Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dysfunctional characters

A few days ago, I read some stories* that put the fun into dysfunctional and showed just how interesting such characters could be.

Giving a character a major dysfunction isn’t the same as giving them a major flaw. It’s taking the flaw and running with it, pushing the envelope right off the table. It’s making the character fundamentally screwed up in a way that isn’t going to be worked out in the course of the novel. This isn’t a character who did something bad in the past but has learned better. This is a character who is going to repeat his mistakes and continue to ruin his life in some way, even if he defeats the antagonist or saves the other characters.

And that makes the readers hurt so good on his behalf.

Dysfunction in and of itself can be fascinating in a way that normality and decency never will be. It’s a corollary to Tolstoy’s law: happy characters tends to be alike, but each miserable messed-up character is unique in his own way.

Plus, there’s more conflict with the latter type. If a character is extremely kind or completely contented with her life, her troubles will be external ones from outside forces. On the other hand, if you make someone morbidly fatalistic or the kind of pathological liar who can’t stop putting on a performance, she’ll create her own problems, and lots thereof.

For some time now, I’ve imagined having a character much like Sherlock Holmes – determined, brilliant, resourceful – but whose drug addiction isn’t under the same control as Holmes’s was. I have no idea where this person will end up (and where the story will begin) but I know it won’t be in a good place. Which makes for great tension. Dysfunctional characters also bounce off each other in ways that normal characters aren’t likely to do, and are likely to have fewer qualms about this.

There are a few caveats about this, though. With seriously dysfunctional characters, the narrative can’t disapprove of the character’s faults or excuse them (these days, the latter is probably more likely). They have to be treated like any other character – made three-dimensional and rounded if they’re meant to command reader empathy, exaggerated if they’re meant to be amusing. And they have to be given a fighting chance to win, even if their own failings sabotage their efforts.

Dysfunctional characters range from those in cartoons to those in epic fantasies, but they’re all entertaining. And are sure to provide plenty of mileage for writers.

*OK, fanfics. But still.

(Picasso Darth Vader from here.)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Five things not to send to agents

1. Ostrich feathers
I could see these being relevant if the writer was pitching, say, a book about seventy different things that could be made from ostrich feathers. But under any other circumstances, what’s the agent going to do with the feathers?

An exotic dance, maybe?

2. Fruit
Lynn Price of Behler Publications has a story about a writer who included a stamped, empty coconut as a return envelope.

He even included a baggie to protect my letter. Sadly, the poor coconut held a rejection letter. If only his writing had been as clever as his choice of envelopes.

The phrase “the poor coconut” always makes me giggle.

3. Glitter
Nothing with glitter! I can't tell you how humiliating it is to show up at a business lunch and discover you have glitter on your blouse.

Hopefully if that happened, all you’d to do is mention that you were going through the slush pile and the editors would understand.

4. Bribes
Some people try cold hard cash and some use gift cards. Neither one works, which is good – who’d want an agent who could be bribed?

5. Lingerie
And, lastly, do not send lingerie with your query letter. Just don't. Not ever. Even pretty lingerie.

I was just thinking, the lingerie probably wasn’t even in the agent’s size.

Then I realized just how creepy it would be if the lingerie was.

Either way, bad idea.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Gardens of the Moon

This is the first time I have written a review for a book that I couldn’t actually finish and didn’t fully understand.

Gardens of the Moon is the first in the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, which seems to be catching up with the Wheel of Time. In other words, it’s a VLFN* with a cast of characters that has defeated my ability to reel off all the houses, lords and ladies of Westeros from memory. I had to read up about it on both Amazon and Wikipedia just to figure out what was happening in the book.

So why would this be a book worth reading?

I think that if someone can actually get into the story and make sense of all the players, powers, places and politics, Gardens of the Moon would be an enjoyable or at least adequate read. It’s evident that Steven Erikson has put a great deal of thought into the fantasy aspect of the story, and I like the imagination in this book. There are the Moranth – who ride giant flying insects – and the Warrens, which are great winding tunnels of different types of magic. The Hounds of Shadow are cool as well.

