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Cyberpunk and Sturm und Drang #amwriting

We all want to create intense moods and evoke a strong atmosphere in our work. This can range from subtle hints to full-on Sturm und Drang, but the intention is to captivate the reader either way.

What is Sturm und Drang? The English translation is literally Storm and Stress.

sturmUndDrang05152021LIRFSturm und Drang, as a literary form, evolved during the time of the American Revolutionary War. This was an era of global unrest and great hardship, especially in Europe. The main feature of Sturm und Drang is the expression of high emotions, strong reactions to events, and rebellion against rationalism. It is characterized by intense individualism and complex reactions.

Classical literature in this style began in 1772 with “Prometheus,” a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The character of the mythic Prometheus addresses God (as Zeus) in hatred and defiance. Misotheism is the hatred of God or the Gods, stemming from a moment in a person’s life where one feels the gods have abused and abandoned him.

One can’t hate what one doesn’t believe in, so misotheism requires a firm belief in a God or Gods.

Wikipedia tells usPrometheus is the creative and rebellious spirit which, rejected by God, angrily defies him and asserts itself; Ganymede is the boyish self which is adored and seduced by God. One is the lone defiant, the other the yielding acolyte. As the humanist poet, Goethe presents both identities as aspects or forms of the human condition. [1]

Literature and music written in the style of Sturm und Drang were meant to shock the audience, inundating them with extremes of emotion.

A parallel movement occurred in the visual arts. Artists began producing paintings of storms and shipwrecks, showing the terror and irrational destruction wrought by nature. These pre-romantic works were fashionable in Germany from the 1760s on through the 1780s.

Alongside these frightening landscapes, disturbing depictions of nightmarish visions were gaining an audience in Europe. Goethe and many of his contemporaries admired and purchased paintings by artists like Henry Fuseli, horror-scapes intended to frighten the viewer.

the machine stops em forsterSo, this brings me to the subgenre of cyberpunk. One of the earliest science fiction short stories to feature a dystopian society was The Machine Stops, written by E. M. Forster. It was published in The Oxford and Cambridge Review (November 1909).

In cyberpunk, we see many of the features of classic Sturm und Drang but set in a dystopian society. The deities are technology and industry. Corporate uber-giants are the gods whose knowledge mere mortals desire and whom they seek to replace.

And, just like all demi-gods, when an exceptionally strong and clever protagonist does manage that feat, it’s business as usual. They are no better than the gods whose thrones they have usurped.

Wikipedia defines cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction in a future setting that tends to focus on the society of the proverbial “high tech low life  featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as information technology and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. [2]

Cyberpunk began as a niche rebellion by authors like Phillip K. Dick. It is now considered mainstream speculative fiction and has a large audience.

Works in this genre are always set in a post-industrial dystopian world with deep divisions in the strata of society. Some have a specified caste system of sorts, but most people live in extreme poverty in all cyberpunk tales. There will be a small middle class, and at the top, a few of the strongest, most powerful people hold incredible wealth. These societies have fallen into extreme chaos, which is the driver of the story.

The MacGyver Effect is utilized to the fullest in these stories: protagonists acquire and use technology in ways never anticipated by the original inventors. A central trope of this genre is “the street finds its own uses for things.”  

In cyberpunk, the atmosphere is dark, heavily film noir. It is fast-paced, atmospheric, and alcohol is heavily abused. It is often sexist, although strong feminine cyberpunk is emerging. The prose usually has a pared-down style reminiscent of 1950s detective fiction. Street drugs are cheap and are the relaxation of choice in many cyberpunk novels.

Macbeth_consulting_the_Vision_of_the_Armed_HeadMany authors whose works appeared in the early days of cyberpunk were indies hoping to go mainstream. Their short stories appeared in popular sci-fi magazines because visionary editors risked their jobs and reputations by accepting and publishing work that their readers could have rejected.

The success of those short works piqued the interest of agents and larger publishers, enabling them to sell their longer work.

We indie authors are fortunate. We have a lot of latitude in what we choose to write. We can write and publish edgy work that would be turned away by traditional publishers, who would pass on it because it might not be a commercial success.

Authors who engage in artistic rebellion will often find great success — but usually, this comes after they are dead.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Prometheus (Goethe),” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Prometheus_(Goethe)&oldid=994790116 (accessed May 15, 2021).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Cyberpunk,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Cyberpunk&oldid=1020463998 (accessed May 15, 2021).

Images:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Macbeth consulting the Vision of the Armed Head.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Macbeth_consulting_the_Vision_of_the_Armed_Head.jpg&oldid=526733277 (accessed May 15, 2021).

The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster, published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review by Archibald Constable, 1909. Amazon LLC cover, published 05-15-2021, fair use.

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Crafting contrasts: @TadWilliams and Tolkien – how contrasts drive the story #amwriting

One of my favorite quotes for writers comes from the Buddha. “There has to be evil so that good can prove its purity above it.”

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020J.R.R. Tolkien understood this quite clearly. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a significant reading commitment, one fewer and fewer readers are willing to undertake. It was written in a highly literate style that everyone understood a century ago.

Lengthwise, the saga isn’t as long as people make it out to be when compared to Robert Jordan‘s or Tad Williams’ epic (and highly literate) fantasy series. The LOTR series totals only 455,175 words over the course of all three books.

