Holding Pattern

>> Sunday, February 28, 2010

On the last post, many commented on the fact they also include a waiting period from the time they stop writing to the time they start revising.

I could not agree more.

Too many times, I've seen writers far more interested in "getting published" than in doing great work. They have their friends look it over, make changes on the fly, and send it out the following day. OK, you can do that if you've got someone looking for typos or a few poorly chosen words when it's otherwise "finished." But, if you're making major revisions and then hustling it out the door, you'd better be the Mozart of the spoken word or you're in for an ugly surprise.

Perhaps my attitude on this is influenced by the fact that I never read anything that sounded anywhere near finished and/or good that someone was in a hurry to send off to agents and/or publishers. I'd be slogging through an MS (back when I was in "writer's groups" on-line), thinking, "When she does the next revision, she so needs to fix the dialog," or "This makes no sense. I hope he fixes this during the next revision." I'd make comments, as encouragingly as I could, but they'd boil down to, "Seriously, read this dialog out loud because it's stilted and clumsy," and "What possible motivation would someone have to do this?" Why would I say that? Because, if you review something without being honest, it's worse than no review at all. But that's another post.

Sometimes, one of my talented friends will send me something where my reaction is, "Damn, send it!" But it's because they're sending me something that's effectively (if not already) finished.

The thing is, I feel strongly that one shouldn't rush writing. That doesn't always apply. Journalists have to get something in by a date. College students, perhaps some freelancers and, of course, people who have already agreed in advance to write book(s). Heck, I've got a paper for a conference I need to be kicking out yesterday.

But, when I'm trying to get my foot in the door, there's no advantage to becoming memorable because of the slipshod incoherent ramblings often found in early drafts. I want to put my best foot forward and it's better to send one thing late in the game but have it one's best work than to try to wear someone down by sending one piece of crap after another. In fact, that's a good way to get someone tossing one's stuff unread so that, if you ever do get to writing well, no one is willing to read it.

What does that have to do with a waiting period? It's a matter of perspective. When I'm writing furiously (because I tend to write furiously or not at all), I'm either in the white-hot phase of inspiration where everything comes out sounding like ambrosia to me or I'm slogging through something challenging that I'm sick to death of. Either way, if I turn around and start revising right then, my perspective will be skewed. If my baby's still beautiful, I'll be finding excuses on why an awkward phrasing is hilariously worth the confusion or wanting to add more flowing passages to areas that would do better to be made leaner rather than more eloquent. If, however, I've say been reading a master and therefore have decided I'm a lame hack who shouldn't be wasting her time writing, everything will sound terrible. I'll be tempted to chuck the whole thing.

I know. I've been there.

What I need is time, time to get excited about either other writing projects or life, time to forget why I did some things in this novel. That way, when I pick it back up, I can tell that I've glossed over some logical leaps or failed to explain something because it was obvious to me (since I already know all). I stand a much better chance of appreciating what actually works and becoming ruthless with what doesn't. It's still painful, of course, but I've gained enough distance that it's not like tearing myself apart.

And I'd tell anyone writing the same thing. Get some distance. How long? I say two weeks is the barest minimum. Two months is better. I take longer if I can manage.


The Ultimate Editing Tool

>> Saturday, February 27, 2010

Over the years, I have done a lot of editing, revising, rewriting, and all. It's a great deal of work and sometimes very frustrating. It doesn't have the same appeal, at least for me, than creating the world in the first place. But it's absolutely necessary if one strives for excellence.

Having said that, it's always nice to fix something and make it better. Over time, I'm likely to go over it multiple times. And I have some fantastic people who take the time to read over it and give me comments - I've had my eyes opened to many things from thoughtful reviewers.

Still, of all the tricks and methods I use to clean up and polish my work, nothing helps me find typos and grammatical errors, nothing highlights out an awkward sentence, nothing ensures dialog that sounds real like taking the effort to read it out loud.

I've always read my work out loud. It's essential when you write rhyme/rhythm poetry, as I did in high school, to read it out loud. That kind of poetry (and, in my opinion, all poetry) is best when read aloud...or it probably isn't very good poetry.

When I moved on to short stories, I found that reading aloud was just as helpful. My husband of the time wasn't fond of listening, so I didn't write much, but, when I did, I'd hole up somewhere and read it out loud. Always.

My relationship with Lee has really changed things. He not only lets me read it out loud, he likes it. He listens. Reading things out loud to someone receptive and listening, someone interested, someone brilliant (and opinionated), is far more useful than reading to oneself. The humorous parts stand out, of course, but the reaction, the interplay, makes polishing not only more effective, but far more fun.

I wouldn't want to edit any other way.


Rules I Break: Playing with Stereotypes

>> Friday, February 26, 2010

One of the things "they" tell you is not to use stereotypes. Keep your characters fresh and original. Well, I can see that. Seeing the same character doing the same thing in plot after plot and book after book is hardly entertaining.

What I love to do, however, is play with stereotypes, twisting and shaping them to challenge one's thinking. My first published story, "Code of the Jenri," was a sword and sorcery tale intended to turn the standard "large hulking barbarian rescues the damsel in distress" on its end. Oh, a spouse is being rescued, of course, but not the woman.

I love twisting stereotypes. The strong sword-fighter, too proud to use a knife, who ends up saddled with a bunch of kittens who claim to be his familiars. What self-respecting warrior plays with magic?

I like dangerous-seeming people who are vulnerable and harmless-seeming people who are ruthless or daring or amazingly capable.

I want to challenge people's notions that, by knowing what someone is, they know who someone is. I want to make people see the world they think they know in new ways when something familiar is shown from a different perspective, a different light.

And, with any luck, I want to make them enjoy the experience so they don't even know they're thinking until it's too late to start.


Learning Indirectly

>> Thursday, February 25, 2010

So, most of last week, I spent devouring the examples of queries on Query Shark (which I learned about on Project Savior's blog. I learned a great deal, including that I had had absolutely no idea how to write a query. No wonder no one gave me a passing glance.

So, I feel better about my query for my "first" novel than I've ever felt before. Except, building an effective query brought something to light about my actual novel, the one I thought was "done." I was going to have to make some pretty drastic changes.

First of all, the novel weighs in at a hefty 130K words. Even though it's a fantasy in a world of its own, that's a pretty tough sell for a "first" novel. Since my rewrite had added some 30K+ words, it's hard for me to think of removing stuff.

Secondly, the plot, per se, doesn't kick in until chapter 6. Oh, it's not all description. The first two chapters are a very important rescue (the story of which, though changed, came from the original short story). Lots of action there. And then com description and time to get to know the main characters and then some of the side characters. But the story, the conflict doesn't really kick in until the kittens come in and force Tander to reexamine everything he thinks is true. Plus, the kittens make it hilarious.

In fact, once people get to the kittens, it's really hard to put the book down. Problem is, this doesn't happen until page 89, Chapter 7.

I've mentioned before that plots aren't my strong suit. I'm a character writer (and reader) and the delay is a direct result of the fact that I didn't have a way of putting it all together until I brought in the kittens and suddenly everything fell into place...89 pages in.

Writing the query was a wake up call that starting a novel when the real plot doesn't start until more than a quarter of the way through the book is a mistake. So, I decided to cull several whole chapters and condense the first two chapters into one. The rescue in the beginning is very important, but much of the expendable character dialog served no purpose (other than humor). The reminiscence about how the characters met was nice but could be as easily used in a later book (in fact, great to do so since we will need to reintroduce them in follow-up books). As for the character introductions, well, we'll have plenty of time to get to know everyone. It's a long book.

