Category Archives: Believability

Real Characters

Like many of you, I read a lot. I love the new stuff and the classics. LOTR, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, all fantastic books. But there is no denying that they hold a different voice than novels of today. It’s not just words either. 

First Person POV like, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought…” has changed. Before it was like the telling of something that happened. But now, even though most First Person POVs are written in past tense, there is a closeness to them that makes it feel as if it is happening now. Present tense often has the effect of feeling like it is taking place in the near future.

First Person today or Close Third allow the reader to get inside the POV character’s head. This sets the medium apart from movies or television and I would propose that this is why the book is most often better than the movie.

For an author to do this effectively, the character needs to be alive with real thoughts and preferences and opinions. How else will they react to what comes their way? And isn’t this fantastic story telling? When the characters take hold and even argue with us the author.

I saw a documentary about the filming of Indiana Jones, Raiders of the Lost Ark. There is a scene where a samurai guy whips around his sword and taunts Jones. The documentary said that the original script called for an intricate fight scene where Jones eventually beats the Samurai. But Harrison Ford argued that his character had a gun and would simply shoot the Samurai dead. The story was rewritten.

Recently I have been writing a thriller involving a hitman, an FBI agent, a financial guru in witness protection, and I needed another character to round out the mix—a face of the evil corporate conglomerate. Fei. She is a middle-aged Chinese national and she runs a section of the corporation, laundering money made from sex trafficking and drugs.

I’m a discovery writer so often times I start with an idea and see where it goes with a distant idea in mind. I did not expect what Fei decided to do.

I needed her to ask the hitman to kill this guy, but Fei let me know that this was not an easy thing for her to do and that she’d developed feelings for this dude. I pushed it. She had her lover killed. Part of her was sad, and another felt power and control. She handled the death in a very interesting way. Two chapters later and Fei is now a serial killer. I did not expect that at all, but Fei, with her personality, her childhood issues, her lust and disgust for men, her struggling marriage with a husband who is reluctant to come out of the closet, all of these dynamics have formed and created Fei, a person, a character, someone that I would recognize if I bumped into her on the street (and then I’d run like hell in the opposite direction).

Real characters aren’t cliché. They aren’t faceless drones. They are a compilation of many people. They have wants and goals and dreams and they struggle and have weaknesses. And when they are real, we as readers recognize that and the story resonates with us.

I watch people. (Not in a creepy way). I observe their mannerisms. I listen to their word choices. I notice their posture and eye movements. These things make someone unique. And I ask them questions. I listen to how they respond. I strive to understand their ambitions and fears.

All of these mesh and mingle and come out in my writing.

I came up with Jared Sanderson about 7 years ago. He is very real to me. I could describe his physical features that are a mesh of three of my friends. But this little segment, which is his intro into the story, shows a bit of who he is as a character.

“Jared Sanderson gnawed on the side of his thumb as he waited for the attorney. He had forgotten to moisturize so his skin flaked and cracked at the sides of his fingers. By impulse, he chewed away the dead skin, especially when nervous.”

THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
Jace Killan

I live in Arizona with my family, wife and five kids and a little dog. I write fiction, thrillers and soft sci-fi with a little short horror on the side. I hold an MBA and work in finance for a biotechnology firm.

I volunteer with the Boy Scouts, play and write music, and enjoy everything outdoors. I’m also a novice photographer.

You can check out my books here or at my website www.jacekillan.com.

