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Posts tagged ‘characters’


I’ve had a series of conversations I took part in this week, and in them answered, or helped answer, some questions that I thought applicable enough to repeat them here. Writing, publishing, cover art… it’s all fodder for the blog, right?

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who is also a writer (at some point I need to sit down and tot up how many of those I have) and we were talking about world building. He was telling me he was going to make me blush, because he’d been talking to his wife about my work and they concluded that I build my world around my characters while he writes a world and then peoples it. Both work, he pointed out. I sat back and pondered on this. He’s a long-time gamer, and furthermore, the DM for his group.

A DM, Sanford tells me, runs the game. He sets up the situation and determines whether the actions of the players are successful and what the reactions of the encounters are. I can certainly see how this would translate very well into storytelling. Probably with a lot more control over his characters than I can possibly have. I’m a pantser. I fly through my worlds by the seat of my pants, no IFR available. For the non-plane types in the audience, that means Instrument Flight Rules, opposed to Visual Flight Rules, and it applies rather well to my style of writing.

I can’t outline very much. I can do a little, rough out the framework of the terrain that lies ahead of my characters. But most of the time I am writing what I ‘see’ and hear in my head. This can be a challenge if I have a character who isn’t talking to me for some reason. And yes, my worlds do revolve around the perceptions of my characters. I have a tendency to not know more about the world my character lives in than they do – since I write largely SF and fantasy where I’m making up the worlds.

The question was posed in one of the groups I belong to on facebook, “Do authors here have author-blogs or websites? How essential do you think it is for a newbie to get their own site early (before publishing)? Also for those of you who have established sites, could I get a link to check them out?” I’ve written at length here on the Mad Genius Club about the way I blog, and my motivations behind it. Some of that is formed by a conversation I had with Peter Grant when we first met at LibertyCon 25. He was telling me that he’d blogged for a few years (I can’t recall the exact number, 3-4 years I think) before releasing his first book to build a large fanbase of people who wanted it. I think that’s an excellent idea, but it’s predicated on a couple of things. First, Peter was giving his readers good content. The blog he runs, Bayou Renaissance Man, is very interesting to follow as he dances from gun geeking to social commentary to just plain funny stuff. It is rarely on ‘writing and publishing’ and the few posts I can remember seeing on those, he admitted up-front that it was inside baseball and possibly not of interest to his readers. Because here’s the thing. We’re fascinated by all topics connected to writing and reading. We’re writers, after all, or working on it. That’s why we come to the MGC (that, and the sparkling wit and scintillating commentary). Ahem…)

However, unless you are marketing to writers, filling your blog up with posts about writing is not going to build a terribly big fanbase. I modeled my current blog schedule (and went to a daily post soon after talking to Peter, although it wasn’t consciously connected)  on this thought: building a broad base of people who come to my site to get interesting material. I give them value for their time, and in return, they have a trust relationship with me that means they are far more likely to lay some money down and take a chance on my writing. I blog on writing once a week, and vary it enough that I hope it’s not boring. I also blog on food, art, social stuff, and random bits that catch my attention as they flutter by (shiny! and if you doubt that, take a look at the list of topics on a day I do link round-up based on my open browser tabs! LOL) with the occasional book snippeting thrown in for good measure.

I’m a big fan of what I jokingly term the Jim Baen school of marketing: the first hit’s free. By snippeting the first quarter of the book, I should have hooked (or I need to hang up my author hat in disgrace) the reader well enough that on release day they are waving green folding stuff at me. But just snippets won’t bring the readers in, either. So, all the other stuff that I blog on does serve a purpose. The acronym WIBBOW, would I be better off writing? is yes. Blogging is writing. It’s just not paid writing, in a direct sense. Do you have to blog? No, you don’t. It will make building and maintaining a fanbase a little more challenging, but it can be done and blogging regularly isn’t for everyone.

Speaking of which, I have paying work to go do. So I’d better get my gear tidy and head out there… I will be back this afternoon to check on you all in the comments, so keep the sparkling and scintillating down, you hear? I don’t want to find this blog had burned down when I was out.