It was hard to do. This was material, leftover material from my first draft, the parts before I'd worked on it with Lee. It was hard to get rid of it (though Lee had never liked it). Worse was the realization that when I dropped 14K words in one fell swoop I had to do almost no corrections on the rest of it. The book doesn't miss it at all. I did all the revisions in one morning.

Now, it's a much more marketable 116K words and the kittens wander in on page 36 and the plot beginning even before that. Everything's tidier and moves much faster.

All because the query reminded me where the story really was.

Cool, isn't it?


Why I Write

>> Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Most of these posts will be written by me, Stephanie Barr, because, well, Lee is more a collaborator than a writer. I'm the one that can (generally) spell.

I'm also the one driven to write. Lee enjoys the world-building, and cool science fiction toys, and discussing options. He knows magic and myth. He loves armor and weapons. And, when I read things out loud, he helps me make it sound write - and you might be surprised how important that is. When I work on books with him, they're better. What characteristic could be more important in a collaborator?

But me, I would write anyway. Why?

Because I have to.

I can't read a good book without getting giddy and reading it again and again until I understand why it was so good. Or having it trigger what's wrong with what I'm doing - how to correct some flaw.

I can't have a conversation, particularly one that makes me laugh, without wanting to work it into a story. I can't meet an interesting person without wanting to immortalize them forever in words.

I think in stories and people and interactions and potential. An odd phrase or image and I'm hitting the ground running.

I feel like I've been training myself for this all my life. Writing poetry (rhyme and rhythm) in high school so I got the feel for the sound and emotional potential of words. Short stories in college as I played with introducing characters and strong ending, painting scenes quickly and effectively.

Now, I'm working on novels. I've written four, polished two and I feel like I'm getting the hang of this.

Even if no one ever reads it, I'll have written it, made those worlds and breathed life into those characters.

And that's almost enough.



Great Resource for Wannabe Writers

>> Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

I think The Mother might have mentioned this site before, but I hadn't paid enough attention clearly. When I was reading my pal, Project Savior's, post, he noted a terrific site recommended by the agent he'd queried called queryshark.blogspot.com. Project Savior (Darrell B. Nelson) wrote a clever query I think (and so did the agent), but I've learned so much trolling through the blog on queries, my head is spinning. Boy, have I been doing things wrong.

This agent, Janet Reid, (another excellent blog, by the way) fields queries and tells authors what's wrong with them, posting them on the blog with comments. Fantastic! Seriously, if you plan to market your work, you should read through queryshark and her agent blog.

The Mother definitely mentioned another blog called Miss Snark (which hasn't been updated in a few years and is still well worth reading - must find time.

Hope that helps. I know it helped me.

Some added sites from comments:

Nathan Bransford (literary agent)
Publishing Rants
Book Ends Literary Agency
Kaye Dacus' Manuscript 101

Thank you MA Fat Woman and Jeff King.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Six: Bringing Them to Life Part 3

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

The Mother mentioned "implied dialog" which I took to mean those things the character is thinking in addition to what they are actually saying and, I have to say, I'm glad she did. I use this all the time, probably in ways she'd never use it. I'll explain.

I mix dialog and implied dialog all the time. In fact, finding segments of dialog without overwhelming amounts of implied dialog in it was challenging. There were a couple of reasons for this. One is that I frequently have some form of telepathy in my books (often in the form of "familiars" of some sort). Another is that I like it, like knowing what people think. So, let's see what I can dig up. Ah, here's an early example.

She studied him intently. He had noticed her. The villagers no longer paid any attention to her comings and goings, treating her like the shadows she tried so hard to stay in. But he had noticed.
"Why do you like the flute so much? I play the harp and sing much better, but it is the flute you like."
She nodded and opened her mouth to tell him how it made her think of the wind, but no sound came from her mouth. Such was her curse. She bowed her head.
"Would you like to play it?"
She lifted her head, eyes shining with hope. He offered her the wood and silver staff, and she took it with shaking hands. Could she make a sound?
The implied dialog is important largely because my character (one of them) is mute. Her silence is what makes her feel unimportant, but Michel (the other character) not only sees her as a person, he offers her an opportunity to express herself with sound (and wind, which is key for a different reason). The ability for the reader to have insight into her thoughts make this far more meaningful for the reader, especially since this is a short story.

Let's see, what else? Ah, Tander and his ensemble support cast...
Riko’s prominent jaw locked visibly. “Let me be the first to encourage you to strike out on your own! Say what you will, I have seen what Tander’s magic can do and, if he feels he can find my Kena, I will follow him to the ends of the earth.”
“What if she no longer lives when you get there? Will you thank him then?”
The fireside hushed, a difficult question having finally surfaced, the same question on the minds of all who traveled to find their loved ones.
Riko, with a quiet calm, replied at last. “Aye. Tander cannot promise me that Kena will be there. But he is offering me a chance to at least know for certain.”
The silence after he finished grew in awkward length. Tander felt it all around him and in his own heart. Another responsibility he didn’t want was being added to the ever-growing list that dominated his conscience. They were all depending on him.
Without the implied dialog at the end, it's just sets up the interaction of the different relationships between the ensemble cast. The extra bit at the end gives us real insight into Tander and his personal struggles inside this public one.

And there's something else one can do, that I think is very important...humor.
Tiny would let her use it.
Tiny! Instantly, Laren's vision was clouded with a red haze. Tiny! That tall, blonde bastard was always hanging around Darma, panting over her like a puppy.
Laren turned back to his woodworking. Focus, man, he told himself. Build a boat. Let it go. You don't need a girl in your life especially a contentious human like this one.
"Wait until tomorrow," he told her with a negligent shrug. "Tiny's on guard. He'll likely let you use it as long as you want."
Canny. Shut up, you.
"I don't want to wait," she insisted. In one of her lightning mood changes, she sidled up to him, smiling down from her slightly superior height. Blinding him with that face. Her warmth and scent hit him like a hammer to brain. His heart rate escalated in response. Why did she always smell so damn good?
"Please, Laren?" she wheedled.
It was impossible to work with her that close. It was damn near impossible to breathe. Maybe, he should just turn and dive into the river, cool his temper and everything else that was hot and bothered by this stubborn girl in its chill depths.
"Would you stop bothering me? I'm trying to work here," he said instead.
Laren is a teenager. Without the implied dialog, you'd have to have some experience with teenagers to necessarily catch how different what he thinks and what he says are. If you have that experience, you might not need me to tell you that he's just sixteen years old. The items in bold are examples of telepathic dialog, in this case with his sarcastic shipcat. The mental dialog going on in concert with a different physical dialog can be quite humorous, but it can be confusing, too, so you have to be careful. However, play it right and it can be very effective, or so I hope.

Not sure I have anything else on characters, so, when I think of what else to write about, I'll go into something else.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Six: Bringing Them to Life Part 2

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Another, in my opinion, excellent way to bring characters to life is to have them speak. Good characters or bad characters can be brought to life with surprising ease just by how you have them talk. Dialog can set up relationships, make characters seem real (even with zero physical descriptions) and even provide a setting. Take this passage from the wonderful Robert Heinlein (Time Enough for Love).

