Tag Archives: Mary Pletsch

Misconceptions about the Military

VFWCoversmA large number of fantasy and sci-fi stories feature military characters.  Sometimes it’s because a knight or space marine seems like a more exciting protagonist than a peasant or waiter at the Star Diner.  Or, sometimes the peasant or waiter finds herself leading a revolt against the Empire of Evil, and now all those uniformed troops are out to get her.

At certain points in history, many people in a country will have had at least one family member or friend who’s served in the armed forces, or will have served themselves.  At others, some people might not have any close associates who’ve served.  This is a ground ripe for misconceptions to creep in.  Sometimes these misconceptions imply that military personnel are capable of incredible feats—and then imply personal fault when reality fails to live up to the mythology.  And sometimes these misconceptions feed ugly falsehoods.

  • “Lone wolves” do not make the ideal soldiers.

Being in the military is, to a large part, about learning to work as a team.  Success or failure—and sometimes, even survival—depends on everyone doing their best and working together.  “Lone wolves” might make dramatic protagonists in video games (in which the player gets to defeat all the enemies her/himself) but in real life, nobody wants to be on a team with the guy who can’t get along with anyone else, or whose tendency to ignore orders and “do his own thing” puts the rest of the team in danger.

  • Militaries do not have unlimited equipment/personnel.

“We needed to evacuate the island.  Why didn’t the army send more helicopters?”

The army didn’t have more helicopters to send.

“Why not??”

Well, some were stationed too far away to get there in time.

“How come?”

In case they were needed in those other places.  We can’t psychically guess where helicopters might be needed at any given time.

“Why don’t we just get more helicopters then??”

Helicopters have to come from somewhere.  It takes time to build them.  It also takes money.

(And the same goes for pilots.  You might have ten helicopters and only five available pilots who can fly them.  No, you cannot swap out for a jet pilot.)

“Then why didn’t we put more people in the helicopters we did have?”

Because aircraft have weight limits, beyond which it is dangerous to fly.

The truth is that most military operations are about learning to do the most with the equipment and people you’ve got.  It is never as much or as many as you would want.

If your main character is a soldier, she will have spent much of her career solving problems, often based around “we’re out of this, we’re short of those, and we can’t get you these, so what can you use instead?”

  • It is not always possible to avoid casualties.  Or to say no to missions that might cause casualties.

“Misconceptions About Combat” is a whole other article, but in brief:  not even the best crack shot in the world can reliably “shoot the gun out of the enemy’s hand,” or otherwise render the enemy unable to harm anyone while refraining from killing them.  Commanders often have difficult decisions to make when going back in search of the missing soldier means putting their entire units at risk:  is it fair to ask ten people to gamble their lives for one?  And what if doing so makes the unit unable to carry out their mission?  If someone gets injured, do you evacuate them first, or do you carry out the mission and hope they can hold on?  Leaders are regularly faced with hard choices:  to presume that these choices are “easy” or imply a “lack of caring” do real-life servicepeople a true disservice.

  • Most people don’t join the military “to kill people.”

I’ve been shocked and disgusted to read scenarios which were summed up, in effect, as “well, only soldiers died, so it’s okay.”  The implication is that anyone who “signed up to kill” deserved to be on the receiving end.  After all, why else would anyone join the military?

Patriotism is a potential reason, certainly, but a more common motiviation is opportunity.  “I couldn’t find a job in my area.”  “I wanted to travel/get an education/experience life and I couldn’t afford to do it on my current wages.”  Or, simply, “there’s no other way to learn to fly a fighter jet.”

The military personnel I know are not looking for a legally sanctioned way to commit murder.  Some of them are people who strongly believe in their country and its principles.  Many of them are people who found service to be the best way (sometimes the only way) to improve their lives.  Writing them as though they were criminals does a disservice to the many fine men and women in uniform across the world.

Even though fiction is make-believe, fictional portrayal of groups of people can reinforce real-world thinking.  The power of fiction is that it can get readers to think about different points of view, including ideas they’d never considered before, and all while having “fun”.  But cheap stereotypes can reinforce ideas borne of misinformation and ignorance.  Do real-life military personnel the courtesy of reflecting their experiences in an honest way.