Tolkien shows the peace and prosperity that Frodo enjoys and then forces him down a road not of his choosing. He takes the hobbit through personal changes, forces him to question everything.

Frodo’s story is about good and evil, war and peace, and the hardships endured in the effort to destroy the One Ring and negate the power of Sauron. Why would ordinary middle-class people, comfortable in their rut, go to so much trouble if Sauron’s evil posed no threat to their peace and prosperity?

300px-The_Dragonbone_ChairTad Williams’s masterpiece, the Dragon Bone Chair, is the first book in the fantasy series Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. These are the first three books in the epic Osten Ard series.  I read this book when it first went to paperback and had to re-read it again immediately upon finishing it. This book (and indeed the whole series) had a profound impact on me, and also my children when they became older teens.

In both the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Tad Williams’ Osten Ard books, we have two of the most enduring works of modern fantasy fiction. Both feature an epic central quest and smaller side quests, all of which must be completed for the protagonists to arrive at the final resolution.

Through it all, we have joy and contentment sharply contrasted with deprivation and loss, drawing us in and inspiring the deepest emotions.

This use of contrast is fundamental to the fables and sagas humans have been telling since before discovering fire. Contrast is why Tolkien’s saga set in Middle Earth is the foundation upon which modern epic fantasy is built.

It’s also why Tad Williams’ work in The Dragonbone Chair, first published in 1988, changed the way people saw the genre of epic fantasy, turning it into hard fantasy. His work has inspired a generation of fantasy writers: George R.R. Martin and Patrick Rothfuss, to name just two of the more famous.

In all his works, whether it’s the paranormal Bobby Dollar series or his epic Osten Ard series, Tad Williams’ novels come to life because he juxtaposes emotions in his characters and builds contrasts into every setting in his worlds. Ease and beauty are juxtaposed against harshness and deprivation.

f scott fitzgerald The Great GatsbyNo matter where we live, San Francisco, Seattle, or Middle Earth, these fundamental human experiences are personal to every reader. We have each experienced pain and loss, joy and love.

When the author successfully uses the contrasts of our human experience to tell their story, the reader empathizes with the characters. They live the story as if they were the protagonist.

So, what do I mean by contrasts in world-building? It can be shown in subtle ways.

Contrasting plenty against poverty in your world-building shows the backstory without requiring an info dump.

First comes the sunshine, and then the storm, and then the aftermath. Feast is followed by famine, thirst followed by a flood. Love and loss, safety and danger, loyalty and betrayal—contrast gives the story texture, and pacing turns a wall of words into something worth reading.

In our real world, war, famine, and flood are followed by times of relative peace and plenty. The emotions and experiences of people living through all those times are the real stories.

This is not just played out in fantasy novels; it’s our human history and our future.

I say this regularly, but I must repeat it: education about the craft of writing has many facets. We learn the architecture of story by reading novels and short stories written by the masters, both famous and infamous.

We shouldn’t limit our reading to the old favorites that started us on this writing path. You may not love the novels on the NY Times literary fiction bestseller list but it’s a good idea to read one or two of them every now and then as a means of educating yourself.

What you don’t like is as important as what you enjoy. Why would a book that you dislike be so successful? No matter how much money a publisher throws at them, some books are stinkers.

It’s alright to admit you disliked a book that Oprah or Reese Witherspoon recommends.

I despised House of Sand and Fog from page one but read it to the end. It begins in a bad place, and continues downhill, an unrelentingly depressing novel that left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Ugliness followed by more ugliness doesn’t make the ugliness beautiful.

clouds ms clipartPlot, in my opinion, is driven by the highs and lows. You don’t need to pay for books you won’t like. Go to the library or to the secondhand bookstore and see what they have from the NYT bestseller list that you would be willing to examine.

Give that book a postmortem. Why does—or doesn’t—it resonate with you?

  • Did the book have a distinct plot arc?
  • Did it have a strong opening that hooked you?
  • Was there originality in the way the characters and situations were presented?
  • Did you like the protagonist and other main characters? Why or why not?
  • Were you able to suspend your disbelief?
  • Did the narrative contain enough contrasts to keep things interesting?
  • By the end of the book, did the characters grow and change within their personal arc? How were they changed?
  • What sort of transitions did the author employ that made you want to turn the page? How can you use that kind of transition in your own work?
  • Did you get a satisfying ending? If not, how could it have been made better?

Reading and dissecting the works of successful authors is a necessary component of any education in the craft of writing.

Answering these questions will make you think about your own work. You will put more thought into how you deploy the contrasting events that change the lives of your characters.

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Crafting Action and Violence #amwriting

I am well acquainted with how the human body moves when fighting, either with weapons or bare-handed. I know this personally as I was the goalie on a women’s hockey team in my late teens. Also, at the age of nineteen, I married the bass player in a heavy metal band. We were divorced several years later, and while we remain good friends, some aspects of those years were difficult to live through.

crafting violenceThe human body moves in many ways when fighting, some of which are effective, and others not so much. In the 1990s, I studied Shao Chi Chuan, a gentler form of martial arts. I write about people who fight, and I draw upon my personal experience.

But let’s talk about literary violence. Random gore and sexual violence have no place in the well-crafted novel. The keyword here is random.

