Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...
Monday, May 11, 2015
Friday, May 8, 2015
I’m sure you’ve heard of the concept that you should throw rocks at your characters, but what sort of rocks? How badly should you hurt them? Can you ever do too much damage? What if the idea of destroying your hero’s life makes you nauseous and guilty?
First, let’s look at why it’s important to put characters, especially protagonists, through pain. If you think about it, most people read fiction for escapism, so don’t most of us want to escape uncomfortable and hurtful circumstances? Wouldn’t we want to avoid reading about heartache?
The simple truth is that happy people are boring in fiction. There’s something within our human makeup that, for all we want happiness, is captivated by struggle, conflict, and the journey. Perhaps its that part of us that deep down knows that if we had to struggle and fight for something, its value to us becomes much greater and we feel more satisfied upon achieving it. Plus, there’s also a part of us that feels relief that it isn’t us who suffers, but someone else. And then, there’s that deeply bred part that appreciates catharsis and the joy of seeing someone rise up against all odds and become something better. Isn’t there comfort in the idea that there’s a point to the pain, that something good comes from suffering and injustice?
Whatever the reasons we enjoy seeing characters struggle, conflict and hardship are essential parts of fiction. They create tension, and that tension propels a reader through a story. It gets readers emotionally invested, and hopefully at the end when they reach the satisfying conclusion, they’ve enjoyed the journey well enough to insist all their friends buy your book.
Further, content characters have little motivation to change anything in the story. They don’t act. They don’t make daring decisions that wind readers up with anticipation. They’re prone to being static, and that makes for a boring story too.
So now that we see the reasons characters need to suffer, let’s look at the how? Some of this depends on genre. Certain genres, like romance and humor, are less tolerant of extreme suffering than other genres such as speculative fiction, some contemporary, and historical. When you get into sub-genres, it gets even more complicated. Each reader comes to the reading experience with different tolerances and expectations regarding how much pain an author puts the protagonist through. Naturally, the best way to understand the threshold is to read in the genre you’re interested in writing in. Pay attention to how readers of that genre talk about the books and what’s popular. And understand that, while there are exceptions to every rule, an awareness of the pain threshold of your genre is still important.
From my own experience, I tend to enjoy seeing characters suffer a lot. I like to see people rise to greatness despite the most harrowing circumstances. I relish the opportunity to explore human experience through fiction. This is a big part of why I’m not well suited to primarily writing romance, though I have tried it. Being aware of your own preferences can help you narrow down what genres might be a good fit for you.
Now that you’ve figured out the size and frequency of the rocks to throw--pebbles, boulders, or asteroids--how do you go about it? How do you make it personal, believable, and satisfying to readers?
Start by figuring out what is most important to your characters. What motivates them? What do they fear? What do they secretly hope for deep down? What do they never want to experience? Dig deeply, uncovering layer by layer until you find out things about them that you never knew. When that happens, you have the sorts of struggle to put them through. Make your characters face their fears. Take away what matters most to them. If they have an advantage, find a way or time to remove it. Dangle their dreams before their eyes, then yank them away.
Then ask yourself two questions. First, what events and pressures would force my character to grow and change? Put him through such struggles. And finally, what would push this character to do, say, and think things he never thought himself possible of doing, saying, and thinking? When you do this, you force your character to push through personal boundaries, reveal deeper layers to the reader, and provide a more dynamic story. All the while, of course, keep in mind your genre’s tolerances.
But what if you’re uncomfortable about the idea of hurting your characters? As someone who personally feels awful if I create offense or hurt someone’s feelings in real life, you might think that I’d cringe at the idea of making my characters suffer. In actuality, I love it. So you might surprise yourself if you give it a try. Besides, another way to look at this is that, by making your characters suffer, you increase the value of their eventual happiness and victory. You give them more opportunities to show what an incredible person they are. You can show that, even through hardship, people can make things better. And if nothing else, it’s your story. Give it a try and build slowly if you need to. You can always revise or start again.
Monday, May 4, 2015
Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what makes this bestselling story work.
Part 6: The Search
Chapter 34: Dougal’s Story
Summary: Murtagh and Claire decide to make their way openly on the road. As they’ve little idea what direction Jamie went and less hope of finding him, their best chance is to make it easy for him to find them. Claire heals the sick and injured, and Murtagh sings for their supper. After a week or so, they begin developing a welcome reputation, a good sign as it means Jamie might hear of them.
Then they come upon some gypsies who agree to send a messenger if they see a tall, red-haired man. A few days later, the messenger arrives and takes Claire only to a cave in the woods.