A Man Plus A Woman Equals – Comrades?

pacific rimI’ve heard the advice that, when possible, it’s a great idea to add a romance subplot to your story.  I’m not talking about romance as a genre–a genre that I’ve published in–in which the developing relationship between two characters is the focus of the plot.  I’m talking about stories in which the heroes are in pursuit of another goal and just happen to fall in love with one another along the way.


Sometimes it’s a great idea, and sometimes it’s not.

Quick, think of your favourite onscreen romance.  Your “canon ship,” if you will.  (For those not in fandom = “Ship” means “relationship,” and “canon” means it actually appeared in the source material….because creators of  transformative works will happily develop relationships between characters who never even meet in the source material…)

Who have you got?

Han Solo and Princess Leia?

Robin Hood and Maid Marian?

Korra and Asami?

korrasamiThese are examples of romance being a great addition to the story.  Plenty of readers who would never pick up a “romance” story enjoy the interpersonal dynamics and the fantasy of falling in love taking place alongside the epic adventure.  Romance adds another level of appeal, and the more appeal, the better when you’re trying to sell a story.

But we can all list examples of romance being done poorly.

Stories where “romance” is replaced by a sex scene – the kind that doesn’t contribute to the story.  I’m sure many of us have waited through “this is the part where they have sex, because of course they do.  Hurry up and get back to the real story.”

Stories where “romance” takes place between two characters that have no chemistry, no reason to be interested in one another, save for the fact that the “romance” box on the writer’s checklist needs ticking.

Stories where one character–often but not always the female character–exists solely to be a love interest for another character, and has little personality beyond “X’s girlfriend/wife/etc.”

Stories where an interesting female character suddenly becomes “weakened”and falls in love with the “Mr Average” leading man, who saves the day (does anyone have examples of a male character falling victim to this?  Female examples include the Lego Movie, the Matrix, All You Need is Kill/Edge of Tomorrow…)

And worst of all, stories where romance runs counter to the themes and ideas in the story.

Mad Max:  Fury Road was a breath of fresh air to me and many other people in that its lead characters, Max and Furiosa, are a man and a woman who…don’t fall in love!  Their relationship develops from adversarial (Furiosa has gone rogue to rescue five women who’ve been held in sexual servitude, and she fears Max is an obstacle to her success; Max just wants to live and will go through whoever he has to) to mutual respect, friendship, and, yes, affection…but nowhere is there any hint of romance.  Indeed, Furiosa’s position as a woman in a leadership role in a patriarchal community has interesting implications as to what her views of sexuality, gender, and relationships must be, given the society in which she lives (and in contrast to the society she was born into, which has flaws of its own).  To try to shoehorn in a romance with Max (who is suffering from mental illness and also struggling to define his role in society) would not have fit this story whatsoever.
fury roadThis is not to say that romance has “cooties”.  There’s an obvious relationship between Warboy Nux and ex-breeder Capable, but whether this is “romance” or a more innocent sort of childlike affection between two emotionally stunted people is open to interpretation.  Mad Max doesn’t shy away from deep emotion and vulnerability.  It does show that romance and sex are not the only ways to show emotion and vulnerability in relationships between men and women.

Pacific Rim is another excellent example of a movie where a male and female soldier work together to accomplish a dangerous mission.  There’s no doubt that Raleigh and Mako are very close, emotionally–they wouldn’t be able to fight together in their robot without a deep connection.  But there’s no sex and not even so much as a kiss between them in the movie itself.  Are they in romantic love, or are they comrades-in-arms?  The movie doesn’t answer this question, and doesn’t need to.  In this case, open-ended ambiguity lets viewers imagine a romance, or not, as they choose–whichever is more meaningful to the viewer.  Some viewers will want the romance fantasy; others will want affirmation of closeness without romance.  Unlike Mad Max:  Fury Road, where it’s important that Furiosa and Max not be romantically involved, Pacific Rim benefits from an ambiguous relationship that can be what the viewer wants it to be.

In real life, plenty of us interact with people of the opposite gender who we aren’t 1.) related to, 2.) sexually involved with, or 3.) romantically attracted to.  Yet so many stories focus on romance to the exclusion of other types of relationships.  The result is stories that don’t reflect the full human experience, and a skewed depiction of romance as the be-all and end-all of relationships.

