Thursday, September 22, 2011

Character Building in Fantasy

I will be giving a copy of my novel Firedancer (electronic version in the format of your choice) to a commenter chosen at random from those who comment on this post before September 30. Please stay on topic and keep it clean. I am genuinely interested in other writers' processes for building characters, and hope we can all share and glean some insights.

I hate talking about myself and screaming "buy my book!" all the time, though I am (ahem) proud of the reviews Firedancer has gotten thus far. I would far rather talk about the writing process and share some of the painfully-won knowledge that has shaken out of my own writing journey.

Characters, of course, are what make or break any fiction effort. The worldbuilding in fantasy better be plausible, but the characters in any fiction had better be even more so. I just saw a discussion about Mary Sue characters on a science fiction forum, and oh yes, this is a stage that most beginning writers go through. The Mary Sue is, basically, you, but better. Prettier, stronger, cooler, kick-ass dangerous, competent, never breaks a fingernail or a sweat.... Oh, yeah, that person we'd all like to be deep down, and who doesn't actually exist. That gorgeous girl? She has insecurities, trust me. "Am I a trophy date? Am I getting fat? Will my friends drop me like dog doo if I don't know what's 'hot' this week?" And that guy who seems to just have everything going for him? He really can't walk on water, so get over it.

Then there is the opposite of the Mary Sue, the guy who can't do anything right, or the guy with no redeeming qualities whatsoever that we just love to hate. Can you spell boring? Even the most inept guy is right occasionally, or loves his dog, or has some unexpected spark of courage that can shame the hero. And the Evil Overlord? Boring! Hannibal Lector fascinates us because he has a history, and is barking mad besides. The guy who just kills or tortures for fun, baby, is not someone most of us want to read about, and is too one-dimensional to drive an interesting plot. Even Darth Vader had issues, and inconvenient offspring.

Fantasy is full of stock characters, from the dogged hero who will not quit before he/she saves the world to the dark wizard who wants to enslave the world to the collection of magical or bumbling sidekicks. The heroine of Firedancer is, I suppose, the damaged hero, the one who wants to walk away but can't, and brings everything she has left to the fight. And Settak, her companion? Oh, yes, he has issues with competence and confidence, but stubborn? Hoo boy, he could teach rocks how to defy rain. But it is these qualities, and others, that will lead them to succeed or fail, because it is characterization and the choices each character makes that ultimately drive a good plot.

It's actually hard to get away from recognizable fantasy character tropes, because a great part of the charm in fantasy comes from these guys. You know what to expect. You want the hero to win. It's how you construct them within the boxes that makes them different, and interesting, and, hopefully, memorable.

I talked in an earlier post about the matrix I've begun to construct for my characters. Over time, I've discovered the 3 most important questions in it are:
  1. What is his/her most appealing quality?
  2. What is his/her least appealing quality?
  3. What is his/her immutable quality?
We all need our characters to be appealing in some way or no one will want to stick with them for several hundred pages. And for them to be well-rounded and "human" (even if they're not) they need a darker side. Even saints probably pitched fits now and again, and your character needs quirks, dirty little secrets, bad habits, temper tantrums, and plausible (and sometimes unfortunate) reactions to the unexpected in order to come across as real.

Then we come to the last one. The immutable quality. Here is the gold. Here is the one that tells you how your character will react when a ten-foot Snarkian jax rises up in his face. Will he run? Try to talk to it? Stop long enough to find out if it's dangerous? Attempt to feed it cookies? Take its picture? Complain to the authorities because it pooped on his lawn? We all know people who might react in one of these ways. The immutable character trait is how your character will react when confronted by a stronger personality, a subordinate, a threat, an opportunity. Some people will show compassion even in the direst circumstances; others will turn their backs and look out for #1. Some will always back down from confrontation; others will wade in, from pride or stubbornness or the brains to know that backing down will make it worse.