Blood and sex are sometimes a part of the more profoundly moving stories I have read. Those scenes showed meticulous plotting, and the incidents were watershed moments in the protagonists’ lives.

At times, those passages are difficult on a personal level to read. However, if they are moments that change everything, they do have a purpose. Events that change the protagonist’s life for good or ill must be crafted, and transitions must make them fit seamlessly into the narrative.

I rarely read horror, except that which is written by Dean Lappi. The violence is all the more frightening in his books because it is subtly foreshadowed and unavoidable and occurs at a surprising moment. All the things that make you feel squeamish are not random, not inserted for shock value, or just to liven things up. The characters are multidimensional, and the world they live in can be terrifying.

If you are writing horror, reread the works that inspired you. Follow their lead and plot your novel well.

I want to make this extremely clear: If the violent events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

Whenever you must write scenes that involve violence, ask yourself five questions:

  1. Is this scene necessary, or am I just trying to liven up a stagnant story arc?
  2. What does this scene show about the world my protagonist lives in?
  3. Will this event fundamentally change my protagonist and affect how they go forward?
  4. What does this event accomplish that advances the plot toward its conclusion?
  5. Why was this event unavoidable?
Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Excalibur London_Film_Museum_ via Wikipedia

Suppose the choices the protagonist has made prior to this point do not make this scene unavoidable. In that case, the violence is gratuitous and doesn’t belong there.

Some books open in the middle of the action, and I have done this on occasion as a prologue to show a backstory event. However, this kind of opening can confuse the reader, who is at the disadvantage of not knowing what is going on.

When you open a novel with the characters already thrust into the middle of an action scene, it should introduce the characters and show the root of the crisis. The key is to make it clear that it is a backstory event, and you should make it character-driven.

Whether it is shown in the prologue or the opening chapter, the first event, the inciting incident, is the one that changes everything and launches the story.

I love stories about good people solving terrible problems. The first incident has a domino effect. More things occur that push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger.

Their peril might be physical or emotional. While I have experienced violent situations, I’ve also faced many things that shook my world but didn’t threaten my physical safety.

Fear of loss, fear of financial disaster, fear of losing a loved one—terror is subjective and deeply personal

Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown, and the solution should be held just out of reach. If it was resolved too easily, why? What sort of trap was laid, and why did they take the bait?

As in real life, emotions run high. The situation is sometimes chaotic, but the protagonists believe they can resolve the problem if they can just achieve “the one thing.”

Despite their growing doubts, the characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Scenes form the overall story arc structure, but please, don’t waste the reader’s time with pointless banter. Each conversation or event must show something new and propel the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown.

In the early part of the story, each scene should illuminate the motives of the characters. Like a flower gradually opening, the reader gains information at the same time as the protagonist does. The reader may see clues from the antagonists’ side, which the characters don’t know will affect the plot in the future.

Those clues are foreshadowing, showing why the forthcoming action is unavoidable. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is essential, as it piques the reader’s interest and makes them want to know how the book will end.

The midpoint in the novel is a place where a watershed moment should occur. It launches the third act and makes the characters’ struggle more difficult.

At this point, the protagonist and allies are becoming aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists must get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals.

Through experiencing these (sometimes) violent events, the protagonist suffers a crisis of faith. They fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled.

Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint catastrophe, another disaster occurs, the event that launches the final act. This event is where someone who was previously safe may die.

WordItOut-word-cloud-4074543Scenes that involve violence are difficult to write well unless you know how the action will affect your protagonist. Also, you must remember to give the protagonist and the reader a small break between incidents for regrouping.

This requires planning on the part of the author. We consider how each battle or catastrophe will be unavoidable. We must also ask ourselves how surviving it will change the characters for good or ill.

Incidents that raise the very real specter of possible failure elevate the emotional stakes and keep the reader turning the page.

Our task is to design the action scene so that it fits naturally into a narrative. This is a critical skill we must develop if we want to move our readers emotionally.

In the next post, we’ll discuss contrasts, and how the transition from conflict to quiet and back again can make or break your narrative.

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To schedule writing time or not? #amwriting

In a writers’ forum, I was recently asked how a person can go full-time as a writer. I don’t have a good answer for that as you must be able to pay your bills, or no books will ever be written.

MyWritingLife2021Most writers are hobbyists. This is because if one intends to be a full-time writer, one must have an income.

I am a full-time writer. I have regular office hours for writing, and I’m retired from my career in Corporate America.

For many years I was a hobbyist, writing when I had a chance and devoting my life to my job and raising a family.

Some people manage to fit short bursts of writing into their daily schedule, writing at work while on break or at lunch. Others must schedule a dedicated block of time for writing by either rising two hours before they must depart for work or by skipping TV in the evening.

When I was working, I fell into both categories. A happy life is all about balance. My family always came first, so I arranged my writing time around their schedules.

When I am in the planning stage of a novel or story, I find myself stopping whatever I’m doing and making notes, quickly getting down any thoughts that occur. This is a habit I developed when I was employed outside my home.

Until 2012, I was like everyone else, with a job and commitments that took precedence over any writing I might have wanted to do.

I saw very little television in those days. Evenings and weekends were my only time for writing, making art, or reading.

