The Fictorians

Pluck, Pity Parties and Prose – What I Like Best and What Doesn’t Work

18 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | fictorians

A guest post by James Van Pelt.

By necessity, talking about “likes” explores only the reader’s internal landscape, at least if we talk about published work. Stephen King, for example, said, “Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.”

What a great snark! But Twilight has sold over 100 million copies. At least some people disagree with Stephen King.

If we’re talking about what we “like” in work that is published, and then compare it to unpublished work, the lines between the good and bad seem more distinguishable (but hardly written in stone—John Kennedy Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces was rejected numerous times during Toole’s lifetime, and when his mother tried marketing it after his death, it received seven more rejections before being published and then later won the Pulitzer Prize).

So discussions of what one likes best and what doesn’t work is seriously, severely, and irredeemably personal.

That said, I disliked Stephen R. Donaldson’s first book in the Thomas Covenant series, Lord Foul’s Bane. I don’t think it was the level of the prose that bothered me (because prose problems put me off in a hurry—I had the hardest time with Nicholas Sparks’ The Bridges of Madison County), but I really didn’t like Thomas Covenant himself. I couldn’t root for a guy who seemed like a walking pity party, who didn’t believe that the cool stuff that was happening to him was really happening, and who raped the only decent character he met in the book. I had students talk to me about Donaldson’s series who said, “Oh, you have to keep reading. By the time you get to the third book, it starts to get good.”

Sorry, that’s too far for me to go with a character I don’t like.

I had the same problem with Lev Grossman’s The Magicians. Grossman can flat out write, and sentence by sentence he is a wonder, but Quentin Coldwater, his main character lacks any sense of wonder. Amazing things happen to him. In fact, all of his childhood dreams come true, but no matter what happens, his attitude is, “So now what?”

“So now what?” is the killer of ambition. “So now what?” makes all achievement worthless. You can do magic, but so now what? You find the person you love most loves you back, but so now what? You become king, but so now what? As much as I liked the prose, I couldn’t bring myself to read the second book. I told someone that The Magicians felt to me like, as others have pointed out, Catcher in the Rye meets Hogwarts, and Catcher in the Rye didn’t work for me either.

Good prose and great characters work best for me. I loved Jeff Johnston in Connie Willis’ beautifully written Lincoln’s Dreams. I thought Jo Walton created a wonderful character in Mori in Among Others, and Neil Gaiman brought to life Richard Mayhew for Neverwhere.

Good characters go a long way for me. If the character is combined with compelling prose, I’m hooked I can’t put the book down. Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes are transported by Bradbury’s poetic prose, as is Schmendrick in Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, and so is Stephen Huxley in Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood.

I was on a panel on characterization at WorldCon with Terry Pratchett once. He said that what most often made characters fail for him as a reader was when they were “pluckless.” Characters should have pluck, he said. They should fight to achieve their dreams and try to maintain their sense of selves, even if they are in hopeless situations. I agree with him.

If the writer can combine characters who strive for themselves with sentences that not only don’t stumble over themselves but soar on their own, then I will be a happy reader.

headshotJames Van Pelt has sold over 100 short stories to many of the major science fiction, fantasy, and horror magazines. His work has appeared in numerous ‘year’s best’ anthologies. He also has been a Nebula and John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist. When he’s not writing, he teaches high school and college English in western Colorado. Read his latest collection short science fiction and fantasy stories, FLYING IN THE HEART OF THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE, or find out more at



The Not-So Likable Hero

17 November 2014 | No Comments » | Leigh Galbreath

When thinking about writing this month’s post, I had to think a bit harder than usual. To be honest, I’ve kind of written about the books that have inspired me, and the books that do thing’s so wrong that they stand out, I don’t tend to stick around long enough to really figure out what the writer’s were doing wrong.

Well, sometimes it’s obvious. There was that one book where the “hero” of the story rapes a innocent young girl. Then there was that other book where the author has this huge fight scene where the hero was doing a bunch of really cool things in quick succession, and the author stops to say, “but that’s not all!”, like he’s selling me something.