By the way, you can probably tell from the last two sentences that there are lots and lots of Capitalized Terms in the story, so if you’re not fond of sentences like “The Deck of Dragons has revealed the Virgin of High House Death” you might want to steer clear.

The plot of the novel is complex, to say the least, but I’ll try to sum it up here. Empress Laseen takes control of the Malazan Empire through assassination and sets out to cement her grip on it by killing nobles and the old guard of soldiers. On the outskirts, the Empire is also battling the last of the free cities, Pale and Darujhistan**, and Pale has engaged a powerful sorcerer called Anomander Rake to stop the army.

Rake commands a floating castle called Moon’s Spawn and a flock of magical Great Ravens, but on the Malazan side are the sorcerers Hairlock (who does things with the Warrens) and Tattersail (who reads the Deck of Dragons). However, the gods have also gotten involved. Oponn, the Twins of Chance, magically heals a young officer called Ganoes Paran while Cotillion the Rope, the Assassin of High House Shadow, possesses a girl called Sorry who joins the Bridgeburners. And if you feel lost… well, join the club.

The difference between this and George R. R. Martin’s novels (which also feature a dramatis personae ultramagnus), is that the first book in Martin’s series started out by planting me securely on the side of the Stark children and Daenerys, who’s hardly more than a child herself when she’s married off to a man who doesn’t even speak her language.

With Gardens of the Moon, I never felt as though I was cheering for anyone. The characters just weren’t fleshed out enough. Even their conversations were so complicated – dealing with politics and magic and other characters whom I didn’t know – that I wasn't drawn in by any simple needs or feelings or personality traits that I could recognize in them.

At the start of A Game of Thrones, the Stark children find a dead direwolf and adopt its pups. It’s impossible not to go awww over that scene, even though the symbolism of a direwolf killed by a stag’s antler has a deeper and darker meaning. The story then follows the children and their growing direwolves. While Gardens of the Moon does begin with a sympathetic character – a young fishergirl forcibly possessed by the patron god of assassins while her entire village is murdered – the story then shifts away from her and on to some other characters. We don’t get another glimpse into her thoughts and feelings until the end (by which time I was skimming mightily).

The style is both detached and scholarly, which meant I didn’t feel as though I was deep in the story. So it was easy for me to get carried away imagining the Warrens and the Deck of Dragons and Shadowthrone’s land. That was fine for the purposes of coming up with my own ideas. I dreamed of at least half a dozen new concepts or creatures while reading this book, so I’m glad about that part of the experience.

But it also means I probably won’t be picking up another book in the series. The mental energy it takes to dissect the plot and to follow all the characters without constantly flipping to the back and start of the book (or consulting the Malazan Wiki) is beyond me. I think this series is a great work of imagination – but it requires an equally great effort in reading.

*Very long fantasy novel.
**No relation to Iraqistan.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reverse vanity : a love story

Inspired by Jane Smith's blog post on reverse-end vanity presses, here's a story I wrote.

For years now, you’ve wanted to be in a committed relationship with someone who loved you for yourself. It’s never happened, though. Everyone you approached has declined a date with you, and you’re feeling lonely.

Then you meet someone. Without much hope, you suggest a date but to your surprise, your request gets an immediate acceptance. Before the end of the evening, your new friend has not just paid for dinner but has told you that the two of you belong together. No playing games, no leading you along and then rejecting you. Delighted, you agree to move in together.

Most of your friends congratulate you, but one of them wonders about the speed with which this relationship has progressed. You tell him not to worry – you’ve never been happier in your life. Besides, obviously your lover isn’t one of those people who are in it for the money, since absolutely no financial demands have been made on you. Heck, your lover even paid for dinner on your first date. Things couldn’t be better.

The first week the two of you spend together is wonderful. At the end of it, your lover says, “Honey, would you like it if I cooked a special meal for the two of us?”

“Sure!” you say happily.

“Then I’ll need money for the groceries. Do you have $300?”