Romance has a wide appeal, but there are some stories that don’t benefit from romance.  These include:  stories with asexual and aromantic lead characters (people who do not experience sexual or romantic attraction)…characters who are equally worthy of being heroes with their own stories.  Stories with lead characters who are at points in their lives where they are not ready for romantic relationships (Furiosa, Max).  Stories in which a man and a woman work closely together, risk their lives together, would do anything for one another…but whose “love” need not be romantic love.

In some stories romantic love will make sense for the characters, the plot and the setting.  In some stories, it won’t.  While there will always be a market for a good old-fashioned love story, I believe that audiences also want to see other kinds of relationships on the big screen, the small screen, and in the stories they read.

If Your Character Isn’t Memorable, Don’t Despair – Here’s Help!

You’ve read all the books, taken the workshops, and you’ve created your character bibles. You’ve even thought a little about which characters you like and why (see my post Memorable Characters – Who Do You Like?). Still, your character isn’t quite quintessential and therefore not memorable. What to do? Learn from the best. “But!” you say, “I don’t have time to study all those books, see all the movies!” The solution is easy – read April 2016’s blogs on Creating Memorable Characters. I’ve gleaned some tips and have summed them up (or have taken excerpts). Click on the links to each person’s blog to read it in its entirety.

These are the best how-to’s! Seriously, there’s a lot of great take-aways in these.

Sometimes less is more …

For David Carrico (Enter the Villain), Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile, yet very little of that is shown “on screen” so to speak in the novel. The reader is given glimpses here and there of the raw evil lying beneath the surface of what is otherwise a very forceful, articulate, and urbane man. Herbert made the Baron memorable by understating him

Leigh Galbreath (Chaos For It’s Own Sake) says she doesn’t want to sympathize with a great villain and wants a villain that will make the hero work for every inch. What she loves about the the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, is Nolan’s conscious decision to leave some of the story up to the audience.

Mat Cauthon in Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series is a stellar example of how to make a character funny not by what they say, but by who they are. In Gambler, Trickster, Son of Battles, Gregory D. Little notes that the humour of Mat’s character isn’t in what he says, but rather the irony the series continually thrusts upon him: contemptuous of nobility he, of course, marries an empress.

 A Mix of Good, Bad and Ugly or, the Imperfect Character

In Taking Strides in Character Development, Sean Golden points out that Strider’s mysterious past, his wit and wisdom, all factor in to create a reluctant hero in an almost a surly way. Strider struggles with self-doubt. He falters. He worries. He doubts. He takes chances. And in the end, he finds himself.

Characters become more likeable and sympathetic when they suffer or show genuine concern even if it’s at their own expense. In The Roller Coaster that was Tig Trager, Jace Killan explains that Tig wasn’t all good or all bad and it was Tig’s good traits that got him into trouble and sometimes it was his bad traits that got him out. It wasn’t easy and it took time for Tig to recover from what he had done.

Not every memorable character needs fisticuffs

You don’t need fisticuffs to be a hero or memorable. Evan Braun (The Ultimate Philosopher King) writes that Jean Luc Picard is the philosopher who rules as king, the true pilot who observes the stars and the heavens to preside over his ship. In the midst of near-perfect humanity, Picard shines brightly. As Shakespeare might say, he is the paragon of animals.

Inner strength without physical prowess can make for an admirable persona and Dashti in Dashti of a Thousand Days proves that. Colette Black notes that it’s complex characterization, where Dashti learns to temper a character flaw and discovers that her real power lies, not with physical prowess, but in her determination, an inner strength and loyalty.

The everyday man is tested…

In Yippee-ki-yay: The Most Reluctant Hero, Kristin Luna writes about how John McClane is a great example of how a hero doesn’t always have to be willing. He can be the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time and still kick some major butt. Giving your hero a strong personality and a little reluctance can be a recipe for one of the most memorable heroes of all time.

For Frank Morin (When a Gardener Helps Defeat a Dark Lord) Samwise Gamgee is memorable because he accepts that his place in the world is not to be the hero, but to be the hero’s cook, assistant, and bodyguard. And yet, he demonstrates in his simple way that heroes are not always the great warriors, with the flashy armor or dazzling magic. Heroes get the job done. Any one of us could be Sam.

In the life of every evil person there is a series of decisions that lead, inevitably, to damnation. This is the moment where your villain goes wrong. The moment where he or she makes the decision to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. After that, it’s a slow and gradual slide into hell. That’s Frog Jones’ take on Walter White. To learn more, read Regarding the Humble Blowfish.

