Posts Tagged ‘literature’

Getting to Know Your Characters

Posted: March 13, 2013 in Writing
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There are so many parts of a story that can turn it into something wonderful. Plot, world building, tone, language and so on. There’s a lot. There are arguments for everything and in the end, most end up being a matter of personal taste. The more writing I do, the more I find that a lot of those building blocks hinge on knowing your own characters.

Plot? How am I going to know what’s going to happen unless I know my characters?

World building? If I don’t filter it through my characters’ eyes, it’s just a DnD sourcebook.

Language? Without knowing my characters, how can I put words in their mouths?

See what I’m getting at? An InkPunks blog post a while back talked about how Zelazny wrote short stories about his protags before writing them into novels. One of Saladin Ahmed’s short stories in Engraved on the Eye works out as backstory for Throne of the Crescent Moon. Sam Sykes has done annual Valentine’s Day blogs where his characters answer relationship questions.

I kind of got to know my characters on the fly in Amity… I’ve noticed a few bits in act one that aren’t quite matching up with act three since it took me so long to get from one to the other. This time, I’m going to get into my character’s heads before I start writing the next novel. In addition to helping out with the Connecticut godpunk novel, this whole thing will keep up my creative momentum while I’m doing the initial editing passes of Amity.

First, I’m going to try the short story route. The “now” of the novel, isn’t when the protag/POV character gets the powers which are central to.. well… everything. How he becomes who he is independent of the novel’s plot. So the short story is going to work out as backstory similar to the way Ahmed’s story works for Throne. Backstory that’s crucial for the character, but only referenced in the plot itself.

Second, I’m going to go the meta route. I started doing this a little bit on twitter a while back by writing quotes from various characters of mine on twitter. It wasn’t really a concentrated effort and tapered off when I made my big push to the finish for Amity back in November. This time around, I’ve made an actual twitter account. I’m going to see where it goes. It might not work out. Maybe no one bothers to look at it. Maybe both. But it’s a small investment of my time with the potential for a solid payoff. @ErisKatsopolis by the way.

Third, I’m going to dust off something from college and an acting class I took. I wasn’t a theater kid, but as part of my film degree, I thought it would be fun to use a couple electives for what was happening with the other side of the camera. Also there was a hilarious moment on the first day of class because I was the prof’s first second generation student. One thing the prof did in that class was give us all a handout of 47 questions and we had assignments to run through them all to get in the characters’ heads. It’s a lot of typing and I’m not actually sure where the prof got it from so I’m not sure on the kosherness of typing it out here anyways. If anyone is interested, ping me and I’ll share. But there are some in depth questions involving goals, happy/sad memories, family life and education. Even short answers can get you a lot of information about your characters.

Reading Discoveries

Posted: September 4, 2012 in Reading, Writing
Tags: , ,

Stories aren’t written in a void. Just because I’m working on one novel doesn’t mean I’m not noodling about others. I’ve got some real great ideas for the Next Novel so once I finish the Current Sci Fi Novel, I think I’ll be able to dive in at full speed. But today I came across a frustrating discovery in regards to the Next Novel.

And it’s not the first time this has happened.

The first time was much more dramatic so I’ll relate that story.

It was a few years ago and I was maybe ten to fifteen K into my first attempt at a novel. It was a godpunk kind of thing involving hackers. And then I started reading American Gods. It’s a wonderful book, one of my all time favorites. But about halfway through I swore and threw the book across the room. I was trying to write the same thing and here I was reading a book published a year before.

Eff me! That was very frustrating.

I couldn’t come up with any way to reconcile my ideas without feeling like I was ripping off American Gods, both in terms of what I already had down and what new content I was coming up with under the influence of such a great book. I ended up shelving that idea and honestly I don’t think those first ten K words exist anymore.

I’m not going to dance around what I was reading this time, especially since my next blog post is probably going to be pontifications about it. Because I’m not a short story break with my writing, I’ve been reading more of them and finally stopped putting off Wild Cards. So I’m reading on my lunch break at work today and I’m all like “Balls! That’s the power my next main character is going to have!” Context: I haven’t named the next protag yet and I often use Balls! as a swear.