That seems a little expensive, but you did agree to the special meal. And besides, great food isn’t free. So you take $300 out of your wallet, and feel happy that you have someone who loves you enough to make special meals for you.

At the end of the second week, your lover says, “Sweetheart, do you think you need a new coat? This one seems a bit shabby.” You agree, and your lover asks for $600 to buy your new coat.

The second request for money makes you feel a bit uneasy, but again it’s to buy something for you, not for your lover. So you write a check. The new coat looks a lot like the old one, but you find that your lover has sewn your name into the lining, which is so sweet that you forget about the cost.

At the end of the third week, your lover suggests that you’ve been working too hard, and the two of you should take a nice vacation. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle all the arrangements. And it’ll only be three thousand dollars.” This time you have to put it on a credit card.

One of your friends – the same cynic who originally questioned your relationship – asks about this. You explain that since your lover took care of the cooking, shopping and holiday arrangements, you don’t expect financial contributions as well. You don’t mind paying – that’s an investment in your relationship.

“But doesn’t it seem as though you’re being used for your money?” your friend says.

“No way!” you say. You won’t sit and listen to your lover being bashed like that. “I wasn’t asked for a penny upfront! And each time I paid, I got something back. How is that being used?”

Your lover agrees when you repeat the conversation. “People who say things like that are just jealous of what we have together. You weren’t under any obligation to give me money, were you?” That’s true – each time your lover just made a suggestion, and you agreed. There were never any demands. “By the way, darling, next week is your birthday. If you’d like a party, could you give me a little to spend on it?”

After a month more of this, you start turning down the requests for money, though of course this means no more special treats or events for you. In fact, your lover seems to be drifting away, though that’s all right since you have to put in longer hours to make up the strange deficit in your bank account.

Sometimes you read in the paper about couples who work together to build their own business or to become financially successful in some other way. But those people had connections or were lucky. Everyone else has relationships just like yours. And once you have enough money, perhaps you can do it all over again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Insane characters

I read an urban myth that The Madness of King George was originally called The Madness of George III, but it had to be retitled in case Americans thought it was the third in a series. That made me think of writing a post on insane characters…

Obvious vs. subtle

I’ve read that one of the scariest things about serial killers or rapists is that they look like everyone else. The same thing would apply to insane characters.

This isn’t always the case. There was a serial killer called Richard Chase whose disheveled, bizarre appearance helped in his identification and apprehension. But for the most part, people with mental disorders can pass as normal, or eccentric at the most. Writers can often use that to its best advantage, because readers will usually believe that I’m a wolf and will be taken by surprise later.

By the way, the phrase I dropped into the last sentence – “I’m a wolf” – is the first indication in Stephen King’s Desperation that the cop stopping people on the highway is not normal. The cop slipped it into the middle of a regular conversation, and it made me start a little. The people he had stopped weren’t sure if they had heard correctly or not.

The same thing applies to insanity. It’s incredibly fun to watch readers gradually realize that a character whom they took for normal is nothing of the kind. And is probably very dangerous.

Often, such slips in dialogue or odd actions can be more unnerving to the reader than if the character is gibbering and clawing at the walls. You can always start subtle and ramp it up to obvious, but it doesn’t work so well the other way.

Beyond the madness

Annie Wilkes, the psychotic nurse in Misery, might chop off a man’s foot but she’ll never use the f-word. Insane characters could have their own codes of morality and ethics. The more you flesh them out – giving them hobbies, fears, genuine liking for some people – the more realistic they’ll be. And the easier it might be for the readers to care about them, if you’re going for tragic-insane rather than only scary-insane.

Even in Misery, there’s a moment when Annie laughs along with Paul at something, and he catches a glimpse of what she might have been if not for her psychosis.

Using madness in the story

Something hereditary

This was a theme in a couple of Agatha Christie stories, and IIRC both times it led to the characters being murderers. I also like the fact that in Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, all women of the Omelly bloodline were insane.