At first, she’s delighted to see Jamie, but she pulls up short. It isn’t Jamie waiting for her, but Dougal MacKenzie. Dougal brings news that Jamie is in Wentworth Prison, has stood trial, and is sentenced to hang any time now.
Claire naturally is very upset and insists they must go and free Jamie. Dougal won’t hear of it. He believes freeing Jamie is an impossible venture. Instead, he offers to take Claire to his home and make sure she’s safe.
At once, she suspects he intends to seduce her so he can get his hands on Lallybroch. Over the next few minutes as they talk, she realizes her suspicions, as well as others she’s had about Dougal--including him being Hammish’s father and betraying many, though apparently not Colum--are right on the money. He moves toward her, trying to be soothing and seductive, then meets the sight of Murtagh’s pistols.
At the point of a gun, Dougal surrenders Claire and his money pouch. He also agrees to allow Claire to try and talk some of his men into joining her rescue efforts. They make a bargain that if she can’t get anyone, she’ll return his money.
Claire persuades five of Dougal’s men to come with her and thus gets to keep the money pouch. Over the next two days, they ride hard for Wentworth Prison and arrive in the evening with no idea if Jamie is even still alive.
Writer Comments: Well, it’s nice to have some things confirmed about Dougal. I wonder if he’ll be a continuing villain.
Speaking of villains, this story has several, though Dougal and Randall appear to be the main two. Most stories have one with his henchmen for support. However, in this case, Dougal and Randall are as much opposed to each other as anyone. So what does it mean for a story to have numerous antagonists?
As long as the story still follows a solid structure, the protagonist maintains clear goals and motivations, and the tale holds together cohesively, I say multiple antagonists make for a far more interesting book. This is especially true when those antagonists are somewhat unpredictable. Sure, we know Dougal is a betraying, maneuvering, scumbag, but he’s also interesting and on occasion will do the right thing. Dougal will always look out for his own interests, but when will those interests bring him in alliance with our heroes, and when will they bring him in opposition to them? The inability to predict him make the story more interesting.
Further, the fact that Claire and Jamie must contend with threats from multiple directions lends complexity to the story as well as a greater capacity for increasing tension and stakes. After all, as a story hurtles toward its climax, the stakes and tension should be rising.
Beyond antagonists, though, I’d like to turn your attention to one other element of this chapter that’s worth noting as a writer. To increase their fame on the road, Murtagh has Claire practice fortune telling, an art she should by no right possess. However, Gabaldon set this up at the beginning of the book when Claire was in her own time. Then she learned that the key to fortune telling was not in the hand but the face, for it tells of the person’s hopes and fears. To make Claire’s current fortune telling efforts believable, Gabaldon had to set it up early on. It’s hard to swallow a character suddenly developing convenient talents, after all. So advertise your plot twists in advance. Don’t be too obvious about it, but keep things believable.
Friday, May 1, 2015
When I was a little girl, I loved space. My mother bemoaned the fact that the only fiction I read were Star Wars and Star Trek novels. I had tons of phasers, blasters, a homemade Original Series science officer uniform, Spock ears, and all the fiction I wrote dealt with science fiction and interstellar travel.
But as I got older, my dreams of space adventure faded. In middle school, I had the honor of attending Space Camp, which was awesome in a lot of ways. One of the things we did was go on a simulated mission in a shuttle. I was the pilot of the mission, which was very cool, but boy was it overwhelming with all the buttons, knobs, checklists, and Mission Control and I getting irritated at each other. I recall a moment, with my all too vivid imagination and the image on our monitors of space stretched out before us, of utter loneliness. I realized in a simulation that had no Vulcans or droids, no landing on other planets or encountering other spacecraft, that we are very isolated and alone in the universe. Whether aliens were real or not--I hadn’t made up my mind then (and still haven’t)--they weren’t there, and the vastness of space unfurled before us, incredible and unreachable. It was the first moment when my enthusiasm began to fade. It was like discovering I was allergic to my favorite food and could never enjoy it again. Worse perhaps.
Then as I got into high school and realized we weren’t really doing anything epic in space anymore, no serious attempts to get to Mars, no returning to the moon, no fantastic advancements, the dream sizzled and died. Star Wars and Star Trek were still cool, but instead of inspiring me, they were just fun escapes from reality.
I have friends who felt the same way. We all felt like the advances of science had shunned the glories of space and turned simply to the minutia of Earth. While the internet, cell phones, laser technology, and a vast array of other advances were impressive, it wasn’t the same. It was almost like admitting we could never reach the stars and giving up. And even as my dreams of space died too, it still saddened me.