So here I am finding out things very similar to my own ideas were really written in a book back in 1987. I was four. Four!

This time I’m not going to let it be a roadblock though. I don’t want to expound on the details of the Next Novel so, again, I won’t go into specifics but Next Novel is going to be godpunk, not superheroes. So there’s a different subgenre going on here to start with. I think the things going on in Wild Cards are a unique take on stuff that was done before it anyways. It’s a virus and not genetic, but when my friends at work ask me about it, the easiest way to call it is “Martin and pals doing X-Men.”

So I think this is a broad enough thing to have at it anyways, but damn it’s still frustrating.

Has anyone else come across things like this when they’re writing? I’m curious to know if it’s just something weird that happens to me.

China Miéville.
Review over. You know all you need to know. Go read it.

Now.

Seriously, I left that bit sitting there for a long time thinking I was going to post just that. That’s all the convincing I took. A new China Miéville book is something that gets written on my calendar in January and if I bought my calendar any earlier than that, trust me, the date would be written on earlier. Miéville could write a phone book and I’d be all over that.

It’s been years since I’ve bothered to read the back of a Miéville book before cracking it open and Railsea was no exception. Reading it for the first time while typing it here! Back of the book time!

On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea – even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict – a kind of treasure map indicating a mythincal place untouched by iron rails – leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

Here’s a novel for readers of all ages, a gripping & brilliantly imagined take on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick that confirms China Miéville’s status as “the most original & talented voice to appear in several years” (Science Fiction Chronicle).

So when I first heard about this book the only think Amazon or Del Ray really talked about was “YA sci fi Moby Dick! woo!” My first thought was “Eh… YA… I don’t even like it’s acronym.” It’s a weird, nebulous term that doesn’t really mean much beyond a marketing tool. But Un Lun Dun was considered YA too and I enjoyed that immensely. I think YA is really just anything that involves a protagonist around the age of fourteen (although at times I had Sham pegged as older than that). In the end I went Meh and bought the hell out of it anyways.

Where to begin… Railsea reaffirms that in my dream D&D game, China Miéville is DMing. Place becomes a character in his books more so than most authors. I’ve often talked about worldbuilding, it’s something I like a lot so I’m going to do it again. Where most of Miéville’s books focus on one city, in this book it takes on a scale equal to that of the Bas-Lag novels. The whole notion of an ocean of railroads an utterly unique starting point for creating a whole world. It’s the first “what if” that drives the whole cascade of “and thens.”

Weird quirk of the book that you’ll notice right away. The word “and” never shows up once in all 424 pages. Every single instance is replaced with &. It bothered me for the first chapter but trust me, it’s ok and makes sense.

What’s filling the content of this world with rails and without ands? Well the Moby Dick parallels are obvious without being derivative. Sham is a noob doctor’s assistant on a moletrain crew. Moles and other such underground beasties are a lot different in the world of Railsea. The dirt between the rails is solid but acts like water for the creatures that burrow through it. Captain Naphi has herself a “philosophy,” her giant ivory colored mole nemesis takes on a more metaphysical quality to it. The other key players to this tale are the Shroake siblings, Caldera and Dero, the children of salvagers and explorers.

They’ve all got these elusive goals at the end of the world. Most of the story is that of Sham, occasionally we get side trips to others and this narrator voice that jumps in every now and then. Storyteller sounds better than narrator. It doesn’t show up very often but when it does, it steers the story in the right direction and will go so far as to tell you why and muse about the philosophy of storytelling.

Conclusions, reactions, satisfactions? Sham makes an incredible journey of growth from greenhorn to a proper trainsman out to fulfill his own quest. There’s a gradual buildup in his character and then this one point where he actually realizes it himself. It’s a very satisfying moment which leads Sham to overcome one of the more tricky obstacles in his path. Captain Naphi’s character arc is more like a roller coaster once things get going.

We get a glimpse at city life, and a sliver of a salvager’s world. This is the sort of thing that beg for more attention (in fact, the storyteller comments on this) but Railsea moves along at such a clip you never get a desire to wander off on other tracks.

