Tag Archives: characters

More Wisdom of the Ages: Write the Damned Book

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Yes. Even Loki loves my work and want’s me to just get on with it. But here I am, stalled and unable to concentrate. because of things…strange, annoying things…. And what about this word? Is it even real?

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Never mind. I’ll just sit here and. sulk for a while. What is my purpose? Why do I do this?

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But I have a gift–a gift, I tell you!  Someday people will say “I knew that loser back when she had a job!”

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But no…I must hold fast to my dreams of someday selling vast quantities of kindle downloads! Someday I will sell more books than Hugh Howey. And he sold a bunch…so many that he scared the big publishers into acting like dumbasses…they showed up  at his house with pitchforks and Hachettes….

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Someday I will be more than just the crazy old lady locked in the office for everyone’s safety. Someday I will be famous for having written a fantasy series that rivals Tolkien…someday.

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Special thanks to Tumblr for providing me with all the diversions!

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Worldbuilding part 3—Magic

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_ProjectEvery now and then I read a book where it’s clear the author has no concept of his own magic system.  You, as the reader,  are sailing; the story is flowing; and then suddenly you realize that Bart the Mage seems to have unlimited magic ability.  Well, that’s no good, because now there is no tension; no great ordeal for Bart to overcome. Bart can do anything–game over–end of story. The book goes into the recycling bin, unfinished and you never buy that author’s work again.

Every author has their own way of doing this, but I approach it from an engineering and scientific viewpoint–I spend time designing the system:

Let’s talk about Bart. He’s a lowly journeyman mage. For a multitude of reasons he has decided that he must rid the world of Evil Badguy; a very powerful, very naughty wizard.  Evil Badguy is very strong, and has great magic, and he seems unstoppable! But fortunately for our story, there are rules, so he is not omnipotent. He has a weakness and your protagonists now have the opportunity to grow and develop to their fullest potential in process of finding and exploiting that weakness.

Now let’s say that Bart is a mage with offensive magic – maybe he can cast lightning at an enemy, or perhaps he can set fires with his magic.  Can he also use magic to heal people?  Can he heal himself?  What are the rules governing these abilities and how do these rules affect the progress of the story?  When it comes to magic, limitations open up many possibilities for plot development.

Let’s say that Bart can only reliably use one sort of magic. This is good, because now you have need for other several characters with other abilities. They each have a story which will come out and which will contribute to the advancement of the plot. Each character will have limits to their abilities and because of that they will need to interact and work with each other and with Bart whether they like each other or not if they want to win the final battle against Evil Badguy.  This gives you ample opportunity to introduce tension into the story. Each time you make parameters and frameworks for your magic you make opportunities for conflict within your fantasy world, and conflict is what drives the plot.

VAYNE final-fantasy-xii_305674What challenge does Bart have to overcome in order to win the day?

  • Is he unable to fully use his own abilities?
  • If that is so, why is he hampered in that way?
  • How does that inability affect his companions and how do they feel about it?
  • Are they hampered in any way themselves?
  • What has to happen before Bart can fully realize his abilities?

Without rules, there would be no conflict, no reason for Bart to struggle and no story to tell.

So now, you realize that you must create the ‘rules of magic.’  Take the time to write it out, and don’t break the laws, without having a damned good explanation for why that particular breaking of the rules is possible.

Each world should be unique, and so we need to tailor the magic to fit each unique situation.

  • Who can use magic?
  • What kind of magic can they use?
  • How are they trained?
  • What happens to those who abuse their gifts?
  • How common is magic?
  • How does the ability to wield magic fit into the political system?

I have two worlds that I am currently writing in, and their magic systems are radically different.

The following was my first list from 2009 for creating the world when we were originally designing a game that eventually became The World of Neveyah series.

Elemental Battle Magic of Neveyah

 Water:   non battle-use can fill water jugs and basins

  • Water spout (novice)
  • Gully Washer (intermediate)
  • High Seas (Advanced)
  • Raging River (Advanced)

Earth:   non-battle use, putting out campfires, digging holes, gardening

  • Square Dance (novice)
  • Landslide (intermediate)
  • Mudslide (advanced)
  • Mountain Drop (Advanced)

Fire:  non battle use – can light candles, and ignite fire in fireplace

  • Hot Shot (novice)
  • Fire Ball (Intermediate)
  • Inferno (advanced)
  • Hell Fire (Advanced)

Lightning:  non-battle use for lightning: creating finish on armor, glazing pottery

  • Cat-Zapper (novice)   Zippety-Doo-Dah (novice-spell)
  • Thunder Fist (intermediate)
  • Curtain Call (Advanced)
  • Thunder Walking (Advanced)

This basic grocery list has since evolved into a complete curriculum for domestic uses, and the names for most of those spells has changed, but it remains relevant because it shows how I divided it. A game player would have had to gain in strength in order to use those spells, and that is how my characters do in the Neveyah books.

