When I started thinking about writing this post I was torn between two topics: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and Conan the Barbarian not-the-story-but-the-movie. I’m not going to try and analyze the latter based off the former, as tempting as the ridiculousness of that is. I’m not, because I haven’t finished the movie. I was watching it as homework for a short I should be writing. I actually bought a DVD player (we had never needed one before as we don’t really consume film type media), and my dear First Reader and I cuddled on the couch (also a first, we tend to abandon the living room to the teens who take up every available square inch of flat space) and we turned on the flick. We expected cheesy, corny, all the tropes of B movies. What we didn’t expect was that about half-way through (Conan and his sidekick are about to find the temple of the two-headed snake) we’d get bored, really bored, and wander off to do something else. We’ll come back to it. It’s homework for me, after all. It’s just that, on that hierarchy of needs, it’s not even on the scale. Read more
Posts tagged ‘character development’
I drew a piece of art the other day meant to evoke emotions. It’s a pig (inside joke) riding a motorcycle up into the mountains. His labcoat flapping, he’s not got a care in the world, the lab left far behind him… The cartoon lives on the whiteboard outside my boss’s office, and it’s meant to inspire thoughts of summer and leaving work in the dust once we’re all headed home (and yes, he’s riding these warm summer days now). But as I stepped back to make sure I’d gotten proportions and such right, I was thinking about it in terms of writing, and making our writing appealing.
To grab our readers by the heartstrings, and give a gentle tug, is to keep them engaged with the story and wanting to know what happens next. We all have commonalities, from wanting to be outside rather than stuck in a windowless lab on a bright beautiful day, to saying AW! At the sight of a puppy or kitten. Stories that make us feel good are far more likely to have us returning to re-read them time and again than stories that made us feel grimy and gloomy. I was working on a list (always!) of books for girls, and I was noting that as with any list I curate, some of the titles are older than I am, but loved by generation after generation. Little Women, the Five Little Peppers, Black Beauty, and so many more. I loved all of them, and they among others were the ones Mom had us reading out loud to the family while I was growing up. But what is it about these tales we all connect with and love? Read more
It seems like a trite observation, but if you think about it, there’s a lot of truth to it, as there is with so many sayings we dismiss as ‘trite’ or ‘overused’ or ‘cliche.’ Think about it both in terms of storytelling as a writer, and in terms of business as a writer.
Remember Dumbo’s magic feather? There are a lot of things you can say about Disney, but one thing you can’t say negative – the man knew how to tell a story. That ‘magic’ feather gave the baby elephant the first successful flight, but once he had that success firmly grasped, he discovered he could succeed over and over without the ‘magical’ assistance. I know I’ve seen this same trope used in other stories, and we accept it to some extent, and why?
Because we know it works. Look, I used to get myself motivated on days when I didn’t just have a to-do list, I had a list of my lists. That gets daunting, fast, especially when some of those action items are small, wriggly, and fuss when they don’t get fed (and oh, by the way, feeding station is attached to me). Challenging, and there were days I felt like I just. Couldn’t. Even. So I’d play a game with myself. I’d pick something to lead off the list that I knew I could do. Even on the worst of days, I could do this one thing. Because I knew that if I did that one thing, I could do another, and another, and I wouldn’t go to bed at night feeling like I’d gotten absolutely nothing done that day. I knew from painful experience that waking up feeling like I was worthless and useless would only send me further and further down the rabbit-hole.
Reality is that we’re not always going to succeed. However, if we can succeed in a little thing, we can persist and build that into a big success. If we’re writing a space opera, the kid that succeeds in scraping a job on the spaceship, even as a cabin boy, can build that success to becoming captain, and then admiral, and then Master of the Universe!!! Muahahah… ahem.
You see how you can use a small success to build a story. It’s sort of the opposite of the try-fail sequence. Someone who is so low and broken, they can’t even afford a lime slurpee, how are they going to become the Beautiful But Evil Space Princess (sorry, Sarah, I couldn’t resist)? By succeeding in something. Maybe that first one is rehabilitating the Grand Dark Duke’s orphaned kitten with the broken leg. It takes a lot of work to hand-feed a kitten, I’ll have you know, and keeping one still with a broken leg? Wow… might seem silly, but you can play that for laughs and show the character’s determination and ability to persevere in the face of the near-impossible.
How about you as a writer? I know a lot of people who want to be a writer, and they have reams and reams of half-finished stories. So for them, that first success is going to look like finishing something. Even a piece of flash fiction. I started out thinking I couldn’t possibly write more than 5K words. Just couldn’t do it. Now? I know I can do that, and I can wrap up a 300K+ word trilogy with fans asking more, more? That’s a boost to my authorial ego, and it’s one I can use to build into another successful book finished. I started that out by finishing just one story. Getting just one story (a tiny one, only about 600 words long) published. Finding out I could succeed as an Indie author/publisher.