As in Un Lun Dun, Miéville does some illustrations in the book. They’re a series of gorgeous line art pieces that add a lot to it. The burrowing owl in particular is my favorite.

So where does this leave us? Right back where I started.

China Miéville. I don’t need to say more even though I did.

I never intended for this to be just a book blog even though much of my posts are about the books I’m reading. I started this blog as a way to help prod myself into working on my writing more and contributing a small bit to the SF community. It happens. I’ve gotten some readers and I’ve given some high fives out to authors I like and gotten some back. In writing about the books I’ve been reading, it helps me to be conscious about the things that are working and what I like about the stuff I read.

Talking about books is something that’s been working for me. I’ve had a very good string of books of late and I’ve had huge amounts of positive things to say. I don’t want people to think that I’m out to say only positive things which are unmerited though. It is very important to make a difference between reading from a critical point of view and a fan’s point of view.

This concept came up a lot back when I was in film school and I don’t think everyone reconciled the two. When doing this kind of thing it will skew your perspective like no one’s business if you can’t separate the POVs. An quick and easy example from my film school days is the first Spiderman movie. Nerds went apeshit over it and it made a giant pile of money. But if you go and watch it, the CGI was horrible. Seriously god awful horrible. Spidey looked like Gumby. It’s not even in a “ten year old movie” kind of thing, they were awful watching it for the first time. But for someone who can move back and forth between the two sets of eyes, it’s possible to zoom in and analyze something and see it for all its flaws and merits, but also be able to step back and simply enjoy.

So I need to be able to see flaws in a book I’m reading. That doesn’t mean I’m in the business of badmouthing people. There’s a difference between being critical and being a tool. Being critical is a balancing act sometimes but mostly it comes down to when things bother you as a reader. Say there’s something about a story you don’t like. Maybe it’s a character’s dialect, or the setting just doesn’t pop the way it should. Does it detract from your reading of the book while reading it? That’s really where the big distinction for me is in separating the two points of view. I can be critical and nit pick all I want when I’m done, but as long as those things don’t come up until after the fact, then the book will always be a success from the fan’s point of view. No matter how cheezy or dated or corny a book can get, if you can have that inner fan cheer even a little bit, then what you read is at least a little bit successful.

Think of it like watching a crappy SyFy Channel Saturday afternoon movie. You’ve just got to shut off your brain until the credits roll and you can enjoy the worst movie ever. But you have to wait until it is over and then you can analyze to your heart’s content. Being able to shut off the critical voice is important though, because otherwise it will drown out the fan’s voice and you rob yourself of simple enjoyment.

How do you do fantasy different? How do you take one of the oldest of our genres and make it feel different? How can you stand out among legions of Tolkien devotees? A good start is being Saladin Ahmed.  His debut has gathered a lot of buzz since it dropped back in February and I couldn’t fight it. I gave in to hardcover. Scandalous, I know, but well worth it.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is now! Inside the flap time! That’s right, I said inside the flap! This is hardcover territory after all and there’s a lot of space on those flaps. Let’s make it happen.

The Crescent Moon Kingdoms, home to djenn and ghuls, holy warriors and heretics, are at the boiling point of a power struggle between the iron-fisted Khalif and the mysterious master thief known as the Falcon Prince. In the midst of this brewing rebellion a series of brutal supernatural murders strikes at the heart of the Kingdoms. It is up to a handful of heroes to learn the truth behind these killings:

Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, “the last real ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat,” just wants a quiet cup of tea. Three score and more years old, he has grown weary of hunting monsters and savings lives, and is more than ready to retire from his dangerous and demanding vocation. But when an old flame’s family is murdered, Adoulla is drawn back to the hunter’s path.

Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s young assistant, is a hidebound holy warriors whose prowess is matched only by his piety. But even as Raseed’s sword is tested by ghuls and manjackals, his soul is tested when he and Adoulla cross paths with the tribeswoman Zamia.

Zamia Badawi, Protector of her Band, has been gifted with the near-mythical power of the lionshape, but shunned by her people for daring to take up a man’s title. She lives only to avenge her father’s death. Until she learns that Adoulla and his allies also hunt her father’s killer. Until she meets Raseed.

