A short post today – just a prompt: What is the one thing your main character has never told anyone?
I may have rambled on the topic of research for fantasy (why I do it) before on this blog, but I’m gonna do it again anyway. My favorite reason to research for fantasy is that I couldn’t possibly make up anything crazier than the things that have happened in the real world throughout its multitude of cultures and time periods.
I set out to do some research about the history of immunization yesterday, for example, and ran across this article on theriac, a “cure-all” used in ancient Greece. Scroll down to that insane list of ingredients!! I couldn’t make anything up weirder than that. Turpentine, viper venom, opium, and…carrots and black pepper? Wait a minute, the first three are weird enough, but then to combine them with something as normal as carrots and black pepper is just…over the top. And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that went into this substance – there were 64 ingredients.
It isn’t that I’ll necessarily use this particular tidbit of information. It’s that I run across so many odd little scraps and details, and all of it rattles around in my head (sort of like the 64 ingredients of theriac) and shifts and combines and ignites into something new, and that’s how I get a lot of my inspiration.
It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people. They’re okay. They’re not offensive. They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.
Wait, these are your characters. You need people to give a damn. You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives. Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.
It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities. It’s pretty simple. A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior. Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.
The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have. You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden. Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:
- Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw. I’ve written entries about this before on this blog. Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency. Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
- You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you? Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too. Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
- Plan ahead. What character flaws would benefit the story? If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book? Great. Make her cocky. Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc. Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
- Balance characters against those closest to them. You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character. In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up. That’s a heck of a place to start from. If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother? And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other? How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
- Dialogue. How does your character interact with other characters? Is he funny? Cutting? Brusque? Does he interrupt? Does she take the lead in conversation? Listen more than she talks? This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her. Pay attention. What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?
Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book). If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use. For example:
- three friends as the central characters
- lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
- scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
- adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
- a dog
And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.
Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story. List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with. Fill in the details. You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre? Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different? How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before? You want an exotic setting. Otherworld or real-world exotic? If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research. If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?
The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.
There are very few rules in writing that you can’t bend, break, or ignore – if you do it right. I’m a believer in knowing the rules and why they exist, but once you understand how to follow them, you can start figuring out how to not follow them effectively. See, there’s no point flouting something just to flout it – in any arena, I’d say, that’s just a sign of immaturity. You have to flout rules with a purpose in mind, if you want your writing to be stronger for it.
Some of the rules I will gleefully break if it suits my purposes, and which I enjoy seeing broken to good effect:
- Point of view. Who says if you write in first person, that you can’t switch perspectives? Well, plenty of people, but it’s been done by far better writers than me – Emily Bronte did it in Wuthering Heights in the form of a frame character. Wilkie Collins did it in The Moonstone by having multiple characters give their accounts of what happened as testimony toward the effort of solving a mystery.
- Tense. Yes, it’s important to keep your tense consistent, and no, you shouldn’t overuse the method, but from time to time dropping into present tense in a past tense narrative can be really effective for times of intense shock, conveying an immediacy and timelessness to a given moment.
- Chronological narration. Not necessarily the only way to tell your story, although you want to tell it clearly enough that the jumps don’t confuse your readers. Chuck Palahniuk’s books are narrated conversationally, memories and flashbacks building up on one another and altering the reader’s perspective on what’s currently happening in the storyline, so that what you thought was going on originally is not what you realize is happening as the story unfolds. This is awesome in that not only are the characters transforming and the story progressing, but the reader is changing as the book goes along, too!
- Conform to a genre. Yes, this makes your book far easier to market. But, personally, I’d rather go out on a limb for my own original ideas on the chance that someone in the industry will love it and know how to package it for the masses, than write derivative, stereotypical work that sells just decently and has no impact on my readers. If Neil Gaiman had written a typical ol’ fantasy novel in a typical ol’ fantasy setting, rather than the original twisted weirdness of Neverwhere, it’s possible there wouldn’t be a popular subgenre of underground urban fantasy now.
- Protagonist = Hero. Doesn’t need to be. I love a messy protagonist who does the wrong thing sometimes. I love anti-heroes. I love reading from the point of view of a person I’m glad I don’t know personally, but who is fascinating anyway. If I liked perfect protagonists, I’d be a Superman fan instead of a Batman fan. I wouldn’t relish Dostoevsky’s work or love Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights so much or have a voracious appetite for Tana French’s mystery novels.
I was told at an early age by an excellent writer that the only unbreakable rule of writing is Do What Works. Thanks, Mom!
I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned. While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything. These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.
And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it. I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way. I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing. Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In. (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.) Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit. (Short story in progress, as well.)
For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas. Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.
There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing. The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page. Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting. Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.
Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me. If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow. I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.
So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.
What’s weighing on my mind, at the moment, is the recent death of my friend Steve. As I’ve said on this blog at least once before, one of the greatest benefits of being a writer is having a built-in process for investing painful emotions into a creative outlet. It can come across as exploitation, particularly to non-writers, which is why (I think) many great writers have ticked off a lot of people.