As the door of the suite dilated, the man seated staring glumly out the window looked around. "Who the hell are you?"
"I am Ira Weatheral of the Johnson Family, Ancestor, Chairman Pro Tem of the Families."
"Took you long enough. Don't call me 'Ancestor.' And why just the Chairman Pro Tem?" the man in the chair growled. "Is the Chairman too damn busy to see me? Don't I rate even that?" He made no move to stand, nor did he invite his visitor to sit down.
Notice how much is conveyed in these few short paragraphs. Without ever saying "the man seated" is old, we get the distinct impression that he's is, that he's used to people venerating him (as Ira Weatheral clearly does) but doesn't entirely like it, that he is important (and knows it), and that he's a cantankerous old man who probably isn't used to feeling helpless but does at the moment. And doesn't want to show it. When I read this, I had an instant image of "Ancestor" and instantly guessed, rightly, that he was in something similar to a nursing home against his will. And he didn't want to be. And I had his character pegged. But we also know a great deal about Ira. He is clearly in a position of power. He is patient. And he regards the 'Ancestor' with veneration and there is a sense of wanting to please the Ancestor...without necessarily a willingness to give the old man what he wants.

It's almost sacrilege to put my own work in here with Heinlein. But, hey, it's what I got. And you can see the difference between a master and myself. Yes, I can use the humiliation. Again, with short stories, the quicker you can establish characters, the sooner you can get to the story and jump in. Like this:
“I know,” she whispered, wavering under the strength of his desperation, trembling with the depth of his frustration.
“Stay with me!”
“I am a servant. I cannot refuse you.”
His grip tightened and he whipped her around to face him. Her eyes absorbed the glorious riot of his uncombed locks, the sensual fullness of his mouth but, more than anything, the intense gaze from topaz-colored eyes, blazing now with near fury. “That’s not what I want! I want you to feel as I do, to know what it is to be swept away in an inexorable storm. Can you feel nothing?”
There's the obvious; she's a servant and he's in a position of power. Not a modern servant, obviously, but the kind of relationship more in line with slave and master. Yet, despite the power he wields, she is the one in control of this situation. He not only makes it her choice, but she takes it upon herself to refuse from beginning without admitting that she is doing so. She is both compelled and frightened by his passion. This conflict, with the power with her, is the pivot of the story, but it can be expressed quickly and compellingly (at least I hope it is) even though she is unconscious of her power. Actually, power struggles in dialog can not only reveal characters but also increase tension and move the story along. Even the first bit by Heinlein is something of a power struggle.

Here's another from a short story:
The King leaned forward impatiently. "What are those cards, some kind of game?"
"These cards foretell the future, both yours and mine. But they do not speak to everyone."
The King's sage smirked. "I should like to see them speak to you. That would be a trick." The room laughed.
Melan didn't even smile. She spread the cards before her and pulled one from the deck, laying it facedown on the silk robe. "Here is the card for your future," Melan told the sage. The card was The Hanged Man. "There will be great suffering and punishment in your future. You will know pain, will be abandoned and renounced, and die, alone and unloved."
"You can do that to him?" the King asked, interest piqued.
Note the transfer of power. In the beginning, she is doubted and scorned. Within seconds, she has awed and cowed those who would dismiss her. In this case, Melan is shown to be self-confident and proud, also smart and defiant in a situation where she was definitely at a disadvantage.

When it comes to longer works, rather than short stories, dialog is even more important and can do a great deal to set mood, tension and reveal relationships.
Tander ignored her. “So, what you’re saying is that I have a great deal of talent, but no way to use it.”
Cristo’s laughter was as gravelly and grating. “Should have listened to your blasted cats, Tander. A man can’t change course in midstream. You’re a sword-swinger and nothing more. Like as not, you’ll fry us all by accident,” Cristo threw a faggot into the fire, his face stark in the crimson light. “Stick with what you can understand.”
“If I fry you, Cristo, I promise it will be on purpose,” said Tander, unoffended.
Clearly disappointed, Riko asked, “So Tander will never be able to use his magic, except, maybe, to heal? That doesn’t seem right.”
“It’s more complex than that,” said Denra in a gentler voice than she used on the rest of them. Tander had already noted her soft spot for Riko.
Cristo snorted. “Face it, Tander, you’re wasting your time and irritating the rest of us. We are going to be fighting for the lives of our loved ones. That’s no time to play with magical fire.”
Several paragraphs, but we (hopefully) get a sense of several characters and their relationship to each other, which is very important in an ensemble tome like this one was. Tander's good humor. Cristo's disdain for magic. The general state of necessity. The need to take advantage of Tander's newfound ability under adverse conditions. How the characters interact and some key characteristics of several of them.

Now, something to note. A book gives you more time than a short story to get to know a character. With a short story, you don't have much time, which means you need to give those key character traits early on and be consistent. That first impression the reader has is important and you may not have time to adjust it much, so make it count.

However, although you can change things, your character can grow and evolve in a novel, that first impression is still important. you need to be careful not to be too off-putting early on unless you're willing to accept that some readers will never give you a chance to change their first impression. Although, of course, even the most bristly character can appeal to some. Like how I like Kat, here.
“Kevin, you’d better still be here! Next time, why don’t you tell me what line Tate is on so I don’t have to waste my time with other idiots?”
“Yes, ma’am. And, to remind you again, you’re not allowed to heat up a soldering iron.”
“Bite me, smart ass! And, if that fool Paul ever calls here again, kindly tell him to take that worthless piece of paper UNLV gave him out of pity and shove it where the sun don’t shine. Then, hang up.”
“Works for me.”
“And call my house, will you?”
“Why? Will you be there? Are you testing your new teleporter? Or checking up on your clone?”
“Aren’t you the clever fellow? I have a friend visiting and I better let him know I’m headed back, so he can get the showgirl out of my bed.”
“That’s a malicious lie,” Corey said sternly from behind the door. “I would never take a showgirl to bed. Those sequins get into everything. You take a showgirl to the shower.”
Kat yanked back the door and regarded her guest with hands on her hips. “Corey! If you destroy my plumbing, I’m sending you the bill.”
“That’s OK, I’m sending the bill for the showgirl to you.”
Alright, I admit it. I love dialog. When it's done right, I can hear it my head. Characters whose voices I can hear are the kind of characters I'm most likely to stick with for the long haul. How about you? Do you like good dialog? And what works for you?


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Six: Bringing Them to Life Part 1

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

For those of you who thought I was through with characters, surprise!

See, the thing is, having the coolest cat in town heading up your book or story doesn't mean anything unless you can convey what's so cool about your character to the reader. Now, when it's an historical figure, people decide what they think about those individuals based on what those people did or said (noting, of course, that we don't always have first hand information or unbiased sources).

As a writer, you get to show the reader what the character says and does and thinks (i.e. the motivation). How long it takes you the writer to reveal your character to the reader can depend on many things. First and foremost is the medium you're writing in.

