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Good Characters Drive Good Stories

29 January 2015 | No Comments » | fictorians

A guest post by Daniel Braithwaite.

Daniel According to Plato we have the idea of the thing, or the form. Everything we see around us is just representations of those ideas. To take it one step further the poet (writer or author) makes a representation of a representation. The author is therefore creating something that is twice removed. A lie about a lie.

As an author, if we are going to lie, then we had better make it a good one. In science fiction and fantasy every story is a “lie.” Readers want to immerse themselves in the story. They want to forget the “truth” and believe the “lie,” even if it is only for a little while. But what makes a story believable, what makes a good story? Good characters drive good stories.

How many times have you been walking around when something hits you and you’re like, “Wow, that would be a great story”? So, you run home with your wonderful idea for a story, “Everyone is going to love this. I’m going to destroy the world and then . . . I’ll bring it back—with a time machine!” So, armed with your idea you start to write. You need someone to be the awesome hero, but who do you cast? Who can carry this amazing plot?

After thinking about it for a few days you decided to cast a reluctant hero, an everyman (or everywoman) and you get to writing. You have your character wake up, and what is the first thing he or she does? Well, get ready for the day, duh! So your character walks to the mirror and looks in, because that’s what everyone does first thing in the morning. (We never just throw clothes on and run out the door.) Alright, you have described your character, and by so doing you have achieved the ultimate Zen experience of storytelling: characterization. You smile and say to yourself, “This character has to be good, I mean, the reader know what she looks like!”

Right? Wrong. Turns out your character is just your cousin Bob . . . with boobs. And she isn’t even as interesting as Bob (he picks his nose and then feeds it to the dog). But how do you fix this? How do you save your hero from mediocrity? You’ve read up on your books: you’ve followed Frodo out of the Shire, Rand away from the farm, and Vin out of the city. You know a good character when you read one.

Out of the many tactics writer use to breathe life into their characters, I recommend using the character sheet (also called a character profile or character sketch). This type of planning may be difficult at the beginning, but will yield dividends with practice.

Before we dig into you character, lets dig into you. Are you just your outward appearance? No? I didn’t think so. Maybe you cringe when you come up to a blind turn, is that because you were in an accident as a child? Or perhaps you love to visit historical monuments, does that go back to your dad reading stories about cultural myths? Everyone internalizes their experiences in a myriad of ways, and that internalization plays a role in who they are.

Now, let’s look at our character sheets. I like to start with a name and outward appearance. It makes it easier for me to think about a person if I can see him or her in my mind. This is the quick part. Meet Annie. She is 5’9”, has shoulder length dusty blond hair, has a slight pigeon toe on her left foot, has hazel eyes, and is plump (but not fat). Do you see her? Is she introverted? Yep, else she wouldn’t be our reluctant hero. Why is she an introvert? Maybe she had a traumatic experience as a child playing in the neighborhood. A boy pulled down her pants on the playground. That, coupled with her closest friends laughing at her favorite underwear, sealed the deal. Great, what next? Her pigeon toe, you see she got it when she was twelve. She was on the monkey bars alone when she slipped and broke her leg. It didn’t heal perfectly and now she has a pigeon toe. Do the same thing for politics, religion, pet peeves . . . we can keep going, but I think you get the idea.

You keep asking questions and answering them until you feel you know your character. Now you know how she will react when the dying spy approaches her with the stolen plans to a time machine. You can weave the cool details you came up with into the story: a hint here, a line there, and eventually you have excellent characterization.

Do you have to do this with every character? In my opinion, you don’t need to go through this process for everyone; but at least your vital characters. Their supporting staff should have a few lines about them as well. (Uncle Tim talks with a fake Scottish accent because he wants to be “authentic” at his SCA events.) A little planning goes a long way. We’ve all heard that you should write what you know. Well, sit down and get to know your cast. Ask them deep questions and you will get deep answers. (And when your friends see you talking to yourself they will get deep concerns about your sanity.)

You have your idea, you have your character, and now you are ready to weave your tale. Practice on a few characters. If you ever get stumped, go back to one of your favorite books and ask those characters the same questions. Could you answer them? How did you know the answers? It’s not because you were told all at once. Before too long you will start to notice how their lives are woven into the action, dialogue, and plot. Ready to give it a try? Well, then get going, you have a lie to tell.


Guest Writer Bio:

Daniel Braithwaite is a Senior Editor at the science fiction and fantasy magazine Leading Edge (www.leadingedgemagazine.com). When he is not reading slush or interviewing authors he is working on his writing (if he isn’t battling off a horde of children and kittens). He is also currently studying writing under Brandon Sanderson at Brigham Young University. He is always happy to answer questions about the magazine (and the mysteries of the universe). You can reach him at nonfiction@leadingedgemagazine.com.