So how do you start succeeding? As an author, you can start writing every day – or at least on a schedule. Right now, with my full-time job taking a lot of my time and energy, I’ve been surprised to discover I can fit in writing time on the weekdays, but the weekend? Forgetaboutit. That’s family time and I just can’t pry loose the time and mental energy to put words on the screen (at least, not fiction). So pick what works with your schedule, if that’s every day, 5 days a week, 3 days… I wouldn’t go with less than three days. Treat it like exercise. Schedule it, and do it. Set small goals at first. If you fail, you’ll find it that much harder to succeed: but be persistent. Just like your hero has to face-plant a few times before you let him win, you’re going to go through the same cycle.
Once you have gotten that daily writing habit, work on finishing something. A story, then a novel – it’s a snowball that will eventually get out of your control, and then you start on other snowballs. Like publishing, and marketing, and so on and so forth. In time, if we follow that snowball’s trail, we’re finding you the Queen of Ice Fort reigning supreme over your snowy castle. Which is a successful independent publishing house, with residual income from backlist, and side-income of associate ads, and other stuff. Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t expect this to make me into a millionaire. I do expect it to be a profitable hobby until I’m ready to retire (again) and make it even more successful. Trust me, if I can do this, you can, too. I think I don’t need to get into my background again, but I will if I have to *waves fist* don’t say you can’t! I know better. You can. And if you can do the little thing, you can step up on it and do the bigger things.
Spring is springing, and my thoughts inevitably turn to gardens. I’m not planning on putting one in this year, instead I have assigned the design and creation of a garden to my daughter as a school project. I’ll give her guidance of course. But most of it is going to be up to her. I’ll give her the information she needs, but the execution of knowledge is more important than simply knowing something. It’s not possible in this era of information overload for her to know everything starting out. She has to learn by doing, making mistakes, and correcting course.
It has gotten me thinking, along with having written a garden onto a spaceship in my latest book, about gardening in general. But that’s not what I came here to talk about today. Rather, it’s a comment one of my alpha readers made while I was working on Tanager’s Fledglings and she was reading along.
I wrote a scene with the main character lamenting his limited potable water supply and how he’d have to wait on a long shower until he reached a station or planet. My alpha reader inserted a comment that it would be very simple to turn his shipboard garden into a giant water filter. I replied that “I know that, and you know that, and he doesn’t know that… Yet.”
It’s hard, as an author, to know all the things, but withhold that from the story until the time is right. In this case, my character has access to the information on how to build what he needs, but it’s never occurred to him to do it that way. It will take an outside influence in the form of another character for him to have that forehead slapping d’uh! Moment.
Because life is like that. To create a believable character, you can’t have them knowing everything. We all have those sudden eureka moments as we figure something out, usually something that should have been blindingly obvious to us in the first place. Now, you don’t want your character to be an idiot about it, either. As I said, it’s hard.
Sometimes we just have to figure things out the hard way. For instance, every writer is different. Some need a secluded room in the house, no interruptions, just a blank desk, a pencil, and a piece of paper. That would drive me nuts, and I know it. So when we moved, a few months back, I set up my big desk and main computer in the common household area. I thought the background noise of kids and the dog playing, easy access to the kitchen while I was cooking, that would help me work.
It turned out I was wrong. I’ve done my best, most prolific days at a table in my bedroom, typing on my laptop, with the door firmly closed between me and my family. I can still hear them, but they aren’t tapping me on the shoulder, wanting to play on my computer, and so forth. This does have some serious drawbacks. It means that I can’t hear the oven timer, and the kids can’t access me instantly which makes them pout.
On the other hand, it’s possible the next book will insist on a different layout. But I don’t think so. I just need to get into the groove. I’ve been cultivating words, researching, thinking about character motivation, trying to decide what’s the overall arc of this book, within the series it is set in… Just like a garden, it’s all about the soil. Build up a great soil, full of rich humus and a bit of sand for drainage…
Which brings me back to the gardens on a ship. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a ripe tomato warm from the sun, or the first strawberry of spring, will wonder about the quality of such raised in space, with no sun, and possibly no soil. Does that gardener know what they are missing? They may know in theory that microbes in the soil contribute far more to successfully gardening than we realize, now (but are starting to learn). They might even have the technology to inoculate their soil with a suite of beneficial microbes, fungus, and invertebrates. But just like in the human body, under the right circumstances those benefits can become opportunistic pathogens, and wreak havoc.