If you're writing a short story or any other type of short fiction, you have to make the character come alive and quickly. One way is to focus on character traits that readers might readily identify with. Here's an example from a story I'm currently working on:

Using the handhold just inside the hatch, Lena Glandall swung lightly down to the ground. She could have lowered the ramp, of course, but most of the male scouts leapt down without. It was her nature to refuse to do differently just because she was so very undersized. As usual, she found a way to do what she wanted without it slowing her down. It was rather a point of pride.
Most of us have limitations we don't like to have slow us down. Overcoming them without requiring special attention or accommodations is something many people can readily understand, either because they know someone stubborn like that or because they are like that themselves. But, more than having an in for the reader to identify with the character, we've also said a great deal about our character and her environment. Our character is small, unusually so, but nimble. She is proud and willfull and stubborn. She also prides herself on success and likes to get her own way. All of that is said without telling anyone directly who she is. We also get a sense of it being a physically demanding job, that she competes, head to head, with male counterparts and doesn't expect the rules to be different for her.

If I've done it right, the reader doesn't even recognize consciously all those things. But, when they see my character put up with treatment that many of us would have a hard time standing for, they will (hopefully) automatically appreciate what she's willing to do to accomplish her mission. From that first paragraph, they can hopefully get a good sense of some of her key characteristics and, depending on their experience with others of her ilk, will know if they like her early in the story.

Here's another example:
And, as much as Charley adored her, she loved him just as much. Since the beginning of time, he had gladly inhabited that comfy place beneath her arm, had gladly given up his looks for her. Like most favorite toys, he looked ready for the ragbag with one button eye always just on the verge of falling off and one arm not quite the right color. Mama's hands had mended him times beyond counting, but the worse he looked, the more Ginny loved him. And nothing else mattered.
In this case, of course, Charley (one of my earliest characters) was a teddy bear hopeless devoted to his little girl. Did you get that? Everything in the story is about that dedication. I tell you she loves him, but we know it's the truth because he was mended instead of replaced, because he doesn't care what he looks like as long as she doesn't. Again, those of us who grew up with a favorite "something" can identify readily.

This mental description of actions and accompanying thought can work in longer fiction, too, but you have the option of putting it off until later in the story or giving it in several dribs and drabs. In a novel, a reader is really investing a significant chunk of time; you need to give them all they need to be invested in the character.
Tander stooped to exit of the crowded tent, yawning and stretching as he did so. He stood there, scratching himself absently as he took a deep breath of the humid night air. There were too many people, too many powerful personalities in there for his tastes. It reminded him of when he was part of politics, or at least as much as he ever was involved in politics. Perhaps that’s why he was never interested in it.
He shook his head. Four hours to discuss strategies? His thought was just to have his blade sharpened and fight when the bastards appear. Fight them and have done. What good would all their talking and planning do?
It might not seem like there is a great deal here, but we have a real feel Tander. He doesn't like to plan or have meetings or wrangle with pushy people. He doesn't like compromise or politics where you can't just do what you think is right but you have to get "buy in" from everyone. He's a man of action and, when you add this bit to his history, you get a much better understanding of how he ended up where he ended up. When you find out that he gave up a throne, it doesn't seem unreasonable but in perfect keeping with a man who who lives by action and feels, acts and talks in a straightforward manner.

Having a strong character doesn't, of course, mean that everyone will identify with them or, if the reader does identify with them, that they'll like them. A vivid characterization can repel a reader, too. Still, murky and stilted characterizations rarely appeal to anyone.

Tomorrow, dialog. 'Cause it's my favorite way of bringing characters to life.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Five: Side Characters

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.
I love secondary characters. L-O-V-E them. I love them so much that 2/3 of my fairly completed novels are effectively ensemble pieces. Sure, I have "main" characters, but the interaction of the other characters are so integral to the whole that it's not about 1-2 people; it's about the team.

One reason I love them is that there are virtually no limits on the type and scope of side character you can include, from the relatively dastardly, to the absurd, to the profound, to the inane, to the... You want to play with a particular character but aren't sure how to center the story around them - make 'em a side character. They can be funny, silly, officious, curious, troublesome, protective, loyal, creative, clever, nitpicky. They can epitomize a group of people (stereotype) and make them come alive. They can personify key aspects of a time, place or social structure. They can do nothing more profound than make the story more entertaining - nothing wrong with that.

Side characters can add texture and flavor to an otherwise humdrum story or breathe life into a time and place without being a distraction. They are an excellent opportunity for exposition without making it seem contrived - Watson provided an opportunity for Holmes to elucidate his mental processes without awkwardness, for example. They can provide insight into the main characters just by their reactions/loyalty/disaffection for the main characters. Somewhat haughty and officious who treats your protagonist like a wayward child can let you know your main character isn't as concerned with "right and proper" as the side character before he's said a word. The dedication and loyalty of a capable and intelligent side character can provide insight that a bristly or grumpy main character has hidden depths worthy of merit long before they are otherwise visible.

Side characters can be foils for main characters or reinforcement for their character traits. They afford the writer an opportunity to reveal key aspects about a character by interacting with him or her. See, it's not enough that a character "be" in the writer's mind - the writer needs a way to demonstrate that character. The writer can just "say" what the character is supposed to be, but, let's face it, that's rarely as compelling as demonstrating those characteristics through word and deed. Interaction with side characters can bring those qualities front and center, can reveal warmth or softness or cleverness or other aspects of a character that wouldn't shine through without them. A side character of the less savory type can give your main character a chance to be witty, sarcastic or just argue better.

And they're fun. I frequently have fairly serious characters. Side characters are often what adds the humor and bring out the charm of my main characters.

They can also help the plot develop, provide traits and skills the hero (who shouldn't be perfect) might be lacking, provide a contrast and, if doing a series of novels, can be the focus of a later book. They can add depth to the story, providing history or color or humanity to a time that might seem short on it.

In movies, there's a whole host of "character actors" who have made a career about playing the people around the lead. Time and again, these are the most versatile actors out there and their characters are far more diverse than those lead actors play.

A fairly common characteristic among my favorite authors are books where the side characters are so charming, I frequently stop to giggle and say, "I love Beautiful" or "I love Edger" or the like. And, that's what I want people to do when they read my work.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Four: Protagonists Part 2

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

So I came up with a second part.

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Aside from what a main character should be, there are certain things a main character needs to do during the course of story or book.

In my opinion, one of them is grow. Of all the things that leave me cold at the end of a book, few beat a stagnant main character (and this is why perfect characters rarely work - where they gonna grow?). They have to learn something, challenge themselves, find out things about themselves, their world, the people around them or, even better, all the above. Why?

Because a book or story should be a journey, not just for the reader, but for the characters involved. If not, why bother? That also argues that the main character should be actively involved, not sitting to the side while everyone else does the good stuff.

Characters should also reveal something of themselves. As characters are, as the are for me, the entree into the story, it's important to provide enough insight into them that the audience can get involved, can at least empathize with the decisions and choices the character makes. If this fails to catch a reader, the reader often becomes more and more frustrated and isolated from the character and, by extension, the story, if they ever get involved at all.

Characters need to be consistent to themselves (which may mean being completely unpredictable it that's their character). They need to interact with other characters in believable ways.

But, there are many limitations main characters don't have: gender, race, species, appearance, age, height, religion/belief system, etc. In other words, you can hitch a ride on anyone or anything as long as you have something for the readers to latch on to so they can enjoy the ride.

You don't have to tell the reader everything about your characters, but you should know about your characters, understand them, know their motivations for what they do. If you don't, it will be almost impossible for it not to be muddy for the reader.

In my opinion.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Four: Protagonists

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Having talked "bad guys" nearly to death, it's time to move on to other characters. Now, to my way of thinking, there are three primary kinds of remaining characters.

