Posts Tagged ‘character’

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

The minute they had faces, these guys became more real

One of the biggest mistakes I made writing the early drafts of Guns and Guano was being vague. When I started out I wasn’t confident in getting an American protagonist right, so I fudged his accent and was vague about his background. But such evasion is not getting it right, as became clear the minute I got the book near beta readers. Specificity is what makes characters real, because real people and places are specific and detailed.

You can write something in a vague way from the start and then fix it later. But if you’re doing that then why not write something specific, which you might stick to later? You’ll be no worse off. Pick a name for that random bodyguard, decide which town the action happens in, know which side of the war your character fought on (yes I tried to fudge that, no it did not work). Even with accents, pick one, do a few minutes’ research and then go with it. You’ll still be doing better than my original cowboy-impressionist generic American.

Better to take a risk on a detail and maybe get it right than to be vague and be sure of going wrong.

bookdesign346Writing Excuses continue to provide excellent writing advice and interesting exercises through their podcasts. And so I keep beavering away at the exercises, and where possible using them for work in progress. This week, I’m working on book three of the Epiphany Club series, Aristocrats and Artillery, using the exercise from episode 10.19:

Write dialog in which each of the speakers has a different subtext and motive. Without explicitly stating those, try and make them clear to the reader.

This dialogue is between Isabelle McNair, adventurer and scholar with the Epiphany Club, and Louis, the King Under Paris. Prussian forces are invading France, Napoleon III has been overthrown, and the war is approaching Paris…

The Dialogue

“Your Majesty.” Isabelle curtsied before the King. “So good of you to see us again at this difficult time.”

“Indeed.” There was a secretive little smile at the corner of Louis’s mouth. “The Prussians draw ever closer, and we both know that a republican government cannot stop them.”

“A situation which only makes my plea more urgent.” She rose and looked him in the eye. “Paris is full of priceless artefacts, sources of knowledge that might be endangered by the war.”

“Or by the ignorance of the Prussians.” Louis nodded. “Take this for example.”

He drew back the cloth on the table next to him, revealing a stone tablet. A tablet like the two in Isabelle’s room back at the hotel, packed and ready to depart. This time he favoured them all with his knowing smile.

“To some it just looks like a rock.” The King ran a finger across the engraved surface. “But to persons of learning it could be a source of great knowledge.”

“Indeed.” Isabelle’s voice remained remarkably calm. “We should ensure that it is safe.”

“We should ensure that the whole city is safe from the invaders. And for that I need all the support I can muster.”

“You will need supporters abroad.” Isabelle made a small gesture with her hand, taking in all three members of the Epiphany Club. “People with influence in foreign governments. Respected organisations that can quickly win diplomatic support for your regime.”

“And I would reward such friends greatly.” The King smiled and pulled the cloth back across the stone. “Once my city and my country are secure.”

Did It Work?

So, readers, what did you think the characters’ motives and subtexts were in that conversation? Is it clear, incomprehensible, actually a little too obvious? Please let me know how I’ve got on.

bookdesign346Doesn’t time fly when you’re writing? It’s May already, and Writing Excuses are a third of the way through their year-long podcast writing course. I still feel like I’m learning a lot from it, and recommend it anyone who’s into writing, especially writing sf+f.

This week’s exercise is:

Pick your gee-whiz, whatever it may be, and describe it in 150 words from ten different perspectives. Yes, that’s 1500 words.

I suppose the biggest gee-whiz factor in my Epiphany Club stories is the steampunk technology, so I’ve picked a moment involving this from the third book, which I’m currently working on. Here’s the emergence of a Prussian tunnelling machine into the streets of Paris, from five points of view (because I only half did the exercise):

Dirk Dynamo

The rumbling grew to a roar, the ground shaking beneath Dirk’s feet. He flung himself to the ground as the road in front of him exploded in a shower of dirt and fist-sized stones.

Out of the hole a vehicle emerged. It was unlike anything Dirk had ever seen before, but it was a moment’s work to see it was built for war. Seven feet high and three times as long, it was covered from end to end in heavy armoured plating, scraped from its journey through the earth. Great wheeled shovels protruded from the front, and small wheels propelled it into the street.