A curse

That would be original, and certainly enough to propel a character into a quest. If I were told that I was the Chosen One of some lost kingdom, I wouldn’t even get up from my computer. But if I had evidence that someone in that kingdom had spelled me to go slowly insane, I’d be out there opening up Ye Olde Canne of Whup-Bottom on them.

It doesn’t even have to be a curse, by the way. Enough mind games and manipulation – a la Gaslight - and the victim’s sanity would slip away.

A balance to a positive trait

Just as Cassandra could predict the future but no one would believe her, a character could be a military genius but insane as well. The fun of this is that the protagonists might really need this character’s help, but could never really depend on her, and might not even be sure if the advice came from the sane or insane parts of her mind.


When I was writing an insane character, I read up about thought disorders, poring over the articles and examples so many times that I thought I would go nuts too. Insane characters can be written in infinitely different ways, with their own distinctive behaviors, speech patterns and beliefs.

For instance, one of the most fascinating things about Richard Chase was that he simply entered his victims’ houses through their unlocked front doors, because he believed that a locked door meant that he was not welcome inside, but an unlocked door meant… he was.

As well as psychological and true crime papers and accounts, there are stories about insane characters as well. One of the best known examples, The Yellow Wallpaper, is told from the point of view of a woman slipping slowly into madness, and it’s an excellent read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Good vs. Evil

I recently read a blog post by my friend Jordan about why the age-old archetypes of Good vs. Evil often fail – for instance, it’s simplistic, it’s often unclear why the Evil side is considered so bad, it pushes the story into a track too well-trodden, etc. All excellent points.

So while his post made me want to write about a similar theme, it would be redundant for me to simply agree with his points. But then I thought of taking the opposite tack, and writing about why Good vs. Evil appeals to people.

It’s easy

It’s relatively easy to create characters who fall solidly into the black/white camps, rather than people who are as grey as they are three-dimensional. The same goes for conflicts, so the brave rebels against the evil empire is a common concept.

Much of the foundation for such a story has already been laid by previous novels or films. You know that the lone warrior or orphan boy will be Good, while the leader of the empire (whether he be named Palpatine or Jagang or Galbatorix) will be Evil. So you don’t need to spend a lot of time deciding who’s going to win, or planning scenes which show the emperor to be as multifaceted a character as the hero. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if the writer can bring something else new to the table which will balance the well-worn trope.

It’s safe

Start with a main character who does things that are morally very questionable (such as the drug-using heroine of Stacia Kane’s upcoming Unholy Ghosts), and you risk turning some readers off.

As well as everyone having different comfort levels when it comes to characters’ ethics, some people also believe that to show a protagonist with serious flaws that are unchanged at the end equals tacit approval for those flaws. So writers often stay with the safe flaws, the ones which don’t alter alignment. The character is flippant or can’t sing. That kind of flaw.

It’s comfortable

Your emotions will be intact at the end. You’ll never be afraid the writer will put the hero on one side of the battlefield and the heroine on the other – and set events in motion so that they fight to the death. You won’t start liking a character, only to watch in dismay as he gives in to his ambition or anger and commits murder.

That’s another reason readers might feel more secure with the Good/Evil camps clearly designated and a barbed-wire fence between them.

It’s reactionary

Shades-of-grey characters are fairly common these days, so a deliberate regression to a white hat/black hat code of morality might well stand out – similar to the “women who use magic are evil” concept in Robert Newcomb's The Fifth Sorceress.

It’s fun

Part of my fondness for ‘80s cartoons like Transformers is their black-and-white nature. Sometimes I don’t want depth or complexity – I need mindless entertainment instead, and my cheese threshold is fairly high in this regard.

Though I must admit, I usually find the arrogance, treachery and aggression of the bad guys much more entertaining than the Boy Scout-esque niceness of the good ones. Maybe that’s another reason writers still go for the archetype – not only does Good vs. Evil have that “impressive and mystic” quality that Jordan pointed out, but Evil can often be made very appealing (e.g. Darth Vader). Good tends not to be so cool, but they say virtue is its own reward.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

When does character death not work?