Why yes, I am planning a story where gardening gone awry threatens life itself…
I recently finished a book. It was a feeling of great relief, since I had begun to wonder if I would ever finish it. I’m still a relatively new writer, and I was slowly convincing myself that the other books had been a fluke. I couldn’t do this, I wasn’t a real writer… It took me two years to finish this book, when it had taken me at most six months to complete one before. It’s probably understandable that it made me feel like a failure, looking back, but while I was in it I lacked the perspective.
It was a learning process. I learned that I could keep writing after life-changing interruptions. I learned that I could hold a story in my head for that long. As a pantser, I didn’t think that was possible. Sometimes in this process I would put my head on the keyboard and wonder why I was bothering with this hot mess. As a result, I wound up with not one, but three alpha readers. The First Reader, who had come up with the original story idea, was too close to it. The others helped me regain confidence in the story which let me finish it. I couldn’t have done this without their encouragement.
The story went off to beta readers a week ago, and reader reports have been trickling back in. To my relief, they are all positive, with small problems that can readily be repaired. The story isn’t broken.
It would have been easy for me to break the story. Erratic pacing, that left readers bored or confused in turns. Pacing problems would have required major manuscript surgery – not fun when you are dealing with more than 100k words. I had been worried that would be a problem so I had written it in chapters, not my usual procedure. This enabled me to look back and plot the arcs when I returned from an interruption and then have a better feeling for where I was.
Uneven development of character was another concern, as the story pivots around a young man who must grow into his role. Just like in real life, I wanted to show him try, slip up, and finally come to a place where his confidence was not self-concious. Characters are easy to make succeed. You’re the author, you have omnipotence in the book. Forcing it, though, leads to unbelievable characters who are too good to be true – or whiny useless characters in roles that leave you wondering how they got there, much less were kept in it.
Finally, and the place where I do have work ahead of me… Foreshadowing. Years ago, when I was a dewy-eyed writer, I sent my baby manuscript, my first book, off to my mentors. In return I got a coconut off the noggin. I knew it was delivered in love, so I just rubbed the knot on my head, made a coconut cream pie, and went back over the book. My foreshadowing did suck, and being told that by a man who is superb at it didn’t hurt (much). I’ve got a pretty thick skin. This book (which I wouldn’t bother the coconut-thrower with, his life is even busier than mine in the decade that has passed) took two years to grow from planned short story for an anthology that died, into a planned series. I literally had no idea, when I wrote the first scene, where it was going. Or I was.
Now, I have to go back and weave in hints of what is to come, but not big whopping clues. I have to decide if I will include part or the whole of Jade Star, which takes place in this same universe, and is a story told to my main character in the book I’ve just finished. I have to be sure there are loose ends to tie on the next book to the events of this one, but not so many the reader is left unsatisfied. Just writing the end doesn’t mean you’re finished!
But in the meantime, there are interruptions. Real life intrudes. I have begun working on the next books, or rather one insistent story and three novels. I can’t write all of them at once, I’m simply waiting for the dominant story to come to the forefront and writing on them in turn until then. To facilitate, I’m reading for research. This book can’t take me two years to finish. It just can’t, because I don’t think I could go through that again. I need to write.
There are many ways to create conflict in a story. In life, we tend to avoid conflict as much as possible, if we aren’t looking for trouble with a chip on our shoulder. But as an author, we know that if our story is to be interesting, stuff has to happen. A story in which there is no conflict is not a story. Yes, I know someone can likely name a book in which there is no conflict, but I stand by my assertion – I wouldn’t want to read it!
Now, the conflict doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t start out with “and then, she had to save the universe.” No, you reach that through the gentle art of escalation. My common shorthand for plotting is ‘chase your hero up a tree, and then throw rocks at him.’ Being me, I also let him figure out how to get back down and save the day, but I’m not a horror or Literary writer.
I had a classic case happen in my life yesterday, which led me to thinking about this, as I’m also working on scaling up the final conflict and climax in my work in progress. Picture this: our character has a job interview. And a dinner party later in the day, which she is hostessing. No problem, there is plenty of time for both. She can’t find her suit slacks, as her daughter’s wear the same size she does, but again, rolling with it and heading out the door. Finding the location of the building, buzzing in and obtaining a badge, goes smooth. Eventually someone comes out to greet her, our character remembers her name, follows her around the corner and…
Into a room where two other people are sitting. Unprepared for a committee interview, this is the first step in escalation. They sit, she sits, and looks down at the table. There’s a sheet with a familiar math problem on it. The first step of the interview is for our character to do math, with three strangers staring. She chokes.