Saint_georges_dragon_grasset_beguleIt’s very different in the Billy’s Revenge series which set in Waldeyn, an alternate-medieval earth which is the setting for Huw the Bard. There, the actual environment is magic and Huw’s journey involves his overcoming its inherent dangers. The plants and animals of Waldeyn are shaped by the overwhelming abundance of magic in that world, like radioactivity affects and mutates life here.  Many of the most dangerous creatures are born of twisted magic, or as they call it, majik.

Mind-majik, healing, and the ability to imbue their healing majik into a potion or salve is the feminine side of majik, governed by the Sisters of Anan.

The ability to bind the elements into weapons and wield them is the male side, and they are governed by the Brotherhood of St. Aelfrid.

Part of their political/religious power comes from the fact that it has been determined the majik is a God-given gift, and all who’ve been granted that ability must be bound to the church.

There are strict rules, and if a gifted person doesn’t choose to serve the people through being bound to the church, the ability to sense majik is taken from them by the Mother Church.

I don’t have any main characters in Waldeyn who are majik wielders, although one side character in the forthcoming novel, Billy Ninefingers, is a member of the Brotherhood of St. Aelfrid: the Fat Friar, Robert DeBolt. However, many times these characters are in need of healing. (Heh heh.)

Because of my characters’ frequent tendency to bleed, gaining and acquiring good healing potions and salves is important.

In the World of Neveyah, which is where the Tower of Bones series is set, the situation was different—The Tower of Bones grew out of what was originally the walk-through for a computer-based RPG that was never built. Thus the constraints of magic are quite strict, but as you saw in the list above, they are game-based.

final-fantasy-guys-xii-basch_255851In the forthcoming prequel to Tower of Bones, Mountains of the Moon, a mage is either a healer or a battle-mage. Healing is building and preserving, battle-magic is death and destruction. It is thought that one can’t be both, because on the rare occasions that a dually-gifted mage is born, they go mad. There is a strict system in place for controlling magic and those who are able to use it, and this creates the conflict.

Once again, there is a governing body for mages–in Neveyah it is the Temple of Aeos. Children with the gifts are taken to the Temple and trained in the use of their gifts until they are adults. They are sworn to serve and protect the Goddess Aeos and her people, or die doing so.

But forty years after Wynn Farmer’s tale, during the time in which the Tower of Bones takes place, the clergy has been decimated by a great war that took place twenty years before. The goddess Aeos is in danger of losing the battle with Tauron the Bull God. She slightly changes the way her magic works. Wynn’s grandson, Edwin Farmer, is the first to be born with the ability to wield both sides of the magic who also has the force of character to survive the learning process. His biggest problem is there is no one who can teach him how to use his dual gifts—his teachers only know how one side or the other works.

That learning process forms a huge part of his story. Yes, Edwin has access to power, but so does the antagonist, Stefyn D’Mal, and he is completely mad. Even so, he has rigid constraints. These constraints create the conflict.

Remember, unlimited power in a mage equals unlimited boredom to the reader. Magic without rules is tiresome and unbelievable, and no one wants to read that story.

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Worldbuilding part 1: Infrastructure

Book- onstruction-sign copyWorldbuilding is the term commonly used for the art of unobtrusively creating the world in which your characters live. Of course, fantasy and science fiction authors clearly need this skill, but all authors must be able to create the world in which their characters live, on the printed page. You, as the author, may know what Seattle looks and smells like, but the reader in London will not.

Many new authors say, “Well, just make it real in your mind, and it will feel solid in your story.”

That’s not precisely true, because things that are solid in your mind tend to evolve and change with every new day. That is bad for a fantasy world, which is what books are. We are going to make a style sheet, describing the rules of how our world works–because the universe has rules, and if we accidentally break them, the reader will throw our book away. Yes, you are going to write it down and refer back to it as the story progresses.

We begin by thinking about the basic necessities our characters will need to survive. Take a look at the world around us, and see what supports us, what nourishes and shelters us. This is called infrastructure. We need to have this support system completely solid in our minds as we write, so that the reader has the sense of a solid, well-thought out world.

  1. BUILD YOUR INFRASTRUCTURE: All societies have an economic component to them, whether they are set in space, in Middle Earth, or in Seattle. In any case, there’s nothing worse than a fictional world where there are elaborate social structures that seem completely disassociated from the realities of acquiring food, shelter and clothing. Authors of fiction don’t just write stories—we create whole societies and the economies that support them.
  • MH900438718FOOD and WATER: How do they eat? What do they eat? How does it get delivered? It doesn’t have to be central to the story, but it will come into it at some point because everyone, even vegans, likes to sit down and enjoy a conversation over a good meal, and a society that has no food descends into chaos and war ensues. Do they have certain rituals at meals, a prayer, or do they have formal manners? If they are at home, a small sentence mentioning a napkin or the kind of food will help to set the scene for the reader. If they are in a restaurant or a mess hall, most people will be able to build the picture just from that clue.

