*mn genre you think your work might belong under.  Read the top sellers at Amazon at least.  Take a week and read them.  Be aware of what the reader picking up your book is going to expect.

Because you can’t know what they want, till you know what else they’re doing.  So go and read it, and then decide how to classify your own work.

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Juno Genius (if you met them in the street)?

Juno, Genius, Lares and Penates and say nothing of Dis Pater (not a dissipater – but a chthonic god and wealth accumulator – as his wealth is the dead – which gives a whole new slant to ‘plutocrat’. Oh and he is possibly derived from the Sabine god Soranus. Where Soranus got his wealth from is unknown, and the rumor that it was from selling a primitive form of Preparation H is on the whole a base slander.)

That’s to name a few of the rabbit-holes I’ve been running down. Soranus was a bit of bummer, as the Hirpi Sorani (the wolves of Soranus, fire-walkers who carried about the entrails of sacrifices during their rituals. It took a lot of guts to do it.) sounded promising. I was looking at the ‘brothers of the wolf (luperci)’ as part of a story I had been toying with. I just felt the name would make it hard for the reader to suitably appreciate the meaningful nature of the tail. Heh. When you’re stuck, fruitless research is at least not as pointless as political arguments on facebook. The fruitless research will eventually, possibly, find its way into a story. I know: a story with two bands of naked young men running around the streets spanking women with furry thongs… but then 50 Shades of Gray was popular, so you never know…

So: what prompted this particular digression – and what does it have to do with writing? I mean besides giving you the story seed for a Roman S&M fantasy? Actually it did relate to the book in hand and started with looking up genius loci (protective spirit of place, to give it one interpretation) – which lead onto genius (which one hoped wasn’t mad as it was the individual’s protective spirit, later interpreted as a soul) and thence into Lares and Penates – the household gods.

The fascinating thing about ‘household gods’ and indeed genius loci, are just how widespread similar myths are – whether you’re talking about Slavonic domovoi or various incarnations of genius loci – from Chinese Tudi or the Landvaettir of Norse mythology – these are concepts that cross a huge number of cultures. Yes, when you read up on the rituals and details, they’re fascinatingly alien. I mean I hardly ever sacrifice more than some veggies to Greenmould, the tutelary deity of the refrigerator… I don’t give him a piece of every meal as one would to a Lar.

What I am doing here – not just wasting time (I can do that with freecell or facebook) is picking up on a concept which has appeal – both broad and enduring, and that re-evolves and repurposes old superstitions and myths. Which – if you’re a story teller, is like a dvergr finding an ore-rich vein. This is where the stories are. Humans predisposed to accept and believe them (or at least suspend disbelief in them). It’s rather beyond the scope of this post – but look at people’s reactions to different houses or localities. “This house feels welcoming.” “This place gives me the creeps” Now- there may be good psychological reasons or even physical cues to these reactions — but a large proportion of humans have them. They’re well over 2/3 into believing in genius locii. You don’t have to work hard to make this suspend disbelief – even if you, the hard-nosed rational writer, who never propitiates the cistern-troll* with the required libations, think it is nonsense.

It’s kind of like the art of war – the writer attacks at the point least likely to resist – in fact likely to welcome him as liberating explainer of things which otherwise conflict with the rational. Jim Butcher does it brilliantly. As a writer you can make it hard for yourself – or you can exploit the ‘weaknesses.’ This is just one.

Another joy of ‘household gods’ and genius Locii (besides a rich mythology to mine and play on) is that they are in a way the perfect foe (or friend) because, oddly, the last thing (as Diana Wynne Jones pointed out in her ‘Tough Guide to Fantasyland) is the supernatural item or being that is omnipotent, which the hero or villain spend the entire book not using – although it would make 1000 page novel a great piece of flash fiction. They’re literally ‘small’ gods – powerful in their setting, but nowhere else, and usually with clear limitations. It’s those limitations that make the story, not the vast power.