Now that I’m retired from working outside my home, six in the morning until noon is my best time to write. However, being retired means you are always available when a crisis occurs.

blogging memeEvents occur, disturbing my writing schedule, but I usually forgive the perpetrators and allow them to live. At that point, I revert to writing whenever I have a free moment.

I’m a less than enthusiastic housekeeper even when not writing, but I keep things sort of under control. These are the tasks everyone does, chores that keep our homes livable.

I squeeze housekeeping chores into my writing time the way I used to fit writing into my working life.

Dinner at the table was the one meeting place for my family during the blender years of child-rearing.

I tend to do the cooking, and dinner hits the table at 5:00 pm. If you aren’t there on time, I will give you the evil eye for the rest of your life or the evening, whichever ends first.

Balance is the key to a happy life. We want to feel productive and creative, and we want to share our lives and interests with others.

Creativity applies to everything from making a meal, to painting, to generating a business plan—your spouse or child’s creative bent may be wildly different from yours, but you must be supportive.

Therefore, we who write must make time to write. This allows us to be creative and still support our families, who all have activities and interests of their own.

ICountMyself-FriendsAs I have said many times before, being a writer is to be supremely selfish about every aspect of life, including family time.

It also requires discipline and the ability to set aside an hour or so just for that pursuit, a little time where no one is allowed to disturb you.

A good way to make sure you have that time is to encourage your family members to use that time to indulge in their interests and artistic endeavors.

That way, everyone has the chance to be creative in their own way, and they will understand why you value your writing time so much.

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Character creation: attraction and repulsion #amwriting

This week we’re continuing our dive into character building. I’m putting my beta reader’s comments to work, trying to iron out some of the rough patches, and one that I must work on is attraction.

WritingCraftSeries_romanceWriting emotions with depth is a balancing act. This is where I write from real life. I think about the physical cues I see when my friends and family feel emotion. When someone is happy, what do you see? Bright eyes, laughter, and smiles.

And when we’re happy, how do we feel? Energized, confident. We’re always slightly giddy when we have a little crush coming on and even happier when it blossoms into a romance.

The trick is to combine the surface of the emotion (physical) with the deeper aspect of the feeling (internal). Not only that, but we want to write it so that we aren’t telling the reader what to experience. We allow the reader to experience the emotion as if it is their idea.

Fantasy is a popular genre because it involves people. People are creatures of biology and emotion. When you throw them together in close quarters, romances can happen within the narrative.

I’m not a Romance writer. I write about relationships, but Romance readers will be disappointed in my work. My tales don’t always have a happily ever after, although most do. Also, while I can be graphic, I’m usually a fade-to-black kind of writer, allowing my characters a little privacy.

I flounder when writing without an outline, and even though I’m in the second draft, I’m floundering now.

Writing intense, heartfelt emotions is easy for me. I begin to have trouble when I attempt to write the subtler nuances of attraction and its opposite, repulsion. I find myself at a loss for words.

The problem is, if you write intense emotions with no buildup, they come out of nowhere and seem gratuitous.

So, how do I foreshadow these relationships and show the buildup? I go to Romance writers and ask questions. I’ve attended workshops given by romance writers and learned a great deal from them. However, being autistic, I understand more from pursuing independent study.

Verbalize_Damon_SuedeAlso, I’m a book junkie—I can’t pass up buying any book on the craft of writing. I bought two books on writing craft by Damon Suede, who writes Romance. These two books show how word choices can make or break the narrative.

In his book Verbalize, he explains how actions make other events possible. Even gentler, softer emotions must have verbs to set them in motion.

Emotions are nouns, and so I need to find and use the right verbs to activate them.

Therefore, matching nouns with verbs is key to bringing that romance to life. I must get out the dictionary of synonyms and antonyms and delve into the many words that relate to and describe attraction. ATTRACTION Synonyms: 33 Synonyms & Antonyms for ATTRACTION | Thesaurus.com

So, now that I have all these lovely words, the next step is to choose the words that say what I mean and fit them into the narrative.

This novel was accidental, so I didn’t plan the relationships out the way I usually do. I have five people in this convoluted tale. I’m a bookkeeper, so doing the math, if we end up with two couples, one character will be left out.

Now my beta readers tell me that while the final matches work, I need to hint at sexual tension from the opening pages on to better show the attraction.

Also, they pointed out that the odd-one-out creates endless opportunities for a real roadblock to the final event. This is something I hadn’t seen, but wow–what a great way to inject some power into the finale.

poetry-in-prose-word-cloud-4209005Each of us experiences emotional highs and lows in our daily lives. We have deep-rooted, personal reasons for our emotions, for whether we are attracted to or repulsed by another person. Sometimes those interactions can be highly charged.

Both the protagonist and the antagonist must have legitimate reasons for their actions and reactions. There must be a history of some sort. Failing that, there must be an instinctive attraction/rejection.

Our characters must have credible responses that a reader can empathize with, and there must be consequences.

For me, this is where writing becomes work.

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Character Creation: The Character Arc #amwriting

We’ve discussed the many different aspects of our characters and the roles they have within the story. Some will be the hero, others a sidekick, and still others will be the villain. 

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcEach character should have an arc of growth and change as the story progresses. Heroes that arrive fully formed on page one are boring. For me, the characters are the story, and the events of the piece exist only to force growth upon them.

How people are changed by their experiences is what makes the story compelling.