Protagonists - those characters (often described as "good guys") who are at the center of the story, often providing point of view and/or a sypathetic aspect to entice the reader into caring what happens. I mean, if you don't like the main characters, why would you care what happens to them? There can be one or two protagonists or there can be host of them (as in an ensemble piece). They don't have to be "good," noble, understanding, pleasant, polite, etc - they can even be a villain per se, but, if they are too ignoble, they can alienate the audience. Most protagonists, even the "anti-heroes" have some measure of redeeming qualities. The best ones, in my opinion, have a bit of the not-to-good aspects as well, but we'll go into that later in this same post.

There are also the secondary characters, or side characters. Some might support the bad guy; some might support the main characters. It is challenging to write a book about only one or two characters and not have any secondary characters and have it still appeal. Can be done. Has been done, but, unless we're stranded on a desert island, it can come off as contrived feeling. Side characters are wonderful. They flesh out the world, can add humor, provide opportunities to make the protagonists seem more human, can add depth, can provide an expository opportunity and did I mention adding humor. I love side characters.

Then there are the bit players, the tertiary characters. Often available in only a scene or two or such a side dish for another character they have none of their own, they are rarely deep or meaningful. The secretary who lets your protagonist into the villain's office might be one. Or the person who brought the mail. However, the way they act and behave, the little bits of description or reaction to what the bigger playing actors do can really add life to a scene, can set the stage as it were. I doubt I'll write a whole post on these kinds of characters, though. I'll probably just include a quick paragraph in the secondary characters' post(s).

Today, though, I'm going to focus on main characters. Now, as a character-focused writer type, I've talked about characters and character types I liked, main and on the pro side of secondary: stupid but pure, cool and cutting, happy-go-lucky, stoic, diamond-in-the-rough, hard-ass, deceptively sweet, and flamboyant and kind. Reading through them (if you did or you want to), you'll see certain things in common.

Now, I can't tell you what you have to do with your protagonists, but I'll tell you what I do and what I look for.

First of all, for me, the characters are the key to the story. When I was a kid, I'd read anything. Now that I'm old and have many demands on my time, I'm less likely to sit through a book that doesn't interest me, doesn't grab me, doesn't make me want finish it. Number one way to get me interested? Give me a character I want to know more about, one I identify with, one I like. Once I like someone, really like someone, I'll put up with crappy plots and weak settings, I'll walk through fire with them. Not everyone is so patient, but the popularity of some of the most hackneyed plots in history (romance, for instance) argues good characters can do much to make a book appealing, even if there's nothing else going for it.

By that same token, weak or unappealing characters can turn someone off a very clever premise, a brilliant plot, a vivid venue. The challenge, of course, is that not everyone looks for the same things in a character. People, I think, tend to want to see something that reminds them of something in themselves without duplicating them.

When I'm reading/writing, this is what I look for/strive for:

1. Not truly stupid. In other words, capable of logic (even if it's a bit off kilter), creative or otherwise savvy. Not necessarily book smart but quite effective in his or her own way. I personally have soft spot for people who appear not-quite-so-bright only to be far more clever than one first suspected when you get to know them. Those that are overtly and even obnoxiously bright work for me, too. People, however, who are genuinely stupid or require someone to tell them what to do, who are unable to break away from traditional thinking generally don't appeal to me personally.

2. Not deliberately unkind. I live by the golden rule and, even if one of the characters is callous or thoughtless, he can't be sadistic or needlessly vicious. If he is, I'm not going to like him. I'm not talking about being sarcastic or grumpy. I'm talking about bullying or treating people harshly just because one can.

3. Not amoral. Flexible morals I can deal with. Nontraditional morals work just fine with me. Even traditional morals. But she has to live by them, whatever they are.

4. Minimal moralizing/judging. There is a huge difference between having morals one actually lives by and moralizing. Characters who don't know this difference don't impress me. Nor do the characters who don't know the difference between evaluating people by who they are rather than what they are. It's amazing how often the two traits (which would seem to be unrelated) go together. Ironically, it's even more amazing how often moralizing and having morals one lives by are mutually exclusive.

OK, these are more things I don't want to see in my characters, but there are things I like, too.

5. Critical thinking. Everyone has situations where he reacts irrationally, but it needs to be the exception and not the rule. The character must be able to think on his own, make his own mind up, weigh information on his own or it's unlikely I'll have much respect for him.

6. Sense of humor. Admittedly, this isn't a have to have, but it's much easier to like a character who can laugh, particularly at herself. I love this in side characters, too. Books with characters that make me laugh, I read over and over and over again.

7. Imperfect. People without flaw, dark sides, neuroses, issues or bad habits are irritating to be around. Why bother to read a book about them. Those quirks and failings not only make the characters more real, it makes them far less frustrating to read. If you can identify with "perfection," you don't sound like anyone I know.

8. Capability. No one can do everything, but everyone can accomplish something. If I run into a character who seems immune to that notion, who doesn't do whatever it is he can, it is unlikely to appeal to me. Passivity doesn't interest me.

9. Honor or selflessness (to at least a degree). Books about characters who are focused only on their own needs, own wants, own goals and to hell with everyone else - not what I'm looking for in a protagonist (unless they outgrow it). I can live with it in a side character, but I won't walk through fire with someone unless she can see beyond herself and cares about others in the world around her.

10. Interesting. If I want to be bored, I have plenty of fodder for that at work. I want something interesting to happen. I'm OK with interesting events making an otherwise boring person come into his own, but it helps if they're good company even before that.

Well, that ought to do, I think. If I think of more, I'll add it tomorrow. Right now, I'm going to bed. It's been a frightening night.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Three: Scum

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Relax Max, on two posts back, mentioned that a protagonist didn't have to be a "good" guy. I agree. When I write, however, my protagonists generally are "good", to my definition. I've had protagonists that could fit into the "not quite evil villain" category (though generally not because those people give me headaches. I hate when people can't think critically, so my protagonists rarely fit in there), but I don't like centering a book on a character I don't like (which I described here). And there are some things I will not accept except in an antagonist, the characteristics that, for me, make one truly and irredeemably evil. My list, of course, may not match yours. But, it's my blog, so I'll tell you.

True sadist. This is the sort of person who kills/torments for nothing more profound than self gratification and pleasure. I'm not fond of people who take pleasure in the agony of others. If you do, I don't even care if you're crazy. You're evil as far as I'm concerned. Albert Fish was a twisted horrific serial killer (fond of children and cannibalism and many other unsavory things). He was caught when he sent a letter to the parents of the ten year old girl he killed (and ate) describing in detail what he did. Ick.

Rapists of pretty much any flavor. I've never found any justification trotted out for this effective. To me, there's nothing at all redeemable in someone who would force another for whatever rationale they have. Send 'em after children, and you can't kill this character off too quickly (or too painfully) for my tastes.

People who manipulate others to do violence. You can be the poor grunt wielding the hot tongs without necessarily being a horrible person. If you're Joseph Mengele coming up with new ways to torment people, you are horrible. If you're the sort promoting violence or brain-washing others to do horrific things, you are scum.

People who would do "anything" for money or power. Yeah, yeah, greed is often in and I'm not talking about prostituting yourself so much as I am lying, cheating, stealing, killing, leaning on, etc. If you're willing to let someone else suffer the consequences for your own greed, you are not a good person. Could you be redeemed? Someone else might give you the benefit of the doubt. Me, I'd never probably trust you. Prostituting yourself is different from prostituting the people that trust you against their will.

