Tag Archives: Character

Finishing What You Start, Or Not

When I first started writing fiction in 2009, one of the first things I learned were Heinlein’s Rules. While they all have a place in the heart of every writer, the one that sticks out the most to me is “Finish What You Start.” It’s the single most often prescribed bit of writing advice I give to aspiring authors. The ability to sit down and finish a story, good or bad, is critical to learning the craft. However, I’ve also come to understand (and experience) that there are simply times when you shouldn’t finish what you start – you should put it down and walk away.

I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for the last several years and I’ve toyed with outlining it here and fleshing out dialogue and characters there and I decided that I’d sit down on really focus on it last year. My intent was to write about 10,000 words and really determine if the story was something I could commit to fully. While it sounded good to me, and I was pretty sure I could write it, could I make it an authentic story? Could I answer the most important question in every reader’s mind – “Who gives $&@#?” I believed I could and I promptly sat down wrote about 8,500 words and stopped dead – seriously, like in the middle of a sentence.

At the time, I believe the words I spoke to myself were “What in the hell are you doing, Kevin?” My great idea wasn’t as great as I’d believed it to be. From my reading and occasional instruction of outlining and character dynamics, I realized that while I had a fun premise to explore, my character was simply horrible. I’d designed goals for them and tried valiantly to put them into some type of story line capable of captivating an audience. On paper, everything was a fit, but I realized that I didn’t “love” my protagonist. In fact, I kinda loathed them. Every time I wrote their dialog in that 8,500 starter, I cringed. It got to the point at the end that I threw up my hands and said “I’m not finishing this.”

A few years ago, this would have bothered me tremendously. Having learned that finishing what you start is critical to success as a writer, my younger self would’ve pressed on and turned out something vaguely akin to a novel that was destined for the circular file. Instead, I realized that while I’d seemingly done my homework, outlined and plotted the story, and built my character in a way I thought would work – the whole mess didn’t come together. Was it a result of my talent? Or my motivation? Or did I just not believe in the story anymore? Your guess is as good as mine. What mattered was that my brain said it was time to stop – that I wasn’t getting anywhere fast and that I was laboring over a first draft instead of letting the ideas around my outline flow. That story went into the dark recesses of my hard drive likely never to be heard from again. It simply didn’t work. I didn’t need to send it to my first reader or any beta readers – I could sense that the story was dead on arrival and I stopped.

I recently went back at looked at what I’d written in the 8,500 word, suddenly truncated start and completely agreed with my decision. In some similar cases, I’ve looked at something with fresh eyes and starting typing anew – pushing that gestated idea to finalization. As I read the first chapter, I thought I might be able to do just that. By the end of chapter three, I knew it was a lost cause. That character, and their storyline, went into the experience file. From there, I went back to another one of Heinlein’s rules – “Write something else.”

I’ve been busy ever since.

Plotting by Character Arcs Instead of Outlines

Plotting. Plodding. There’s a reason those words look and sound similar. Sometimes, plotting a novel can take all the fun out of actually writing the thing. With every move and event preordained, what’s left to surprise the writer while writing?

If prewriting is getting you down, I offer you an alternative: prewriting by way of character arcs.

If prewriting isn’t getting you down and you’re hardcore geeking out over it, I still recommend these books by K.M. Weiland: Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel.

Character arc. What is it? Simply, it’s the journey the character takes in a story. Expanding further, there are three types of common character arcs, according to K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs: Positive (what we usually see in movies, books, and television, also known as the hero character arc), Flat (wherein the character does not change but has the wisdom of what is right throughout the entire story, an example being the main character’s teacher or mentor), and Negative (this could be an antagonist’s character arc, or a character arc in which the character destroys others and themselves as well).

Let’s say you’d like to write a Positive Character Arc for NaNoWriMo. What does that look like? Let’s go through K.M. Weiland’s Positive Character Arc structure.