This brings me onto my final point: and I’m guilty too. As sf-and particularly fantasy writers, we’re conditioned into the final battle, the ultimate enemy or cataclysm. And some of those make great stories. But you might notice that even in those, it’s the personal and often (looked at dispassionately) relatively irrelevant ‘small’ character-to-character interactions that bind readers to the ‘big’ story (Tolkien does this so often – and yet so many imitators don’t notice.) But great stories don’t actually HAVE to be the saving the universe or the kingdom from destruction. Great stories are simply defined as ‘entertaining’ (and preferably to a lot of readers) which is why many successful authors are rather like household gods – the story they weave is important to the characters in it, not to the world – Louis L’Amour to Maeve Binchy, or Heyer Regency Romance – very satisfying as a read. Important to OUR universe (which is really our families, friends and homes) and not THE universe.

It’s a door to endless stories.

And now, the fridge is making strange noises at me…

Certain rituals must be performed.

 

*Ever wondered where that supply of cubed carrot and green peas (which you haven’t eaten for three years, you’ll swear) comes from when you throw up? They’re actually warning from the cistern-troll, who is not pleased by your lack of observance.

 

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Post is coming

Don’t give up. There will be a post. Something came across my desktop a short time ago I need to investigate before writing on. Back in an hour or so.

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When the going gets tough – writer edition

I’ve noticed more and more independent authors complain about all the problems they’re facing.  Blog articles, Facebook posts, e-mails and other avenues seem to be filling up with the dreaded negatives.

  • “Amazon/my publisher/whoever isn’t paying enough.”
  • “My books are selling fewer copies than they did since Kindle Unlimited came out.”
  • “My readers keep on nagging me for the next book in a series, but my creativity well dried up.”
  • “Life, the universe and everything are conspiring to take up all my time and stop me writing.”
  • “I can’t seem to get my thoughts down on paper any more.”

I’m sympathetic to many of those cries of woe.  I suffer from many of the same problems myself.  However, I think there’s also far too much negativity floating around.  It’s all too easy to talk ourselves into a decline.  Therefore, I’d like to share the story of my last three years with you.  They’ve been filled with a lot of pain, and a great many problems – but I’m still here, and as long as God gives me grace (those of you who don’t have any religious faith can substitute your own sentiment), I’ll keep on keeping on.  I’m not writing these words to elicit sympathy, or praise, or whatever.  I’m just trying to point out that things can always get worse – unless we choose to make them better.

I daresay most of you know my journey to becoming a fiction author: I covered it in these pages some years ago. Briefly, since my injury in 2004, I’ve been in pain 24/7/365. On a scale of 1 low to 10 high, it used to hover at 2-3 all the time, with episodes of more severe pain from time to time (including a regular spell every 10 days to 2 weeks where my injured nerve would “flare up”, giving me a severe pain day of 5-6 or higher).

The neurosurgeon had given me a lifetime restriction of not lifting more than 25 pounds, and the increasing pain caused by walking meant that I didn’t go very far except very slowly, with a walking stick. Exercise became almost impossible. As a result, my overall physical health began to deteriorate. I was a smoker, too, which didn’t help at all. I ended up with a heart attack in 2009, followed by a drug interaction problem between my heart medication and the drug regime used to manage my nerve pain. I put on well over 100 pounds in 8 months as a result. My metabolism was trashed, and I’ve found it very difficult to lose that weight.

As a result of all those complications and my weight gain, kidney stones became an issue. During 2015 I was hospitalized twice to deal with them, and found the increased pain from that source, on top of my existing nerve pain, to be almost unbearable. My writing came to a grinding halt until the kidney stones were dealt with. They remain an issue; I still have a stone in there, but the local urologist protests I really can’t be feeling pain from it, because it’s in a location where it can’t be passed. I have news for him! Basically, all I can do is remain well hydrated and keep going. I’m darned if I want them cutting open my kidney!

As you can imagine, the increased pain of kidney stones, on top of the ‘normal’ pain from my damaged back and sciatic nerve, made creative writing almost impossible for long periods of time.  There may be some people who can write through pain without any effort, but I’m not one of them!  My output was drastically diminished.  I’ve managed to publish several books over the past three years (2015-2017), but fewer than I intended. Every one of them has had its price in pain, rather than just time or hard work.  They’ve all taken longer to write than I wanted (usually two to three times as long as my first few), and they’ve all taken a lot more out of me.  After finishing one, it’s been a real problem to make my “get up and go” actually get up (much less go) and start the next book.