Many times, the protagonist begins in a place of comfort. They’re a little naïve about the rougher aspects of life. Consider Bilbo Baggins, Tolkien’s protagonist in The Hobbit.

Bilbo begins in a middle-class place of comfort. He lives in his family’s home, a comfortable, well-kept place. Bilbo has inherited a private income and has no need to work, so he devotes his time to writing and entertaining his close friends. He’s a little bored with his existence, but he’s a sensible hobbit and refuses to admit to it.

This is our hero in his comfort zone. He’s not unhappy and could have lived to the end of his days going along as he was. But he would never have developed any further as a person. He was stagnating and didn’t know it.

One sunny day, he’s just enjoying himself when along comes “the inciting incident”—Gandalf, a character who plays multiple roles within the Lord of the Rings story arc. In his first guise, Gandalf has the archetypal role of Herald. He is the bringer of change and unwanted dinner guests.

(The list of archetypes is shown in a picture at the bottom of this page—feel free to right-click and save it for your own files.)

the hobbitBilbo resents both the intrusion and being made aware of how bored he is. Secretly, he fears going into the unknown and resists Gandalf’s insistence that he must go with the dwarves. However, at the last minute, Bilbo realizes that if he doesn’t go now, he will always wonder what would have happened if he had.

Bilbo’s sudden irrational decision to accept the task of Burglar sets him on a path that becomes a personal pilgrimage, a search for the courage he always possessed but had never needed.

Fear of stagnation has overcome Bilbo’s fear of the unknown.

This begins the journey and events that shape Bilbo’s character arc. By the end of the novel, he has recognized and embraced the romantic, fanciful, and adventurous aspects of his nature. In the process, he discovers that he is competent and capable of bravery, winning respect by applying his wits and common sense to every problem.

People undertake pilgrimages for many reasons, often in search of moral or spiritual wisdom. Sometimes they will go to a location that has significance to their beliefs and faith. Other times, it will be an inner, symbolic journey, a delving into their own principles and values. One is always changed by the journey.

Events in themselves don’t change us. We are changed by what we learn as human beings, by experiencing how incidents and occurrences affect our emotions and challenge our values. Everyone perceives things in a unique way and is affected differently from their companions.

Each person grows and develops in a way that is distinctively them. Some people become hardened, world-weary. Others become more compassionate, forgiving.

the hobbit movie posterOver the next year, Bilbo experiences many things. Where once he was a little xenophobic and slightly disdainful of anything not of The Shire, he discovers that other cultures are as valuable as his, meeting people of different races whom he comes to love and trust. He experiences the loss of friends and gains compassion. By the time Bilbo returns to the Shire, he is a different person than he was when he ran out his front door without even a handkerchief.

A character arc should encompass several stages of personal growth. What those stages are is up to you and depend on the story you are telling.

In one of my current works in progress, my protagonist is a soldier of the Bull God’s world of Serende, an enemy sworn to conquer the goddess’s world of Neveyah. He has a religious conversion, and his story takes him on a journey that is both physical and spiritual.

Whether we write fantasy, literary fiction, comedy, sci-fi, or romance—our characters must be changed by their experiences. How they are changed is up to you, but stories and series where the protagonists are unaffected by what they have experienced fail to excite me.

The works that endure are those in which the events are the catalysts of personal growth for the reader as well as the protagonist.

Personal growth creates unforgettable characters. Great characters are why certain novels are considered classics despite having been written more than one or two centuries ago.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – Wikipedia

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – Wikipedia

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien – Wikipedia

ListOf ArchetypesVoglerLIRF04272021


Credits and Attributions:

Dustcover of the first edition of The Hobbit, taken from a design by the author, J.R.R. Tolkien.

The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey, Theatrical release poster © 2012 New Line Cinema, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, WingNut Films, Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, Fair Use.

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Character Creation: The Ally #amwriting

An archetype is an ancient pattern describing a type of character that exists across different cultures and eras of human history. In ancient times, we had no communication with other cultures. Yet, our myths and legends share these familiar, recognizable characters we call archetypes.

WritersjourneysmallThe Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, details the various traditional archetypes that form the basis of most characters in our modern mythology (or literary canon). I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about archetypes and how they fit into the story.

The following is the list of character archetypes as described by Vogler:

  1. Hero: someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others
  2. Mentor: all the characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts.
  3. Threshold Guardian: a menacing face to the hero, but if understood, they can be overcome.
  4. Herald: a force that brings a new challenge to the hero.
  5. Shapeshifter: characters who constantly change from the hero’s point of view.
  6. Shadow: a character who represents the energy of the dark side
  7. Ally: someone who travels with the hero through the journey, serving a variety of functions.
  8. Trickster: embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change.

Last week we discussed the Mentor. We also looked at one of the many aspects of a hero-character, the Sacrificial Lamb.

Now let’s look at Allies, friends and supporters, side characters who enable the protagonist to achieve their goal. Side characters are essential, especially characters with secrets, because they are a mystery. Readers love to work out puzzles.

f scott fitzgerald quoteOne thing I do recommend is that you keep the number of allies limited. Too many named characters can lead to confusion in the reader.

It’s sometimes challenging to decide who should go and who should stay. What is the optimal number of primary characters for a book? Be kind to the reader. Introduce however many characters it takes to tell the story but use common sense.

