Author Archives: Tristan Brand

Writing What You’re Not

Laja followed Verl into the human bar, slithering closer to him than was polite, as she feared getting left behind more than the breach in etiquette. Inside, her eyestalks recoiled from the harsh fluorescent light. As her eyes adjusted, she saw that the room was filled to the brim with the strange pasty-skinned creatures, crammed together eight to a table. So many sharing the same air! She ran a tentacle over her breathing apparatus, making sure it was secured. The human’s language, grunting linear syllabic expressions, made her ears hurt. Ugly / Stupid / Why are we here? she mind-sang to Verl, who, judging by the quivering of his own tentacles, was as horrified as she.

 

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One of the great things about writing speculative fiction is we aren’t limited to telling stories only from a human’s perspective. Our characters can be dogs or dragons or golems or even aliens, like Laja and Verl from the passage above. Though often non-human characters play second-fiddle to a human protagonist, sometimes they take the stage themselves and we, as readers, can imagine what it might be like to walk (or slither) about as another species entirely.

Of course, writing from a non-human point of view presents its own set of challenges, as we writers are all too human (well, most of us, anyway.) Our experience is fundamentally different than that of a dog’s or a dragon’s. Still, this shouldn’t stop us – it’s not like all humans see the world the same. Writers must write characters of different genders, different ages, different cultures, and of different belief systems. Each time we have to stretch our imagination and try to understand the other. There’s no reason we can’t do the same for characters of different species.

I’ve always had a particular love for non-human characters. Aside from the fun of imagining what it might be like to have wings or a tail, they can add a lot to a story by giving us a radically different perspective on things we might find mundane. Take the passage about aliens at a bar from above. Most humans would find nothing odd about stepping into a crowded bar, but for a pair of aliens with totally different cultural and physical norms, the experience becomes a harrowing one. It gives us, as readers, an opportunity to imagine what we might look to beings who aren’t used to us or our behavior. I’ve found such shifts in perspective can lead to unexpected insights and add a great deal to a story.

The passage also demonstrates some of the techniques you can use in writing a non-human character. The physicality of the character is different. Laja doesn’t walk, she slithers. She doesn’t use her hands, she uses tentacles. She doesn’t have regular eyes but instead, eyestalks. Such details are critical in making her perspective believable.

There are key cultural differences too. Laja’s horror at how tightly the humans sit together, and her concern that following her companion too closely might be considered rude, show a fundamental difference in how she see’s personal space. Her reaction to their language and her own mind-song demonstrates major differences in communication and language.

There’s a trap here, where in our attempts to write a non-human character as believably as possible, we let the differences in their culture and physicality interfere with the story. I’m working on a novel right now from the perspective of a dog. A real dog probably spends an inordinate amount of time sorting through scents, but if I spent paragraph after paragraph simply describing what everything smelled like, no one would want to read past page two. It’s important to find the proper balance between keeping the perspective compelling and not letting it get in the way of the story.

One example of a very well done non-human point of view is Scriber from Vernor Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep. Scriber is part of a race called the Tines, wolf-like creatures that live in packs governed by hive-minds. One subplot of the novel follows Scriber as he tries to save the lives of two human children stranded on his planet. Vinge paints a vivid picture of the Tines’ world, as well as what it might be like to be a being that has control of multiple individual bodies.

For those interested in reading more novels that feature non-human perspectives, here are a few more examples I recommend checking out:

  • TenSoon, from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy. TenSoon is a kandra, a being that can absorb a dead body of any other species and takes its form. In particular, I think Brandon does a wonderful job of creating a unique culture for the Kandra, who are bound by a contract that prevents them from doing violence.
  • Chet, from Dog On It by Spencer Quinn. A rare example from a non-speculative fiction genre, the novel is told from the point of view of Chet the dog, owned by a detective named Bernie.
  • Auron from Dragon Champion by E. E. Knight. As ubiquitous as dragons are in fantasy, novels where they get significant point-of-views seem rare. All of Knight’s novels in this series are told from the point of view of dragons born of the same clutch, who find themselves orphaned at a young age and forced to fend for themselves.

 

Lovable Monsters

I’ve loved my share of monsters.

As a reader, I mean. Usually, they’re the kind of monsters who kill bad people. But sometimes, even when they don’t, you can still understand them, empathize with them, and even connect with them, a topic that Colette and Nancy have touched on in their posts this month.