Dirk thought he had seen the future of war in the bloody fields of Gettysburg, but in that single moment he knew he had been wrong. Humans were far smarter than that. Smarter and more terrible.

Timothy Blaze-Simms

As the dirt settled, Blaze-Simms stared at the machine sitting in front of him. His eyes went wide with wonder, a smile lighting his face.

He had considered devices like it in the past, of course. Trackless trains, motorised wagons, that time he’d built a mobile factory. But this was something entirely new.

He pulled out his notebook and started frantically sketching. The armoured plating was clearly thick to withstand bullets, yet streamlined so as not to cause obstructions as it travelled through the dirt. The digging wheels looked to have been influenced by moles’ paws, as well as some of Brunel’s wilder inventions. The engine must be incredibly powerful, and most of the space filled with fuel.

A hatch opened in the roof. A glimpse of its fastening was all Blaze-Simms needed to make a note of the design. Someone was emerging, a gun in their hands.

“Get down!” Dirk slammed into him, knocking him to the ground as bullets whizzed past their heads.

Isabelle McNair

It was quite the ugliest thing Isabelle had ever seen. An ungainly mass of steel, smoke billowing from its rear and dirt sliding from its sides. The roar of its engine was accompanied by the grinding of ridged wheels over cobbles, the clang-clang-clang of its shovel wheels spinning against the street.

Stepping back into the shelter of a doorway, she watched as a hatch opened in the roof and soldiers started pouring out, guns already barking as they opened fire on anyone in sight. Because of course, what else would one do with a spectacular new advancement in transport, if not fill it full of soldiers?

She could imagine the excitement of the men who had made this thing, and of those riding in it. They would be like children with a new toy.

Still there was potential in the thing, if she could just get inside.

Hans the shoveller

Hans grunted as he flung another shovel-full of coal into the boiler. They told him this wasn’t just coal, it was something special, something powerful. Hans didn’t care. It was all just the same when you were the man who did the shovelling.

The floor tilted beneath him. He grabbed hold of the overhead rail as the whole vehicle swayed and then righted itself. The floor was horizontal again. That probably meant they were above ground.

Sparks flew at the disruption, smoke clogging the room and Hans’s lungs. He coughed, a wretched, rasping noise that had only gotten worse through all the weeks of training.

Join the army, they’d said. Fight for the homeland, they’d said.

So much for glory. Hans shifted his grip and kept shovelling coal.

Miura Noriko

The machine crawled down the street, smoke billowing from its rear, soldiers jogging along beside it with guns drawn. They looked ill-disciplined to Noriko, their blue suits impractical, their stances slovenly. Not real warriors.

The machine would be easy prey. It was so European she almost laughed. Bigger, harder, tougher, that was the way of westerners. Cover your machine in enough armour plates and you would make it invincible. Unless you left a hole in the top to come in and out by, or an open pipe to release the fumes. Everything had its weak points, even this.

Still, there was something admirable about it. A thing singular in purpose, all that engineering poured into the single task of digging through the ground. By the standards of these people it was almost subtle, to emerge from the ground beneath your enemy’s feet.

Almost.

Reflecting on the Exercise

The main thing I got out of this was that I’m not clear on what the biggest gee-whiz excitement factor for these books is, except in the last volume, the climax of a hunt for the lost Great Library. Purely from the point of view of getting people excited about the story, I need to think about that.

Writing a scene from different viewpoints is always helpful though, and adding Hans in particular made me look at this in a different way.

Have you tried this exercise? What did you think?

* * *

On a completely different note, today’s the last day my book From a Foreign Shore is free on Amazon, so if you like historical fiction, alternate history, short stories or just my writing, why not check it out?

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High ResolutionAs has become the norm, for this Tuesday’s post I’ve had a go at the latest Writing Excuses exercise, to sharpen my writing skills and hopefully inspire others to give these exercises a go. This week’s exercise was provided by a guest on the show, Wesley Chu:

take something that you’ve already written, swap the personalities of your protagonist and antagonist, and re-write a scene from the story.

I’m under some time pressure this week, so I’m not going to write a full scene, just think about how this role reversal would work in one of my stories – ‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’, from my collection By Sword Stave or Stylus.