When you give a character a name, you imply they are a memorable part of the story instead of a walk-on. Even if a walk-on character offers information the protagonist and reader must know, it doesn’t necessarily mean they need to be named.

Does the character return later in the story? When you introduce a named character, ask yourself if it is someone the reader should remember. Also, never name two characters in the same narrative so that the first and last letters of their names are the same.

For instance, having a Darnell and a Darrell with prominent roles in the same book could be confusing.

Make their names unique and give them a name only if they have a memorable role later. Also, as audiobooks come more and more into the publishing rainbow, spelling and ease of pronounceability are critical.

callMeGeorgeLIRF04252021How easy is it to read, and how will that name be pronounced when it is read aloud?

Certain tricks of plotting function well across all genres, from sci-fi to romance, no matter the setting. In most novels, one or more characters is a “fish out of water,” in that they are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.

Every core character that the protagonists are surrounded by should project an unmistakable surface persona, characteristics that are identifiably “them” from the outset.

From the moment they enter the story, we should see glimpses of weaknesses and fears. We should see hints of the sorrows and guilts that lie beneath their exterior personas. Remember, they aren’t the protagonist, so their story must emerge as a side note, a justification for their inclusion in the core group.

Old friends have long histories, and the protagonist knows most of their secrets at the outset. We don’t engage in info-dumping. Their backstory should emerge only at critical points, if and when it provides the reader with information they must know.

If these friends are new to the protagonist, their stories should emerge in the form of information the protagonist must have to complete their quest. However, it should come out only when the reader must know it too.

Twilight_Confidences_by_Cecilia_BeauxIn real life, everyone has emotions and thoughts they conceal from others. Perhaps they are angry and afraid, or jealous, or any number of emotions we are embarrassed to acknowledge. Maybe they hope to gain something on a personal level—if so, what? Small hints revealing those unspoken motives are crucial to raising the tension in the narrative.

As writers, our task is to ensure that each character’s individual story intersects smoothly and doesn’t jar the reader out of the story.

To do that, the motivations of the side characters must be clearly defined. You must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

Ask yourself what desires push this character? What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal? Conversely, what will they NOT do?

Just as you have done with the hero of your story, ask yourself what the side characters’ moral boundaries are and what actions would be out of character for them?

Mood is a large word serving several purposes. It is created by the setting (atmosphere), by the exchanges of dialogue (conversation), and the tone of the narrative (word choices, descriptions). It is also affected by (and refers to) the emotional state of all the characters—their personal mood.

ICountMyself-FriendsDialogue gives shape to the story, turning what could be a wall of words into something personal. We meet and get to know our protagonists and the people they will travel with through the conversations they engage in.

Write nothing that seems out of character unless there is a good, justified reason for that behavior or comment.

We want to create empathy in the reader for the group as a whole, but the pacing of the story remains central.

For all characters, whether they are the protagonist or their allies, personal revelations should only come out when they are necessary to propel the plot to its conclusion.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Twilight Confidences, Cecilia Beaux, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

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Character Creation: the sacrificial lamb #amwriting

I rarely kill off my characters, but sometimes the only way to achieve a goal is for someone to die.

In the very first Star Wars movie, Obi-Wan deliberately allowed Darth Vader to kill him. He had several reasons for doing this, one of which was to spur Luke and Princess Leia’s Rebel forces to defeat the Dark Side.

WritingCraftSeries_sacrifical lambObi-Wan is a complex mentor, arriving on the screen with a past. He has lived and lost and made choices he wished he hadn’t. When he faces Darth Vader in his final showdown, you get the feeling that the old man planned his exit perfectly.

His death was a catalyst, lighting a fire in Luke precisely as he intended.

But there are stupid, gratuitous sacrifices that don’t advance the plot.

David Harth of cbr.com gives us this example of a meaningless sacrifice:

Batman was captured by Darkseid’s forces in Final Crisis and played a pivotal role in the final battle against the God of Evil. For his troubles, he was hit with the Omega Sanction and sent back in time. This was all part of Darkseid’s plan, as Batman would move forward through time, chased by the demon Barbatos, building up Omega radiation. If everything had gone as planned, his arrival in the present would have destroyed everything.

Batman put himself in this position, making a “heroic” sacrifice but he didn’t have to do this at all. He could have given the Radion bullet to one of the Flashes who were also fighting Darkseid at the time and gone and done anything else. [1]

I suggest you don’t resort to killing off characters because you can’t think of what to do next. In any story, the death of a character must have meaning.

The character arc of the sacrificial lamb has to be thought out in advance, or there is no real reason for their sacrifice other than the need to wring tears from the reader/viewer.

If shock value is what your stories are about, then that may be your purpose.

However, we spend a lot of time and energy creating characters. Why throw them away for nothing?

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.

First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_(2002)For this reason, every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning and must advance the plot, or you have wasted the reader’s precious time.

Good characterization offers me hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. It will show me a person with values or sometimes without boundaries. There are things they will or will not do. They have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will deny to the grave.

In the books I love and refer back to, great characters dominate. They behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ individual stories intersects seamlessly. To do that, motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how the character thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Now that you know these things about your character, ask yourself what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others? We know the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations are the story. Write nothing that seems out of character!

In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.