Escalation is intended to put our hero in a book into positions where he can dig himself a hole, and try to get back out of it. The classic try-fail sequence is usually repeated in three’s, allowing for the final triumph to have that much more impact as he finally learns, grows a strength he didn’t know he had, and wins the day.
The math? Well, telling funny stories, getting it about half right even without a scientific calculator to use (classic double take and lifted eyebrow made the whole team bust up) and going on to geek out the quiet member of the team talking instrumentation and accuracy may have won the day. It certainly made our example of escalation feel better on leaving the building.
Giving the character in our book the false feeling of confidence is a great way to set up a secondary conflict, as he trips gaily along the path to home and dinner, having escaped the tree with the rock-thrower (who probably got bored and wandered off), and steps right into a pit in the middle of the path. Oh, Hero! Why don’t you look where you are going?
Real life? Leave the interview feeling like it was good in the end, run through the grocery, get home, pull into the driveway… And get a phone call. It’s a recruiter for a different job, could you please email me… Cooking, emails, phone calls. Dear sweet fuzzy Lord above, why the he*% am I getting four calls from different recruiters about the same job in one hour?!
A great way to escalate conflict in a book is to make one conflict into two, oh, wait no, it’s three now… Suddenly our hero is juggling a fall into a pit, the previous occupant being a hungry tiger, and his wife is home in their boma slapping a cooking pot against her palm suggestively while food is getting cold.
And then, in the real world, just when you have the bread sticks final rising, the phone rings again. It’s the first recruiter. Do you have time for a short phone interview? Oh, sure, why not, company isn’t due until 7 and it’s not 5 yet. As our character is hanging up the phone and printing out paperwork, there’s a knock…
Our hero in the tiger pit has to claw, bite, and scratch his own way out. If that is through a superhuman burst of strength and ability due to his love and respect for the woman tapping her toe impatiently next to her ruined dinner, all well and good. But having someone else happen along and scoop him out is never a satisfactory ending. The cake has to be real, not a phantom lure which vaporized when your reader reaches it.
The dinner was good, the cake was real, and our hero was forgiven when he arrived with a new tigerskin rug.
Go see how you can practice the gentle art of escalation in your stories. Remember, dropping a mountain on your hero right out of the box just breaks the poor unsuspecting souls. Build up to it, and you’ll have something worth reading.
The last couple of weeks have been busy. There’s been the writing and the editing. There’s been family stuff and medical stuff. There has also been a lot of reading, most of which was for entertainment. There has also been recharging of the creative part of my mind — as well as beating my muse into something that, at least on the surface, looks like compliance.
It is the reading for enjoyment that sparked today’s post.
Last week, with my muse demanding I put aside the current wip to make some fairly detailed plot notes for something that hit me out of nowhere, I stepped back some and read. Over the course of two and a half days, I read eight or nine novels. One of them, Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge by Correia and Ringo, kept me up much too late. It was a fun read and shows what happens when two talented authors who care more about story than some artificial checklist. They created a story I want to continue, characters I loved reading about and left me smiling and laughing. Oh, and there are guns and things that go boom!
I also read a multi-book series by another author and found myself scratching my head and then shaking my head and, finally, realizing that I needed to finish reading the series not because I was enjoying it but because it showed how not to do something. In other words, it became a lesson in character development or, perhaps, un-development.
Let’s face it, if our readers don’t have a reason to care about our characters, it doesn’t matter how beautiful our prose happens to be. They don’t have to love the characters but they have to feel something for them. It can be hate. It can be fear. But they have to connect with them. If they don’t, and if you are writing genre fiction, you won’t keep those readers for long. More importantly, they will remember they didn’t connect with your characters the next time they see one of your books and possibly pass on it.
What happened with this particular series is the author started off creating characters who were engaging, competent and flawed. In other words, they were human. They had their strengths and their weaknesses. They had hopes and fears. They were, in other words, interesting.
In this particular case, the books could be classified as modern fantasy or romantic fantasies. Each book had male and female main characters. There was a common set of characters between the books with the leads being supporting characters in one book and then the leads in the next. When done properly, that makes for a strong series, not only for the reader but for the writer as well. For the reader, you have that sense of family. You already know and are invested in the characters. You want to know what happens to them, not only in the book where they are the leads but in the other books as well.
As a writer, if done properly, it means you don’t have to worry about making sure readers are reminded of the backstory in each book. Each book can stand on its own but you have characters that are, even as supporting characters, fully developed and who can hook new readers into going back and reader the earlier books. But done poorly it can cost you not only new readers but those who have been fans of the series.