Other times, it’s not so obvious. I get confused or bored or just wonder when something important was going to happen. When I find myself in that situation, I just put the book down and move on. Though, that doesn’t happen often. I don’t know if I’m just really good at finding books I like or I’m just easy to please, but it takes a bit to turn me off a story.

So, like I said, I had to think a bit to find a story I could write about this month, and I hit upon a bit of Shakespeare that I read a bit ago, and then saw on stage, that was somewhat new to me. It’s a lesser known tragedy called Coriolanus, and it got me thinking about how I write heroes in my stories.

Honestly, I’m not a fan of writing heroes. My heroes are a bit boring. I guess I make them a little too straight-laced, a little too clean-cut to be interesting. This is probably why I gravitate to villains. Bad guys are more interesting, and far more fun to write, in my opinion.

For those who don’t know this play, it’s about a Roman general named Caius Marcius, who’s really good at his job, is loved by his family and friends, and despised by the populace. To tell the truth, the populace has kind of reason to hate the guy. I mean, we first meet him as he’s putting down a food riot spitting vitriol at the people and pretty much saying that they’re inconstant and can’t be trusted. Well, the guy’s kind of a jerk about it.

Anyway, Marcius goes off to war, practically conquers the city Corioli by himself, thereby gaining the name Coriolanus, almost gets elected Consul of the republic but gets banished from Rome instead when he loses it and goes on another rant against the common people, then joins the enemy and nearly conquers Rome but doesn’t because his mother and wife convince him to back down, then gets killed by the aforementioned enemy for getting talked out of war by two women. Though that summary doesn’t really show it, it’s a play about politics and what it means to be a political figure.

So, what makes Coriolanus so interesting to me? It’s how Shakespeare takes a guy who’s kind of a jerkface and overcomes that flaw by giving him one inspiring character trait. For Coriolanus, it’s his conviction. The guy believes what he says. He believes in Rome, in fighting for the people, and more than anything, in standing for what one believes, even when others don’t.

It’s a powerful thing, to have that kind of conviction. Belief like that grants the believer an awesome amount of charisma and charm they would not have otherwise. Coriolanus certainly wouldn’t. He’s a bit of an elitist prick, really. Yet, his wife is so distraught when he goes to war, she refuses to leave the house. His best friend, a politician himself, thinks Coriolanus could walk on water if he needed to. Heck, after getting banished, the guy even manages to talk his greatest enemy into giving him half his army, even after they’ve both vowed to kill each other on numerous occasions.

So, what has this shown me about heroes? For me, who has such issues with writing heroes, it helps solidify something that I’ve been working on learning for a while. That heroes aren’t heroes all the time. They are just humans with something about them that is extraordinary, and I’ve come to realize over the years that the more flawed a character is, the more human they seem. Coriolanus is a great example of that. A flawed human with one trait that makes him better than the norm.

A Tale of Two Readers; or, Everybody Wins

14 November 2014 | 2 Comments » | Kristin Luna

You could say my husband Nic and I are into books. I write them, and read up to sixty a year. Nic reads anywhere from twenty to seventy a year. We love books so much, we had our engagement pictures taken in a library.



Nic and I agree on a lot of things, but there is one major difference between us that frequents our discussions: why we read. I read stories to feel, to experience, to learn and unravel the complexities of life. Nic reads for the story. He reads to be entertained. He can stomach atrocious writing if the story is good. For me, bad writing just flat out ruins a story. This is why he can read Terry Goodkind and I just can’t. (Sorry, Terry!)

Every now and then, Nic allows me to suggest one of my favorite literary fiction books, and he suggests an enormous fantasy tome to me. These suggestions have been both hit and miss for both of us. As it turns out, this is because Nic’s brain and my brain are working in two completely different ways while we are reading.

Researchers at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging found interesting results when they hooked up readers to a fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The researchers gave two test groups a passage from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. They asked one group to read as if they were reading for pleasure, and asked the other group to read the text closely, as if they were reading it for a literary criticism class. “The subjects were using completely different parts of their brains when reading the same passages, depending on whether they were reading them for fun, or for analysis.”