  1. Exposition – The Lie Your Character Believes
    • Where does your character start the novel, internally speaking? Is everything perfect, utopian? Does everything suck? Does the character simply believe everything is perfect (aka the character is lying to themselves)? Set up a characteristic moment for your reader that displays your character’s…eh, character. Set them up in a fairly normal situation or normal day. And also, organize your character’s internal storm: what does the character want? Now, what does the character need?
  2. Exposition – Your Character’s Past
    • Weiland calls this the character’s ghost. What happened to your character to make them believe that they need what they want and ignore what they truly need? Why does the character need to change?
  3.  Act One
    • Set up your character’s life in this act. Make sure their motivation(s) is clear. What is he after? What does she want?
    • First Plot Point – something happens here that expands your character’s mind and vision. “The point of no return.”
  4. Act Two, Part One
    • Adventure! That’s what your character will be doing here. Fumbling around, trying to figure things out, and definitely failing.
  5. Midpoint
    • My favorite part in a story; the character’s realization. Maybe he’s in over his head. Maybe she realizes there’s a lot more than meets the eye. It’s the turning point not only in your story, but in your character’s thinking and possibly motivation.
  6. Act Two, Part Two
    • This is the part where your character starts taking control. What does your character need to do to take charge?
  7. The Third Plot Point
    • Your character’s low moment. What happened? Is morale down, did they lose something as big as a battle? The character can no longer evade the truth, they must look at it in the eye and accept it.
  8. Act Three
    • The ramp up before the climax! Intensity, speed! Thrusters on full! In one word, your character is: determined.
  9. Climax
    • Weiland describes the climax as the reason for the story. This is where your character realizes the truth was worth the heartache and pain along the way. The reason for the journey.
  10. The Resolution
    • Now you can show the character living the truth instead of living in the lie they first believed at the beginning of the journey.

Instead of writing your story around what happens, with this method, you’re writing your story around what your character does to push the plot. I personally find these stories more engaging than stories where events happen to the character. I like to see the main character in control, messing up, making amends, and patching things up on their own.

I’d like to take a final moment to remind you that there is no wrong or right way to pre-write. The way that works for you IS the best way, whether that means a big, juicy outline, a short outline, pages and pages of character arcs, or jumping right in. In the end, we all must eventually jump in and write.

As Much Weirdness as Will Hang Together

Me again! A bit earlier in the month, I spoke about one of my favorite authors, Daniel Abraham, and what I believe constitutes the “special sauce” that separates his writing from that of others.

Now, I’ll be subjecting you, dear readers, to my analysis of my own writing. It tends to grow from seeds. I say “seeds” in the plural rather than the singular because I rarely begin a story with a single idea. A single interesting idea is generally not enough (for me at least) to build a story upon. I’ll file the idea away (writing it down if I’m smart) and wait until another, totally different idea, strikes me. If I find that this second idea is challenging–but not impossible–to merge with the earlier notion, a strange kind of resonance begins and my inspiration module kicks into gear. One thing builds upon another builds upon another and on and on they snowball.

That’s how two disconnected ideas:

  1. A race of beings imprisoned in a miniature replica of an entire world
  2. Cities built into the bones of mountain-sized monsters

merged to create the world of Unwilling Souls. These two ideas had, initially, nothing to do with one another. They wouldn’t hang together as-is, so they required tweaking.

Who was this race of imprisoned beings, and why had they been locked away? I decided that these were the gods, locked away in a human-built prison after a failed attempt to exterminate humankind. And the prison itself, rather than simply being a replica of the outside world stored in some fantasy version of the Indiana Jones warehouse, was in fact carved into the very core of the outer world. Prisons require jailers, who require a place to live. The center of a planet is not terribly comfortable and is rather full, so I envisioned a hollowed-out space surrounding the prison-core itself, the magma of the mantle held in check by magic of immense power. In this hollow space, the jailers would live and work, protecting the surface world above from the gods that had sought to destroy them. These jailers would be blacksmiths of a sort, for since the core of an Earthlike planet is made of metal, metalworkers would be needed to maintain this prison of the gods.

So where do the giant beast-bones come in, and why do people live in them rather than building normal cities? Well there were normal cities, it turns out, before the gods began their war against humankind. But in the last gasps of that war, as they realized they were going to lose, the gods summoned up great beasts of truly mind-boggling size (for a real-world comparison, these would laugh at kaiju, chowing down easily on any iteration of Godzilla you can think of). These beasts went on to all remaining cities as well as most of the world before humankind rallied and killed them in turn. Then, having little else to base rebuilding their civilization, they turned to the bones of these beasts and used them as foundations for their new homes. Being magical in nature, the bodies lingered on well past when they otherwise would have. They also retained some other … interesting properties.

So there we have it. A setting chock-full of weirdness that nonetheless hangs together coherently. Or at least, my definition of coherently. What? And incidentally, I’ll be hosting the blog in July for an entire MONTH of good stuff about setting, so stay tuned!