In this case, it was done badly. After the third book, it felt as if the author was doing nothing more than retreading the worst parts of the plots of not only their first three books but also of every bad romance out there. This isn’t anything new, especially not in the romance genre. I could name any number of best selling authors in the genre and books where all they’ve done is change the names and locations and then dropped in the same plot used in other books they’ve written.
But, in this particular case, it was worse because the author broke the characters and not in a way where they were going to grow stronger or anything else in the process.
You can, as an author, break your characters. You can put them into situations that will be more than they can handle, or close to it. It will scar them, perhaps physically or maybe psychologically. If you do it properly, you will then show them digging their way out of whatever sort of hell you have put them through. They will relapse and they will be fragile. They will have temper tantrums and want to run away. But they will struggle, often with the help of a lover or a friend, to overcome. The person they are at the end of it is someone who has learned from what happened and who has, in one way or another, grown.
But when you begin a story, or a series, and your characters are strong, self-sufficient and willing and able to stand on their own, you don’t take all that away from them without cause.
Now, I am not one of these women who are going to get all up in arms because a man saves a woman in a story — at least not if it makes sense that he does so. But I will get perturbed if a woman goes from being able to stand on her own two feet to standing back and smiling and waiting patiently as her man goes off and does what she would have a book or two earlier, especially if there is no reason for her to do so. What changed? What took her from the take charge and stand shoulder-to-shoulder with her man to waiting at home to find out if he lived or died?
I swear, in this series, even the strongest — and I don’t mean physically — of the women turned into someone who sat back and waited for the macho men to do their thing. Hell, I expected the guys to start beating their chests and the women to have the vapors. With each book that passed, the women became more helpless and the men more of a macho stereotype.
And it was all for no reason. If the author had kept with the tenor set in the first book, the women would have been partners with the men. Not all of them would have necessarily stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their man as he went striding into danger but she also wouldn’t have been waiting at home, passive and weak. They would have done something that fit their particular talents.
What happened instead was the books turned into stories about the guys banding together and the women banding together and then sex scenes. Oh, and if you have a woman who has been beaten and raped and violated in other ways, know what the psychological wounds might be before you have her jumping into bed with the macho mountain man. That almost sent my kindle flying across the room.
In other words, just as the rules of your world have to make sense and if you break those rules, you need to have laid the groundwork for it or your readers will lose faith in you, you have to do the same with your characters. You will lose readers if you break the mold you cast your characters from without giving a reasonable explanation. Not every character has to be strong and capable. But, if you have a character who starts out that way and who proves himself or herself during one book, don’t make them all but incapable of helping discuss tactics or standing up for themselves in the next — unless you give a reason for it and that reason had damned well better make sense.
The overall impression I got as I read the series was that the author had gotten tired of it and of the characters. By the end, it felt as if the books were being written on autopilot. If an author doesn’t care about the characters or plot, the readers most likely won’t either. No one wins then. To be honest, the only reasons I kept reading after the fourth book was because I wanted to see if the author managed to right the course and because the author was very good at developing the third layer of characters — the shopkeepers and neighbors, etc. — and setting.
Just as it becomes boring to read a series where the main character is either a Mary Sue or someone so perfect he or she can make no mistakes, it becomes frustrating to see characters you came to care about turning into something that is nothing more than a pale shadow of what they were. As authors, we need to keep that in mind, just as we need to remember that if the writing feels like it is becoming rote, we need to step back and take a long hard look at our work and decide what has gone wrong. Yes, wrong because that sort of writing rarely has emotion in it and genre fiction demands emotion, whether it is fear or that sense of soaring to the stars. We have to engage with our words. If we don’t, we will lose the reader.
And now for some self-promo:
Now that my muse has been satisfied regarding the new plot it infected me with, I am back toworking on Dagger of Elanna, the sequel to Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).
War is coming. The peace and security of the Ardean Imperium is threatened from within and without. The members of the Order of Arelion are sworn to protect the Imperium and enforce the Codes. But the enemy operates in the shadows, corrupting where it can and killing when that fails.
Fallon Mevarel, knight of the Order of Arelion, carried information vital to prevent civil war from breaking out. Cait was nothing, or so she had been told. She was property, to be used and abused until her owner tired of her. What neither Cait nor Fallon knew was that the gods had plans for her, plans that required Fallon to delay his mission.
Plans within plans, plots put in motion long ago, all converge on Cait. She may be destined for greatness, but only if she can stay alive long enough.
Like all my other books, Sword is available for purchase or for download through the Kindle Unlimited program.