The butler author did it

This happens more often in romance than in fantasy, but it annoys a lot of readers there too. It’s where the inconvenient other man or other woman is killed by the author, leaving the way clear for the hero and heroine to rush happily into each other’s arms, unencumbered by prior commitments.

A great example of this is Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, a sequel to Gone with the Wind. It’s actually a two-for-one, getting rid of both Rhett’s wife and their newborn child. With Mrs Butler and Baby Butler out of the picture, he and Scarlett declared their love, while I wondered what happened to the Rhett Butler of Gone with the Wind. You know, the man who became an alcoholic after his first child died.

Death? Whose death?

I once picked up a fantasy novel because I’d read that the author, like George R. R. Martin, wasn’t afraid to kill off characters. That much was true.

The problem was that there were several characters, only one of whom was really fleshed out, and most of them went down like ninepins. Similar targets moved in to take their places, eventually dying as well (because that’s the mark of a serious fantasy novel), but by that time I’d lost interest.

The thing with Martin is, he didn’t just kill characters, he killed characters the readers cared about. That’s what makes his strategy powerful and memorable. If the characters are just warm bodies with names, it makes no difference. It’s like hearing that twenty people died in highway accidents this morning – few of us can grieve or rage over statistics.

Darth Vader’s Redemption

While the atoning death of an ex-hero can certainly work (though my favorite is Colonel Nicholson’s death in Bridge on the River Kwai), it’s also a bit of a cliché. Not to mention an easy out for the ex-hero – this way he doesn’t need to stand trial, doesn’t need to face the families of his victims, doesn’t need to spend the rest of his life making up for what he did.

I’m more likely to be interested in such a character if they realized how wrong they were and lived. Much more conflict that way, not to mention an original direction for that character.

The following death has been carefully foreshadowed

The evil villain drove his magic sword through the heart of the Young Hero’s father.
“Nooo,” cried the Young Hero.
“Mocking observation,” uttered the villain.

Twenty years later

The Hero drove the same magic sword through the heart of the villain.
“Nooo,” cried the villain.
“Same observation you made to my father twenty years ago,” uttered the Hero.
The villain expired in a burst of irony, poetic justice and Skittles. And everyone else lived happily ever after.

What deaths wouldn’t work for you?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Five problems with trying to fool gatekeepers

If you’re a member of a writers’ discussion board, you will periodically read of how someone submitted the opening chapters of some famous or award-winning novel to a publisher or agent, minus the author’s name and title. When the submissions were rejected, this was evidence that the publishing industry was broken, that agents and editors couldn’t recognize genuine talent when they saw it.

That’s one conclusion which could be drawn from the rejections. But here are a few other reasons why the work might have been rejected.

1. Plagiarism

If agents or editors recognize the work, they might well conclude that this is a plagiarized manuscript. That the rejection didn’t include, “We are rejecting this work because it was previously published in 1813 by Jane Austen” is due to agents and editors having better things to do with their time than explain why they’re not falling for tricks.

2. A changing market

What was great literature a hundred years ago may still be great literature, but will it have equally great sales? Thirty years ago, bodice-rippers were common in romance; today, the industry has largely moved on. The same thing goes for The Da Vinci Code.

Ultimately, it’s about whether the book is marketable as well as good.

3. A mistargeted submission

Even if a writer creates a fantasy that would make Tolkien weep, Harlequin Blaze is not going to publish it. In the rejection stunt stories, there’s seldom any indication that the submissions were accurately targeted, sent to houses which publish that genre or agents who represent it.

4. Submission guidelines not followed

Many agents don’t want to receive partials unless those are requested, and I just queried an agent whose website specifically stated not to send any manuscript material with the query. Ignoring those guidelines to send off the copied chapter(s) might be a good way to get a form rejection.

As for why the agents might give a form rejection to such a brilliant (albeit stolen) piece of literature… well, it’s not easy to work with someone who considers himself above guidelines.

5. Subjectivity

Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a critically acclaimed novel. It won the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards in 2005. Thousands of readers love it.

I couldn’t get past page 108.