People who thrive on hatred. Perhaps they were once decent people, but now everyone is just someone to betray, someone to teach a lesson. These individuals look at the world as something to hate and the only thing that gives them joy is sticking it to someone else.

Sociopaths/Psychopaths. What I mean by that are people so self-involved they couldn't care less about the impact to others of their actions. They may only not be a serial killer because they hate to get their shoes dirty. The rest of the world is so insignificant to them, that they can do horrific callous things and be genuinely surprised it would bother anyone else. Not that they would care.

If you notice some overlap, I'm not surprised. many of the characteristics that make one evil in one way carry over into other ways. You don't see some of the "take over the world" types because I feel that greed or sociopath covers it. Ditto for "mad scientist." You don't have to be Joseph Stalin to be evil. Evil can go on in little ways and only affect one or two. I do have some of these in my writing, though I go with the darker villains as often as these, if not more so. There's plenty of these in existence so a villain like this is certainly plausible. But he (or she) is generally so self-absorbed, they don't stand for anything. Oh, they might spout some doctrine or another, but it is likely a means to an end, a tool used for controlling others.

And, while you might see them lurking in one of my works, they often have bit parts. I prefer my big villains to have something the reader can identify with. And they never get the title role, at least not in my stuff.

Getting tired of bad guys? Starting Tuesday, I'll be heading on into protagonists. Woot!


Writing Essentials: Characters Part Two: A Darker Villain

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

I've talked about the deluded villains, those that aren't so much evil as severely misguided, trapped within their own beliefs into doing evil things. But there are some people who go beyond that step, venturing into that gray-to-black area beyond an honest mistake and into either insanity or at least taking things to such extremes that results aren't rational even within the paradigm. Many times, what they do and how they act's so heinous, it seems impossible they can't be evil (and even the most generous would have to say they're skirting the line at least), but many are mentally ill, driven beyond their limits or completely in the thrall of someone knowingly evil. These are people who might have been decent but their feet stumbled on the path, yet they are often too far gone to be retrievable. They are not masterminds. There is no method to their madness. They are lost but they defy sympathy since they take out their insanity with violence on the blameless.

Here's a (non-exhaustive) list of examples:

Fanatics: People who believe something, but have let loose of any sane way of addressing it. Instead of thinking of regrettable steps they feel they must take in pursuit of their perception of necessity, they begin to see all destruction as a means to whatever end they originally had. It's the difference between a suicide bomber taking out an army barrack (which makes a certain kind of brutal sense) and taking out a marketplace of civilians of their own nationality (which no longer means anything). It can mean blind faith in any task set by a manipulative but trusted leader and unquestioning loyalty. It can mean that original beliefs become the rationale for striking out in every direction.

Timebombs: Sullen people who have labored for a long time under a sense of martyrdom but haven't done anything about it only to explode in the end in a spree of senseless violence. Like shooting children in an Amish school, or the Columbine massacre, or drowning all your children one after another. Something snaps and the target of the violence often has little or nothing to do with the original cause of pain. The acts can be planned or impromptu, but the end result is frequently a large number of innocents killed with no way of understanding what drove someone to do so (suicide frequently punctuates these kinds of sprees).

Compounders: Individuals who do a little transgression and are either so emboldened by not getting caught that they keep pushing their new limits or are so paranoid about someone finding out that they compound the original mistake with more and worse crimes. Gambling becomes embezzling becomes framing someone else becomes murder. In the end, what they do is so horrible that the original concern seems completely trivial. Their perspective is shot as they become, often in surprisingly little time, monsters by degrees without ever realizing they've slipped from rational behavior.

Dark Depths: People who are pushed into doing something violent, for example, through circumstance, only to find they've a taste for it. Soldiers gone wrong, for example. Taught to be a sniper for a purpose, perhaps one can find himself with a taste for it above and beyond a satisfaction in a job well done or the comfort of believing what one does is for the greater good. People like this may have started out with innocent intentions, but, as they find pleasure in their evil-doings, they begin to manufacture excuses for more, manipulate the situation to give them opportunities. Over time, the excuses become flimsier, they targets less justifiable until one is just a madman taking out random subjects.

(On that last one, I've often wondered about the assertion that serial killing is a modern disease. It occurs to me that if one were into sadism, torture, mayhem or murder, in early days there were plenty of opportunities to indulge it in professions. One could become an executioner [many punishments, capital and otherwise, were horrifically painful] or a mercenary and do your worst on a Crusade or as a Conquistador. It's only as we've become less tolerant of sanctioned horrors that they've had to strike out on their own. The career choices aren't what they used to be.)

Insanity and mental illness often play a part in these and we've given some credence to that in the legal profession. But how far does it go before insanity isn't a viable excuse any more, before we say we slid past crazy and into evil? I don't think the answer's easy and I don't think everyone has the same line. I write a great deal of sword and sorcery and my protagonists have quite a few bodies in their wake, but they never do anything I consider evil. Yet I can read another book where someone torments a child and feel they are evil to the core.

I probably have more of these types of villains, these skirting around the black, than I have of the full-blown psychopaths. Or, one of my villains can start here where there's still a potential for sympathy only to end up completely gone over to the dark side in the end.

I think what's interesting about the villains I've talked about the past four posts is that there might be some hope of redemption in them. They could learn. They could grow. You might even be able to wrangle one into a protagonist or an anti-hero, more so the misguided ones of the last three posts than the ones that are so far gone here. Still, even here there could still be hope. Tomorrow (or maybe Monday), I delve into what makes someone an irredeemable villain to me, what I see as evil.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 3

Reposted from Rocket Science

Again, I have to pause, this time for the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger on this day in 1986. Seven died in that mishap 73 seconds after launch: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, and Judith Resnik. Lack of safety oversight, wishful interpretation of ominous data, schedule and budget pressure were all cited as causes - and sadly sighted as causes again for the Columbia accident seventeen years later almost to the day. This is a bad week for NASA in terms of accidents. May we never look at another accident to find it could have been prevented if we'd but learned from the past tragedies.

On to the writing...

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

So, I've tried to demonstrate the kind of antagonist I mean, one that isn't evil (to the definition I provided yesterday) and yet who can do terrible, evil, even heinous thing because his (or her) paradigm demands it.

These fall into at least two basic groups. One type involves the people who are convinced by a charismatic leader to aid and abet nefarious plans, either because they are gullible, because the leader capitalized and rationalized horrific actions based on their existing paradigm, or through fear of the alternatives. This could also apply to those who turn a blind eye while these things are happening. Nazi Germany is almost a textbook example of brainwashing, control through fear, hysteria, promotion of horror through blame. Clearly, there were some masterminds behind this; the German people were not inherently monsters nor was wholesale genocide part of their existing paradigm. However, those masterminds were able to take advantage of existing antisemitism and nationalism to further their own considerably more extreme agendas.

The problem with this kind of antagonist, the dupe, the tool, the follower, is that such individuals are only a piece of the problem. They may be conflicted, but not enough to stay their hands, and, frequently, they may become fanatics to overbear any lingering twinges of guilt, edging them toward true evil. But they are pawns and, in my opinion, a pawn makes for dull and uninteresting antagonist. For such an antagonist, their motivations and inner turmoil is almost unimportant because they're not acting on their own initiative but being manipulated by someone else. Take them out or convert them, and the problem remains. Pawns are easily replaced. It's the mastermind you want (and masterminds are different type of villain that I will - eventually - get to). Those that do nothing, the apathetic, are not doing less evil, per se, but they are so passive that it's hard to make them an effective villain. There are times when the lack of action is so pronounced, though, that it effectively becomes an act.

