Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 5)

Bias and Loaded Words

Descriptions are not required to be neutral. In fact, neutrality is the easiest way to make your descriptions tedious.

The whole point of charged words is that you can get huge amounts of play from just picking a more aggressive word. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” works because the the statement is both rude and blunt, but not too rude and not too blunt. Hollywood types tried to change that last line from Gone With The Wind, but the director was able to persuade the film board to let the line stand.

You want bias because that opens up a whole world of vocabulary and energy. The readers want their protagonist to be right and their opponents to be wrong. Lean into that. Comedy is all about bias, especially when the reader knows that the characters are wrong and how deeply wrong those characters are.

My standard example is a poster child for neutrality. Although factually correct, the description fails to deliver any impact.
Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.
I’ll rewrite my example and add in some bias.
The most eligible man in town, Bob, walked into that Devil’s den of a saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His lovely brown hair escaped from around his torn hat which only a woman’s loving hand could mend. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered the Devil’s brew, then turned around to look at the harlots that worked there.
That’s a bit outrageous, but also more fun. Notice how much more CHARGED that paragraph feels. It oozes conflict. The reader can see the fundamental forces at work. Which will win, the force of wholesomeness or the temptations of the Devil?

Pleasant words are just as biased. “Sally walked down the winsome lane, still giddy from her sister’s marriage, wondering what sort of man she would marry.” Is that lane objectively winsome, or is it a dirt track with some mud holes left over from yesterday’s rain? Words assign meaning, meanings give us tenor and tone, and tenor and tone give the story direction. From one sentence, the reader can already tell something of what this story will be.

So abandon object truth. Focus on subjective truth. Leave object truth to textbooks and documentaries.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Quick Adventure

Walking along in the cold addled my brain, and this is what I came up with for an adventure.
Rats are in the forest cutting down trees with chainsaws. What are these devices? They come from a steampunk goblin alchemists who is distilling the bile of a black dragon into usable fuel. It seems that the black dragon doesn't like trees on his property.
It's a simple adventure, but what I like about it is that the silly idea of chainsaws got me out of my usual genre rut into some other tropes. (Yay, tropes.)

Another thing that I like about this is that your characters get chainsaws. What will they do with those chainsaws? I have no idea, but hopefully it includes a "Chainsaw Warrior" prestige class, and maybe even dual-wielding chainsaws. Yeah-o-yeah. And if I'm really lucky, some player says, "my character cuts off the head of the dragon with a chainsaw," and then crits.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 4)

Painting the Picture

What about painting a picture for the reader? Doesn’t that count for something?

No, it counts for nothing.

As a writer, your job is to entertain the reader. As there’s no true, universal genre, you are the one who must determine what the readers of your genre want. What interests a war story reader is not what interests a romance reader. Are your readers interested in a five page description of the countryside? How about a Victorian living room? What about the history of the AK-47? Is that interesting? How about the technical workings of a warp drive? As you can see, there any number of topics that can engage your readers.

Some genres skip describing all together. Most fairy tales have almost no description in them, yet they are very entertaining stories. You never get a good description of a giant or a troll, but that doesn’t stop the story one bit.

If you are to paint a picture with your words, then you need to decide which parts of the picture are the most important. A writing teacher of mine had us sit down and describe a plain white cup in detail. As you can guess, we hadn’t been able to write enough words to capture all the detail. At the end, what we had was mostly useless descriptions.

Painting the picture does not just involve the physical picture, such as the size of the room and the number of floorboards, it includes the mental state of characters, aims and ambitions, possible hazards, and a myriad of other intangible details. Keep the intangible and the untouchable, memories and moments, wishes and desires in mind as you type.

I will now improve my bland example.
Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.
Here’s the whole scene redescribed, with me adding in both tangible and intangible details.
Bob walked into the saloon filled with swirling smoke from the stogies of the card table. He wore blue jeans and a red shirt, both new, having just purchased them at the trader’s with his pay. These were the very first new clothes that he ever owned. His hat was still old, though, and his brown hair still escaped it. After a drink he would go to a barber, but right now he wanted to see this real saloon. He wanted to see the bright brass rails before the bar, the chandelier above, the well polished wood, and the large mirror behind. These were all wonders that the other cowboys had told the glories of. There were also the women in their colorful dresses, none of whom were ladies, with their painted eyes and painted lips, eager to give a little attention in exchange for a little money. They knew tricks, his friends said, and they were worth his time.
Notice how Bob became a naive cowboy, yet I never said that particular fact. I let all the other facts imply that. I have painted the scene here, but not the literal scene of the saloon, but the figurative scene of a naive cowboy entering a den of vice. I'll let you decide which description is more effective and evocative.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

How to Revise a Novel (or other work of fiction)

I hadn't planned on this post, but it needs to get written because I see too many potentially good writers get bogged down in revising. Too many writers go into revisions with the idea that they need to polish text when that is the last thing that they need to be doing. What they really  need to be doing is asking critical questions about their work in a structured format.