Don’t break canon without good reason

You know, it really isn’t fair that I have to follow Dave on this blog. That’s especially true after his post yesterday. If you haven’t read the post yet, go do so now. He gives the best response to the Hatchette “response” to Amazon’s letter that I’ve seen. That’s all I’m going to say on the Amazon/Hatchette subject today except for this: the double standard of the Amazon haters applauding authors like Patterson for their ad asking readers to email Amazon to say how evil they think Amazon is while at the same time condemning Amazon for asking its customers and KDP authors to email Hatchette boggles my mind. And that, for now at least, is all I’m going to say on the matter.

I have been in a dry spell for finding blog topics recently, especially ones that don’t include the words Amazon, Hatchette, Hugos or LonCon. The latter two mainly because I figure there will be lots of fodder after the Hugos are announced. Today is no different — sort of. It would be very easy to turn this post into one about the loss of Robin Williams. Whether you liked him or not, I doubt any of us can deny that his was a talent that spanned the years and proved that comics could also be great dramatic actors. Unfortunately, anything I were to write here would eventually lead to a discussion of his demons and there would be someone to blame him for taking his life — yes, I’ve already started seeing those posts on social media — and you guys really don’t need to see what my response that that sort of crap would be.

Aaaaaand, just as I was about to type “so I’m going to do a promotions post today”, I checked FB one last time and am now having to clean brain matter off the walls because my head exploded. The SJWs and GHHers have done it again. Let me get another mug of coffee and I’ll explain.

Back. Now gather around children and listen closely. Characters can be anything you want them to be. They can be pink or purple, black or white, gay or straight or bi or whatever. But what they are has to make sense within the confines of your story and, if you are writing in a “universe” that has a canon, you’d better not break canon without setting the groundwork and there being a pretty darned good reason for it.

Consider this, a letter from a fan to a writer in the Star Trek Universe who states he will never again read anything from this particular author because of a break in canon by the author. While the reader didn’t approve of the homosexual affair written into the book, that wasn’t what brought such a firm stance from him. No, it was the fact that the affair was between a Vulcan and a Klingon spy.

Read that again and you don’t even have to add the word homosexual. The important part was that there was an affair between a Vulcan and a Klingon spy. Heck an affair with anyone would have been against canon. As the reader stated, it simply wasn’t logical. Logic is the driving force with Vulcan’s and, unless the Vulcan was in the midst of the mating drive, would she be having an affair with anyone, much less a Klingon, the hereditary enemy of Vulcan?

The author’s response was not to explain how the affair was justified by the plot — so I have to assume that it wasn’t — or how it was allowed by canon. Nope, not at all. Instead he blogs about how there must be diversity in science fiction and how proud he is to be pushing forward in bringing such diverse characters to SF, and the Star Trek universe in particular. In fact, the closest he comes to trying to justify such a character arc is to quote Spock from one of the movies: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

All the author seems concerned with is the fact that the reader was closed-minded in his beliefs and the fact that he, the author, was so very proud of how he wrote the character and how she grew during the story. Now, I’m the first to say it always feels good as a writer to see your characters evolve during a story. But to put that ahead of the story, and story canon, can be disastrous.

Now, I know you guys are going to note that I haven’t linked to the post in question. I haven’t and I won’t. For those of you curious enough, I’ve given more than enough detail to let you find it through a quick search. But I frankly have no desire to send any more traffic to this person’s blog than necessary. To me, the response to the read email epitomizes the stance of the SJW/GHH crowd. To them, the message is more important than the story and to hell with what the readers want. In this case, the author broke canon, or at least appears to have and I’ve seen nothing in his response to tell me otherwise. That will lose more readers than the fact he wrote homosexual characters.

So here’s my two cents’ worth. Write the character that needs to be written for the story. But don’t make a character into whatever the current “character class du jour” might be just so you have a “diverse” cast of characters and stories. If you force the diversity, there will be a feeling of artificiality to it. Your reader will see it and that will detract from your story. Is that what you really want to happen and all for the sake of being politically correct?

And, for the record, unless there is a really good backstory explaining it, there’s no way I’d buy a Vulcan and a Klingon having an affair — gay, straight or otherwise.


Now for the obligatory self-promotion.

Nocturnal Origins (Nocturnal Lives Book 1)

nocturnaloriginscoverSome things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knows that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.It doesn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believe a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. Mac knows better. It hadn’t been a miracle, at least not a holy one. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the day the dogs of Hell came for her.

Investigating one of the most horrendous murders in recent Dallas history, Mac also has to break in a new partner and deal with nosy reporters who follow her every move and who publish confidential details of the investigation without a qualm.