Most shocking of all, and detrimental to my argument that how I read is better than how Nic reads, is that neither way of reading is superior to the other. “Reading rigorously and analyzing the ideas presented and even the structure of the language and how the ideas are presented exercises one mode of functioning in our brains, and cultivates that mode. Reading just for the fun of it exercises another mode of functioning, and cultivates it. Both are necessary to see the world around us clearly, from a balanced point of view.”

What Nic and I can celebrate is that we both win. Many studies have shown that reading, whether it’s Wizard’s First Rule or The Grapes of Wrath, promotes biological changes within the body, can change how we act, how our brains connect and function, and how we empathize in social situations. Reading slowly can even reduce stress.

So as you read this month’s blog posts about bad and good writing, just remember one important thing: no matter what you read, you win.

Learning from the Masters

12 November 2014 | 1 Comment » | Jace Sanders

les-miserables-jean-valjean-hugh-jackman-candlesticksI’ve converted my den into a writing sanctuary, filled with souvenirs from my vicarious and real lives. On the corners of my desk are two matching silver candlesticks to remind me of the lessons learned from reading Les Miserables.

Hugo, Melville, Tolkien, Twain, and Lewis have all taken me on unforgettable journeys, and it might sound cliché but their writings have had a profound effect on my mortal existence. This post was meant to be about them, but I was invited on a journey last week by another amazing author and I must write about that experience.

David Farland is the author of the Runelords and many other works of fiction. And his books are fantastic, but that isn’t what I’m writing about in this post. Farland pulled back the curtain and gave us a look behind the scenes of becoming a successful author.

When I first started writing, I tried my best to adopt Victor Hugo’s omniscient style of point of view and was surprised when my writing was met with strong criticism for doing so. Farland explained that two centuries ago, many writers would jump around the characters’ minds much like a movie in omniscient POV, but with the developments of film this style of writing no longer worked for the readers. The one thing that books offer above film today is the ability to become intimately involved in the mind of the Point of View character.

Farland’s classes are offered online and in person. I’ve been to similar courses before but was never taught by this level of insight and genius. I have been struggling with several short stories that I started to write but had difficulty finishing because I didn’t know where to take them. I had strong characters and setting but I lacked conflict. I struggled to place my creations into hard situations that might cause them to change.

Jean Valjean is my all-time favorite character. Analyzing it now, I see that what made me fall in love with him, as a protagonist was the pain and suffering he endured. The irrationality and unfairness of receiving a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread played on the Man vs. Society conflict in the story. (I know it was compounded because he tried to escape several times). And the bread wasn’t even for him, but his starving nieces and nephews, which endeared me to him further. Farland called this “petting the dog.”

In Farland’s class I learned that characters of the story didn’t necessarily need to be people. I used to think Javert was the antagonist of the story but now I see him as the contagonist. The real antagonist is society, selfish and unwilling to help the miserables.

Javert and Valjean were both good and bad. They both believed they knew what was right and for the most part tried to live according to their moral code. Both illustrated the Man vs. Society conflict and in the end it turned out that society was wrong. Valjean refused to bend his moral code and was blessed by providence while Javert struggled to see a world beyond himself and so he took his own life.

LesMisThenardierHugo’s genius is found in how his characters struggle through the conflict they are placed in and how their conflicts play off of the other characters. For instance, most that have only seen the play version of the story do not realize that Eponine is Gavroche’s sister, children of Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier who changed their name when they moved to Paris. One of the most touching parts of the story to me is at the wedding party when the Thenardiers show up to loot the guests, seemingly celebrating in the wake of the barricade where they lost two of their children who saw something greater than themselves and were willing to sacrifice their lives for that cause.

Farland showed us how to develop such a story by brainstorming character conflicts. Not just the protagonist against the antagonist but analyzing how every character would interact with every other character. There may be multiple protagonists or antagonists or contagonists and so on. As I have employed this type of brainstorming, I’ve been able to finish my stories.

I am grateful to the masters of old like Victor Hugo and to the masters of today like David Farland. I’ve added a book to my writing sanctuary, Million Dollar Outlines.


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