Does that mean Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is a bad book? No, it just means that this particular novel doesn’t work for me. Likewise, there are books which one agent will love and another one will pass on. This is an industry which can be as subjective as the book-buying public.

This kind of stunt annoys me for two reasons. First, it wastes time that could be spent on writers who submit their own material and who aren’t trying to pull a quick one. Second, it’s invariably pounced upon by advocates of vanity publishing or self-publishing as proof that the industry is indeed broken. When there are at least five reasons that it isn’t.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Becoming magicians

How do people become magicians? Let me count the ways.

1. Genetic

If one or both of your parents were magicians, you’ll be one too. This is very common, but it makes me wonder.

In the Potterverse, having one Muggle parent didn’t seem to have any effect on the offspring’s ability (e.g. Snape). What if this wasn’t the case, though? What if magical talent was more like skin color, something which could be diluted or lost altogether enough generations down the line?

This would place some entertaining pressure on magicians. If they were an endangered species, so to speak, they might be required to reproduce only with other magicians. Fall in love with mundanes, by all means, but don’t plant cedars in a cornfield.

2. Learned

Magic can be taught. This is also very common in fantasy.

In a population where everyone has low-level magic (or no magic at all), some people might ignore magical skills entirely while others would use their abilities to pursue their chosen profession, whether that’s farming or trade or mining. Some, though, will have the resources, the talent and the volition to train to improve their skills – becoming magicians.

The more rural the setting, though, the fewer people will go on to that kind of higher education. Even Harry needed all those Galleons his parents had left him. A protagonist could conceivably be taught magic by a wandering wizard, but that would raise the questions of why the wizard had only taught the protagonist (please, no Chosen One) and how everyone else in the protagonist’s community feels about one person being singled out as the beneficiary of arcane knowledge.

3. Acquired

In Elizabeth A. Lynn’s novel Dragon’s Winter, shapeshifters have to design and make a piece of jewelry inspired by the animal into which they will shift. After that, they can change shape at will, but their power is bound up in the jewelry. Steal that, and they can’t shift.

I like this idea. For one thing, it gives the magic a realistic weakness – something acquired can be something taken away. For another, it opens up all kinds of story possibilities.

What if a meteor exploded above the atmosphere, scattering hundreds of shards over the world, and each shard gave people the ability to do magic? The shards which fell in populated areas would be snapped up, of course, but what about those in more inaccessible regions? We’ll assume that one weakness of the magic is that it doesn’t facilitate tracking down more shards.

So people would be hunting those down. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, others would be trying to acquire more and more of the shards for themselves.

4. Gained involuntarily

In the Wild Cards universe, a virus infected everyone on earth. Most people died, but the survivors ended up with some kind of power (though many of these powers were useless – like the ability to levitate a penny – or the people ended up horribly disfigured as well).

My kind of story, in other words. Some are born great and some achieve greatness, but when some have greatness thrust upon them, they don’t always make the best use of it. The same would go for magical ability.

5. Situation-dependent

Magic could be tied to location or time. For instance, everyone is a mage when standing inside one of the special chalk shapes on the hillsides. Or everyone gains magic powers as natural light increases. Would this make midnight or high noon more dangerous a time?

What other ways could you suggest?

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Great Eight

I’m fascinated by figure skating, so so I was interested in reading this book. There are millions of self-help books, but this one was written by Scott Hamilton, an Olympic gold medalist who survived two different types of cancer.

The “eight” in the title refers to the figure 8, which Hamilton had to trace in the ice countless times for the figures that were once compulsory. The book uses skating examples and analogies to illustrate Hamilton’s eight ways in which people can deal with adversity and remain happy.

I like to write reviews a few days after reading the book, with the book closed so I can see how much I remember. With The Great Eight, two of Hamilton’s lessons are ones I hope I’ll always recall. And they’re good advice for writers as well.

The first is the story of the school figures. It’s boring to keep tracing the figure 8 in the ice, again and again. Yet later on, Hamilton realized that the dull exercise had given him stamina and concentration that helped him become a great skater.