If your story is set on a space station or on a space ship, acquiring food becomes central to the tale, because a certain amount of space inside must be devoted either to storage or to hydroponic gardening.

If you set your tale in 1845 Paris, you must remember that this was the Little Ice Age, and was a time of global famine.

  • CLOTHING: People get cold, and need protection. What are they wearing? How do they get it? In some genres, clear descriptions of the garments is needed—most romance novels require some attention to clothing, and if your tale is set in another world or in the past, knowing what they wear becomes very important. You absolutely must understand the constraints certain kinds of clothing will add to your plot.

498px-Peter_Paul_Rubens_088If your romance is set in a medieval world, you will want to dress them with some accuracy. Readers are savvy—they will know you haven’t thought it out well if your fully armored knight is suddenly indulging in a moment of passion with fully dressed Lady Gwen. Think about the many layers of what your characters are actually wearing—it can’t be done! For that you must undress your characters, and if they are full armored or wearing Victorian undergarments, it becomes a bit involved. This means they must plan ahead for their romantic trysts and leave the armor at home.

My book, Huw the Bard is set in a mash-up world—one that has many elements of medieval Britain, but with a few Victorian amenities. I didn’t want clothes to take up a lot of space in the tale, but some mention had to be made.

The trouble Huw had at the outset of the tale was that he was on the run and traveling in disguise. The borrowed shirts of a common working man were made closer-fitting than his traditional bards’ robes, because cloth was expensive and no laborer could afford to waste it on something like big loose sleeves just for fashion. I had to make it so that the straps that ran up his arms and crossed his chest and kept his specially crafted knife sheaths in place didn’t show at all above the rawhide laces at his throat, even when he drew his knives.

It’s only given about three sentences in the actual book, but I had to research what real knife-sheathes are like and how cumbersome they are to wear. In the process I discovered how useless they truly can be. This concept created a certain amount of tension for my plot—he would have to get used to throwing his knives without giving himself away, as he didn’t have the robes to disguise his movements.

When writing fiction, it is important to remember that people are not really that much different nowadays than they ever were. They get cold, so they wear clothes, in many layers. The warmer the weather, the fewer the layers your characters will wear. Inside a warm building, they may be lightly clad. Keep that in mind as you are writing, and convey the idea of their attire with a minimum of words, and your reader will get more enjoyment from the tale.

So, Back to Infrastructure:

  • GARBAGE: Who takes away the garbage? Who deals with their bodily wastes? This also doesn’t have to a large part of the story, but in the morning my husband and I are sometimes woken up by the garbage trucks at our house, so it is a part of the environment. And I don’t know about you, but using an outhouse or emptying a chamber pot is the least romantic thing there is, so if your tale is set in the middle ages, be aware that sanitation was minimal and that dealing with it consumed a certain portion of their day.
  • TRANSPORTATION: How do they get around? Are they riding horses, or driving cars? If you’ve set your story on a space station, do they get around in some sort of shuttle? It’s a good idea to have some idea of distance, and how far people can travel in a day. Draw a map if your world is a fantasy world, or get a map if it is set in our world. You need to have some idea of where places are in relation to each other, and what the distances between those places are, and what the roads are like because that will have an affect your characters too. If people are flying between London and Toronto, there are certain time constraints that must be adhered to—it’s not an instantaneous thing. The wait at each airport, the time spent in a taxi, the time spent in flight—that is a good chunk of time, so make sure it is considered in your storyline.
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    The Ale-house door by Henry Singleton c. 1790

    WORK: What do the majority of your people do to survive? Are they working in a lawyer’s office, or a hospital? Are they farmers? People need to work to survive. In our society today, people identify themselves by their work—”I am an accountant” or “I am an office manager.” We spend 8-10 hours a day at our work, so it is crucial to have your characters’ employment clearly visualized for the reader.

When I decided to set my first book in a medieval setting, I did a certain amount of research on Wikipedia, and found it is actually a good source for quick reference.  However, many people whom I admire and respect regularly tell me it’s not the best source for real information about anything. (!!!) SO, ever the intrepid seeker of information, I resorted to investigating in some rather obscure places, but I did find what I needed.

It just took a little time, and a lot of effort. Do the research, and lay the groundwork for your infrastructure. Your readers won’t thank you, but they will be so immersed in the story, they won’t realize the world is a fantasy, and THAT is what you want.