Just because that’s the way it is…

Kim May (Marty Stus by Moonlight) writes about Chiba Mamoru being an ideal of a man: strong, silent, and enigmatic. The perfect gentleman whose sole purpose is to be Sailor Moon’s love interest, to rescue her from peril when her klutziness and fears get the best of her. You have to admit. There are times when we really really need that kind of rescuing. Marty Stus were never meant to be the ideal we should hold out for. They’re the ideal that we have little escapist fantasies about on a moonlit night when reality is too much…and there’s no shame in that.

Which brings me back to Leigh Galbreath’s post about the Joker because sometimes you want Chaos For It’s Own Sake.

Villains come in all shades

The reluctant villain and one who you can’t resist! In A Character You Can’t Refuse, Marta Sprout talks about how Michael Corleone does some terrible things and yet we still like him. We’re drawn to him as he is slowly pulled away from his own honorable world and into his family’s mob dealings. When a character changes so profoundly it’s engrossing and it was done one reasonable step at a time. At each moment Michael is held tightly into his role where he can’t back out.

The loveable antagonist. Instead of hating Gollum, David Heyman, reveals in A Preciously Complex Character that he liked Gollum, felt sorry for him, and hoped Frodo would find a solution to his problem that didn’t force Gollum (and Smeagol) to lose. Gollum’s love of the Ring is heartbreakingly pure: even as it destroys and corrupts him, he wants nothing from life other than to possess it.

That’s me! Sometimes the villain is us pushed to the wall. In Walter White, you monster, E. Godhand says that a villain protagonist whose methods may not be right, can win your sympathy and support because after doing everything right and getting nothing in return, he has nothing left to lose. We feel the adage, “But for the Grace of God, goes I.”

Pure Evil. And, as David Carrico said in Enter the Villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen is an absolute sadist, a pederast, and an incestophile. Pure evil works too!

A Personal Truth We Can Relate To – and it comes in all shapes, sizes and tropes!

Character Arc – In Summoning Character Development, Sarah Golden found that Yuna’s response to adversity (not the sword but endurance and wisdom) made her an admirable character with emotional and spiritual strength. But, she didn’t start out that way. She develops from doing what other people want to having her own thoughts, and making her own decisions.

Someone different yet real – When you bring in a character who is so different from the others, she not only illuminates the cast, but her character is more profound. But, as Peter Clampton explains in The Girl Who Changed EVERYTHING!, Asuka Langley Soryu is no cheap trope, used to simply spice things up for she brings her own history, strengths and weaknesses. She’s a protagonist with real and profound problems who deals by self-medicating in isolation.

I love doing this! Jacqui Talbot’s admiration of Flavia de Luce (You Had Me at Nitrogen Pentoxide) comes from her own love of chemistry and solving mysteries. As she says, Flacia is a beguiling cross between Pippi Longstocking and Sherlock Holmes. Flavia is an eleven-year-old sleuth with a passion for chemistry (specifically poisons) and a penchant for crime solving.

The hero within rises! D.H. Aire (A Lesson in Character from Superman) tells us  that Superman was created during the cusp of Worlds War II to illuminate Americans about the Nazi threat. Thus a superhero who fights for truth and justice was more than a mere story for Siegel and Shuster. Superman is memorable because he had a secret identity (a hero deep inside), and that’s a feeling we all have, that inside, we too are heroes.

Do what must be done! For Joshua David Bennett (The Power of Pain) Kaladin Stormblessed’s ability to overcome pain and hardship, not wallow in it, made him memorable. He’s an inspiration to rise to the occasion, to do what must be done.

The devil is in the detail so find one!

As Josh Vogt explains of his own writing in When All Else Fails, Bring in a Lizard, the protagonist, Dani wasn’t memorable until he gave her a quirk. A pet lizard! The lizard seems at odds with her original self. That presented a mystery (even a minor one) to unravel, which created personality paradoxes which were entertaining.

Taken to another medium, some characters sometimes become more memorable and others we wish we could forget.

Watching Sidney Poitier play Kimani Wa Karanja was profoundly moving for W.J. Cherf (Something of Value: Of Boyhood Friendships and Harsh Realities). Kimani (Poitier) became his favorite character (actor) because of his immense depth, passion, pride of place, and desire to succeed. Even with his dying breaths, after bitterly fighting his boyhood friend Peter, Kimani died hoping, yearning, for “something of value.” Poitier absolutely nailed the character and the role.