To revise a work of fiction, you need a goal. What EXACTLY are you revising for? Pick, then hold that lens up to your work and look through it. Here are some of the questions that I ask. You will certainly want to add to this list.

  • What parts aren’t you interested in? Cut them or revise them into something interesting.
  • What parts interest you? Keep them, and keep any items that support that interest.
  • How does the pacing go? Do you need to move scenes up or back?
  • Do you need to split any chapters apart? Do you need to combine any? Does it work as an organic whole?
  • Ensure that every chapter ends with some aspect of the story hanging in uncertainty.
  • What themes or analogies do you want to run through your manuscript? Put them in. Remove the themes or analogies that don’t work with that.
  • How would normal humans react your situations? Ensure that the ordinary course of humanity shows up.
  • Are there any characters that can be combined?
  • Does a different character work better in the same scene?
  • Is character dialog sufficient differentiated so that your readers can better tell who's talking?
  • Do characters have sufficiently differentiated motivations and do they follow those motivations to their logical conclusion?
  • Is there anything at all that you are irrationally unhappy with? Cut those bits and fill in the gaping holes later. You’ll think of something better once those unhappy parts are gone. Embrace the gaps and the uncertainty.
  • Are your facts in the most effective place? Especially in the beginning, are there any facts that can be safely pushed deeper into the story? What facts can be left out?
  • Does the work feel like you want it to? What do you need to add/alter/change to make it feel more like your intended work?
  • Does this meet the quality of the best in your field? What will it take for you to match their quality?
  • How quickly do your important sections read? Important parts should take up more lines. Don't be afraid of taking time on important events.

The good thing about using this method is that you do the same thing repetitively and that forms a habit. You begin internalizing these skills. You soon spend less time spinning your wheels and more time actually identifying and addressing problems before you send your work to readers, editor, or submission.

After you are done a good set of revisions, save off a copy of your manuscript, then start over again on revisions, looking for issues and improving polish. Do this as many times as necessary. As you iterate through this, your revisions will go down and your polish will go up.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Macbeth the Usurper

My next work is out. Read and Enjoy!

Based on the Scottish play by William Shakespeare, “Macbeth the Usurper” is a novella that follows the rise of Macbeth, his overreach as King of Scotland, and his ultimate downfall. Rewritten in plain English, making story more accessible to the student reader, the novella remains compelling even for veteran fans of Shakespeare, featuring fresh interpretations and unique perspectives. For those interested in Macbeth, “Macbeth the Usurper” is the must-read of the year.

Find Macbeth the Usurper on Amazon.com.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 3)

Telling vs Describing

Don’t get your knickers in a twist over the religious rule of telling verses describing. As an author, your job is to tell a story using the most effective and/or appropriate methods at your disposal. Preferably, you talk about the stuff that is interesting to you and gloss over the stuff that isn’t. Both telling and describing are useful and valid techniques that belong in your arsenal of dirty tricks.

Here’s a better rule: if you got bored writing it, your readers are going to get bored reading it. Your job, as a writer, is to engage and entertain the reader. I’ve seen too much descriptive writing that utterly fails to entertain anybody.

What makes information engaging and interesting is that the information is relevant to the characters or to the situation, unless you are Sam Clemens, in which case you can hold an audience enraptured on the subject of drying paint. By choosing relevant detail, you can set the characters, the story, and the situations all at the same time, and with more color, than by using a laundry list of descriptors.
Let’s improve my usual bland example.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

None of this is relevant information. Bob’s brown hair isn’t relevant. His jeans aren’t relevant. Even his cockiness isn’t relevant. Walking into the bar doesn’t mean anything. We expect nothing to happen. There is no tension, no desire, no mystery, no anxiety. Nothing.

Let’s rewrite and make this description relevant.

When Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt, there was something about his look that drove Daisy Miller mad with lust. She utterly died over the way his brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the Devil’s girls. His eyes slid over the door. He did not notice Daisy outside, too proud and upright to walk into that saloon.

