Tag Archives: character

A Gordian Knot

Today I finished a short story that I started maybe two years ago and which I’ve been wrestling with on-and-off occasionally ever since. I had reached a sticking point, and I feel I may have solved the problem today.

When I write a short story it often starts with a character, or a scene. I have plenty of scratchings and notes of this sort which may never become short stories of their own. Some of them might be chiseled and shaped, or molded into new things and added to or inserted within another project or a different story.   Many of them remain as notes or scenes or character descriptions for characters who will never be given a story. Hopefully I’ll come back to some occasionally and expand on them.

This short story started out with two characters, young boys, our protagonist and his only friend. As I wrote it I reached a point where the two characters were, I feel, well developed and the relationship between them was well-defined with a few nuances. The lesser characters with whom they interacted were shallow, as is often required in a short story where an economy of words is essential, but I was overall happy with the characterisation.

The setting was part of the world I created for my novel “Exile”, so it was well developed. If anything it was perhaps over-developed for the needs of the short story. As with “The Green Monkeys” and “A Choice of Kings”, also set in this fictional world (“The Green Monkeys” also set in ‘Talamh’), there was a challenge in leaving out some of the irrelevant detail I had developed. This is sometimes a problem for Fantasy writers and authors. Once someone has created a highly-detailed alternative world there is a compulsion to tell your readership all about it. In detail. Too much detail. George RR Martin has spoken of how important it is to use only the details of the setting that are relevant to the plot, and invented only a few words of Valyrian or Dothraki (only those that the text required to demonstrate how the languages were different and foreign). Joe Abercrombie has spoken of his distaste for maps and his novels always reference their setting with a deliberately lack of specificity. Tolkein on the other hand created a meticulous history and several languages for Middle Earth. In truth the stories of Middle Earth, “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” were by-products. Tolkein was a professional philologist and his central concern was to develop languages, from these he created Middle Earth so that people could speak his languages; the narratives that resulted were never his intended goal, and while in many instances the detail of Tolkein’s setting is what set him apart and spawned his legion imitators really few people complained when the film adaptation cut whole chapters of Tom Bombadil out. It didn’t detract from the narrative at all.

The plot I also had mapped out. I don’t usually map a plot too early in my process. As I said the story will start as a scene or a character, I’ll build on that, hopefully develop a conflict and some complications and at that point sit down to map them out. In this instance I had an initiating circumstance, a conflict, rising complications, a conclusion, and a resolution. I knew what would happen, how each event would lead to the next, and how the story would end.

In short I had everything I needed: characters, setting, plot. And yet one scene was holding me up. I knew what needed to happen in the scene. I knew who was involved. I knew where in the narrative the scene belonged. I knew what brought the characters together at that point. I knew where they had to go after that scene… I just couldn’t write it. I tried. Several times. It always sounded naff. Not terrible. Kinda ‘passable’ but just… not good enough.

It was frustrating.

So today I took a different path. No more chiseling at the edges, no more gentle molding, no more sanding back or polishing, no more pulling at threads hoping the knot would unravel. I took the sword to it. I cut it right back, made the dialogue do a lot more of the heavy lifting, took out some unnecessary details and…

And I think it’s worked. Maybe I wake up in the morning and post a retraction. Maybe it was horrible and needs to be re-written, but for the first time I am confident that at least structurally it’s right. The drafting and revising process isn’t finished, but it’s close, and the story actually looks like a story now. There’s not a great big chunk missing out of the middle like there had been.

It’s called “To the Iron Hills”, and it’ll be between 7,500 and 8,000 words complete. I’ll post a couple of thousand words as an excerpt here soon, but I’m keeping most of this one up my sleeve for now and I’ll definitely be submitting it to some publication markets when it’s ready. I reckon this one’s a good one.

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Characters

So I’ve put up the second character profile for my new project. She’s obviously markedly different from the protagonist of the piece, but then narrative is conflict I suppose.

Now in both these cases the character profiles are quite extensive. As these will be the two main characters so there’s a fair bit of extra work put into giving them a back-story and motivations that will make sense of their decisions and actions in the plot.

So I figured I talk a little today about what I think makes a good character in a narrative. There’s plenty of web resources covering this topic, but here’s my 2 cents:

Make them flawed.

Think of all the most popular characters in fiction and you won’t have to think for long to find their flaws. There’s whole blogs to be filled with the flaws of Macbeth, Hamlet, Romeo, Leer and Shakespeare’s creations, so too the Greek tragedies, but let’s, for the sake of brevity, confine our discussion to the last couple of decades. Humbert Humbert was a pedophile, Leopold Bloom couldn’t keep his thoughts in order, Sherlock Holmes was a drug addict (and almost certainly insufferable company), Yossarian was insane (but not insane enough), Randle McMurphy was too sane, Billy Pilgrim was unstuck in time, Kurtz was a megalomaniac and a murderer, Winston Smith was old and weak and pathetic, Atticus Finch… well there’s always an exception.

Seriously though it’s the flaws that we as readers want to see. Even in non-realistic narratives. Superman gets a lot more interesting if there’s kryptonite about. Batman is the best superhero character because he is the most flawed. Harry Potter is flawed because (spoiler alert) he has part of Voldemort’s soul in him. We watch Star Wars because of Darth Vader (who’s evil) and Han Solo (who’s a ‘rogue’). I doubt the films would have been so popular if they were all about Luke going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters.

George Martin understands this better than most. So too do Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Richard K Morgan. Tolkein probably didn’t.

Allow readers to relate to them

Characters aren’t really people. Although you want them to be realistic you need some room for the reader to wriggle in and make themself part of the narrative. This is where Luke Skywalker comes in, and Frodo, and Charles Marlowe, and Harry Potter in the first few books (we only find out about his flaw after several increasingly large volumes), and so many others.