The same thing applies to life – and writing. Sometimes we have to choose between a quick fix and years of tiring work with no immediate reward in sight (for instance, vanity publishing vs. slogging through rejections to be commercially published). And when we see other people taking the instant-gratification route, it helps to be reassured that another way is likely to work better for us.

The second lesson is the one about Kristi Yamaguchi’s smile. After taking a tumble, she bounced up and gave the huge audience such a smile that Hamilton, watching, wondered if he had actually seen her fall. Act like a cheerful and classy winner, and very often, people will take you for one.

That being said, the book’s take on cancer did not work for me. Cancer is presented as an experience which will enhance your life – if you let it. Cancer can certainly increase one’s faith in God and make people more appreciative of life, but cancer can also kill you. Or leave your children parentless. So I find it difficult to see cancer as a “gift”.

I would also not give this book to anyone with cancer, because they’re going through enough already without getting the impression that they have to laugh and joke their way through the illness. I appreciate optimism, but in this area, Hamilton’s focus on positivity and happiness is so relentless that there’s no room for any other emotions.

But if readers don’t mind this, The Great Eight might work for them. As for me, I liked the figure skating inside stories and some of the advice, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Groups in fantasy

I’ve always been fascinated by group dynamics, and fantasy offers plenty of opportunities to indulge that. Most of the stories I’ve enjoyed – or written – involve people having to work together, even if the protagonist comes up with a plan by himself or strikes the final blow.

One appeal of groups is how different they can be.

The Gestalt

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. I recently read a Transformers fanfic that illustrates this perfectly, but it works with humanoid characters as well.

People often behave differently in groups than they do alone, so it’s only a small step from there to have them physically or mentally altered to the point where they work together smoothly once the group comes together. Well, maybe not that small a step. But in a fantasy, why not?

Part of the fun of writing the Glores in my manuscript Redemption is how dangerous they are in packs. Individual characteristics are temporarily sublimated as they function as a single unit (albeit one with several sets of sharp teeth).

The Fellowship

In more traditional fantasies, the different skills and personalities of the people in the group contribute to its success. Watership Down is a great example of that – you have Blackberry the thinker, Bigwig the fighter, Fiver the mystic, and Hazel the leader who holds the group together.

Part of the fun, of course, is the friction within the group. Jealousy, past rivalries, sexual tension, competing ambitions, almost anything goes. The more conflict there is, though, the more the group needs a good reason to stay together. If the protagonist is extremely powerful on his own, and the other people in the group resent that, why do they stay with him? If they don’t believe the foreseer’s visions-o’-doom, why do they put up with her?

So, what might not work when it comes to groups in fantasy?


This is a cliché of traditional fantasy – the group, modelled too closely on Tolkien’s work, which includes an elf, a dwarf, a halfling and two or more humans, one of whom is the leader. The difference is that Tolkien gave the characters of different races good reasons for joining the Fellowship, whereas many other writers don’t show why a dwarf would leave his dwarf community and join such a heterogenous group.

Another problem group is where the different types of professions or weaponry are too evenly distributed – for instance, one swordsman, one archer, one magician, one thief. That’s probably going to come off as an imitation of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon.


I once read a book about a mercenary company where all except one of the mercs was a fighter. This might still have worked if they had had very different habits, quirks, flaws and so on, because that would have helped differentiate them.

The more emphasis there is on the characters conforming to a certain norm, whether that norm is the standards of a mercenary company or Scipio Africanus’s army, the more the characters need to be fleshed out. The men of the Night Watch, in A Song of Ice and Fire, are a good example of this.

The only exception to this is when you want to place more emphasis on the characters as a team than as individuals – though that can make it more difficult for the readers to connect with them. And the more distinctive they are as characters, the more conflict there will be within the group.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


“Fly, you fools!” -- Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring

The sacrifice of a likeable character is a great way to twist the reader’s heartstrings. When I first watched Operation Daybreak, a film about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, I kept hoping and hoping that the Czech paratroopers would somehow escape from the Nazis closing in on them. When I realized that they had given their lives for their mission, it brought tears to my eyes.