Complicating matters even more, Mac learns the truth about her family and herself, a truth that forces her to deal with the monster within, as well as those on the outside.But none of this matters as much as discovering the identity of the murderer before he can kill again.

HuntedHunted (Hunter’s Moon Book 1)
written under pen name Ellie Ferguson

When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what.

Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?

coverforvfaVengeance from Ashes (Honor and Duty)
written under the pen name of Sam Schall

First, they took away her command. Then they took away her freedom. But they couldn’t take away her duty and honor. Now they want her back.

Captain Ashlyn Shaw has survived two years in a brutal military prison. Now those who betrayed her are offering the chance for freedom. All she has to do is trust them not to betray her and her people again. If she can do that, and if she can survive the war that looms on the horizon, she can reclaim her life and get the vengeance she’s dreamed of for so long.

But only if she can forget the betrayal and do her duty.



A Fresh Look

Cedar here: I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with school and work this week, so when Sanford emailed me this I was delighted. Not just because it meant less work for me, but because we talk all the time, and this has been a topic recently. When is it time to stop? Do you leave them wanting more? I mean, personally I love series and following characters as they grow and age, even when it leads to tears as it did with the Vorkosigan series. Sanford has been reading both the Monster Hunter series by Larry Correia and Butcher’s Dresden series in parallel, recently, which led to lively discussions about series. But he has a good point about the Big Bad in the series getting too big, and the Hero becoming invincible, and the series jumps the shark… Although I want to see this scene: Franks fighting the creatures in the picture, standing knee-deep in the surf! The MHI series could literally jump sharks and it would work. 

Raptor shark laser

I wonder what the PUFF on this is?

Hi, Cedar is a bit busy with school, etc. this week, so I’m pinch hitting today. I’m Sanford and you’ve probably seen me around here on occasion. 🙂

I’m not a writer but I am a reader so I can discuss things pretty well. What I want to talk about this week is keeping a series fresh.

I’m old enough to remember the Destroyer series about Remo Williams, government hit man. There were about 3 decent novels in that series, after that it got ridiculous. I think most of the rest (around 150) were written for… well I’m not sure why anyone would read them. You have seen series jump the shark, most of you know the Xanth series which even the author admitted he was phoning in after a while.

So, how do you keep your stuff from getting that bad? OK first things first, if you can sell books that bad go ahead, cry all the way to the bank and write good stuff in your spare time. That’s exactly what Anthony did. I’d do it too. Problem is that most of us have no chance of developing such a cult following. So we need to figure out how to balance our fans requests for more against the dreck we will eventually be churning out. Better yet, let’s avoid getting to the dreck stage.

Again the question is how? Well there are several ways to do this that I’ve seen. The simplest and best in my opinion was the way Heinlein did it. He didn’t write a series so much as use a loose universe that he could write almost anything in. The major drawback to this is that it pretty much ignores doing a run of novels about the same character(s). Cedar has three Pixie For Hire novels planned starring the same characters Lom and Bella. She doesn’t plan to write any more Bela and Lom stories after the third comes out. We are looking at doing more stories set in the same world/time frame but focusing on other characters (Cedar: well, he really wants me to write Alger’s story, for instance… LOL). This is more or less the Heinlein model but, those wanting more Lom and Bella will be terribly disappointed. Note, we have discussed a series of x short stories filling in all of Lom’s background, selling them as collections as we get enough.

The next way is to do stand alone books or duologies or trilogies and introducing the stars of the next book/duology/trilogy in the book/last book. This way the reader doesn’t realize you having been doing the old bait and switch because the old favorites are still there, just faded into the background. This is somewhat unsatisfying because it is the old bait and switch. It can be very successful though, I would love to see John Ringo do a series based around Portena the armorer from his March series.

I saved the hard one for last because it is hard. Jim Butcher is writing the Dresden Files series. There are 20-25 books planned in the series and he has outlined the entire series from the beginning. This way he can pace the characters and not have his mage become all powerful too soon. Larry Correia has apparently done something similar with the Monster Hunter series, which is why he can foreshadow 4 books in advance. Most of us are going to have trouble looking that far forward. I admire them but would hesitate to attempt emulating them.

Those are the ways I see to do it. Any of you have any decent ideas how to keep series fresh? One of the neatest things about this blog is that the bloggers can learn as much from the commenters as the readers get from the blogs.