The Series Trap

So you want to write an epic sci-fi or fantasy series… Related image Been there, done that. I know authors who have written double-digit books in their series. I suppose that’s a great thing if it’s making money. But to me there’s a sort of hidden trap in creating a series that becomes self-perpetuating and endless. Part of that may just be my own proclivities as a reader. In general I find three or four books to be about as long as even the best writers can keep my interest in one story, one protagonist, and/or one set of supporting characters. I just have too much interest in other stories to keep going back to that same water hole. So when I started my War Chronicles epic fantasy series, I very deliberately set a story line that would be finished after three, maybe four books. I had no intention or desire to be writing War Chronicles books for years. I wanted to write other stories. Now, had that series taken off like Harry Potter, and publishers were flying to my home to shove money in my mailbox, maybe I’d have a different perspective. But that didn’t happen, so I’m happy with what I did earn on my first series, and am glad that I have since written a sci-fi novel, and am now working on a contemporary murder mystery novel. From the first time I decided to pursue writing as a hobby and (hopefully) a career, I wanted to keep my options open and write widely in different genres. I think that will make me a better writer in all genres. Now, from a career perspective, maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe sticking with one sub-genre for my entire career might be a better way to establish a loyal fan base and churn out stories that are eagerly anticipated by those fans. But even if it is, I’m enjoying my foray into contemporary murder mystery. Who knows, my next book might be a romance novel.

An Infinity of Choices

Let’s engage in a little mental exercise, shall we? At its heart, a story is nothing more than a series of choices made by the author. The author begins a story with a blank page, which is to say, an infinite number of possible choices. They can choose to write about literally anything. Nothing constrains them but the limits of imagination. Then they make a choice. They decide to tell a mystery story, or a fantasy story, or some combination of two of those. Or maybe they don’t make this choice. Maybe their first choice is about their main characters: a shepherd who has been selected to save the world, a rag-tag band of space mercenaries who can’t help but find themselves smack dab in the center of pivotal events in the solar system, the teenage daughter of a terrorist and a business magnate and who is in training to be a jailer of the gods, or the son of an alcoholic caretaker of a hotel closed for the winter forced to confront demons of all sorts. The point is that as soon as that choice is made, many more possibilities vanish. Your main characters will probably not be both loveable space mercenaries and shepherds destined to save the world (I say probably because with sufficient thought and creativity applied to that problem, you could pull it off). By making that first choice and selecting a path, you are foregoing many other paths the story could take. This can be tough as a writer, particularly a new one. Your tendency is to want to cram every cool concept and idea into whatever story you happen to be working on. That’s a mistake and can result in a story being overbloated, but an equally risky move is to try to have your story be too many types of stories, and to cover too many story possibilities, at once. It’s tricky enough to manage your enthusiasm for the length of a single book. Then your story becomes a series, and the problems compound. Unless you (or your publisher) are inhumanly patient enough (as I see it) to hold off on releasing your series until all entries are done, you’re going to have earlier entries out there while you are still writing later entries. There’s going to be something in those earlier entries that you wish you hadn’t included upon hindsight, because it complicates a later entry by introducing a potential for a plot hole when held up against later decisions you want to make, or it just creates a dangling plot thread you wind up not wanting to address. And guess what? Unless that little issue is absurdly minor (in which case, is it really worth fixing?) you aren’t going to be fixing it. It’s out there, part of your story’s canon. So the more you can plan ahead, especially the major stuff, the happier an author you will be. But unless your story is so heavily outlined that nothing is left to chance, there will be something you look back on and think “well, I really wish I hadn’t written that.” Don’t beat yourself up too much about it. It’s an opportunity to actually improve your story, after all! What do I mean by that? Well, those of us who read a lot (and if you want to write fiction, you’d better be among that number) have an unconscious tendency to jump to familiar story beats when trying to plot a story out. If something in a previous volume in your series prevents you from doing this, that’s actually a good thing. Familiar story beats can be good. They are familiar for a reason, after all. But string too many of them together and you wind up with a clichéd, predictable tale. Instead, use this self-imposed obstacle as a goad to think of an unorthodox means around it. Put that creativity to work! Your story will often end up even more interesting for it. And remember at the beginning of this blog when I talked about closing off choices? Well, here’s an area where writing a series can help. If Book 1 is a chase book, it probably also shouldn’t be a slow-burn mystery, or a heist, or a war book. But Book 2 could be one of those things. And Book 3 could be another. Most importantly, don’t let either the infinity of choices or the inevitability of having them taken away from you impact your writing. Each story starts afresh, with limitless possibility of where it can go. And each story results in the inevitable consequence of all the decisions you make along the way.

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, Dragon Writers: An Anthology, and the upcoming Undercurrents: An Anthology of What Lies Beneath. He lives 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.

 

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.