I realized earlier this year that unless I did something to deal with the after-effects of my physical problems, I was going to die within the next two to three years. The choice was as simple as that.  Following medical advice, which I’d been doing for years, simply wasn’t working. I had to get rid of my excess weight, regardless of my physical problems and circumstances, because obesity is as sure a killer in the long term as heart disease or anything else. I had no easy choices. If I exercised, I knew I’d face increased pain; but I couldn’t go back on the pain management regime I’d used before, because I knew it would produce a recurrence of the drug interaction and weight gain. I simply had to “bite the bullet” and tough it out.

I discarded my neurosurgeon’s advice, and with my wife’s help, began researching what might restore my “core strength” and get my metabolism moving again. She and I began strength training in July. We’ve both found it very beneficial indeed; we’re already stronger, with better endurance, and better able to cope with our respective injuries and disabilities – and this is just the beginning. After a couple of years of it, I’m sure we’ll be physically in far better shape.  I’m already far past my neurosurgeon’s “lifetime limit” of how much weight I’m allowed to lift.  I daresay he’d have a hernia if he saw me!  (That’s a satisfying thought.)

Of course, this physical progress has come at a price in pain. I’d say my daily pain level is now hovering around 3-4 out of 10, with frequent (every day or two) increases to the 4-5 level, spiking higher in the evening after a long day; and my “bad pain days” every couple of weeks are still a factor. I’m using lower-level pain medication, both over-the-counter and prescription, to try to deal with it. This generally leaves my brain sufficiently “un-fogged” to write, unless I have a bad pain day when I have to take multiple doses; but it’s an uphill battle. I continue to find it very hard to concentrate, and get my creative juices flowing, when my body is screaming at me. Still, I’m persevering.  I hope – nay, I intend – to “power through” this and come out on the other side.

I’m also tackling weight loss through so-called ‘water fasting’ and intermittent fasting, which seems to work for me (albeit slowly) where regular dieting doesn’t (my faulty metabolism gloms on to every calorie that strays within reach, and won’t let go of it).  This is causing difficulties for my exercise program, because (as our coaches quite correctly point out) strength training is designed to increase one’s strength, which means increasing one’s muscle mass.  To try to lose weight while putting on muscle is a contradiction in terms!  Nevertheless, I have to do both at the same time.  It’s a medical necessity.  Therefore, I’ve deliberately scaled back my strength training to a far slower rate of progress than others at my level would normally be able to accommodate. That means I can follow my dietary restrictions, which inevitably impact my muscles as well as my adipose tissue.  I’ll get stronger and fitter more slowly, but hopefully also lighter at the same time.  Some coaches say it won’t work.  I say, given the amount of weight I need to lose, I have no choice. We’ll see who’s right.

I’m noticing mixed effects from the increased pain on my creative writing.  For a long time, it’s been a struggle to write well.  I continue to find that in tackling legacy series;  my military science fiction Maxwell Saga (where I’m busy with Volume 6) and Laredo Trilogy (where the third and final volume is overdue), and my Ames Archives western series (where the publisher is waiting for the third book).  I also have a short story overdue, another one planned, two potential collaborative novel projects (one of which has been really chafing at me for a number of reasons not altogether related to my pain levels, and the other waiting on publisher and co-author input), and a book proposal for another publisher.  The amount of work lined up is enough to keep me busy for the next couple of years… if only I could cudgel my pain-soaked brain into producing it!

In desperation, less than two weeks ago, I tried something new.  Back in 2014, I was stuck on Maxwell Volume 3, “Adapt and Overcome“.  I just couldn’t make it work, and my creative stream had dwindled to a trickle.  In sheer frustration, I sat down one day and decided to write whatever came into my head – a stream-of-consciousness pantser effort that was completely unplanned and unforeseen.  To my astonishment, thirty days later, I completed “War to the Knife“, the first volume of my Laredo Trilogy.  I had no idea where it had come from (although it drew heavily on parts of my own military background).  It was written out of frustration, and somehow it worked.