The next installment of this series will explore the world itself–creating the environment and the geography.

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Final Fantasy XV and Unremembered Things

225px-Ff12castI’m just going to come out and say it–I play console-based RPG video games, and I love it. I am still playing Final Fantasy XII, and finding new things to love about it.

I’m not a huge fan of first-person-shooter games, because I prefer swords and magic,  although I do like a good story-line with well-developed characters. That’s why I am a true Final Fantasy Fanatic–the stories are intricate and compelling, and the characters are multifaceted and strike a chord in the player’s psyche.

So I am quite intrigued by the upcoming release of Final Fantasy XV. Off the top, it looks a bit reminiscent of Final Fantasy VIII in that there are many elements of the first-person shooter in it, and the characters appear to be more real-world.

One of the things that interests me about this upcoming game is the dynamic weather system, with transient effects such as rain affecting things such as the characters’ clothing. In Final Fantasy XII, the  changing weather is an integral part of the game, and the type of creatures encountered changes when the weather does.

FF_XV_screenshotAnother element that intrigues me is Time: a day-and-night time system will affect the appearance of monsters on the world map. One in-game day equates to one hour real-time, and characters who do not sleep have decreased combat ability. Just like in the watershed RPG Final Fantasy VI, camping during the night is necessary for characters to maintain combat performance and level up. The cool thing here is that experience points earned in battle during the day are converted into new levels during camping periods. Camps form a safe haven during exploration, and cooking in them using ingredients from both towns and the wilds grants character bonuses. I expect that no time will be wasted by actually cooking, but I like the notion that the characters must adhere to real-world constraints, or become sickly.

The gamers’ website, VG24-7 released some screen-shots of the action on their  Monday, Jan . 26, 2015 blogpost , and I like the look of this thing. It will be released for PlayStation 4, which I currently do not own, and it may push me to get one.

5squallAs you can imagine, I normally go more for sword and sorcery games, but I adored Final Fantasy VIII, in which the main character, Squall Leonhart, used a gun-sword, and the characters were set in a more real-world type of society. You have to admit, that is an awesome concept for a weapon. Even I would never have thought that one up!

>>>—<<<

Since we are talking about new releases, and my other passion is books, Rachel Tsoumbakos has a new book that will be coming out soon, and it looks as awesome as her previous books. It’s called Unremembered Things, and I must admit that title has me quite intrigued. For an excerpt and a chance to enter the Rafflecopter Giveaway of some pretty awesome prizes, check out  Carlie M.A. Cullen‘s blog today! But wow! What a cover:

unremembered_things_cover_for_kindle

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Resurrection, Reconstruction, and the Great Reckoning

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Coca-Cola HD Wallpapers

I have been writing like a crazy person for the last two weeks.  Well, I am a crazy person, but–I have been spewing the basic rough draft of a novel in the most unlinear way possible.  I have my plot outline and I am following it, sort of.  With that as my guide, even when I am jumping around in the manuscript like a mini-van full of toddlers hopped up on jelly-beans and coca-cola, I am still within the actual framework of the story that was originally outlined.

But what if, as occasionally happens, you suddenly realize that four chapters previously you shot the villain and buried him when he should actually have been struck by lightning? He was always going to die, that was a given, because he must be the undead villain, hell-bent on revenge.

330px-Zombie_haiti_ill_artlibre_jnlThe good thing about being an author is that once you realize there was a mistake, you can always un-shoot them. Then you can strike them with lightning as they should have been in the first place, send them to Hell and and have some minor devil trying to work his way up the management chain in the underworld resurrect them as your creepy, decaying, undead villain.

And if you are in the middle of NaNoWriMo, every time you rewrite the the scene with a slightly different outcome, it counts toward your word count.

Just sayin’.

So, here there I was, happily writing along, when suddenly I realized I had to change a rather large plot-hole, and knew I had to do it while I was thinking about it. First I did a global search for the name of the character that has taken the wrong turn. I changed the font color to red in that section, and began rewriting the scene the way it SHOULD have been written in the first place, using the usual black font.

Now, during normal writing sessions, I would simply cut the offending scene out of the ms, and paste it into a separate document which I then save to my ‘Background File’ in the same folder as my main manuscript. By doing that, I don’t lose information I may need later.

virtually golden medallion of mayhem copyBut this is National Novel Writing Month, and every word in that manuscript  counts toward my region’s total wordcount! We are the Olympia Washington USA region and we have a Word War on with Salem Oregon USA: the Capital Smackdown! On November 30, the day of the Great Reckoning,  The Virtually Golden Medallion of Mayhem is up for grabs!

We have never won this awesome…thing-a-ma-bob….