Then, I met a really nasty sort. A crippled torturer by the name of Sand dan Glokta who lurked within the pages of Joe Abercrombies First Law trilogy. Glokta is even one of the major PoV characters. He’s exactly the type of character that seems designed to be hated. Funny thing is, I didn’t hate him. In fact, he may be one of my favorite characters ever, and judging by discussions I’ve read online, I’m not alone.

The writer in me wants to know why Glokta is so compelling. On the surface, he seems indefensible. His sense of morality is anemic at best. Some of his victims may be deserving, but others are less so. There’s no obvious “save the cat” style scene early on to create likeability. Instead, I think Abercrombie uses a more subtle series of techniques that allows readers to connect with Glokta.

First, introspection. Immediately upon being introduced to Glokta we find him asking himself, why do I do it? This motif continues throughout his character arc. Many of us find ourselves, at some point in our lives, questioning what we’re doing, trying to figure out how we got there. Glokta’s inner reflections also give us hope that he might redeem himself still. That he might realize what he’s doing is wrong. They turn him from a monster to a flawed human.

Second, he’s understandable. Once a famed officer and accomplished duelist, Glokta was captured by his enemies and tortured for two years. The experience left him badly crippled and in constant pain. Returning home, he found himself turned away by many of his friends and left with few options, ended up joining the inquisition. Though we might find him morally repugnant, we can still imagine how bitter the world most look to Glokta, filtered through so much bitterness and pain, for we all have our own dark moments where we contemplate, if briefly, doing dark things.

Third, his enemies are worse than he is. The old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ is an adage for a reason. Glokta serves as antagonist to some truly vile people. In comparison, he seems downright heroic at times, as he fights against deeply rooted corruption and powerful organizations.

Fourth, Abercrombie makes deft use of authorial sleight-of-hand. Whereas we get many pages of Glokta reflecting on things and plotting against his enemies, torture is given relatively few, if any at all. Abercrombie often fades to black before the worst parts, especially early on in the series. This speaks to the power of editing. Just as in reality shows, real people can seem heroic or villainous depending on which few minutes of the day we see them, so can characters in books.

Fifth, tone. The world in the First Law is not a happy one. The novel sets different expectations from the start. The characters are all heavily flawed. There is no immaculate hero for us to set Glokta next to. His pain, his shades of gray, even his acts of evil, fit well within the world.

Not all readers will enjoy a character like Glokta. I’m sure more than a few are so repulsed by him that they wouldn’t finish the series. But, as Abercrombie and other authors like George R.R. Martin have shown, there’s clearly an audience for such characters. They take a great deal of mastery to write without alienating your entire readership, so I wouldn’t advise writing one lightly, but if you do, study Glokta carefully. And maybe you’ll find yourself loving a monster too.

Dream Big Enough to Fail

I hate failing.

Have ever since I was a kid. When I’d do something wrong, even something as small as a couple wrong answers on a spelling test, I’d get this horrible sinking feeling in my gut and it would just sit there like a lump of coal. I’d go to bed that night with the terrifying certainty that I would be forever judged by that failure. We’re sorry sir, I’d imagine a faceless personification of the future telling me, people who don’t score well on spelling tests aren’t allowed to go to college, or get good jobs, or ever have fun again.

If I could just figure out how to be better at things, I thought. If I could just figure out how to never make mistakes or do anything wrong, why, then I could be a success. Because that’s how successful people did it. By being perfect.

So there you go. Want to do well at life? Just never do anything wrong. Ever.

Then something funny happened. I started to learn more about these successful people, and I discovered that not only did they fail, they often failed repeatedly. Spectacularly. Sometimes even disastrously. See, I was missing a key thing. Failure, as painful and un-fun as it is, is also immensely educational, often more so than success. The pain and self-reflection that failure causes can lead to personal growth that we’d never have experienced had we only succeeded.

I learned this first hand in a big way when I failed quals in grad-school. It felt like the path I’d been on my entire life had abruptly ended in a cliff. But what I learned from that experience, about myself, about how I best work, about what I need to be happy, has allowed me to take life in an entirely new direction. I never would have gotten my current job without that failure, nor would I have tried my hand at writing. You see, I always assumed I’d fail as a writer too, but after grad school, I figured, why not give it a go?