I spent one minute rewriting the paragraph. Did you notice the difference? Yes, you do. Just by adding Daisy, and making those details relevant to her, I made those details important to you. In fact, I set up a really nice story here. Will Daisy catch her man, or will she walk away having discovered that even jerks can look  handsome?

Discussing

Even better than telling vs describing is discussing. That’s a technique that I rarely see advised, yet discussing produces better readable text than either. If telling is saying “that’s a rose” and describing is saying, “that’s a red flower with many petals,” then discussing is saying, “that’s a symbol of love for many people, given as gifts on special occasions.” Discussing explores not just the visual and physical aspects of an object, but everything that attaches to that object: history, culture, backstory, rumor, legend, and so on.

Let’s improve my usual bland example.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

Let’s discuss a bit.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt, both new. He bought them at the local trading post with his pay from the last cattle drive. He wasn’t sure what he wanted when he walked into that trading post. He thought that he would buy a new hat, but when he saw those clothes, he knew what he wanted right away. The trail can be a cold place for a cowboy, and a good set of clothes is all that keeps you warm. Now, as he walked into that saloon, the people there would know that he was no poor boy any longer. He was a man earning his way in this world, just like any other man.

The point of discussing is to talk about all those things that are sitting in front of both you and the reader, acknowledge them, and put them into play.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 2)

The Written Word

If you learn nothing else from me, read this sections until you understand it. This section, by itself, is worth everything that you paid. (And if you paid nothing, good for you.)

Our modern society has its own version of storytelling. Specifically, modern storytelling is all about visual storytelling. Film, television, and video games dominate how we experience stories. We've seen thousands of hours of visual stories before we ever write. Because of this constant stream of visual media, we, as a society, have an innate creative bias towards visual media. When we create stories and characters, we visualize and listen through the stories that we want to tell. When we have a story, we innately employ tools that work easily and effectively in visual mediums. This is perfectly normal and expected. There is nothing bad about this.

As writers, if we are to create written characters, then we must acknowledge our visual bias. We must become aware that written techniques are different than visual techniques. The screen uses visual and audio techniques because those techniques are both easy and effective in that medium. When you transfer those same techniques to the written word, those techniques often become cumbersome and, in some cases, nonsensical. What works well in one medium does not work well in another.

When creating something for the written word, choose techniques that are easy and effective for the written word. Play down the visual and the verbal while playing up just about anything else.

Let's walk through and example.

Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.

In that example, I gave you an impression of Bob with a visual technique. You may have conjured a brief image of Bob show up in your head, but you will quickly forget him. Honestly, you learned nothing important about Bob, the setting, the mood of the story, or why Bob is worth being the main character in a story.

If we avoid the visual description, instead dwelling on the more subjective experience of the character, we come out with a far different paragraph.

Bob walked into the saloon like a buffalo bull ready to mate. He clodded up the bar, boots like hooves, his left spur scraping its way across the floorboards. He didn’t survey the women because he knew that those women would survey him. He would have time enough to turn around and choose who he wanted.

In that sentence, I gave no physical description of Bob yet I gave a far stronger impression of the character. I did nothing special in that sentence. All I did was use a simile and a few sentences from Bob’s point of view. That was cheap and easy to produce using the written word but not so cheap and easy to do visually.

So, to repeat the basic lesson, pick techniques that are easy and effective when used with the written word. Your characters come out far more powerful and clearer while needing fewer words to achieve their impact.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 1)


Introduction

How do you create memorable and distinct characters? That’s the primary question that all fiction writers face. There’s no writer out there who hasn’t gone off the rails with character creation, developing a personality that utterly fails on all counts and whose flavor lies somewhere between cardboard and chalk.

The good news is that character creation doesn’t require genius. Any writer, using just a few techniques, can give brilliant life to any character. The only real decisions needed for creating  characters are which techniques to choose and what purpose the character plays in your story.

In the weeks that follow I will give advice, all of it my personal opinion. No part of that should override your good judgement in designing your scenes, your tones, and your tensions. What I give you here are tools. By my definition, a tool is something that can help you just as easily as it can hurt you. The devices that I discuss here will work both for and against you. It may take some mistakes, but you will figure out how to use them.

Fortunately you can go nuts writing characters if you want to. Nobody is going to get hurt. At worst, you risk writing an unsellable piece of garbage. At best, you have a breakthrough and your writing leaps up a few levels. In my opinion, garbage is necessary for brilliance. Garbage in the pursuit of excellence is called learning.