I decided to try the same thing again.  Last week, on Monday, November 27th, I sat down and started writing with no idea at all what I wanted to say.  I’d just had enough of being blocked!  Well, would you believe it?  Lightning can strike twice in the same place!  I’m currently almost 50,000 words into what looks like it’ll be the first book in another mil-SF trilogy.  It’s flowing like mad, characters and situations and events keep popping up all over my fictional landscape, and I’m haring after them shouting “Stop!  Where did you come from?  Who are you, and what are you doing in my story?  Come back with that plot line!”  I’m having a lot of fun, and for once, I’m able to write through the pain (which is no less than usual).  I suspect someone up there may have decided I needed a distraction.

Despite the pain and other problems, I remain grateful for my blessings. They are many. There are many people who’ve suffered injuries similar to mine, who are now in wheelchairs or bed-bound. I’ve been spared that, and by God’s grace and hard work, I’ll stay on my feet as long as I can. I have an income, albeit currently a rather reduced one, from my writing.  I have a wife whom I love, and who loves me.  She has a job that brings in enough money (allied to my disability and writing income) to pay our bills, cope with emergencies, and plan to pay off our house in a decade, instead of the 15-year mortgage for which we contracted.  We’re in a part of the world where the weather is generally good.  We have friends for whom we’re extremely grateful, some in the same town, others within a few hours’ drive, others several days’ travel from here – but all of them are important to us. We’ve helped to build up a small support network where a number of writers help each other, creatively and otherwise.

There’s so much to be thankful for that I simply refuse to be negative.  Every time I find myself hurting too much, or blocked creatively, or moping about something in my life that could be better, I remind myself that things could be a whole lot worse.  There’s always something, somewhere, for which I can give thanks.  I highly recommend that approach to you, if you’re struggling with life, the universe and everything.  Don’t give up – give thanks.  Be grateful for all the good in your life.

  • If you can’t think of much good to be thankful for, start with your next meal – because right now, in large parts of the Third World, people are dying of hunger.  I know they are.  I’ve traveled there, and seen it for myself at first hand.
  • If that’s not enough, give thanks that you’re not addicted to harmful drugs, shooting yourself up in back alleys, facing an early death through fentanyl-laced heroin or assault from another addict or pusher.
  • Give thanks for positives just as much as negatives.  You have friends?  Be grateful for them.  You have a partner or significant other?  Be glad.
  • Turn around the negatives. You’re not getting out of your job/marriage/writing what you expect or want?  Then ask yourself, “What am I putting into my job/marriage/writing?”  The Biblical injunctions, “As you sow, so shall you reap” and “By their fruits you will know them” aren’t just pious platitudes.  They’re recipes for life… so, what are we sowing, much less reaping?  What fruits are we producing?  If they’re bad or negative, whose choice, whose fault is that, if not our own?

Don’t let the bad times, or the problems of a writing life, or the ups and downs of the world, get you down.  They’re normal.  They’ll be with us until we die.  Instead, be their master, not their slave.  Things could always be worse – so why not choose to make them better instead?

(If worse comes to worst, remember the sage advice of the old-timers in South Africa when I was growing up.  “Is the bottom falling out of your world?  Take a laxative – then the world will fall out of your bottom!”)

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Return to the Ultimate Pantser’s Guide: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh my!

It’s hard to believe another week has gone by. I swear someone is stealing my time. Of course, it helps (not) that my daily routine is currently something like “Go to work. Come home. Find the latest round of cat puke and clean it up. Fix dinner. Go to bed.”

On the somewhat plus side I seem to be regaining at least some of my get up and go (at least, it doesn’t seem to have permanently got up and went) and actually spent a little time on the book of faces yesterday.

I may even get back to blogging on my own site again. I need to – I have a presentation and video from the test conference I spoke at that needs to go up and some other odds and sods I need to sort out there.