I recently had to change the matrix for a secondary character I'm building in Windrider, the sequel to Firedancer. I thought he was a coward, but no. His ruling quality is simply self-interest. Despite his dearly-held opinions, he will not defend them when it looks like someone with more power disagrees. Nor will he let them go, so he is a seething mess of frustration likely to pop at an awkward time. He is physically brave, and will argue with people he thinks he can dominate, but he will always duck, dodge, and slide to make himself look better and keep himself out of trouble, until at some point he will have to choose. And trust me, he will always choose in the name of self-interest, whatever that is at the moment.

Fantasy characters are people with all the same basic needs, flaws, and potentials as any person in the "real" world. But they have that extra factor to contend with, the magic, the unreal, the threat that will never confront your average New York cab driver or French schoolteacher. Before you equip them to deal with that added layer of complication, make sure they are plausible people first.

Happy writing!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

5-Star Reviews for Firedancer

"Reading on my commute, I nearly missed my stop. ...Marvelous fantasy adventure, outside the usual boxes."

"The story kept pulling me back to pick it [up] and read more, even when I had other things to do."

"Firedancer almost caused me a sleepless night. I just had to go on reading about what happens to Jetta and the friends she finds..."

The reviews of Firedancer are starting to come in, and thus far I am blushing. I try to reserve 5 stars for really exceptional books, and I hope these readers do too, because easy praise is worth so much less than that well earned. Thus far all the reviews have been 4 or 5 stars, and I am personally thrilled that people find it such a page-turner.

The most gratifying thing for any author is to know that others like your work. It is difficult to throw a book out to the wide world, after all the effort, joy, sweat and time that went into its creation. It is a part of you, an expression of talent and passion and creativity unique to your experiences and worldview and vision. That passion and vision will not always resonate with people; if you are lucky, it will please more than it will offend.

Reviews are a necessary part of book promotion. You send the book to reviewers and hope they will a) find time to actually read it and b) like it enough to give it a good review. The beauty (and drawback) of Amazon and other places like Goodreads and Library Thing is that the reviews come from readers. They are unfiltered expressions of reader likes and dislikes, hopefully tendered without bias or agenda.

That last is not always the case; every author has horror stories of trolls who take violent exception to something about their work and persist in rating it as low as they can, as often as they can, and dragging the book and the author through the mud. This is a sad type of personality and one can only hope the rest of the audience recognizes them for what they are. Then there are the "paid" reviewers who receive all manner of cool stuff from publishers and authors, including free books, in hopes that they will turn in a positive review. This corrupts the system, because most people are basically honest and feel obligated for the gifts. Ergo, the plethora of highly-ranked books that maybe weren't so good.

It is hard to know whether a book is really as good or bad as touted until you read it for yourself, but it is good to know that Firedancer has not yet caused anyone to sit down and write a flaming review trashing it. My heartfelt thanks to those readers who have liked it enough to take time out of their day and share their reaction for others.

I hope you will check out Firedancer at Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Smashwords, and let me know what you think. And thank you!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Show vs. Tell: Tips for Telling the Difference

This is an ancient subject with regard to "good" writing. Opinions will always differ as to what constitutes good writing, with some readers wanting the stripped-down starkness of pure story speeding along to a conclusion, and others wanting rich scenery along the way. Show vs. Tell remains a bottomless pit of mystery to most, if not all, beginning writers. Critiques scream at them for passive writing and boring descriptions without ever really "showing" them how to get out of that trap.

So, Sue's tip for the day:

This is a Tell:
She sat down.
This is a Show:
She settled herself onto the faded brocade of a chair that looked entirely too fragile to take her weight, her frayed skirts settling around her with soft sighs of relief.
They both get the job done. The reader knows a woman sat down. But the first example unfairly relies upon the reader's imagination to conjure up a generic image of a female person sitting in a chair. What the chair looks like, we have no idea. What the woman looks like, we have no idea. The second example tells you the chair is an upholstered thing past its better days, and the woman is heavy enough to threaten the integrity of the poor chair.

How much nicer is that than stating baldly, "The fat woman sat down"?