When we give the protagonist/antagonist agency, we allow them to make their own free choices. They will sometimes take the narrative in new directions, surprising even you, the author.

The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_KhanMortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. [2]

Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

When they have unique personalities, it becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate. When I am first writing any story, allowing my characters agency is difficult to do. At this point in the first draft of my manuscripts, the motives of my protagonist haven’t quite come into focus for me.

I tend to allow a character’s choices to push their personal growth, so I create a personnel file that is updated as they evolve. I make each character known to me as an individual, down to their taste in clothing.

And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.

Within the plot outline, the individuality of the characters drives the story. I try to portray them as truthfully as possible because, to me, they are real.

You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red-shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.

When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock did for the crew of the Enterprise, you see their decision is not out of character.

Their death raises the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader, making a complex, memorable novel.


Credits and Attributions:

[1]10 DC Characters Who Sacrificed Themselves For Nothing, by David Harth  10 DC Characters Who Sacrificed Themselves For Nothing | CBR published February 18, 2021 Copyright © 2021 www.cbr.com (Accessed April 18, 2021).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images:

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.

 

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Character Creation: the mentor #amwriting

Wisdom is not about having all the answers. As we experience the sorrows and joys of life, we remain filled with as many questions as answers. Perhaps the questions aren’t intellectual as much as they are emotional—a longing for a lost time of contentment, a time of security and peacefulness that wasn’t appreciated as much as it should have been.

WritingCraftSeries_mentorMaybe that moment in time that we long for didn’t shine with the golden glow that the mirror of memory now gives it. Nevertheless, we hope to feel that innocent happiness that we will never experience again.

Wisdom—a word that represents so many things. In a mentor, it’s an implied knowledge of a fundamental human truth: naïve enjoyment of life is gone forever, and accepting its loss makes us feel old. Experience makes us wiser and can change us in two ways. We can become hardened and callous as a form of self-preservation. Conversely, we can become gentler, more understanding of human frailty.

Tolkien took much of the philosophy for his world of Middle Earth and the character of Aragorn from the 6th-century poem, The Wanderer. As a Professor of Anglo Saxon Studies at Oxford, he had translated it into modern English and had a deep connection to the epic story told in the poem.

In that poem, the speaker reflects upon his life while spending years in exile. He considers what he has lost but goes beyond his personal sorrow. For this reason, some scholars consider The Wanderer a “wisdom poem.” The speaker tells us that the disintegration of earthly glory is inescapable, supporting the medieval Christian view of the underlying theme: salvation through faith in God.

The sense of loss and resulting strength that the protagonist in The Wanderer offers us is reflected most strongly in the way Tolkien portrays Aragorn. He is wise as a mentor, more approachable than Gandalf, and is relatable because he has suffered many losses. Aragorn has spent most of his life wandering and fighting to protect people who look upon him with disdain. Now, as he approaches middle-age, he “looks foul but feels fair.”

An excellent short talk on the original medieval poem can be found on YouTube here: WANDERER | The Profound Anglo-Saxon Poem that Tolkien Used in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers

The first scene where Aragorn is introduced adds a new character into the mix, a man of mystery and one who feels a little dangerous. Yet, we sense there is more to him than we see in the dark, smoky taproom of the Prancing Pony. Aragorn is only known as Strider, and in that role, he offers them the information they need.

In that chapter, titled “Strider,” Frodo reads Gandalf’s letter. Having read it, Frodo says, “I think one of his (Sauron’s) spies would – well, seem fairer and feel fouler, if you understand.”

“I see,” laughed Strider. “I look foul and feel fair. Is that it? All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost.”

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_(2002)In the scene at the Prancing Pony, Aragorn is quoting a poem that is later revealed to reference him as the Heir of Isildur. He is the prophesied king who will once again wield the Blade that was Broken. These are wise words from a poem-within-the-story, a signature literary device Tolkien used regularly.

“All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.”

By quoting those words, Strider (Aragorn) cautions Frodo to look beyond the surface and see the strength that lies beneath. He also implies that the converse can be true, that beauty can disguise what is evil.

In Aragorn, we have a mentor who is later revealed to be the heir of Isildur, the last King of Gondor. Yet, he may as well be heir of nothing, for all the good it does him in the first half of his life. He leads the Rangers, the Dúnedain of the North, the descendants of his ancestor’s knights. The respectable landlord of the Prancing Pony looks down on him, seeing Aragorn as little more than a vagrant.

In the guise of Strider, Aragorn is a good mentor from the first moment we meet him. This is because he is shown as having history. While the history is only implied, and Frodo knows nothing about him, he knows Strider is a friend of Gandalf. Frodo senses the knowledge that Strider possesses, the wisdom he has to offer. Frodo feels he can trust Strider’s guidance, even when he disagrees with him.

When we create a mentor character, we must give the reader reasons to believe in them as having wisdom our protagonist needs. Strider arrives in his first scene with the impact of unspoken history, an immediate sense that here is a person who has seen much and survived many things.

Here is a person who knows what secret Frodo carries but won’t try to steal it. He understands the comfortable life Frodo has sacrificed to take the Ring to Rivendell and knows what the hobbit faces further down the road. Here is a person who genuinely wants to help Frodo escape the Black Riders.

At the outset, when we find Strider in the Prancing Pony observing Frodo making his worst blunder, we feel there is more to this unkempt vagrant than we see on the surface.