The Original Situation

‘Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts’ stars First Swift Footstep, a criminal in a fantasy setting influenced by China and Japan. The story depicts his interrogation by a nameless authority figure, which leaves First Swift Footstep haunted by what may be a spirit or may be a figment of his imagination.

In this original set-up, First Swift Footstep is a chancer and an opportunist. He’s fidgety and somewhat nervous, plagued by his own doubts. He’s willing to cross legal and ethical boundaries where it’s in his best interests.

The interrogator is a figure of calm and stillness. Educated, connected and rooted in the traditions of their country, he understands how to use small gestures to his advantage. It’s his infinite patience, as much as First Swift Footstep’s impatience, that becomes the thread of their confrontation.

Reverse the Polarity!

So what happens when I switch these two around?

Now we have a protagonist and prisoner who is calm and patient, able to resist the techniques used on him by an interrogator desperate for results. Instead of seeing the prisoner slowly worn down, we would see his resisting a range of different approaches to interrogation, up to and including torture – after all, our new interrogator is happy to cross that line. Ultimately, it’s still a story about how much one man can endure, but it’s about external pressures, not internal ones, and the through line is one of resistance to a dark change, not growing insight.

Reflecting on the Exercise

I think that, if I’d looked at another of my stories, this exercise might have created something more interesting. As it is, the reversal makes a story that’s more mundane and less interesting. Though I am fascinated by the character of the new, impatient interrogator, and think he could have a lot of use in a future story, by making the calm, patient, almost flawless man the centre of the story, I end up with a less interesting protagonist.

If you’d like to read the original story, By Sword, Stave or Stylus is free on Amazon today. And if you’ve got any thoughts on the exercise, or have tried it yourself, please share your thoughts in the comments – I’m always interested in what other people make of these exercises.

This scurvy crew are motivated by the longing for booze

These scurvy characters are motivated by the longing for booze

I love templates for the same reason I loved standard operating procedures when I was stuck in an office – they’re a way of making sure you don’t forget important details. Sure, you might need to deviate from them from time to time, but well made structures can help with anything, even the art of writing.

Heck, especially the art of writing.

When I’m writing the flash stories that appear here every Friday, I tend to only use a single plot template. Using a load of different tools for such a short story would be overkill. But when I’m writing a novel or the longer sort of short story, my desire for structure really goes to town, with all sorts of checklists and templates.

Given that a lot of my readers are also writers, I thought it might be useful to share one or two of these. So below is the checklist I use when trying to create a well developed character. I’ve added notes where I felt they’d help. Feel free to use it as you see fit, to let me know if you find it helpful, and to point out anything you think would be worth adding. Like any good process, this is a work in progress, and there’s always room to get better.

Andrew’s Character Template, version 1.2

Name

Concept – what is the core idea for this character? communist inventor? Buddhist adventurer? king of the whales?

Thematic link – how they connect to the theme of my story

Arc – how are they going to change over the course of the story?

Symbol – is there a particular thing that symbolises them within the story? for example, in one novel I’m working on the male lead is connected to blood and the female to fire.

Appearance

Voice – how they talk, especially distinctive words and sentence structures I can use.

Mannerisms

Grounding foibles – a little whimsical interest makes even the most grand of characters more relatable.

Story goal – what are they trying to achieve on the surface?

Deeper drive – what’s the deeper drive, perhaps never explicitly stated, that pushes them on? even ink and paper people deserve a subconscious.

Competence, proactivity and sympathy – which of these are they weaker and stronger in? in what way? a character who lacks all of them is unappealing, one who’s strong in them all becomes too flawlessly good (I stole this idea from a Writing Excuses episode)

Fundamental weakness – the one that runs deepest and causes them the most problems.

Flaws / faults

Response to pain – borrowed from someone I worked with on a ghostwriting project, this can be very telling about the character – when they’re hurt, physically or mentally, do they run, hide, fight back, try not to let it show?

Desire for survival affecting choices – this and the following four are borrowed from choice theory – how do these psychological drivers affect the character’s behaviour? which make the most difference? how do they come into conflict?

Desire for power affecting choices

Desire for freedom affecting choices

Desire for love & belonging affecting choices

Desire for fun & learning affecting choices

Conflicting characteristics – because internal conflict is interesting, and real people aren’t entirely consistent.