Readers expect happy endings, but to a certain extent they also expect realism. Sacrificing a heroic and admirable character is a great way to set them up for the one, but give them the other instead. Provided it’s done well.

So when does this not work?

1. The character is undeveloped.

I once watched a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode called “Sacrifice of Angels”. I was looking forward to it, since it was the climax of a seven-episode arc and would feature a fierce battle. The title also suggested that someone would die, and I was hoping for something along the lines of Spock’s climactic sacrifice in The Wrath of Khan.

Instead, a minor character was killed while she was talking to her father. And personality-wise, she was nice, loyal and good at art, without any unusual quirks or flaws that might have made her memorable.

The whole point of a sacrifice is to make the readers care about the character stepping up to the scaffold. Even a death has no impact if the readers haven’t formed a connection of some sort to the character.

2. The character has options other than sacrificing themselves.

If the character can solve the problem by doing something other than dying, the readers will expect them to try the other option first (provided the character is a reasonable and non-suicidal person).

That’s one reason I love the “Gethsemane” scene in Jesus Christ Superstar. When Jesus insists on knowing why it’s so necessary for him to die, he receives a vision showing the impact of his sacrifice. After that, he’s more or less reconciled to it, because he realizes that it's the only way for him to achieve God’s aims.

3. The sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice.

This is when the character comes back to life afterwards. Some stories which do this disguise it by the character coming back in another form – reincarnation, for instance, or being put into an animal’s body – but it still weakens the sacrifice. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe gets away with this, but that’s partly because it’s written for children and partly because it’s a Christian allegory.

4. The character fails.

The only circumstances under which I’d accept the characters failing in what they set out to do, as well as dying, would be if that’s the way it happened in real life – for instance, Scott’s attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole.

Otherwise, readers want some vindication. Even if the character doesn’t know it, and dies without ever being aware of whether they’ve succeeded, the readers need to know it. Nothing’s more depressing than reading a story that takes a turn for the nihilistic and says that the character’s sacrifice was useless.

However, there’s no reason to have the character – moments before their execution – experience a vision or see an event which shows them everything’s going to be fine. This can come off as either too much of a coincidence or as the author taking pity on the character.

Sacrifice, like porcelain, needs to be handled with care for best effect.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Another use for dialogue

If I’m planning a scene and want to see how an interaction between characters would unfold, I write their dialogue in script form.

Stas: Like this?
Jarec: Like that, except minus stage directions.
Stas: But sometimes those are necessary. Or funny.
Jarec: Funny?
Stas: Sure. [Exit, pursued by a bear]

The advantage of this is that it strips away all the description, tones of voice, facial expressions, actions and everything else on which weak dialogue can lean. The conversation, discussion or argument between characters has to carry the scene.

I write the dialogue quickly to get the raw material out before my internal editor can analyze it too much. That also imitates the fast-paced nature of real speech. Plus, I use modern language if that will convey my meaning more easily.

Stas: I’m a microbiologist in a medieval fantasy. It doesn’t get much more modern than that, you know.
Jarec: This is becoming a bit too meta.

If there’s a problem in the story, such as the characters trying to decide how to break into a prison, I might also have them discuss it and come up with suggestions. Usually, though, the script provides a realistic development and denouement to the interaction, and then I can use it as the framework to write the scene.

Stas: Can we go back to the story now?
Jarec: Where’s a bear when you need one?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Five bizarre book titles

1. Romance Goes Tenting
This is a Mills & Boon novel published in 1956, when I’m sure “tenting” meant something sweet and innocent.

2. How Green were the Nazis?
Uh… they recycled human skin into lampshades?

3. Death by Ploot Ploot
I’ll just quote one of the reviews: “Ploot Ploot has no plot plot.”

4. Latawnya, the Naughty Horse, learns to say “No” to Drugs
What an inspiring heroin. I mean heroine.

5. How to make love while conscious
What’s the sequel, How to make love while alive?