Earlier this year, I saw a presentation on Google’s Lunar XPRIZE. That was exciting because it said to me that there are still people out there eagerly pursuing space and the adventures and awesomeness it can offer. But part of me whispered that even if someone wins, even if several teams manage to reach the moon, will it continue? Or will this be a small burst that fades quickly while the rest of us return to texting and surfing YouTube?
Over this last week, I started re-watching Babylon 5, one of my all time favorite SF shows. That tiny part of my mind that refused to completely die when it comes to imaging space began to stir. After all, Babylon 5 is an awesome show.
Then today, I heard about NASA possibly stumbling across actual warp drive.
Wait. What? Did I hear that right?
While the skeptic in me started immediately knocking my little inner space adventurer in the head to silence her, that groggy astronaut didn’t heed him as much as usual. Actual warp drive might be possible within the foreseeable future, she said. That’s way to exciting to let myself go back into cryo.
From the little research I managed before writing this post, what NASA actually did was test a new type of drive in a vacuum, an EmDrive. It literally breaks the laws of physics. Isn’t that cool? I love it when science proves something possible that it once said was impossible. During the test, scientists sent lasers into the chamber and measured the speed of those lasers as exceeding the speed of light, thus implying that the EmDrive created a warp bubble.
Of course, none of this is proven, and it doesn’t mean we’ll be jumping aboard the Enterprise anytime soon, but the implications are huge. It could mean rocketing us out of space doldrums into a new era of exciting exploration and technology. We already functionally have communicators (cell phones) and computer and robotic technology that could easily fit in on a Star Trek episode. Why not the EmDrive? Why not warp drive? If we let ourselves dream about it again with this new study, just maybe we can make it reality.
I also ran across other pioneers in the fields of making science fiction science fact. Like the privately funded and run contestants of the Google Lunar XPRIZE, NASA and China aren’t the only sort of groups working on potential interstellar travel. I came across an article by Dan van Winkle back from January about a private individual working on creating warp drive in his garage, and according to the interview, the determined individual, David Pares, claims he’s close. To me, that’s an encouraging sign. Often in science, multiple researchers come close to significant discoveries near the same time. Recalling my high school biology II teacher, this was the case with determining the structure of DNA, which apparently has a whole exciting story of its own, including stealing others’ research. But as I don’t recall all the details, I won’t try to expound upon them now.
In either case, whether NASA, David Pares, or someone else figures warp drive out first, we may be on the brink of exciting new times. Maybe those of us who gave up on the dream can pull it out and dust it off again. Maybe it would be good for us to break a few laws of physics.
Monday, April 27, 2015
Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at what works for this bestselling story.
Chapter 33: The Watch
Summary: A few days after the birth, Ian comes riding home on a strange horse with news that The Watch has taken Jamie. As they also took Ian’s wooden leg, it’s up to Claire and Jenny to get Jamie back somehow.
Despite having just given birth, Jenny leads the hunt. Apparently as a child, she demanded Jamie and Ian teach her the skills they learned, like tracking. She isn’t an expert, but she knows enough to spot Jamie’s and The Watch’s trail. Claire and she take a shortcut across country to cut them off.
Unfortunately, when they catch up with The Watch, they see that they have no prisoner. Fearful Jamie might be dead, Claire helps Jenny ambush one of The Watch, tie him to a tree, and demand answers at the point of a pistol. Apparently, Jamie threw himself off a horse as they forded a stream. The Watch shot at him and he never surfaced. They assume he’s dead.
Leaving the man to work his own way free of his bonds, the women return to the stream to search for any sign of Jamie. Jenny is convinced that Jamie isn’t dead. He’s too good a swimmer to have drowned. They finally find evidence of him on the stream’s bank and discover his trail, parts of which are marked with blood.
Because of the baby, Jenny can’t stay to help Claire track Jamie down. They figure Jamie won’t return to Lallybroch because The Watch will have sent someone there to keep an eye out, just in case. However, Murtagh shows up to lend a hand in hunting down Jamie.
Murtagh also brings news that Jenny has a new kitchen maid, the wife of MacNab, the now widow MacNab. Her husband was burned in a fire, and the ashes now float fresh on the wind. Jenny and Claire deduce that the truth is that MacNab is the one who turned Jamie into The Watch, and that Murtagh and Ian took their own vengeance for this.
Jenny asks Claire to walk with her the first little bit of her journey, leaving Murtagh at the fire. She tells Claire that Jamie told her Claire might tell her things about the future and she must do what Claire says. She asks if there’s anything she ought to know. Trying not to be too obvious about what she does know, Claire tells Jenny to plant potatoes and any other crop that stores well for a long time. She says to sell off any land that isn’t productive for gold. In two years, there will be famine and war. Jenny agrees to do these things without question.