I wasn’t raised by my uncle and aunt on tatooine, but I know what it’s like to have too many chores and to wish my life could mean something more than just working on the family farm. I’ve never had a magic ring but I know what it’s like to feel over-burdened and crushed by responsibility. I’ve never been to Africa but I know what it’s like to be in a strange place where the cultural rules you know don’t count for much and you’re trapped on a journey to a task you don’t really want to do. I’ve never been to Hogwarts but a new school and I’m an outcast… I could go on.

The best example of this rule (but possibly the worst example of every other rule) is Bella from Twilight. Now I’m basing this on the films because I’ve seen two of those but  haven’t read any of the books. Bella is a shell. She’s utterly empty and devoid of any personality, will or individuality. This makes her the perfect vessel for the reader. You can pick up Twilight and start reading and in your imagination you’re imagining yourself having to choose between the perfect (but dead) Edward and the perfect (but not Edward) Jacob. *swoon*

Give them a purpose of their own

Not just their purpose for your story, but a purpose to their own being. It doesn’t have to make sense to us, but it has to make sense to them. There’s still a pantomime thrill in having a character do something you, the reader, know is dumb. If it seems to them that it’s the best thing to do but the reader knows something they don’t then no worries. Of course if they’re basing their action or decision on something we know but the character doesn’t you have a problem.

When we do something we vary rarely (Plato and Aristotle would argue basically never) do it for its own sake. We always have some other goal, or end, in mind. I don’t go to the gym because I have a really massive desire to pick up iron and put it back down where I found it. I don’t go for a run because of the run itself. I do these things because I believe that if I do I will be fitter and healthier. I want to be fitter and healthier because I believe it will bring me a happier, longer life. I want a long life because I want to spend more time with my family and see my boys grow up. I want to be there when they grow up so I can help them to be good people and live good lives (whatever that means).

My point is that characters will have these long-term motivations too. As a writer you need to balance the short-term and the long term motivations and create a pattern of actions which make sense. Of course there’s room to create a capricious or unpredictable character, but even they will want to achieve something in the end.

Make them grow

Maybe growth is a loaded term, but make them change at least. Maybe not every character, and maybe not a lot, but over the course of your story someone or someones need to change.

There’s examples in Harry Potter and Star Wars again (think of Luke Skywalker, or Harry himslef, or better yet the many changes of Snape, or the vast change in Neville). In the Game of Thrones (spoiler alert) Robert bemoans his own transformation from warrior hero to fat alcoholic, Arya goes from nobleman’s daughter to a criminal boy (even if it is a disguise).  Think of the reversal in Macbeth – initially he’s unsure and tending to loyalty even if it is through guilt, she’s egging him on, taunting him for his weakness. By the final act Macbeth is mad with bloodlust and Lady Macbeth overcome with guilt. This is what we wanted to see. How do people change? How are they affected by what’s happening to them, by the things they do or which are done to them?

Now there are exceptions. Call it ‘The Simpsons’ phenomenon (though it’s been around a lot longer than that). Bart will always be an underachiever. Homer will never learn. Lisa will always wear those pearls. But The Simpsons and the like are narrative McDonalds: we know it’s not really good for us but it’s comfortable, familiar, you know what you’re going to get from it.

Narrative force is in change, and it takes both character and plot development (more on that later) to make it happen.


The best laid schemes…

Robert Burns had a point.

Last night I thought out my schemes for today. I came up with a shortlist of important (writing) things I wanted to do:

  • Add to this blog
  • Submit some material to a new, non-professional, e-zine for Australian Fantasy (they’re non-paying but accepting simultaneous submissions, and a successful submission would mean a publication credit and a confidence boost)
  • Submit a new short story to a professional market Australian Spec-Fic ezine (gotta keep on submitting)

I also had some other (non-writing) things. I had to get some stuff done for my actual, professional career (the one that pays the bills, puts food on the table and keeps a rented roof over my head). I had to do some shopping for groceries etc… I would have liked to go to the gym. I had to get some eggs for Easter. The list could easily go on.

So here I am. 8:30pm. Working on dot-point one.

What happened?

Well I have two sons. One is four, the other just over a year. The younger one has gastro. We found this out last night… the hard way. I will spare you the details but it involved frequent vomiting. My wife lost more sleep over it than me, but it was still a late night. Then the older one woke up at about 4:30 and he was all mine.

This morning the youngest one didn’t go to child-care, and my wife needed sleep, so that was most of my day. Then the actual important stuff, like the groceries, the sick child, the housework etc… took over.

I don’t post this as a sob-story or an excuse though. I post this because I believe this is part of being an amateur writer. I reckon it’s probably part of being a professional writer. I reckon it’s life, and it sure does “gang oft agley”

This is part of the reason my novel manuscript took nearly a decade of occasional work (the other reason is it’s a fantasy door-stopper of a novel weighing in at just over 241,000 words).  It’s the reason I don’t like those ‘write a novel in a month’ plans that are on the internet.

But, despite all this, sometimes plans go awry in a good way. I was walking my sick son this morning, as as I walked around I started to find that fragments of ideas that had been bouncing through my skull were coalescing into an actual, viable, novel plan. So when I got the boys to bed I wrote this plan out a bit, and now I’ve written a profile of one of the principal characters. Soon I’ll add more planning (in the draft heading of the menu) including a plotting planner I use and some other pre-writing exercises.

Based on the planning I’ve done so far I should get a manuscript of about 80,000 words out of this (I’m planning to write about 90 and trim up to 10 in editing). That’s about novel length. So if everything goes according to plan you should be able to watch as a novel goes from idea (today) to submitted manuscript (?)…

If everything goes according to plan.