Family – who, where, etc.

What do they think makes them unique? – we all think we’re special in some way, and what we think we’re great at isn’t always the reality – another little detail to make the character more real.

5659908590_a2fb90dfc0_zGoing to see Little Shop of Horrors, it struck me was that the play uses one of the all time classic character motivations – poverty.

Skid Row Survivors

Most of the characters in Little Shop of Horrors are poor people living in a poor neighbourhood. While this isn’t the only thing motivating Seymour, the story’s protagonist, it’s an important one. It drives him to seek fame and fortune when the opportunity arises, even at a terrible cost.

It’s also the motive for many other characters in stories, from Harry Dresden’s ongoing struggle to pay his bills through to Oliver Twist’s need just to get fed.

Because of Necessity, Dumby

The reason this happens so often is obvious once you think about it. Poverty prevents us from attending to even our most basic needs – food, shelter, warmth. A poor character can be motivated to all sorts of actions to survive. A poor character with principles can easily be given internal conflict, as the needs of survival clash with those principles. Just look at Seymour, forced to take increasingly grisly steps to retain the monstrous Audrey Two and his ticket out of the slums.

Poverty drives conflict, for characters at least.

Sure, it’s an easy option, but it’s one that works. By definition, half the population has less wealth than average, and there are always people struggling to survive. Just because all these characters are driven by poverty doesn’t mean that their lives and struggles will be the same.

Penny for the Writer?

If you want to help a struggling writer avoid poverty at no cost to yourself, please go download a copy of my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves, free on the Kindle until the end of tomorrow. Those free downloads will help to raise the book’s profile on Amazon, even more so if you leave a rating once you’ve read the book, and will make me money in the long run. Keep an eye out in there for ‘Day Labour’, another story of poverty and carnivorous plants, though a very different one from Little Shop of Horrors.

Picture by Aaron Patterson via Flickr Creative Commons.

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

My collection has plenty of people named Harry and Lucy, not so many Mantajs.

A few weeks ago I named a character in a story after my friend Mantaj. To me it wasn’t a big deal – she’d given me some incredibly good feedback on a novella I’m working on, and it was an easy way to say thank you.

It turns out I under-estimated the power of a name.

Connecting Through A Name

Here’s how Mantaj responded to that story:

“I think the first thing that I realised when I started reading is that I am not use to seeing my name in any context that doesn’t relate directly to me. I think that it comes from having a very unusual name. My guess is that you’ve read a lot of stories about people called Andy, and met a lot of other people called Andy. But for me Mantaj always means me!

“This meant that when I was reading the story I felt even more connected to the character, when I visualised the story play out in my mind the protagonist had my face. Even though she wasn’t me, didn’t act like me, didn’t think like me she I felt like she was me. It was disconcerting in a very interesting way. It wasn’t something that I’d ever considered before, and how the associations we have with a name, especially our own are made.”

Representing

It wasn’t something I’d ever considered, but what Mantaj wrote makes perfect sense. I don’t feel a particular thrill when a character is named Andy or Andrew, because I’ve seen characters like that half my life. Heck, there was another Andrew in my first primary school class, so the novelty of namesakes wore off pretty quickly.

I was thrilled to see that using my friend’s name had created a new experience for her. It also made me think about the use of names in a wider sense.

If you come from a fairly conventional white British or American background, as I do, then you’re in the privileged position of seeing yourself represented all the time, and that extends to names. We see ourselves in many stories, including many of those regarded as both the literary and the SFF canon. But this is less true for other groups, as Chimamanda Adichie explains in this TED talk.

Without opening up the whole can of worms that is identity politics, I think there’s something here we should be aware of as readers and can use as writers. When you’re a reader, think about how names of characters affect you. Do they feel familiar and comfortable or strange and alien? Why? And when you’re writing, consider what group you’re trying to reach through character names. Perhaps an unusual name choice will earn you a dedicated following among people who feel left out, or maybe you’ll catch yourself giving all your characters safe middle class names, leaving out the Kierons, Chantelles and even Mantajs of this world.

Names are powerful in fiction, and not just when they’re used for magic.