I see the same thing in writing. Failed scenes germinate the seeds for great scenes. Ideas from failed novels become the bones for great novels. Heck, the first draft of this blog post was an incoherent mishmash of thoughts that I hated so much I wanted to cry. But I’ve started to realize how necessary all these failures are. I want to be a great writer someday, and every great writer I know failed a lot. (Just ask best-selling author Kevin J. Anderson about his “Writer With No Future” award.)

It’s the start of a new year, a time to think about our goals for 2014. I know so many people who only pick goals they know they can achieve. I used to be one of those people. But we can’t let the fear of failure stop us from striving for great things. So I say this: Set goals that are hard, daring, goals that might even seem mildly insane. Goals you may very well fail to achieve. And that’s okay, too, because this is as much about the journey as it is the result.

My goals for 2014? I want to finish polishing my first novel into something people will both love and remember, self-publish it, and convince thousands of people to buy it. I want to write the first two novels of a new seven book fantasy series that will be even better. I want to enter and place in the Writers of the Future contest. I want to outline an epic series that will rival Sanderson and Rothfuss’s best work.

I’ve got to be honest with you. As a poker player, I wouldn’t recommend betting on me pulling all this off. Setting daring goals doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be realistic about the outcome. But what I do firmly believe is that trying to do all of this won’t hurt, that even if I don’t sell thousands of copies and don’t finish as many novels as I want and don’t come up with a great epic fantasy outline, I’ll still learn a ton and I’ll end the year a better writer than I started. And hey, maybe the stars and planets will all align and I’ll surprise everyone, including myself.

I still hate failing, but these days, I’m less afraid of it.

 

One Saturday with Sean

2011 was the year I first started writing in earnest. I made it my goal to write a new novel every three months. I wasn’t trying to produce finished products but rather to prove to myself I could write a novel start-to-finish, as well as to experiment with different writing styles and genres to see what worked for me.

I spent seven years in school learning math. One of the nice things about a subject like mathematics is constant and (mostly) objective feedback. A professor will grade your homework assignments and exams, the results of which serves as data to help you improve your process. You learn when you’ve done something right and when you’ve done something wrong.

Not so, in writing. You can spend days hammering away at a piece and end up with something that isn’t clearly good or bad. That’s where I found myself. After writing three practice novels, I was left frustrated. Some days they’d seem promising; other days, hopeless. I don’t mind doing things wrong as long as I know what I’m doing wrong, but with writing I couldn’t always tell the difference. I hated not knowing. I’d approach each writing session with a feeling of dread, no idea if I was moving forward or backward.

Fortunately, I had my best friend Sean.

Sean’s not a heavy reader and didn’t know a ton about the fantasy genre. He was running his own business at the time and worked so many hours I don’t know how he stayed sane. Despite all that, during one of his rare free weekends right around when I was finishing that third novel, Sean chose to spare the time to fly up and visit me. We didn’t go to a movie or play video games. Instead, we spent an entire Saturday in front of a white-board while I went through everything I’d done in trying to write that novel.

I went through my plot in excruciating detail, talking as much about my process as I did my characters. I talked about what I wanted for the novel, an epic fantasy story about a human and dragon raised as foster brothers. About how a promising start fell apart in the third act because I didn’t know what to do with half my side-characters. I talked about my struggles with dialogue and action sequences, and how my plan for a really cool revelation toward the end fizzled because I couldn’t come up with anything even remotely clever.

Throughout it all, Sean asked questions, made comments, gave me his take. Some things he liked, others he didn’t. He’s got great intuition for when something doesn’t feel right, and with his help we were able to pinpoint some missteps I made along the way. In particular we figured out that Coren, one of the main characters, didn’t have clear goals much of the time, which left some key conflicts vague and important scenes weak. I was too close to the novel to see that, but when Sean pointed it out things became much clearer. Yeah, I had made some mistakes, but now I knew why, and I knew I could fix it in the future.

Now, I need to mention, Sean didn’t come up and spend his day talking about my failed novel because I begged him to. It was all his idea. He wanted to come. He knew how important writing was to me and wanted to support me. He didn’t just critique my ideas, he told me which ones he loved. Actually being able to see the excitement in someone else’s face as I described a particular character or conflict felt amazing. It showed me that even though the novel hadn’t worked as a whole, at least it had potential.

That Saturday took me out of my mental rut. It gave me the fuel I needed to move on to the next project, and it helped me remember that no matter how lonely writing sometimes feels, as long as you have good friends, you never truly have to do it alone.