At any rate, I’m not in total hibernation any more.

So with that said, I hereby present to you the latest reinstalment of the Extreme Pantser’s Guide (also known as the Pantser Body of Knowledge and the Ultimate Pantser’s guide depending on just what my fingers decide to type). Enjoy.

The Pantser Body of Knowledge: Heroes and Villains and Oops! Oh My!

The time has come to take a look at the art and craft of characterization. This probably seems weird, since characterization is one of the things pantsers tend to get “free” – but getting it and writing it well aren’t the same thing. It’s worth reading up about what makes a good character and learning the skills of portraying a good character without the – often dubious – benefit of having this person show up inside your head and tell you stuff. Aside from anything else, your characters are the ultimate in unreliable narrator.

They’re artifacts of your subconscious, no matter how real they feel to you, and you don’t always know enough about their world and environment to know when they’ve got something wrong. This is where that bane of pantsers (yes, pantsers have rather a lot of banes. We collect them, I think) comes from, namely the character who thinks/acts like someone from your current era and culture despite being from something completely different.

Now, before people start jumping all over me, yes it is possible to do this. When you do, it had better be a deliberate way to show up some absurdity of the current era/culture and not because you think that’s how everyone thinks and acts. Trust me, it’s not. The US is currently more or less based on individual and guilt – meaning that it’s wrong whether anyone sees you or not, and that responsibility as well as glory rests on the individual’s actions. There’s two spectrums there – every society lies somewhere between the extremes of group-based versus individual-based, and shame/face versus guilt. Most of them fall somewhere in the middle, recognizing some individual rights/responsibilities, and operating on a mix of guilt and shame. More to the point, the more ‘natural’ (as in, this is mostly how humanity has been throughout history) mode leans heavily towards group-based and shame/face. This isn’t meant to be a critique or condemnation – it’s more to point out that the modern US (and the rest of the Anglosphere) is something of an anomaly, historically, so there’s a pretty good chance that anything you write is going to have at least one group and face oriented character. And that person will think and act very differently than you do.

Right. So culture shapes thought. So does climate (ask any Aussie, including this one). So does geography. All of that goes towards who and what your main character is. If he’s never been outside space stations and space ships before, he’s likely to have a bad case of agoraphobia the first time he walks on a planetary surface. Someone from a desert could regard water with near-religious awe.

Now comes the fun part – when pantsers write, we tend to be very strongly inside our character’s point of view. When readers read, we tend to start from the assumption that this person is like us. If drawing the character isn’t done well, the result can be jarring to say the least. A really bad effort can see the book take a flying lesson – which isn’t a good idea if you’re reading on an ereader.

As usual, go to the resources that are there to help plotters build realistic characters, and read them for the information about presenting the character information to readers. The goal is to Heinlein it in, the same way you Heinlein setting. The second big resource is authors who are experts at this – Terry Pratchett (who, let’s face it, is an expert at just about everything), Sarah Hoyt, Dave Freer, Mercedes Lackey (to some extent – she certainly has that rare gift of making a whiny, unlikeable character sympathetic – it’s worth reading the Vanyel books just for that technique). I’m sure there are others – this is just a list that comes to mind right now (and since I’m perpetually semi-brain-dead and usually stealing time from something else when I write, research isn’t an option).

The goal you aim for is to have the character’s actions and responses drop information about their life and basic assumptions without an “As you know, Bob”. The character who reaches for a weapon when stressed or startled – and which weapon – tells you a lot about the kind of person they are and some about their technology and social status. Basically, the first reaction of someone who does a lot of fighting, either as a professional soldier or something less formal, is going to be to go for their weapon, and they’ll feel naked without it. The same kind of reaction applies to someone who’s paranoid, although they’ll usually be wanting to go for a concealed weapon.