Good Gone Bad and Bad Gone Good

9 January 2015 | No Comments » | Gregory D. Little

goatee[For the sake of thoroughness, I’ll go ahead and put up a spoiler warning for Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter in front of this post, though I think the statute of limitations on those series has long since expired.]

Everyone loves a good redemption story. No wait, scratch that. Everyone loves a good fall from grace. Or maybe it’s both?

We’ve already heard Jace talk a bit about why to avoid all good or all bad characters. Giving your heroes flaws and your villains virtues makes them feel both relatable and real. But keep in mind that it’s not enough just to have characters with a little gray in them. Your character has to change with the story. If they end the story in the same mental and emotion place as they started, you aren’t writing a real story, you’re writing a sitcom. An 80’s sitcom.

So static characters are boring, check. Change is good, check. Well-written characters change some by the end of their stories. A protagonist will walk into the fires of conflict and emerge reforged, or some such blacksmithing metaphor. But sometimes readers get bored with a little change. Sometimes you have to go all the way. Think your Jaime Lannisters and your Walter Whites. But how do you do it well?

The rules are surprisingly similar regardless of direction. In fact, they are the same rules as those for any decision a character makes. In order to make a character’s actions believable, you have to plant the seeds at the very beginning of your story. You establish a character by getting the reader inside their head or viewing them from the head of another character. You get across a personality and at least a sketch of a backstory. For every action the character takes, some aspect of their personality and/or backstory combines with an element of the plot and drives them to make a decision that rings true for this fake person you’ve created.

In order to redeem a character or make them fall, you simply turn the stakes up to 11 in such a way that either amplifies their strength of or pries into their flaw. Saruman the White was leader of the White Council until the temptation of the One Ring proved too much for him. The pride that went along with his leadership position convinced him that he could master the ring’s power. Severus Snape, from the viewpoint of the reader at least, went from “he’s definitely bad news” to “he’s a big jerk, but he’s on the right side” gradually over the course of seven books. His redeeming quality, his unrequited love for Lily, burns through all his nastiness and his sympathy with Voldemort’s views and steers him on a path toward redemption.

Other choices can help lend credibility to your character’s journey into extremity. For a character to fall, it helps if they are stubborn and unbending to a fault. They can’t take all moral compromise they see around them, and eventually it becomes too much to bear. They snap, like the tree that doesn’t bend with the wind. In contrast, for a character to be redeemed, the opposite is helpful. If there is a part of them that is uncomfortable with their evil status quo, it provides a seed that can grow into a desire to repent for their crimes.

Handled deftly, this technique can open a reader’s mind in ways that lesser character growth can’t. A villain readers once despised can transform into someone they root for. Or a hero they loved can fall gradually into darkness, bringing readers along in complicity until they realize, with perfectly elicited horror, just how far the character has fallen. If you pull it off, it packs a very special kind of punch.

One last bit of advice. If you turn your main hero bad or your main villain good, make sure you have an understudy character you’ve developed over the course of the story available to fill the now-vacant spot. It helps if they wind up being an even better hero or villain than the character they are replacing. As a bonus, the fresh conflict introduced as former allies turn on one another can add a kick to your story’s climax.

Git Er Dun: Using the Vernacular

7 January 2015 | 1 Comment » | Kristin Luna

One potentially powerful and useful tool to have in your toolbox is the ability to write in a certain vernacular that makes your characters memorable. Stylistic voicing has been successfully used by some great authors. Let’s take a look at those, and why they were successful.

 

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

One of the most memorable characters I can think of is Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye is a staple for coming-of-age readers. It’s my favorite book, in fact. Why? Why did this book resonate with me so much? No, it’s not because I’m

Well, are you?

a sociopath, as many critical readers think of Holden. I loved the book because it was real.

We understand that this is the first time Holden has ever truly spoken his mind, consequences be damned. And we get a front row seat! His raw vernacular often includes calling people “phonies” and using “goddamn” as a consistent adjective. This usage of stylistic voicing achieved a certain authenticity. Whether Holden was right or wrong about the other characters being phonies, we never question for a minute that Holden is completely convinced that they are.