But we want it.

And in the per-writer stats Salem is slightly ahead of us in this battle. OH! the misery!

So if that means I have a multicolored manuscript for a few weeks, so be it!

Besides, if I don’t begin to make those changes when first I realize they need to be done, I might forget until a beta reader points it out. Thus, I find myself up at all hours of the night ironing out plots points, trying to keep an unmanageable group of characters in line and trying desperately to keep that all-important word-count up!

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Plug in to The Matrix

 

the Matrix PosterNovels have layers. Theme is what the story is about on a deeper level than the plot details. It’s the big meaning, and often it’s a moral meaning. Love, honor, family, and revenge are all some common, underlying themes.

I think of the scenes in my books as if they were scenes in a movie. Each conversation is a scene.

Sometimes, we find ourselves in Outer Mongolia as we wrangle our words. Our mind is off chasing squirrels, and our fingers are madly keying dialogue. It happens, and then we find ourselves writing paragraphs of discussion regarding the vase on the kitchen table. Why are we discussing this vase?  If there is a reason that will emerge later, keep it. If it is just idle fluff, lose it.

I actually have a scene in one of my forthcoming books where the characters do just that. They are discussing a vase that was made by a child, but the conversation is not important for the sake of the vase, nor is it really about that object. It is there to expose how important an absent person is to one of the speakers, and the brief interaction between the two speakers endears to the reader one of the characters who will later meet a sad end. The underlying themes of this book are brotherhood, family, romantic love, honor, duty. The obvious theme is the successful resolution of a quest. The core plot device around which the story evolves is an ongoing War of the Gods, and the world in which the tale is set in is their battleground, offering all sorts of opportunities for mayhem.

Consider the first scene of one of my favorite movies of all time, The Matrix. This movie has a lot of action, but it has a lot of dialogue also, and that dialogue advances the plot and never loses the theme of the story.

Quotes from the matrix

The conversation concerns a drug deal, but the underlying theme is never lost. The key words are in the first line, written on the computer, The Matrix has you, the third line, follow the white rabbit, and in that very last line, telling Neo to unplug. The Matrix is all about waking up, about what reality is, and about Neo as the potential savior of the world, which has been enslaved by a virtual reality program. It is about escaping that program. The conversations that happen in the course of the film all advance that theme, even the minor interactions, from the first conversation to the last.

The Arc of the StoryWe must approach conversations in our novels as if they were scenes in a movie. In a good movie, we don’t notice it, but there is an arc. In a story arc, a character undergoes substantial growth or change. It ends with the denouement in the last third or quarter of a story. The end of a narrative arc is the denouement, the final resolution. It shows what happens as a result of all the conflict that the characters have gone through.

If we don’t keep the arc of the story moving with each scene, we will lose our reader, and to that end, each conversation must reflect the underlying themes of the story without beating the reader over the head with it. As in real life, some of the people know more than others, and to advance the plot and the theme, small clues must come out over the course of each scene, each scene building to the finale.

I876MilanoDuomo‘ve said this before, but we must build the overall arc of the story from scenes, each of which is a small arc, in the same way a gothic cathedral is constructed of many arches that all build toward the top.  The underlying arches strengthen the overall construction. Without arches, the cathedral wouldn’t remain standing for very long. The novel is a cathedral and your scenes are the arches that hold it up. The conversations that form those scenes are miniature arches, each with a beginning, a high point, and a resolution.

 

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What I’ve learned from Agatha Chistie

The_Body_in_the_Library_US_First_Edition_Cover_1942I don’t know about you, but I loved Agatha Christie’s novels as much for the great characters as for the mysteries. She had a way of putting the reader right into the society of the time. Take, for instance, Miss Marple.

She’s elderly and has no visible means of support, yet she is not poor. We think she must be living on inherited wealth, but while she is not poor, she also is not conspicuously rich. She is an elderly spinster who was once engaged, is obviously from a good family, and is godmother to a number of young men and women who sometimes get into trouble and need her sharp eyes to sort out mysteries.

She has a nephew, Raymond West, who must be a sister’s child as the name is different, yet no mention is ever made of Jane’s family beyond him. Did she raise him? She is quite close to him.

The_Moving_Finger_First_Edition_Cover_1942She is well-traveled, and can afford to go to Egypt, and to the Caribbean. Miss Marple has close friends in high society. She knows people with hyphenated names and large estates. She doesn’t let wealth or social standing blind her to the true frailties of human nature–she knows that greed and sex are the root cause of nearly every crime.

She owns her own cottage in St. Mary Mead, and it’s not small or mean in any way–she has the ability to hire a young lady to come in and help with the heavy cleaning, although it is difficult to find one who respects the china.