Since Steve was both a writer himself and a hardcore fan of Hunter S. Thompson – who ticked off probably everyone he ever wrote about – I think he’d be perfectly happy, and possibly amused, to know that (a) he’s being thought about by his friends and (b) that some of us would mull over his death via writing, and perhaps gain some inspiration in the process. Inspiring people was one of the things Steve enjoyed most.
The closest thing to a writing exercise I can come up with this week is this: Think about the most important, most core aspects of people you know, the thing that would stand out about them if they were abruptly gone. The stories you would tell about them to process their passing, the things that really make them tick, what they’re reaching for in life. Even if you’re not a writer who bases characters on real-life friends, relatives, or acquaintances, looking at these things about real people can help you realize what’s extraneous detail and what’s the HEART of a person, real or fictional, or some combination of the two. If you know that, everything else about a character will fall into place on its own.
Action scenes used to be the hardest thing for me to write. I think partly I had trouble with them because I tend to work stories out visually first, almost daydreaming my scenes before or while I write them. When the action is high, though, there’s too much happening too fast to write a play-by-play the same way I would with, say, a scene of dialogue between just two characters. Bad enough to write a dialogue scene including six or seven people, which can get just as jumbled and messy as any climactic battle!
Over the years, though, I’ve gotten very comfortable with writing action sequences. I still get anxious when I’m coming up on one, worrying if I’ll pull it off or if it’ll be a worthy payoff after a big lead-up – but once I get into the action, it’s almost always smooth sailing.
So how do you control the chaos of an action scene well enough to let the reader follow clearly what’s happening, but keep the feeling of chaos and speed?
Some of the things I try to do –
- Keep your sentences simple and on the short side. It doesn’t have to be Hemingway, but it just makes sense that it’s easier for people to keep up with complex action if your sentences are easy to follow.
- Make your details count. In fight-or-flight mode, our senses are heightened, but we also orient toward and lock onto the source of threat. It’s built into our systems. So with that in mind, are your characters going to notice the beautiful old oak trees in the background, or the tendons of an enemy’s arm clenching as he prepares to lunge forward with a knife? Maybe there’s a vivid blur of green behind them, giving a sense of the lush forest surroundings, but a ‘vivid blur of green’ gives a lot more of a sense of (a) motion, speed, (b) heightened senses, and (c) the irrelevance of the world beyond the immediate confrontation.
- Make your details COUNT. Cliche details won’t get you anywhere with readers. They’re already filling in stuff about the character’s heart pounding in her ears, because they’ve read it a million times. So assume they know the character’s heart is pounding. Great. You get a freebie. Now come up with something more personal, more telling, and use that as your detail.
- If too much happens at once, let it be a little confusing. Let the character or the narration describe the disorientation of being in that moment, but keep it in that moment. You can explain what happened later.
- Don’t spoil your action by telling every little step blow-by-blow. Action scenes would be pretty boring if I had to read through every thrust and parry of a swordfight. Give the highlights, the turning points, the moments of terror and the moments of hope, the instant the stakes get higher, and the moment of triumph or defeat. Everything else is irrelevant, like having a vital exchange of dialogue interspersed with an unrelated conversation about so-and-so’s cute new shoes floating over from the next table. Sure, maybe it would be there in real life, but that doesn’t mean it should be there in fiction.
Flip to a random page in the nearest available book/magazine. Put your finger down at random on the page. Write the word your finger lands nearest down. Repeat until you have 5 words. Now start writing a scene or a story that incorporates all 5 of your random words.
This is my 100th post on this blog. Happy milestone, blog!
And my content sort of goes along with milestones, or at least perspective shifts. I’ve always admired writers who can repeat a phrase or an image throughout a piece, and have a fresh impact and a new meaning each time. Well, I admire writers who pull it off. When it’s overdone or ineffective, it’s just annoying and feels like the writer is trying too hard.
But I love it when the context alters or colors the meaning of a repetition. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. is one fine example, particularly in Slaughterhouse 5, with the phrase, “So it goes,” with its often-depressing, sometimes-funny, frequently-both-at-the-same-time effects. Chuck Palahniuk employs repeat phrases with transformational meanings in every book I’ve read by him, good examples being Invisible Monsters and Lullabye, as well as his best-known Fight Club.
It’s a technique often used in song lyrics, with the words of the chorus shifting tone based around the context of each verse, but the absolute masters of such lyrical games, in my opinion, are a pop band, actually. Barenaked Ladies (none of whom are women, incidentally) have used plays on repetition throughout their discography, but the song that first comes to mind for me is Tonight is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel, which opens with the words:
Driving home to be with you
The highway’s dividing, the city’s in view
As usual, I’m almost on time
You’re the last thing that’s on my mind
As song lyrics go, this is also a telling and subtle characterization of a narrator and his attitude about his relationship, by the way. Anyway, the rest of the song details his subsequent death on the highway, and after a few hints here and there within the death scene regarding things unsaid, the song closes with a multiple repetition of the line “You’re the last thing on my mind.” And it means something completely different now. I love it. We’ve gone from simple self-absorbancy to existential finality in less than 3 minutes. Beautiful.
Anyway, it’s a weapon to wield carefully, and probably only after enough training that you won’t hurt yourself with it, but when it works, it’s dynamite.