Good characters usually have clear motives with stakes involved Matt Beckett states in Lex Talk About Lex, Baby. Reintroduced characters shouldn’t rely too much on a savvy audience already familiar with the brand. Lex Luthor wasn’t given a good platform this round. His motive didn’t hit home and wobbled.

When Kevin Ikenberry (The Most Successful Bankrobber Ever) saw Jack Foley played by Clooney it was the perfect match! Kevin wrote: as I read Road Dogs, I could not stop seeing and hearing Clooney in the role. That’s where Foley transcended being a likable sympathetic character into something different. Clooney’s effortless performance as Foley indelibly attaches his “aura” to the character. But is it the actor or the character that is memorable? I vote character. No matter the actor’s talent, commitment to the role, or appearance, the character is developed on paper and is the vision of the writer/screenwriter that the actor is to bring to life. When it’s done perfectly in a book, it resonates with us. When we see that on camera, it’s more than memorable. It’s legendary.

Readers must care about a character!

Memorable characters, Mary Pletsch wrote in More than Meets the Eye, must be seen as people we come to know, then we become invested in them and their stories. When we see that their actions not only affect the plot but drive it forward, we care about what they do. And when we wonder and worry about what will happen to our favourites, we keep coming back–issue after issue, year after year. It’s the character work that makes the story shine

Marta Sprout sums it all up best when she said: When we write characters, we balance two seemingly oppositional things: the character must have qualities that resonate with the reader and he or she must venture into areas the reader would never go and take actions that the reader could not do. Therein lies the grounds for spellbinding characters.

There you have it – great lessons for making memorable characters. Pick your angle, work with it and you’ll have readers asking for more!

A Game of Horns


game of horns            If you’re one of our newer readers, you might not know that the Fictorians were formed at the first Superstars Writing Seminar in 2010, or that our regular members are all alumni of the course.

There are lots of writing courses out there.  I took a creative writing course in university, which was a great way to explore new ideas, work outside my previous comfort zone, and receive feedback from both my fellow students and my course instructor.  But this course didn’t do anything to teach me how to sell the stories that I had written.

Superstars is not a course on how to write.  It is a course on how to write as a career.

The best way to learn career craft – how to get an agent, how to read a contract, how royalties work, how to present yourself, how to create buzz about your work, how to turn your hobby into a career – is from the people who do it for a living.  That’s what Superstars is all about.  The instructors are not making a living from instructing; they’re making a living from writing.

Superstars Writing Seminars took me from a fanfic writer with a desire to publish original fiction, to a multi-published short story writer who now has a book contract.

I was able to go thanks to the generosity of those who helped me afford the trip.  We know that not everyone is able to afford the tuition fee, and not everyone is lucky enough to have people in their lives who are able, or willing, to help.

That’s why WordFire Press and Superstars Writing Seminars, with Lisa Mangum as editor, launched the Unicorn Anthologies.  Inspired by a quote from Kevin J. Anderson – “if you agree to write a purple unicorn story, write the best purple unicorn story you can; that’s professionalism” – the proceeds from these anthologies goes towards a scholarship fund, named for Superstars alumnus Don Hodge, to assist writers who want to go to the seminar and need help affording the tuition.

One Horn to Rule Them All:  A Purple Unicorn Anthology was the first.  Now A Game of Horns:  A Red Unicorn Anthology is available!

The second anthology focuses on stories involving strong conflicts.  Red is the colour of war; the colour of blood; the colour of passion and will. Conflict is an essential aspect of plot.  It drives the story forward; it takes place when characters confront obstacles.

My contribution, Queen of the Hidden Way, is the story of Anpu, a royal daughter whose kingdom is under another’s rule.  A third player wants to take the throne by capturing and ensorcelling a karkadann, a desert unicorn.  With death and treachery all around, Anpu must choose her conflicts wisely, and in the end, decide what battles are truly worth fighting.

You can pick up A Game of Horns on Amazon in either paperback or ebook.   Proceeds will help provide Don Hodge Memorial Scholarships for future Superstars attendees in financial need, and provide you with a showcase of the excellent talent of the Superstars.