A_Caribbean_Mystery_First_Edition_Cover_1964Miss Marple takes great interest in the life of her village, and it is through her knowledge of that life that she is able to solve complicated, well planned murders. Her ability to work out the motives for each suspect is directly related to how their actions remind her of certain people she has known over the years in her village. Be careful what you say around her, because she will know what you did by connecting the dots between what you said and what happened.

All this information about Miss Jane Marple comes out in her conversations with other characters, delivered over the course of an entire book, and yet one feels as if one knows her right away.

The_Murder_at_the_Vicarage_First_Edition_Cover_1930In the first full book in which she appears, The Murder at the Vicarage, she isn’t really as likable as she is in later books–she seems a bit of a gossip, and rather mean-spirited at that, always expecting the worst of people.

But over the course of 12 books she evolves, and so does our knowledge of her–or does it?

She is genteel, slightly nosy, very comforting and she is on to you–so don’t even think about doing it.

What I have learned from Agatha Christie is that memorable characters grow on you over the course of the book–they are not delivered fully formed on the first page. They are intriguing and we don’t always know what they will do next. There is a hint of mystery about them, and at the end of the book we want to know more.

A_Murder_is_Announced_First_Edition_Cover_1950This sense of intrigue is what we want to instill in all our characters, whether we write sci-fi, romance, fantasy, pot-boilers, or cozy mysteries. If you think about your own experience in life, once it is apparent that you know everything there is to know about a person, they cease to intrigue you. It is the complexities of your friends that keep them interesting, the little things you never knew that amaze you when they are revealed.

Developing a character, deploying just enough information at the right moments to pique the reader’s curiosity is a balancing act, and I’ve come to believe that not everyone can do it with finesse.

Revealing the character over the course of time, and allowing them grow is crucial to keeping the reader’s interest. I think this can only happen if the author has a true understanding of who their character is. This person must be fully formed in the author’s mind so that when they emerge on to the paper they have a sense of realism, as if they are someone the reader would want to know.

nemesis agatha christieMiss Jane Marple was modeled on Agatha Christie’s step grandmother, and on her Aunt (Margaret West), and her friends. Observing these sharp old ladies taught Agatha how a little life-experience can cut through the smoke and mirrors to the truth of people’s’ motivations rather quickly, and that they were often correct in their sometimes mean-spirited assumptions.

I find that doing a small biography of my characters for my own records helps me to understand my people, and while I generally write in the genre of fantasy, people are who they are regardless of the setting you place them in. Characters will react and behave a certain way depending on their history and values. Some are brave, some are lucky, some are stupid beyond belief, but the ones who keep you reading are the ones who still have more to reveal about themselves when the last page has been turned.

 

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Conveying the Mood

Something I’ve lately realized is that every author, even my favorite, has what I think of as ‘fall-back’ tricks they use when describing certain scenes, little quirks and twists of words that are as personal and unique as a signature. The great authors can get away with this, because their stories are just so darned compelling that we don’t notice or don’t care.

I’ve had to face it–when I, as an author, make a habit of resorting to writing my characters with excessive shrugging or sighing, it’s clear I’ve run out of ideas. I recently had a wonderful discussion with several other authors who have noticed this phenomenon in their own work. After that discussion, I found myself wondering how to maintain speed in my writing when I am in the zone, but still have a variety of words and ideas available to me for describing mood and emotion.

So–since tattoos are expensive, and my palm isn’t really large enough to contain a really good table of visual cues, I resorted to my handy-dandy Excel program, and created one there.

What I discovered while compiling this, is that my little brain is quite limited. I had to struggle to picture what these moods and emotions looked like.  Once I had the facial expression in my mind, it was easier to imagine how a character might appear to an observer.

What these cues do is help me come up with a fresh description when I want to show something that may happen frequently within a group of characters. I don’t necessarily use these cues verbatim as they are written here, but they do give my mind a jumping off point and I can extrapolate from there.

Please feel free to: right click> save as> png or jpeg and print it out for your own use.

Conveying Mood and Emotion in Writing

 

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Yes, but how do you really feel?

x - y chromosomesI love writing and I love my characters, but they are so stubborn about some things. Of course, many of them have ‘Y’ chromosomes, but still…. It’s frustrating because they don’t want to to talk about how they’re feeling.

Oh, for the love of Tolstoy–don’t they get it? I’m  a woman. I need you people to talk to me. Tell me what’s going on in your imaginary head.

It’s difficult to show the characters’ emotions and thought processes when it’s so much easier to just say he felt, or she was some emotion.  These thoughts and feelings are central to making our characters feel real. But describing them from a distance, as an author must do, may disconnect the reader from that character.