 

Room by Emma Donoghue

The book Room is told by a 5-year-old boy, Jack, whose main education is the television. Why? Because he is a captive, along with his mother, locked in a shed for years. Jack’s stylistic voicing is so convincing, so well constructed, that the reader is completely enveloped into Jack’s world, where he has only known the Room. He has never been outside. He hasn’t received any sort of education, apart from the one his mother tries to give him, which makes his sentence construction short and plain. He only describes what he sees, not knowing exactly what certain things mean. But you, the reader, know exactly what it means. And it makes your stomach churn and your heart ache.

You may want to pick up Room to see an excellent example of emotional transport with a stylistic narrative voice. It should also be noted that some readers simply could not get past the stylistic voicing. That is one of the risks you take when choosing a stylistic narration, but the rewards can be BIG. Room won Emma Donoghue over ten prestigious awards for her effort and risk.

 

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Perhaps the most well-known example of using stylistic voice is Huck Finn. It was, in fact, the very first novel published to use American vernacular, or more specifically, regional dialect (an example:“Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to git sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.”). Huck is described as a pariah, son of the town drunk, and the other children wish they dared to be like him. That’s one hellova introduction. If Samuel Clemens decided to write The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in third person, I venture to say everyone would hate Huck. A bratty little kid, running around causing havoc. What Twain did so brilliantly was deciding to tell the story from Huck’s perspective, showing us the charm and charisma Huck has to offer, so we can’t help but love the little shit. Using stylistic voicing, Twain made us relate to an otherwise potentially annoying character.

 

You may have noticed that I chose all first-person novels, as well as young narrators. Can you think of any examples of stylistic voice using adults, told in third person? Was it as effective as a first-person stylistic voice?

If you’re on the edge about whether or not to write a character’s unique voicing, take heart. Mark Twain had never seen it before, but did it anyway. Emma Donoghue received some unkind reviews of Room because of her style choice, and probably cries about it in front of her wall full of awards. Just kidding. She doesn’t. And Holden Caulfield wouldn’t be one of the most notorious voices in literature if Salinger hadn’t let him. Tell your character’s story in the most authentic way possible, even if that includes letting him or her speak for him/herself.

 

Keep It SMART in 2015

31 December 2014 | Comments Off | Quincy Allen

Tomorrow is the beginning of a new year. Instead of making an unrealistic resolution for the next year, apply the SMART methodology and set your goals with the intent of actually reaching them.

I don’t remember the first time I heard about SMART goals, but from the first time I used the methodology, it worked. Applying it to my writing goals was equally successful, and it’s something I do every year.

SMART goals are simply this: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. Let me give you an example from my 2014 writing goals.

“By December 31st, I will have submitted no less than twenty stories to markets worldwide and will notch my first professionally paid sale.”

Using my goal as an example, here’s how I apply the methodology simply by asking and answering the following questions:

Is my goal Specific? Yes. I clearly defined what the goal was with a specific number of stories to submit and one professional sale.

Is my goal Measurable? Yes. I had a yardstick of twenty submittals to measure my progress against throughout the year, as well as the one professional sale.

Is my goal Attainable? Yes. Caution – attainability is highly subjective. Did I think my goal was attainable? Yes. I’ve submitted more than twenty stories in a year before, but a professionally paid short fiction sale eluded me. I felt I was ready to do so, and therefore the goal was attainable.

Is my goal Realistic? Again, this is a subjective goal but I felt I could submit the number of stories. Was it realistic to believe I was ready for a professional sale? To me, yes. I’ve been writing professionally for five years and I felt it was time. Could I have been wrong? Sure, but it was a realistic goal. Saying I would submit fifty times and make ten professional sales would have been unrealistic.

Finally, is my goal Timely? Yes, I put a date on it. Having that mark on the wall helped me stay focused on short fiction sales while I worked my day job, raised my kids, was a supportive husband, and sold a debut novel. The date is not a measurement. It’s an accountability tool and without it, I may not have been able to reach my goal. To date, I’ve submitted stories to contests and markets twenty-one times this year. I’ve had three sales, and one of them was a professionally qualifying sale.

Using the SMART methodology allows me to set and manage goals by making myself accountable to the specific requirements of the goal and forcing me to look realistically at where I am as a writer not where I think I should be. When I apply SMART to what I want my goals to be, I can stop thinking about the “what if” possibilities and focus on what I know that I can do. The rest will take care of itself.

Stay away from resolutions that will fade as January passes. Set SMART goals and make the most out of 2015.


 

 

Kevin Ikenberry writes after his kids go to bed. His day jobs for the last twenty years have revolved around space, so it’s no surprise he writes primarily science fiction. Kevin’s debut novel will be published by Red Adept Publishing in late 2015. You can find him online at www.kevinikenberry.com or on Twitter @TheWriterIke

 

 

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