Lord_of_the_Rings_-_The_Two_Towers_bookAs I create my mentors, I hope to convey a sense that they have history without beating the reader over the head with it. I want to evoke a feeling of rightness, that this person knows things we don’t, that this person has knowledge our protagonist must gain.

Creating a mentor with depth and a sense of history without dumping info is tricky. This is where getting good insights from my writing group really comes into play. Their thoughts and opinions nudge my creative mind to find solutions for rewriting muddy characterizations and confusing passages.

Hopefully, their insights will guide me to write memorable narratives filled with characters who leave an impact.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien, Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; Illustrated edition (February 15, 2012); Fair Use.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Lord_of_the_Rings:_The_Two_Towers&oldid=1018153423 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images:

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers theatrical release poster. Release Date December 5, 2002.  © 2002 Production Companies New Line Cinema, WingNut Films; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Wikipedia contributors, “The Two Towers” first edition book cover, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Two_Towers&oldid=1006164402 (accessed April 18, 2021).

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Writing the Short Story part 5: The Narrative Essay #amwriting

We’re working our way through a series on writing short fiction. However, we’re not done—yet another short form of writing to explore is the essay. For Indy authors who wish to earn actual money from their writing, the narrative essay is often easier to sell to reputable magazines. This is because they appeal to a broader audience than genre fiction does.

narrative essayNarrative essays are drawn directly from real life, but they aren’t necessarily factual or accurate representations of events. They often detail a fictionalized experience or event that affected the author on a personal level.

One of my favorite narrative essays is 1994’s Ticket to the Fair (now titled “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All“) by David Foster Wallace and published in Harpers. Told in the first person, it is a humorous, eye-opening story of a “foreign” (east coast) journalist’s assignment to cover the 1993 Iowa State Fair.

At the outset, Wallace states he was born several hours drive from the fair but had never attended it. A city boy, he has no knowledge of farms, farm culture, or animals. After high school and college, he had left the Midwest for the East Coast and never looked back. When the essay opens, Wallace hasn’t really thought about the fair beyond the fact that he is getting his first official press pass for covering the fair for Harpers.

Wikipedia summarizes Ticket to the Fair this way: Wallace’s experiences and opinions on the 1993 Illinois State Fair, ranging from a report on competitive baton twirling to speculation on how the Illinois State Fair is representative of Midwestern culture and its subsets. Rather than take the easy, dismissive route, Wallace focuses on the joy this seminal midwestern experience brings those involved.

The primary purpose of an essay is thought-provoking content. The narrative essay conveys our ideas in a palatable form, so writing this sort of piece requires authors to think. You must consider both content and structure.

Just like any other form of short fiction, a narrative essay has

  • an introduction,
  • a plot,
  • characters,
  • a setting,
  • a climax,
  • an ending

oxford_synonym_antonymChoose your words for impact! Writing with intentional prose is critical. A good essay has been put into an entertaining form that expresses far more than mere opinion. Narrative essays sometimes present deep, uncomfortable concepts but offer them in a way that the reader feels connected to the story.

Good essays offer a personal view of the world, the places we go, and the people we meet along the way. Names should be changed, of course.

Literary magazines want well-written essays with fresh ideas about wide-ranging topics. Some will pay well for first publication rights.

If you want to be published by a reputable magazine, you must pay strict attention to grammar and editing. Never send out anything that is not your best work. After you have finished the piece, set it aside for a week or two. Then come back to it with a fresh eye and check the manuscript for:

  • Spelling—misspelled words, autocorrect errors, and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelled differently). These words are insidious because they are actual words and don’t immediately stand out as being out of place.
  • Repeated words and cut-and-paste errors. These are sneaky and dreadfully difficult to spot. Spell-checker won’t always find them. To you, the author, they make sense because you see what you intended to see. For the reader, they appear as unusually garbled sentences.
  • Missing punctuation and closed quotes. These things happen to the best of us.
  • Digits/Numbers: Mis-keyed numbers are difficult to spot when they are wrong unless they are spelled out.
  • Dropped and missing words.

Don’t be afraid to write with a wide vocabulary. With that said, never use jargon or technical terms only people in certain professions would know unless it is a piece geared for that segment of readers.

Above all, be intentional and active with your prose, and be a little bold. I enjoy reading David Foster Wallace and George Saunders because they are adventurous in their work. Saunders’ style is always approachable, but others may find Wallace wordy and difficult to wade through. He was often accused of being too “literary” in the arrogant sense of the word.

real-writers-writeAnd on that note, we must be realistic. Not everything you write will resonate with everyone you submit it to.  Put two people in a room, hand them the most exciting thing you’ve ever read, and you’ll get two different opinions. They probably won’t agree with you.

Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Rejection happens far more frequently than acceptance, so don’t let fear of rejection keep you from writing pieces you’re emotionally invested in.

This is where you have the chance to cross the invisible line between amateur and professional. Always take the high ground—if an editor has sent you a detailed rejection, respond with a simple “thank you for your time.” If it’s a form letter rejection, don’t reply.

And when you receive that email of acceptance—crack open the fancy cider and celebrate! There is no better feeling than knowing someone you respect liked your work enough to publish it.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again&oldid=815132504 (accessed January 9, 2018).

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