Sometimes, descriptions don’t allow the reader to experience the moment with the character. Instead, the author is telling them how the character feels.What we must ensure is that our readers remain immersed in the narrative, that no ‘speed-bumps’ come along to knock them out of it. Heart Search cover

One of the best at this is Carlie M.A. Cullen, whose urban fantasy series Heart Search  featuring a coven of vampires is gaining in popularity. I think her books are so compelling because of her ability to draw a reader into the character without going over the top. So, how does she do it?

The opening line of chapter one of Heart Search Book 1, Lost reads like this: The sun, a ferocious golden orb, burnt into his skin as Joshua wandered aimlessly through the country park.

She could have just written The sun was hot and Joshua was killing time in a park.

But she didn’t, and the story is better for it–AND she showed you both the scene and Joshua’s mood in that one sentence.

So what can we learn from reading our favorite authors? We can see how they craft their tales, and we can learn those skills. Painters do this all the time, and we paint with words. 480px-Schmalz_galahad

Let’s pretend we’re writing a fantasy novel. We can go over the top, like a painting by Herbert Gustave Schmalz, or we can find a happy medium between too much and too little. There is no need to sink into overly sentimental and exaggerated pathos in order to inject feeling into our work.

Here we have a character who is on the run from a creature of some sort. 1. He was afraid. He was terrified to look back.

Example one tells the reader how the character feels. We might write this in our first draft when we are just trying to get the story out of our heads. An unskilled writer would consider it just fine the way it is, as it expresses his thoughts perfectly.

However, it tells the reader how to feel, and readers really don’t like being told what to do.

2. He wiped the sweat from his brow with a trembling hand, fear from his narrow escape coursing through his veins. Heart pounding, he leaned against the wall, listening for any sounds that shouldn’t be there before chancing a glance around the corner.

Personally, I would read book number two over book number one, because it’s more interesting and makes me want to know more about this character and his problems. We need to use physical symptoms a character might experience combined with their actions, but  we need to describe them in such a way that it is a natural part of the scene.

John slid down the wall, sitting in the mud, his breaths coming in hard, ragged gasps. Something trickled down his cheek, and wiping it, his hand came away with blood.

Another example: Theodor_Hosemann_Weinstube_1858

Lord Deccan’s fist hit the table. “Wine now, you miserable worm–or I’ll cut off your other ear!”

The one-eared innkeeper scuttled to the cellar. He quickly searched the shelves filled with dusty jars of cheap wine, settling at last on a vintage he thought might suffice.

Baldric’s guests normally drank from wooden tankards, but he knew that wouldn’t suit. There was a goblet, one he’d come by in a peculiar way, but it was a fine cup and would do well enough to stave off a tantrum of the lordly variety.

His shoulders hunched in anticipation of trouble, he approached the angry lord’s table. Setting the only goblet before the nobleman, he left the bottle and stepped away, bowing with feigned obeisance. Baldric had  survived  the  war with all but his left ear intact, and intended to remain that way.

Sir Paul McCartney, image from Rolling Stone MagazineWhat we are doing here is exactly like interpreting what our loved one is telling us, when he/she refuses to use their words. Seeing them sitting slouched in the chair, clicker in hand and numbly flipping through channels is a good indication of their mood. So we must picture the scene and describe it .

We must show the emotions as they are reflected by the physical cues our characters give us, but don’t tell them–a difficult trick to master but one we must all do if we want our work to engage the reader.

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How dining in Bedlam taught me to write dialogue

Days of Wine and Roses quote copyThe family I grew up in is a loud, all-talk-at-once kind of a family, with a lot of talkative members. Family gatherings are absolute bedlam–large, loud, full of life and great food, and long on opinions and ideas. We are comprised of musicians, artists, and authors, along with engineers and software developers.

Above all, we are avid gamers of all kinds, from old-school Super Mario, to Grid Autosport, to Final Fantasy X/X-2, to Halo, to Assassin’s Creed, to  Dark Souls 2, to Minecraft–and we love to talk, loudly and all at once, about everything we love. Somehow, we all manage to have our say and allow the others have theirs, but it’s like living in a blender at times.

We, and our friends, are loud and passionate and most people love it, but every now and then a visitor can’t handle the hullabaloo.  Sometimes, less outgoing girlfriends or boyfriends don’t get it, and the general din intimidates them.

In fact most people carry on conversations, where one person says something, and the  other one answers, and this goes on like a tennis match until everything has been said.

Huh. Who knew?

So, that is how we want to write our dialogue. We want it to sound natural.

Writers need to keep in mind that when people talk, they rarely follow any grammatical rules. Any English class that writers have taken will have stressed the importance of using proper grammar and punctuation in their writing. However, when we attempt to write dialogue, those same rules should be thrown out of the window. Many times people speak in broken sentences, with pauses, and even use incorrect words.