Remember not the sins of my youth

I’m busy trying to frantically finish the current Heirs book which takes the future of some of the slightly lesser characters from the earlier books and builds on them. And of course the characters I have built in those more-than-a-million odd words. It’s really too long in a universe, for this author anyway.

It does however have some interesting challenges – because you are building on and shaping around the sins of youth (and sometimes the a little later)

One of the central characters in this book is Count Mindaug – the scholarly assistant to Jagellion in THIS ROUGH MAGIC and to Elizabeth Bartholdy in MUCH FALL OF BLOOD.
In both cases he plotted their downfall, while apparently ‘helping’ them.

Mindaug is a fascinating character to write, because he is… not a good man. He’s very much a product of his dog-eat-dog environment. He’s a schemer and a scholar, a man of considerable cleverness, and survival instinct. He is not a warrior, but he will murder most warriors. Calmly and with a knife in the back, before they know that the not particularly large, elderly and academic seeming man is anything but an object of disdain. He’s the product of a self-centered nobility, a stranger to any kindness, closeness or trust even from his parents and has spent his life expecting, and pre-empting the worst with callous efficiency. He had, in fact, done the West two enormous services – not for ideology or goodness, but for his own ends. He’s, as I said, not a good man.

He’s fled to the West, knowing Chernobog now seeks him in the ethereal, he faked his death and has magically, gone to ground, living as an ordinary man. A selfish, self-centered one, focused only on his own survival… and now finding himself in a society and among people who are as unlike his native Lithuania under Jagellion/Chernobog as possible.

A place where he can sleep deeply and easily without setting death-traps. He had not done that since he was a very small boy. A place where his outright evil attempts to abuse people fail… because they’re actually not trying to rob or kill him. A place where he suddenly meets loyalty, and shared interest.

I find him to be rather like those soviet KGB defectors (who had as part of the KGB done terrible wrongs against their fellows and quite possibly the people of the countries the sought refuge in)– some of whom became truly passionate about America, more so by far than those who had known freedom from that intrusive, all pervasive tyranny. Or those SS men – some who had been monsters reveling in the power and brutality, and others… young men too weak and caught up (ask me about this, I was a conscript soldier in a war I wanted no part in. I committed no war crimes, saved a few lives, but I could still be considered by some to have been one of the oppressors. And had I been less fortunate, slightly weaker and easier to lead, or in a worse place… I might have done murderous cruel things there – which were no less brutal than those done our enemies. I can’t easily point fingers at those who did). Men who ended up fleeing to far countries, fitting in quietly there, and often being – or showing –no shade of their former selves.

But does the past ever leave them?

Making it Fly

Everyone here has read something that just plods along and doesn’t seem to go anywhere or do anything. The ‘fortunate’ among us have read pieces that should be exciting – they should be riveting, edge-of-the-seat reading – but they’re not. They trudge.

I’ve certainly gone “What?” when I see these – they’re plentiful in fanfiction, mostly because fanfic contains everything from the sublime to the gor-blimey as it were, and in typical fashion, the vast majority of leans to the latter (yes, the same applies to traditionally published items as well as self-published and small and independent presses). Since I’ve been on something of an Overlord fanfic binge lately, that’s where I’ve been seeing the range of interesting.

I’m not going to claim I never committed this particular sin, either. I can guarantee I have. What matters is why it happens and how to fix it.

Part the first of course is why it happens. This, believe it or not, is the easy bit. It’s not pacing. It’s not how big the stakes are (unless you’re talking vampire-killing phallic symbols, in which case there’s no hope and you might as well go to the sparkly side where they’re really pervy). It’s whether the piece gives you a reason to care what happens.

Simple, right?


For starters, one person’s drag-you-in-and-sink-claws-into-your-heart exciting is someone else’s ho-hum (of course, if everyone falls asleep when you hand them your precious to read, you have a problem). You’re never going to catch everyone, even if you’re baiting the hook with gold.

Then there’s the simple fact that it’s not easy to write anything that appeals to other people. The usual flaws I see in fanfic are either too much of the wrong information, or not enough of any information.

Not enough of anything usually happens first – all writers start out rather fuzzy on the notion of what to put in there and usually what ends up on the page is like the Cliff’s Notes version of what’s in their heads (and let’s face it, that’s not exactly exciting). This is when the epic, world-changing (and sometimes world-destroying) battle is over in half a page, most of it antiseptic overview. Yes, I have done this, and no, you can’t see it. I’m pretty certain I euthanized most of that a long time ago, and I’m not chasing through my archival files to find what survived.