As I was zooming along today drafting on Windrider, this nearly made it onto the page:
Ayesh was silent a moment.
Oh, ick. Not only a Tell, but passive to boot! (Passive writing most often involves the use of any form of the verb "to be". Shoot all instances of "was," "were," or "is" on sight whenever possible.)

Here is what this initial thought changed to pretty much as soon as I became aware it had hit the page:
Ayesh sat very still for a moment with silence gathering around him like thickening fog.
This is a bit prettier, yes? A bit more lyrical, evoking a mood as well as telling us that this character is having a moment of introspection.

Writers who claim they cannot stretch a story to the minimum 80,000 words of a novel either truly don't have enough plot...or aren't taking advantage of the beauty of the language to evoke clear pictures of the characters and their surroundings, or to draw an emotional response from the reader. If your writing is stuffed with passives and seems a bit utilitarian, you could be doing more Telling than Showing.

More on this subject in future blog posts, with more examples of how to cure it.

'Til then...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Writer's Nightmare

So here we are , Week 1 post-release of Firedancer. I am faithfully refraining from checking its stats every hour (though I must say they were quite fine for awhile, at least) because rankings on Amazon will drive you crazy if you let them. But the promotion work continues, which is, for every writer I know, the thing they like least about this business.

For the happy extrovert who loves people, the fact that most book publishers not only expect, but demand, that authors do all or most of their own promotion is not a problem. They like people, they like the events, they don't mind blowing their own horns. I had to laugh at Worldcon, however, as a group of us authors were standing around catching up on all the news, when the subject turned (as it always does) to the state of the industry and the dreaded P word.

"I'm shy," was the refrain. "I hate this." "I'm a writer, not a marketer." "How are the publishers going to get new books if nobody has time to write?" And, "There are only x number of days in my lifetime to write the stories I can tell. Why should I have to waste them doing what I'm not good at?"

Over and over, I heard the same thing. Successful authors will snort and tell you to get over it; this is the state of the world and you need to just grit your teeth and do it. Yes. This is true.

It does not, however, make it more fun, or magically bestow the gift of self-promotion upon people who would far rather be holed up in a cubbyhole somewhere with a blank page and a pen.

The industry has always set the rules; it is a dreary fact of life. The current rule is "Thou shalt be thy own marketer. Don't look at us; we're broke." Authors are expected to arrange their own book or blog tours, show up at cons and book signings on their own dime, and in many cases, design and print their own marketing materials and generally carry the entire load of getting the word out. The house might help you with getting reviews and certainly will help with distribution, but marketing? That's your problem.

And we all hate it.

The advantage of an ebook, however, is that it has an infinite shelf life. Print books must be heavily promoted up front, with huge demands on the author's time, in order to stave off the dreaded strip and return death as the book stores heave out your book to make way for one that may or may not sell better. The ebook, however, is parked on Amazon pretty much forever, which gives you a chance to build a continuing campaign that does not demand you drop all your current projects (even those contracted, with deadlines) to promote the book that just came out. You do have to promote your book up front, but you can also build an audience over time if you are still learning the ropes, and adjust your marketing as you learn what works. Ebook publication provides some balance for the poor author who just wants to write, but needs that last book to sell.

The ebook, however, also has its drawbacks. You won't find it on the supermarket shelves, or in Costco or Walmart. It's much more difficult to arrange signings without a physical object in hand to sell and sign. And many people just don't want ebooks. But you still have to do the marketing.

And that still means being your own promoter, on the internet instead of tramping all over the country. It's still hard, you have to ask favors of friends, break all the taboos about screaming "Look at me!" your mother told you constituted bad manners, and generally be what you're not--the front man.

We're introverts. We admit it. But, like Mom shoving Junior out the door to check out the grass instead of the video games, we'll heave a martyred sigh and go do it. Because if we don't, no one will.

The thought of your book never being found or read is a powerful motivator. So don't hit me when I yack, yack, yack about Firedancer and all its brethren. I'm a writer. And I want to keep writing.

So lead me (reluctantly) to the promotion....