But setting is only part of a story, and worldbuilding alone is not enough. It’s characters that drive a story, after all. And in a world this strange, I wanted characters who were grounded in believable (if larger-than-life) behaviors and personalities. The first story I conceived of for this world was a short story (serving as a prequel to the novels) based a little on one of the oldest there is: Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers. Larimaine and Cassia mine were called. Because Larimaine’s ancestors had opposed the gods in the war and Cassia’s had joined with them, their relationship struggled to bridge an almost endless societal divide. (Also, Larimaine wasn’t nearly good enough for Cassia). They don’t work out, of course, being star-crossed and therefore tragic (but not, like, DEAD tragic) by nature.

I write this way, with pieces finding odd connections to other pieces, because I find great joy in it. An individual idea will rarely spark my interest enough grow into something lager. But as multiple ideas start crashing around together, they bring out nuances in one another they could never have achieved alone. Finding these connections, finding ways to make them all fit together like puzzle pieces from different sets merging to form a picture both impossible and utterly believable is what keeps pulling me back to the keyboard. I’ve always been fascinated with how the world works, with how pieces of science and society and behavior fit together.

Writing fantasy is, at its core, simply a way of determining how a world works. It’s a secret sauce tasty to both myself and, so far at least, my readers!

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His novels Unwilling Souls and Ungrateful God are available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Don’t Forget to Tweak the Recipe

Bakery dessertsAs Guy discussed yesterday, sometimes it’s necessary to change up an author’s approach and writing style when developing stories in very different genres. It’s also important to make sure different stories in the same genre feel unique and fresh, even though they’re recognizable as written by the same author.

You can use your own special sauce, but still need to tweak the recipe so stories don’t feel so similar readers feel bored or frustrated.

A great example comes to mind. Long-time favorite author, David Eddings. He wrote great epic fantasy, and part of his special sauce included large casts of endearing characters. Sure, a lot of those characters easily fit into fantasy tropes, but he portrayed them with flair and humor and made them real. As a young reader, the characters felt alive to me, like long-time friends, and I was eager to share in their adventures.

Eddings introduced some of my all-time favorite characters in The Belgariad, a five-book series that followed the development and growth of the simple farm boy Garion until he matured into Belgarion, the mighty sorcerer and king of a league of nations. Cool stuff. Belgarath, the ancient and grumpy old sorcerer was a hoot to read about. Silk, the spy/assassin/thief, fascinated me, while Barak, the hulking viking-type warrior was a classic brute with a heart of gold.

Then in The Mallorean, Eddings again launches into a very similar tale, using the same beloved characters. That second five-book series was one of my favorites as a teen. The characters were well developed, they played off of each other extremely well, and their adventures were fun and creative. Eddings even poked fun at the fact that the second series was so similar to the first, and that actually worked really well.

A later series that Eddings wrote offers a cautionary tale, though. The Elenium, although a fantastic series in its own right, included perhaps too much of Eddings’ special sauce. Although on its face the story is very different from the epics centered around Garion, it explored very similar concepts. The most striking similarity was how the characters interacted. The makeup of the protagonist team was very different, but it felt like they were falling into the same patterns as the group of companions in the Belgariad and the Mallorean. For me that made it harder to enjoy the books because it felt like Eddings was trying to imbue the same hearts into his cast. That was sad, because they were really good books, but they needed a little more space of their own to really shine. I wonder sometimes, if I had read them first, would I have loved the Elenium more and felt the Mallorean was too much of a copycat?

I still recommend reading all of those series. They’re classics and well worth the read. I’ve found that with pretty much every favorite author, there are lessons I can learn. With Eddings, it’s distinguishing the different series a little more. I’m grateful to find examples of what works and maybe what doesn’t already out there to learn from and make my own writing that much better.

So develop your special sauce, be aware of it, and at times be sure to change up the recipe with a new story or series.

About the Author: Frank Morin

Author Frank Morin
Rune Warrior coverFrank Morin loves good stories in every form. When not writing or trying to keep up with his active family, he’s often found hiking, camping, Scuba diving, or enjoying other outdoor activities. For updates on upcoming releases of his popular Petralist YA fantasy novels, or his fast-paced Facetakers Urban Fantasy/Historical thrillers, check his website: www.frankmorin.org