  1. Don’t overuse character names in dialogue. People don’t use each other’s names in every sentence they speak, because it sounds silly. (“Helen, your hair is lovely.” “Thank you, Ralph.” “Do you want to watch a movie, Helen? “Sure, Ralph, but stop touching my hair.”) When you do use character names in dialogue, use them early in order to indicate to whom the speaker is talking, and after that, be sparing with the monikers.
  2. Avoid writing dialogue that’s really an excuse for “speechifying” (I love that word ♥.)  Avoid giving your characters long paragraphs with lines and lines and lines of dialogue that is uninterrupted.  In real-life conversations, people usually alternate in conversation, and like my family, they often interrupt each other. It is your job to capture the rhythm of real speech–but don’t make it choppy.
  3. The dialogue of one character shouldn’t repeat what was said by the other, unless it is for emphasis in that one instance. “So Helen, what you are saying is, ‘don’t be repetitive.'” “Yes, Ralph, don’t repeat my every word.” “Don’t repeat your sentences.”
  4. DON’T explain your dialogue by adding too many descriptors, such as: John shouted angrily, or Garran commented sulkily. If the meaning is effectively conveyed in what your characters are doing as well as saying, adding these descriptors undermines the dialogue and disengages the reader. Try removing the explanation and see if the meaning is still clear. If it isn’t clear, it’s time to rewrite. By letting the dialogue speak for itself, by describing it less and showing it more, you make it more compelling.
  5. DON’T get creative with your attributions, or ‘dialogue tags’ as we call them: stick to John said (not said John, which sounds archaic in modern literature.) Unless you absolutely need a John screamed or Edwin uttered (which you pretty much never do) just say it and let the reader do the rest. Fancy synonyms for ‘said’ are usually unnecessary and distracting.
  6. And now for my pet peeve:  people do not smile, snort or smirk dialogue. I mean really–“That’s a lovely dress,” snorted Clara. (eeew. )  In fact, it is often best to do away with attributions altogether for a few exchanges every now and then, if:  A. you have only 2 speakers, and B. you have established who is speaking.
  7. Most readers hope authors will avoid trying to convey accent by altering spelling. It gets tiresome to read an author’s attempt to rewrite the dictionary to fit a cockney or an Irish accent, so use colloquialisms and speech patterns instead. That said, if the character is making a MINOR appearance, using an accent will give the reader feeling that they know that character, without resorting to an info dump.
  8. Feel free to break the rules of grammar if your character shows a blatant disregard for what’s correct. If he wants to say, “I seen that movie last week. It were a real dud,” let him.  That is a way to show the description of your characters.
  9. Miss a few beats. Beats are little bits of physical action inserted into dialogue: John fell quiet and stared out the window. Marta turned and walked out the door. Used sparingly, these pauses serve to punctuate the dialogue, to give the scene movement, and to maintain a strong mental picture in the absence of description. They’re best placed where there is a natural break in the dialogue, because they allow the reader to experience the same pause as the characters. Pauses are essential to good dialogue, but don’t overdo it. If your characters are rattling pans, slicing apples or staring out the window between every line of dialogue, the scene becomes about the action and not the dialogue, and the impact of the conversation can be lost entirely.
  10. Once in a while, it is okay to have your characters tell a story within the story, but do it as naturally as possible. Speaking as an older person, I admit that some older character will be just dying to tell the younger ones how it really was. Please don’t use that plot twist as a crutch to dump a chunk of boring background. No one in real life wants to hear an old duffer go on about the good old days at Bob’s Fish Cannery, even if Skyler Webbley did lose a finger that was never found and didn’t notice it until his shift was over when he discovered his driving gloves didn’t fit right. (Just sayin’.)

In regard to proper use of punctuation: it is important to follow the rules in the general narrative but punctuation has a different role in dialogue. There are times when it is used to create pauses in dialogue.

Oh, dear. What have I done? Breathe, Irene, breathe! Inhale…exhale…it will be fine–it’s dialogue, for the love of  Chatty Cathy…we want it to sound normal, not necessarily literate. (Oh, dear, she’s turning blue… . Line editor down! Quick! Someone fan her with the Chicago Manual of Style!)

Or you can properly punctuate your dialogue to your heart’s content.  It’s your book, and your style–you make the decision.

Anyway, to write natural dialogue, observe others around you, see how they talk, what they do with their bodies, and where they pause. These are what you know of them as people, and are what you want to convey in your writing.  What we want our dialogue to do is  give the reader a clear visual of the scene, the characters and their environment. A truly great book is clearly visualized in the mind of reader, so give those clues and hints, but let the reader see for themselves the beauty or horror you are describing though good dialogue and properly setting the scene.

VOS QUOTE

 

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