That doesn't mean pawn types are useless however. Pawn type villains can be readily used two ways. First, build up enough of them, and you magnify the power of your mastermind. Secondly, however, they can provide a front, can give the appearance of the mastermind only to later be revealed as a dupe. This is particularly useful in extended series of novels or serials where one might think XX is the bad guy only to find out in episode 94 that YY is the woman pulling the strings. I can and have used them (and will use them again this way) but never as my end-all be-all. They make, in my opinion, poor ultimate villains.

Much better, in my opinion, is the second kind of non-evil villain, the one working on his own recognizance, consciously making choices that can do great harm, but doing so out of what they consider necessity based on the paradigm they live in. It might be a scorched earth policy that eradicates 1/5 of the arable land. It might be dropping the big one on a civilian target. It might be setting a village to the torch to protect one's own clan.

They must be acting independently, perhaps influenced by the ideas and notions of someone else, but applying their assumptions to the world as they see it and reacting in a rational way within that paradigm. That is very important. The assumptions themselves can seem completely nonsensical. They don't even have to be popularly accepted; they can be one specific to the individual antagonist. But, he has to be acting logically within the realm of that underlying assumption or he steps into the realm of the insane. And that is another post as well.

Bear in mind that the motives are not necessarily selfish. A man who drowns his daughter because he truly believes his family will starve to death otherwise does so because he believes it is true, that he will not be able to feed all of his children. He will feed himself not out of selfish reasons because he believes (quite possibly truthfully) that his existence is key to the survival of the remainder of his house. If he truly believes this, his action is not insane, just tragic. People can give up their lives, forgo their fortunes, destroy wantonly based on a flawed premise taken to a logical conclusion.

If it's one lonely fanatic doing so, that can make an effective story, perhaps more sympathetically than the evil genius, but such a story can severely limit a message. If, however, our villain is working under a paradigm, however, twisted, that is part and parcel of existing society (even it's taken to an extreme), it is more than a struggle between protagonists and an antagonist, but more a commentary about aspects of society - even the one we have now. That's a very powerful possibility that makes this a very compelling type of villain.

Now, one can take that non-evil antagonist and make him so extreme the rationality goes away, the logic left behind. There can still be compelling and still reflect on society, but it's less powerful...unless you get clever with it. I really admired, when I was reading Michener's Hawaii, the contrast between John Whipple and Abner Hale. Both, in theory, were there for the same thing, both with similar (presumably) beliefs, but with Abner's preoccupation with sin, his paradigm was immune to all data and became immune to logic, becoming so extreme it tottered toward madness. Whipple, on the other hand, had a more open mind and his paradigm shifted over time as he challenged many of the notions he began with, becoming a better person as a result.

There are, of course, hybrids of these two types and many a rational believer can become an frothing fanatic if driven too far. Which is where I'll go next. And pawns can become independent, the kind rationally acting from belief if the chain of command is broken or they are on their own too long.

The choice of villain, what they represent and how they got there can do wonders for giving depth and meaning to even a simple story. They can add interest and challenge notions, by personifying them. In my opinion, the non-evil but misguided villain is one of the most interesting type of villain out there, with tremendous potential.

Next, gray area villains like those that are insane.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 2

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

First, I have to pause for a moment to remember the Apollo 1 fire. Three men died on this day in 1967: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. Dire lessons were learned about slipshod work, not looking at the big picture, and putting men needlessly in harm's way. May we honor that sacrifice by remembering those painful lessons.

On to the writing...

Disclaimer: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

Ok, on to "villains" who aren't really evil - in my mind. And that brings up a valid point. What is evil? Well, it depends on who you ask. Different people have different ideas on what things and people are evil, what are regrettable but necessary, what are, in fact, heroic and admirable. And a particular act or person could be any of the three depending on who you ask and how you put it.

But, this isn't everyone's blog. It's mine, so I'll just tell you what I consider evil. To me, people are evil who go out of their way to hurt/humiliate/kill/rape for their own gratification or to serve their own (and no one else's interests). [Ed. Update - when I say serve your own interests, I do not include self-defense. It's not admirable, but it's not evil either IMO.] Kill your wife to get her insurance money? Evil. Rape anybody (feel free to try to convince me that rape can be done for any reason than serving one's own interests - good luck with that)? Evil. Running over the man who stumbles out of his car after running down children deliberately at a crosswalk for 20 minutes? Not evil. Killing a spy in cold blood who could endanger fifty of your fellow soldiers. Not evil. I think torture is evil, but I don't think you have to personally be evil to perform it. It depends on what you think you're doing it for. If I had my daughter's kidnapper in hand and I wanted to know where she was, would I torture the bastard for it? Damn straight.

And that's a key item, too. There's a term kicked around quite a bit, one of those words I generally despise because it's a management buzzword, but it's a good one for this situation: paradigm. In this instance, I think of it as describing "the world as we see it" - what we believe to be absolutely and fundamentally true. It doesn't matter if it is true, we only have to believe it is true to act on it. The fundamental belief that people who weren't Catholic faced an eternity of torment if they didn't return to the "true faith" allowed people to torture and torment Jews and "heretics" with clean consciences. The fundamental beliefs that indigenous people, or people imported from Africa and Asia were of lesser value, were subhuman and just barely above domesticated animals, allowed them to be enslaved, misused, put in harm's way and, yes, even slaughtered out of hand. They were called heathens, their gods defiled and their culture discarded. That these cultures were sometimes more advanced than the dirty illiterate armies that ousted them is not a factor. It only matters what the invaders and importers believed.

Let me give you an example. Say a man becomes the leader of a country during a time of bitter partisanship and conflict, even pockets of violence. Because of the perception of this leader's loyalty, a portion of the country declares independence. The revolutionaries provide little that benefits the rest of the nation, no vital resources, poor overall standing financially - little/no industry, transportation, etc. They also are clinging to a social model that is increasingly seen as outdated and economically disastrous.

The leader believes that if he doesn't bring the nation back together, the entire country will be destroyed. The reasons why he believes so aren't obvious, but he feels so strongly, he attacks in force with the hopes of crushing the rebellion at the outset. Instead, despite advantages in wealth, logistics, industry, materials, population and legality, the attempted crushing fails miserably. In fact, as the battle turns into a real war, this becomes a recurrent pattern. The rebels have the advantage in military expertise and doing the bulk of the fighting on home soil (where it could be expected that people will fight most viciously), though this only further impacts the finances and viability of the rebellious areas. The war drags with unspeakable losses and staggering costs.

More people are killed than in all the fighting before (and even since). Tensions and hatreds become even more polarized, with the loyalists resentful for fighting a war they don't have much stake in and furious at the fanatical rebels they fight. The rebels feeling as they though fight for their very identities. As the tides turn to favor the advantages of the loyalists after several years of bitter bitter battles, the word comes from the leader to his generals to burn and destroy the civilian landscape and infrastructure of the rebel states. When the end finally comes, the rebel forces are decimated, their youth all but destroyed, their lands left ownerless, bankrupt and destitute, and governed by an angry faction of loyalists determined to exact revenge for their own losses. It takes decades to recover and, more than a century later, resentment and differences remain.