When they learn that the murders and the Falcon Prince’s brewing revolution are connected, the companions must race against time – and struggle against their own misgivings – to save the life of a vicious despot. In so doing they discover a plot for the Throne of the Crescent Moon that threatens to turn Dhamsawaat, and the world itself, into a blood-soaked ruin.

So first impressions. If anyone out there is working on being a writer in their own right and is having trouble with an opening chapter, look no further. Throne is an amazing example of a first chapter, a serious hook that will propel you on to chapter four before you recover from that first one. Following this excellent hook, the novel has a pacing I this is more spot on than a lot of stuff I’ve read. Even in the most intense moments, there’s something small to keep it from becoming too much, a breath of fresh air to make it feel more real. Leading up to the Final Confrontation, Adoulla drops a joke. I laughed out loud and the little bit of inanity in this super serious time of the book. The loud laughter was sleightly awkward because I was at work, but damnit, they’d laugh too. I won’t ruin in here, but you’ll know what I mean when you find it. It’s a perfect example though of the delicate balance between those moments and the dramatic and intense.

That’s just straight up good writing. What about the genre stuff? That’s where a lot of the buzz has been coming from. Well clearly, it is an Arabia based fantasy world rather than a medieval England based world. That’s huge. I can count on one hand how many faux-Arabias I’ve read before this. One was a seroiusly dated Gary Gygax penned novel which was just a DnD campaign without the THACO tables. Ru Emerson’s Night Threads books had some Arab based settings but only partially. I can’t even think of anything beyond that so getting this fresh setting not normally seen in American genre books is like walking into a candy story and finding out there’s something other than chocolate and vanilla. It’s the kind of thing I actively seek out and find hugely enjoyable like Kylie Chan’s Hong Kong or the Russia out of Night Watch. So it’s Arab instead of English. How does it stack up? Awesomely. The city of Dhamsawaat is almost a character in itself. I’d put Dhamsawaat in the same category as Camorr or King’s Landing.

Setting only goes so far. What else does Throne bring to the table? Ahmed gives us a fresh perspective on character. Adoulla is sixty. Epic fantasies are the realm of young untested warriors setting out to make their way in the world. Not here. Adoulla has two young’uns under his wing but this is his story, he is our reluctant hero. I don’t mean reluctant because he’s unsure of himself and if he can save the world. Adoulla has saved the world dozens of times, he’s more than comfortable with himself. Well… not the aches and pains of a body betraying him with age. He’s reluctant in that damnit he wants his tea. He’s at times crude and surly (I have a special affinity for surly) but when push comes to shove, gets the job done anyways.

And his young’us are tormented by their own demons, those figurative ones in between fighting the real ones. Zamia’s entire tribal band is slaughtered while she’s supposed to be their protector. Raseed is rightously strict with his holy vows as a dervish. But they’re both teenagers who don’t really feel happy about making eyes at each other but they do anyways. Yeah, teenagers making awkward eyes at each other is a story as old as time, but it works in this setting with these characters. They both feel bad about making eyes at each other and keep themselves from doing it. Emotions denied make for better stories than people getting what they want.

Oh hey the ghuls! I’ve been going on and on and haven’t even touched on them yet. They’re right proper Arabian ghuls and just as mean and nasty as you could want. The action flows without ever relying too much on one character’s strengths. There’s a lot of back and forth between Adoulla’s magic, Raseed’s swordplay and Zamia’s animal maulings. The plot that these enjoyable characters claw their way though starts out simple. “Some monsters killed this kid’s family. Go.” It’s sufficient to get things started but it mushrooms fast.

So I reined in my rambling there at the end and am trying to do so here, but I could seriously talk up the praises of this for a long time coming. And a lot of other people have done so. I am eagerly awaiting to go back to Dhamsawaat.

Getting back to writing on writing and not just the books I’m reading, one of the topics that was floating around the blogs I read was the topic of women characters. A little more specifically, the issue of guys writing female characters.