The next phase usually ends up being too much of the wrong information. Here, that epic, world-changing battle would be wrapped in the best part of a chapter on the finer details of everyone’s armor, including what color it was. Yes, I’ve done this too. A slight variation would include all the technical specs of said armor, and of all the assorted weaponry in use. You know, so-and-so had a chestplate of unobtainium with gold filigree, and an unobtainium sword, and his bodyguards all had compound bows with fifty arrows apiece and and and and…. You get the idea. (Yes. Guilty. Everyone does it, okay. Shush.)

The thing that gets missed, at least until the writer matures a bit (which does not mean ‘gets older’, by the way) is what makes this battle so epic for the characters. If it’s your lead character’s last stand against the Big Bad, we know the stakes. If you’ve given us reason enough to care for the lead even a little bit, we’re going to be interested in what happens.

The Big Bad needs to have a stake, too. The epic last stand against the all-powerful Evil doesn’t work too well when the all-powerful Evil can just wave a hand and wipe out the other side (you do that battle at the start, to establish how difficult it’s going to be to take down the Big Bad).

The Overlord games do this part remarkably well. In Overlord (the original), the protagonist is facing a much more powerful wizard who not only set him up to fail from the start, he’s by implication going to steal the protagonist’s body and everything the player’s spent the game building. In the expansion, Raising Hell, the protagonist can’t even fight the Big Bad directly – and the Big Bad is a God who’s planning to kill the protagonist so he can finally escape the Overlord universe’s version of Hell (where his former wife – yes, a Goddess – banished him after she caught him playing a bit more than footsie with one of his worshipers). In Overlord 2, it’s win or be annihilated along with everything else with any kind of magic. Within the frame of the game world, they’re epic battles with massive stakes for the player character.

In written fiction, of course, you don’t have the easy visual cues or the immersiveness of a game world. We’re primarily visual critters, biologically speaking, with hearing taking second place. A game that has involving visuals and good sound will give the illusion that you’re there and effectively remove the externals of manipulating the game controls. In a book, the externals that go away are the awareness of words on the page and turning said pages, whether you’re holding a physical book or reading with a computer, ebook reader, smartphone, or whatever. Writers do have to work a bit harder to make this happen because we don’t have the quick and easy shortcut of graphics on a screen.

So what do we do? My primary tool is close and focused point of view. If I want my readers on the edge of their seats and crossing their legs rather than put that book down to take a much-needed bathroom break, I work from so deep into the character’s perspective that I’m not showing anything they didn’t see, hear, or otherwise notice. Then I drop that character so deep into the brown material meeting rotating blades that they don’t have room for anything except action and reaction. They’re moving, they’re responding to everything around them, but it’s all very choppy and disconnected, and they don’t think about anything because they’re too busy just staying alive.

Then I hurt the character. I drive them into pure reflex by throwing impossible odds at them and letting them almost fail before they find the key to survival (which can be as simple as pure pig-headed stubborn). For an example of it done perfectly, I’d suggest the Koom Valley sequence of Thud!, or the river sequence in Snuff (Yes, of course I’m citing Pratchett). If Pratchett isn’t your thing, look at the chase from Flinders Island in Dave’s Cuttlefish.

Sarah’s technique is a little different – she tends to have a two-pronged climax, with the inner one being the more action-oriented and the outer being more of a psychological thing – but the psychological/emotional sequence is the one that resolves the underlying danger. I’m not good enough to swing something like that, so I don’t even try.

If there’s more than one character involved, put them all at the same level of risk, and drive them all to their limits. And focus on what’s going on on the inside. It’s much more satisfying to everyone when your hero overcomes having assorted important bits broken, cut off, bleeding or crushed and wins on pig-headed can’t be having with that. Then passes out. Describe the pain. Use short words (trust me, short words really do make a piece feel like it’s moving fast), short sentences, and short paragraphs. Save the lyrical descriptions for when the hero romances the love interest, or when you’re taking a break to admire the scenery.

And don’t be afraid to get a bit purply or overdone. Half the time what you think is excessive isn’t going to register with most readers, and the rest… well, that’s what betas and editing are for.