All for no more reason than because the leader (and remaining loyalist government) was convinced that being separate would destroy the remaining nation as well as the rebellious section, that accepting the independence of the rebels was not a viable option. The man was Abraham Lincoln.

Now, many (including myself) would say that Abraham Lincoln was a good man. However, it isn't impossible to have a character making decisions based on a premise that one's protagonists don't have be a very sympathetic (and even not so sympathetic) antagonist.

It's amazing to me how quickly these posts grow. I have more to say on this subject, but it will have to wait for part 3.


Writing Essentials: Characters Part One: Villains that Aren't Completely Evil Pt. 1

Reposted from Rocket Scientist

Someone suggested I write a series of posts on writing elements. One might object to my doing so since I'm completely unqualified to do so - I don't and never have taught English or writing and I'm not even a "published" author except under the loosest possible definitions. But I want to do so anyway, and not just because I'm always trying to humor Relax Max. I have some very definite opinions about what I think about when I write and what I look for when I read.

So, let me start with this disclaimer on this series: I'm not an expert on writing. I am not a published author, don't have any sort of English or writing degree, have never taught English or writing and, in fact, do something entirely different for a living. I am simply stating my opinion and caution any reader to assume that every statement described as if it were incontrovertible be assumed to include an "in my opinion" on it. This series is my own opinion as an aspiring writer to describe things I work to do in my own writing and what I look for when I read.

The most important critical element for me, when it comes to reading, movies, writing, in fact, stories of any kind, are the characters. Over the years, I think, literature has become more and more cognizant of the non-black-and-white nature of people, that people aren't "all good" as a general rule and protagonists have taken on more dark sides or gray areas as a result, which adds depth and interest (but can make a reader uncomfortable). I will go into protagonists, of course, but, today, I want to focus on villains. In fact, I'm going to focus on villains for at least a couple of posts because I often think they get too little attention. I've been guilty of it myself.

Ironically, one of the things I have seen more frequently in the past hundred years or so of writing are pure black (no gray) villains. At least, that's how I've seen it. I'm unsure if that's because of visual media that tends to polarize things or because of some of the over-the-top and very visible villains are well-known as examples, not just the Hitlers, Stalins and Mengeles, but also the Paul Bernardos (and his accomplice, Karla Homolka), Peter Sutcliffes, and Ted Bundys that have been splashed over newspapers and news programs and documentaries and more. Completely evil psycopaths, cleverly concocting their next moves for some nefarious end are great movie/novel fodder, but, in real life, they're not that common.

I'm not saying not to use them - I've got a few myself, and I'll talk about this kind in a later post. However, there is a whole host of other potential "villains," ones that aren't evil per se, though many might be quick to call them so, people who are honestly doing the best they can, following their moral imperatives only to end up doing terrible things. Sometimes, they pursue these horrible acts with willing gusto. Sometimes, they act with supreme reluctance. Both, however, are driven by the same overwhelming imperative:

Necessity exists.

So what, someone might ask. Why would it matter? Well, there are a few reasons. Not the least of which is that far more harm is done world-wide by people who feel they are doing the right thing than by people who either actively thrive on harm or those who really don't care one way or the other. The wide ranging effects of psychopaths in power would come to little or naught without their followers and those that look the other way no matter what happens. These antagonists and enablers are real, usually to a much higher degree than those mad scientists and creative and clever people who live off evil that lurk in so many works of fiction.

Another reason is that a story is more powerful if one can understand and appreciate the motivations of all characters, even the antagonists. The story is more real with a person on both sides of the conflict rather than a hero facing off against a personification of true evil.

Another reason is that misguided antagonists can often highlight a societal issue, trend, or aspect, whereas a wildcard psycho doesn't really represent anything but him/herself. People can be motivated by zenophobia or homophobia or love for the fatherland or religious fanatacism or ecoterrorism, etc., and reveal not only the dangers of any ideology taken too damn far, but also (often by contrast) its value when used with moderation.

A writer can also include aspects and history that enable the reader to understand when and what drove someone beyond a good person doing questionable things to a demented fanatic blind to the horrible things he or she does in the name of his or her necessity.

Intent matters. It matters in matters of the law. It matters to observers and jurors. It matters to readers.

If a man with a gun kills stranger on sight, I think most would think that's pretty evil behavior. Snipers rarely get a happy rap on college campuses and the like. If, however, both shooter and shootee are wearing different uniforms and in a battle venue, few would assume that the shooter was inherently evil (even if they think war is). The soldiers - on both sides - are fulfilling what they consider a moral imperative, trusting their leaders to send them in only when necessary to kill and face death.

Someone who walks by a child dying of disease is unlikely to win a humanitarian award. But someone who advocates health care except not for illegal aliens (or any other group), even if children die as a result, is not inherently evil in my opinion. Some would say that's just practical. Others, myself included, consider it misguided and tragic. The negligence can be evil, but one doesn't have to be evil to accept it as "necessary" in my opinion.

If someone tortures another for his own gratification, that's pretty twisted and evil. If someone tortures a terrorist to get information he thinks might save lives, is he evil? Even if the notion is completely wrong, is the individual who does it evil? Or is he likely convinced that this is the only option open to him? Necessity exists.

There is a difference between shooting an intruder and shooting your neighbor preemptively because you don't like how he looked at your daughter and shooting your neighbor who never did anything because you want to send the message that you're a ruthless badass. Many people, I think, understand the necessity in the first scenario, recognize the signs of mental illness in the actions of the second one, and would find the last the sign of a scumbag.

Finding sympathy with the antagonist makes for a more interesting story in many ways, less black and white; however, it makes things more challenging for your protagonists if he can't just ride through with his rocket launcher and take him out. It makes it complicated. It reflects to some extent on your protagonists, how they deal with a deluded or misguided, but dangerous, antagonist. Sometimes, there are no easy answers, just choicse between miserable options. Sometimes the happier options are there, but the antagonist can no longer see them. Sometimes, it means the good guys have to face choices that are equally bad. However, it also leaves open the option of alternative ways of dealing with our antagonists than extermination or humiliation or whatever.

No matter what kind of antagonist you favor, know why he or she is motivated to do what he or she does.

It matters.

That's what I think. What do you think?

Tomorrow, I will continue on misguided antagonists with some examples and the way I explain it.



My husband and I write. Fiction.

Fantasy and science fiction, to be exact, often combining the two.

For those of you who knew me from Rocket Scientist or Ask Me Anything, that's not likely a surprise. Thing is, writing is only part of the battle, part of the job. Sure, I have a day job, but, if I want my (our) writing to ever be more than a way to fill time, if I want to reach people with it, I'm going to have to market it.

That's where this blog comes in. Oh, sure, it's not polished just yet and, of course, there are few posts. OK, none. But I figure this is the best place to talk about writing (which I have a habit of doing on Rocket Scientist) to talk about what I still want to accomplish, to let you know when I actually accomplish something.

Both Lee and I are on here, because we write novels together. However, when it comes to technical papers and marketing and short stories and anything but the novels themselves, it will likely be me. I'll likely transplant a few posts from Rocket Scientist here to get the ball rolling. Look for that over then next few days.

In the meantime, I'll be honing my craft and figuring what steps come next. After all, it's what I do.



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