For some reason people find this weird. It frankly baffles me a bit but I can almost fathom what some people’s thought process is. Strong women characters in SF not a thing that has ever bothered me a bit, I’ve been reading Honorverse books since I was a kid.

My own personal observations of this might be a little skewed. Much of my formative years as a reader were spent with the sci fi and high fantasy books purloined from my mother, authors like Mercedes Lackey and Marion Zimmer Bradley. But the demographics of SF are decidedly skewed towards guys. I don’t think I need to dig up any official documents to support that. Just check out the shelves. Making things worse, a number of women authors I follow have had stories of people being real jack asses to them because they’re women. I’m not intending this post to be a rant about equality and the handling of it (or lack thereof) by various people, but that’s the background of the genre. I have noticed that there are more women authors on the shelves today, but SF is still a skewed genre as a whole.

That was a bit of a rambley background there, so let’s focus more on the point. So if we’re all writers and one of the most important commandments for writers is Thou Shall Make Shit Up, why is it so uncommon for guys to write women? And this question doesn’t even address writing those women characters well.

I think it comes down to one of the first lessons writers are told.

Write what you know.

I was first told this in the first writing specific class I took in high school. My teacher was from Maine and said she went to college with Stephen King. Frankly, the bit about being from Maine was the only bit of evidence she ever shared substantiating this claim, but we were all in the fourteen to seventeen range and didn’t ask questions. My teacher attributed “Write what you know” to him, so I’ve always done the same, just with the added notes that its second hand. Because this is drummed into our heads at such an early age, I seriously think that it messes with people more than it should. “Write what you know” is the cause of all sorts of really bad angsty high school fiction.

The first couple novels I tried my hand at, the characters were just like me in a fantastical setting. Actually, they weren’t even that fantastical. The first one was an aimless twenty something guy working a crappy bartending job at catered parties who met a waitress that was actually the illegitimate princess of Brazil that just happened to be a sorceress. So can you guess what I my job was back then? And seriously, I wasn’t princess of Brazil.

“You’re talking about writing guys just like yourself!” I know, I’m getting through the subpoints to the actual point. See, my writing got a lot better when I abandoned this “Write what you know” theme. I had a class where our first serious fiction assignment was to do something “in the style of” someone else. I happened to be taking a Shakespeare class at the same time, reading Romeo and Juliet. We were on the party scene, which if I remember correctly, is Act I Scene III. I wrote a Shakespearean story about Rosaline, the woman Romeo ditches for Juliet. I wrote it from her point of view and my class did this big critique where stories were read anonymously. The most impactful piece of feedback I got was “You write like a girl.” This confused me a lot at first, but it was then explained as a compliment. Not a single person in the class thought a guy wrote it. It’s been four years and remains my favorite piece of writing I’ve ever crafted.

So I kept at it with the novel I’m working on. Two of the three main characters are sisters. Is there some sort of knack to writing women? Not in the least. But it’s helped my writing a lot. Why did it help my writing? Because they weren’t like me.

See, take “Write what you know” and throw half of it out the window. Write about things you know. There’s a reason my novel includes a lot of pirates, welding and weird tidbits of history. I know these things and can thread them in and around what I’m doing. That makes it fun for me which in turn makes it fun for readers.

Never write about who you know. At least not to start. Taking the characters I’m writing about and making them as unlike me as possible makes me stop and think about what I’m doing. Having a character be the opposite gender is a physical difference that acts as a red flag to make me slow down. Did Rosaline think in a fundamentally different way from any male character I’ve written? Not really. She got ditched by someone she cared about. That’s a pretty universal thing right there. When the characters were too much like me, it was easy to gloss over points because I know them too well.

All I had to do was … slow down. That’s it. Writing women characters well for me is no different than writing males well. Or characters comprised of computer code. Or mice. Or whatever. So there’s no knack to it. No mystical magical force or insight. Just ask my wife, I’m still pretty clueless.