One plotter way to figure out this kind of thing is to watch people. It’s easy to do: sit somewhere busy and just observe. Take note of the little unconscious gestures – these are the tells that will give away an emotional state someone doesn’t want to admit to. Some of them are universals, like blushing, clenched fists, flexing the fingers, clutching something and the like. Others are specific to the culture: Western Anglo-Saxon-based cultures view looking someone in the eye as an indicator of both trustworthyness and respect, where many Asian cultures consider it respectful to avoid a direct gaze. A lot of hand gestures are culture specific , too – although I’m not aware of anywhere that treats a nod as “no” and a headshake as “yes”. The US (and most of the West, plus by now most of everywhere else) regards the upraised middle finger as a defiant and crude way to tell someone to “go forth and multiply” as it were. Raising the index and middle fingers is seen in the US as a “Victory” sign. But in Australia, New Zealand, and the UK (and probably elsewhere), it’s only “V for victory” if the back of your hand faces you. The other way around, particularly if you move from horizontal to vertical, has more or less the same meaning as the middle finger. Then you’ve got the individual-level gestures. This person chews her hair when she’s nervous. That one jigs one leg. Someone else never stands still. These little things can be used for the equivalent of “stage business” to break up the he-said-she-said rhythm of dialog and show more about your characters.

And of course, the more you, the pantser, practice these techniques, the more you’ll find yourself doing them automatically. You’ll go to revise something and clean up your dialog and it will all be there, with the kind of revealing details that leave you wondering if the blasted thing started to write itself when you weren’t looking (It didn’t. Trust me on this. It’s just that pantsers get into a kind of writing trance where the words just happen, and they don’t necessarily remember writing them all. It’s the same reason you don’t always remember doing some routine task, even though you actually did do it. Your subconscious was driving.)

So, with all of this in mind, your hero needs to be a bit larger-than-life (just because we all know life as it is, and most of us prefer life-as-is to be kind of dull), more or less aimed in the correct direction, but most importantly, sympathetic. Readers will accept and even empathize with someone they’d normally smack for being a total loser if it’s done right, but let your hero kick a puppy and you’ve lost them forever. This is actually an issue in a number of really old books: most modern Western readers have grown up in a culture that regards it as a Very Bad Thing to harm the helpless, and human nature is such that cute and helpless gets a stronger reaction than ugly and helpless. Yes, you probably could justify your hero beating grandma, if she’s nasty enough. You’d never get past kicking a puppy or a kitten. Heck, you’d probably lose them there even if you were going for humor.

One thing I’ve noticed is that any character, no matter who or what they are, who goes out of their way to protect the helpless will be liked. I can — and have — written a character who is verging on psychopathic but who sticks to an absolute refusal to harm the innocent. People like reading about him (no, this isn’t published, yet).

On the flip side, it’s kind of passé to have your villain kick the cat to show how evil he is. Villainy in stories can be anything from standing in opposition to whatever your hero needs to absolute evil (which I have yet to see portrayed effectively, but that’s a different issue). If your villain has any interaction in the story – it’s possible to write one who doesn’t and is seen solely through the actions of underlings – then he, she, or it, needs to have similar kinds of characterization. Since many authors don’t like spending time inside the minds of their villains, that means external cues. Body language is always a good one: someone who is confident of their abilities will stand straight and often use a dominant pose. Gestures will be strong, and you won’t see a nervous twitch anywhere.

Another characterization tool is the choice of words. Someone who’s nervous will talk around a topic rather than getting to the point. Someone who’s in charge and – for illustration purposes – evil will give orders and expect them to be obeyed, instantly. After all, if you kill your underlings in horribly inventive ways because they don’t obey quickly enough, you would expect them to be in a hurry to do what you tell them. Tone can be conveyed through pure dialog, as well.

As for oopses – you start writing thinking Freddy is your hero, but he’s actually the villain of the piece, or vice versa – that’s what revision is for. If you find out you got it wrong and it switches on you partway through, keep writing and use a nice, easy to find way to flag where you have to change things around. I use [this] to flag out anything I need to correct, look up, or otherwise check on once I’ve finished the story. The square brackets don’t get used anywhere else in my writing, they don’t get lost or changed if I switch word processor, computer, or operating system (yes, I routinely do all three), so I can do a search for “[” and find everything I’ve marked along the way, and fix it all.

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