Writer Comments: Jenny is such a tough, capable character, it would be fun reading a book about her. She certainly has a flair, and I could picture perfectly the watchman waking up with her holding a pistol in his face. These are admirable traits in a supporting character, and they lend to the rough and tumble highland feel of the story.
Additionally, Gabaldon strikes a startling contrast here between the Claire at the end of the previous part and the Claire now. Or, rather, perhaps I should say she makes a notable distinction between how people react to Claire. Part Four ends with Claire nearly getting killed for being a witch. Part Five concludes with a supporting character requesting Claire demonstrate talents that might normally get her burned at the stake. This says a great deal about the other characters, but it also offers us readers a good contrast, showing us what could happen to Claire versus what does now. Too, it reveals the sort of courage Claire must muster to risk speaking out. Or, perhaps, it simply reveals how much she cares for Jamie’s family.
Contrasts are very important in fiction. The protagonist and antagonist are contrasts. Within themselves, characters should show contrasting traits, desires, and motivations to make them interesting. The opening and conclusion of a story should be contrasted sharply to demonstrate growth. Here, you can see that contrasts can also exist in plot points. Such things help keep a story interesting and dynamic.
Friday, April 24, 2015
As I’ve felt awful lately, I’m behind on work, including this blog. However, I wanted to give you dear readers something for today. So I thought about what the most diverting thing I’ve enjoyed lately while feeling terrible. The answer was simple: Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson.
So if you’re looking for a great book that’s engaging enough to distract a picky reader like me from days of feeling awful, Words of Radiance
is an excellent choice.
If, however, you haven’t read the first in the series, The Way of Kings, be sure to pick it up first. It’s also a fun read.
Monday, April 20, 2015
Welcome to this week’s read of Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Here, we take a look at how a bestseller like this is written.
Chapter 32: Hard Labor
Summary: Just a day or two before Claire and Jamie must leave due to redcoats drawing near, Jenny goes into labor. Claire, who has only seen three births, all of which were performed with modern medicine that’d be of no help to her in this time, insists Jamie get the midwife rather than relying on her. However, she does stay to help Jenny as she can.
The midwife arrives and Jenny’s labor becomes increasingly difficult with little progress. After a while, she grows very exhausted and starts to fear she’ll die. This, of course, gets Claire quite worried. At last, she ventures to the midwife that maybe the baby is “backwards.” The midwife checks and begins trying to turn the baby. Finally, after quite a bit of effort, the child does turn, and things pick up very quickly. Within a few minutes, Jenny’s daughter is born.
Claire goes down to tell Ian that he has a daughter and instead finds the men half drunk. Only then does she realize how frightened Ian was that Jenny wouldn’t make it.
That night as Claire and Jamie get ready for bed, Jamie tells her that he’s actually relieved that she’s barren. Them getting pregnant while they’re on the run would be very difficult. Plus, after hearing his sister scream her way through labor, he never wants to hear Claire suffer like that.
Writer Comments: I always find labor and birth interesting in books, especially when written by a female author. It’s always interesting to see where stereotypes, history, and personal experience collide. Of course, you can never tell for certain which elements an author pulls from each category. For example, if I were to write a birth, since I’ve delivered two children, I could draw on experience to write about pain. On the other hand, as I used hypnosis for the second birth, which worked really well, I also have the experience to know that labor doesn’t have to be all pain. There are tricks. The challenge however would be that most readers probably wouldn’t believe such a depiction. So, as much as we women may rebel against the concept, as authors we are often bound by stereotypes that fuel reader expectations. This is true of birth as well any pretty much every other topic.
However, one thing I do like about Gabaldon as a writer, is how she sprinkles in historical and life details. The midwife does not act like a modern doctor dressed up in homespun. She acts like what I presume Gabaldon discovered midwives acted like during this time. Perhaps even the way they act now to some extent. Such details give the labor and delivery scene much of its unique character.
And, of course, you can’t go wrong with a little cuteness at the end of this event. After his baby sister is born, little Jamie hops up on his mother’s bed and insists that Jenny is his mommy.
The end of this chapter is the important element though. It marks a turning point, however small. Jamie accepts Claire’s barrenness. He even gives praise for it. While it’s clear that her inability to conceive a child bothers her, this is such a supportive thing for a husband to do. Perhaps it will help her come to better terms with it herself. However, knowing books like I do, I wonder if Claire will get pregnant sometime in the not so distant future, just when she and Jamie are least expecting it.