This is outside my normal reading habits. Contrary to what a lot of people think of the genre reader, I do try to venture outside my normal section of the bookstore now and again. It’s very needle-in-a-haystacky for me though. I read the first Stieg Larsson book way back. Normally, when things get all big and full of hype, the hype itself turns me off them, kind of a “so big, it’s just annoying” deal. But I read it anyways, had a tough time getting through the first hundred pages, then devoured the rest of it and the second one. But I put off the third one. I have that thing I’ve mentioned before about mass market sized books. The third book was only in hardcover at the time so I dragged my feet for a real long time. Eventually I said “close enough” and got the taller-than-mass-market size.

And now I’ve finished The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest.

Back of the Book time!

In the conclusion of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, Lisbeth Salander lies in critical condition in a Swedish hospital, a bullet in her head.

But she’s fighting for her life in more ways than one: if and when she recovers, she’ll stand trial for three murders. With the help of Mikael Blomkvist, she’ll need to identify those in authority who have allowed the vulnerable, like herself, to suffer abuse and violence. And, on her own, she’ll seek revenge – agaisnt the man who tried to kill her and the corrupt government institution that nearly destroyed her life.

First off, remember how I said I haven’t read the other two in a long time? Like, a year and a halfish? Yeah, totally forgot that book two ended on a cliffhanger. I didn’t actually read the Back of the Book before cracking it open. I was all like “Oh! Book three, I’m all up in that.” SoHornet jumps right into things head first. I’m all for that. I like openings that start with movement and happenings.

But then bam! It gets bogged down real bad. I’m not sure if it’s a Swedish thing or a style specific to the author. I don’t come across too much non-English things translated, the Russian Night Watch books and the Japanese Battle Royale the only ones I can think of. Regardless, it slows down and gets very distracted from itself. The nature of the story requires a large supporting cast what with its conspiracies and murders and investigations, but the whole trilogy is undoubtedly at its best when it’s focused on Salander or Blomkvist. Salander, in particular, is one of the more fascinating characters I’ve read in years. The book focuses mostly on the supporting cast in the first half of the book. Ok, I can accept that. It’s still well written and a good mystery and such.

Too bad that the author clearly has an agenda. Now, a writer’s views on life and whatever seep into text whether consciously or not. And there are high profile authors I love like Orson Scott Card and China Mieville that have controvercial beliefs which turn off chunks of the audience. I like to let text stand for itself so can enjoy a book anyways as long as it doesn’t distract for the story.

As long as it doesn’t distract from the story.

I said it twice, it must be true. Larsson is all over women’s rights and such. Do not misconstrue my words, equality is a damn fine agenda to have, as long as it’s actually equality and not “let’s give someone else preferential treatment to someone else” crap. But that’s a different rant and not applicable to this because Larsson’s agenda really does seem to be about equality. The problem here is that it majorly distracts from the story. There’s the parallel plot, I can’t say subplot because it doesn’t really involve itself with the rest of the novel except in the most minimal way, involves Erika Berger, one of the other Millennium editors with Blomkvist, as she gets a new job and a stalker. It’s wickedly distracting from the story to the point where I was not only groaning aloud at a Berger chapter, but I was seriously thinking of abandoning the book if it didn’t pick up again fast. Again, don’t start thinking that I’m pro-stalker or some other nutty stuff like that.

The story is god. The story trumps all other aspects of the book and the soapboxing here just pulls me right out of the whole thing.

Fortunately, Hornet refocuses on Salander and Blomkvist when I was about ten pages from ditching the whole thing. From that midpoint, Hornet picks up a lot and becomes the fast investigative piece like the first two with minimal Berger-stalker diversions. Around the three-quarters point that bit wraps itself up completely and there’s two hundred pages of focused awesome. All the lose ends get wrapped up just the way that you want them to. Certain people make their mark, the right people get trounced and said trouncing is thoroughly satisfying.

I thought the character growth in Hornet was better than I remember from the other two, espicially for Salander. It gave a very impressive character arc through the whole trilogy and was one of the most satisfying aspects of the whole thing. Unfortunately, as a whole, I think this was the weakest of the trilogy, partly because the bar is set pretty high. It was a worthwhile read, despite the soapboxing, and I’m glad I got a proper ending to the trilogy.

Next up, The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman.