Tag Archives: characters

Some more retrospection

At the end of last month I took a look at what I’ve been doing in 2017. This week I’ve been looking further back and reading some of what I was writing since the start of this decade. And I’ve come to realise just how far I have come in that time as a writer. I’ve gone from writing sporadically or when I am inspired to writing every day. I’ve gone from tenative to confident. I think my approach has become more mature and nuanced in that time too.

But there’s a lot that has stayed the same too. There are certain themes and tropes that I have returned to time and time again during the last eight years. I am a total sucker for a redemption arc. I’ve done them repeatedly in several different ways, both in fanfiction and original fiction, across half a dozen settings. Even my latest story has an element of it.

Though it’s a theme I’ve used repeatedly, I think the strongest use I’ve put it to is when I’ve turned it on its head somewhat. I said in my New Year’s Eve post that I wanted to return to the Horrible Monster project (though it really needs a better name than that). In that story, early versions had it as a straight redemption arc for the second main character: a criminal who ultimately helps the protagonist uncover corruption and becomes a hero. But I was never happy with that. It fell flat. It was too easy. It meant that my protagonist didn’t really develop much. She occupied a saviour role, in which her actions enabled the secondary main character’s redeption arc, of which she was the primary judge. And that was boring.

When I finally managed to write a full draft, the saviour element was gone and the protagonist’s arc was much darker. Her motivations were more selfish, her actions to help the secondary character driven by goals other than to benefit him. The arcs for these two characters became mirrors of one another. They were not lifting one another up, but holding each other back from the extremes of what they might have achieved alone or with other allies. There remained something of the redemption arc, but there was also an inverted version, a character development that went in a very different direction. And it made the whole story so much stronger and more compelling.

In a lot of what I have been reading of my old stories, I noticed the tendency to succumb early to the idea of a happy ending, even if there was a lot of plot to go. My favourite characters would join forces, reach a truce, and work together towards a common goal – even if those goals had changed radically for some characters to enable this teamwork. I was too eager to see concord, but it cost the stories I was writing because there is a lot of power in conflict to drive a story forward, to explore themes, and to develop characters, that everyone getting along cannot achieve so easily or at least so interestingly.

I often think about my favourite character arc in fiction: that of Zuko in Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I explored four years ago on this blog. What makes Zuko’s arc so powerful is that we, the audience, root for him, and specifically root for him to see that Aang is right and his father is wrong – but when he first is presented with a real choice to side with Aang, he doesn’t. And that’s not because he’s evil, because he isn’t. It’s because Zuko has spent so long working towards a powerful personal goal that he is incapable of making the selfless choice. All Zuko has ever wanted is his father to be proud of him. For three years he has lived in exile trying to redeem himself in his father’s eyes, and no amount of lessons from Uncle Iroh or understanding the impact that the Fire Nation’s attacks have had on the people of the Earth Kingdom or kindness from Katara can override that for Zuko.

It is not until he sees the consequences of his choice, and experiences the reward of it, that he can understand the context both of his original exile and of what Aang is trying to achieve. It’s only when he gets what he wanted that he begins to understand whose approval is really worth getting. If Zuko had sided with Aang in Ba Sing Se like so many of us desperately wanted, he couldn’t have completed his redemption arc fully, because he couldn’t have seen the harsh reality of what his desires really meant, and contrasted that reality with the way he had imagined it. He couldn’t have come to realise that his own opinion of himself is much more valuable than his father’s opinion.

A lot of what I wrote when I was much younger took the Ba Sing Se choice and closed the redemption arc too soon. I was focussed too much on the destination and not enough on the steps that needed to be taken to reach it. The endings fell flat. They hadn’t been worked for. The characters hadn’t been developed, I’d written wrongs into them and nearly instantly forgiven them, and then I’d written circumstances to help my other characters forgive them too.

Thankfully, I have got a lot better at this. My more recent stories, Horrible Monster in particular, have been more powerful because I have resisted the urge to indulge in the destination without making the journey.

The other pitfall I wandered into in a lot of my earlier stories, especially those that I abandoned quickly, was to make the redemption arc the centre of the conflict. It is an interesting arc that I am very much drawn to, and it is all too easy to fall into the trap of making it the only arc I spend much time on. The stories I like the best now, months or years later, are those in which there are other themes involved too: grief, identity, coping with illness, friendship, community and so on. Those stories had different types of conflicts, nuanced relationships, changing contexts, and better opportunities for those redemption arcs that I am so fond of to go somewhere different and interesting.

A little self-reflection and analysis is a very good thing, and after spending some time looking back at my old stories I feel I’m a lot better equipped to move forward writing stories which have something interesting to say, featuring characters who are more human and more entertaining.

This character sketch thing is difficult (Week 2 of Start Writing Fiction)

Since Monday I’ve been working my way through the second week of the Open University’s Start Writing Fiction course on FutureLearn. The initial exercises proved to be reasonably easy. The first was to consider the best and worst place to write, in my opinion, and then put a character into each one. I think I got the idea of place reasonably well, but failed to put into practice the concepts of showing character explored in week 1. The second was about using fluff phrases to start a sentence, before rewriting the paragraph to remove the fluff phrase. Again, I think I managed okay with the exercise itself, but didn’t put character into either one.

The third and final exercise troubles me. The prompt was to turn on the radio and use the first thing I heard as the basis for a short story, but the exercise also had specific instructions to include week 1’s concepts. Using physical description, actions, backstory and so on to reveal personality.

Continue reading This character sketch thing is difficult (Week 2 of Start Writing Fiction)

My first week on the Start Writing Fiction course

I’ve recently started a free online course with FutureLearn called Start Writing Fiction, run by the Open University. The course focuses on characters; after all, a story is nothing without them. I certainly think it’s important to have characters who feel like real people and who are distinct and interesting. Since I don’t know everything and am some way away from having some published novels out there, I thought I’d give this course a go and see what I could learn.

Continue reading My first week on the Start Writing Fiction course

Constantly re-evaluating my writing

This month has not gone as well as I’d hoped for the writing. In fact I’ve not written a word since my last blog post. But I have been thinking. Thinking about what motivates me, thinking about the stories I’m trying to write and the stories I worked on long ago.

Invisible Duke

With Invisible Duke, I’m a bit unsure on exactly where the crux of the story is, where it begins and where it should end. But I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t what’s stopping me writing; I’ve written before where I’ve had a go at an idea, not liked it, changed what the start and end and what the focus were, and tried again and ended up with something halfway decent. The story that ended up as Ailith’s Gift (available to read for free at Myths Inscribed) started out a very different story, told from the perspective of the dragon, after the events of Ailith’s Gift. I even had a character called George and this whole take on the old George and the Dragon myth, and themes of change and the baby from Ailith’s Gift growing up and everything. But for a short story, with a target of 3,000 words, it just didn’t work. There was too much to fit in, even if I broke it down to the most important plot points. By changing the focus and reducing the scope, though, I came out with something that did work, that wasn’t too rushed and which met the needs of what I was aiming for.

I think that’s something of what I need to do with Invisible Duke too. I’ve got the concept, I’ve got hints of the story, but I’ve not got the right angle on it. It’s already an amalgam of two ideas, that magical point at which ideas can become stories, but I think it needs a third idea to get there. I just need to work at it some more, but here’s the second problem: I’ve been putting off that work. A couple of weeks ago I heard of a call for submissions for stories that give a new twist on fairytales or subvert them in some way from The Book Smugglers. And it sounds perfect, exactly the sort of thing I should be submitting a story like Invisible Duke to, a story which looks at one of the fundamental assumptions of fairytales. The deadline for submissions is 31 July.

And I’m scared. I’ve not even finished the story, but having realised what an opportunity had landed on my lap when I heard about this, I failed to reach for it, and instead let it intimidate me. I’m not confident. I haven’t ever been, really, but right now my confidence level is at the lowest it’s been in a decade. And that has meant, on this occasion, that I’ve let myself be scared off from a prospect that could help me build up my confidence, help me improve my writing, and possibly even give me my first writing success in a long time.

I don’t what to do now with Invisible Duke. I think I’ve got two options:

1. Leave it til after the Book Smugglers deadline, take a fresh look at it, and try and work out where within the whole concept there’s an interesting story I can tell. Then take my time drawing the story out and getting it right – even if it takes a month.

2. Try to condense all the thinking and all the writing into the four evenings (today included) I have left til the deadline and get something I can submit, if only for the potential feedback I might get if not a real expectation it might be considered.

It’s a decision I’m going to have to make soon. Maybe I’ll have a go at looking at the story this evening and see where I am by bed time, and then decide.

In the meantime, there are other things I’ve been thinking about.

Penal Colony

I got stuck at the end of May with the Penal Colony story. Since then I’ve been dancing around the issue I had with it. A soft, slow middle when nothing much happened. I considered reworking the story as a series of short stories, each one with a different character from the last engaged in a complete arc, where the whole thing together told the overall story. That, I decided, was not the answer; it would dilute my core message.

I spent one evening looking in depth at my core theme of justice, and how Fiarra views it as something that is objective, but herself acts very subjectively when attempting to determine what actions are just. I looked at how other characters might disagree with her, how she treats different characters whose crimes are comparable in different ways based on her own personal feelings about them, how she advocates doing things “right” right up until it’s inconvenient for her.  I didn’t really come to a solid conclusion on that, on how I should present it and whether it would make the story feel empty or the ending unsatisfying.

Most recently, I’ve thought about how the story has gone so far in the 40,000 words I have written. And actually, it generally goes well for Fiarra. Okay, sure, she gets captured and beaten up and enslaved, but on the whole, by the point at which I stopped writing, she was in a better position than at the start of the story. A few things had gone right for her all in a row, and the things that had not gone right either served the plot or were so insignificant that 5,000 words later they’d leave no impact at all. In short, I’d made it too easy for her.

Or, to be more accurate, I’d made it too easy for me. I wanted to get to the cool speeches and the powerful emotional parts and everything I wrote that wasn’t that was designed to enable me to get to those parts.

I should know better.

The reason I keep going back to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender time and time again (current count: 7) is in no small part because of Zuko’s arc. I did a character study on him not long ago. There’s an end point that he reaches, that he is destined to reach, and there are points along the path where it seems that he might make it, but at those points, where has has the opportunity to befriend Aang and switch sides, he doesn’t, because he’s not done cooking yet. He’s not gained the experience he needs to be the kind of person who will decide that this is what he needs to do, that this is the person he should be, until he’s made the wrong decisions and lived the consequences.

I love that. I love watching it. I love seeing Zuko undergo that change, come to that gradual realisation. And yet I’m not putting that into my writing. I’m too eager to write the end of the journey – the emotional reunions, the important speeches, the redemptive actions – that I rush things along and forget to put enough of the journey in to make those turning points powerful.

With Penal Colony, therefore, I need to take a step back and work out where I’m making things too easy and make them harder. Where the turning point scenes are too early I need to move them later, to change them and deny those scenes the happy endings I crave so that the story can be told at the right pace, where victories are truly won and not handed over when I feel I can get away with it.

I need to start asking myself, with every scene I write, every paragraph even, “what’s the worst that could happen?” and then write it.

The other problem with Penal Colony is that I still don’t have as good a grasp on my characters as I would want. I struggle to hear their voices, the way they speak or think or act. I don’t know much what they look like. I haven’t grasped their mannerisms or their attitudes. It’s all very superficial in the 40,000 words I did write – Prentor is friendly, Laik is cold and laconic. At least, they are for as long as that serves the story. In one scene Laik became very frank and clear because I wanted things spelled out for Fiarra, and that was wrong (not to mention way too early in the plot). It’s something I need to work on.

The Snowflake Method might be a good starting point for working out the characters. It’ll give me the space to think about their own arcs – another flaw in my approach so far for Penal Colony – and expand upon who each character is, what they want, and how they interact with other characters and with their environments.

The next step after that, I think, would be to try to write short stories about each character or tackle certain scenes in the novel from their point of view, as an exercise to understand them rather than as part of the narrative. It certainly helped me earlier in the process when I did this for Laik, though a lot has changed since then and even that short scene might need an update.

In my lowest moment, driving home after a long day and frustrating at work, I considered giving up on this story entirely. I believed it wasn’t working and was never going to work. But I do still believe I’ve got something here. I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to tell, over and over and over again in various guises, for years. In fact it’s only as a result of my recent contemplations that I’ve come to realise exactly how deep that truth goes. I know I’ve been writing stories with this master-slave dynamic and this shift of power for at least eight years. The theme of justice has definitely been strong too; I even had an immortal character named Justice in one of my worlds, and at least three stories with him in. So yes, this is the story I’m going to tell, and if it doesn’t work then I’ll try with something else but I’m not going to give up until I’ve given it a thorough try.

I’m finally coming to realise exactly how much work writing a book really is.

Looking forward

I guess the next steps involve stepping back. I’ve still got some re-evaluation to do, but now also I’ve got a lot of planning to do, a lot of legwork to put in so that when the time comes for me to start writing again I’ve got the confidence to start and to keep writing, and so that I’ve got something to write.

For Invisible Duke, I’ll see if I can make option 2 work, and try to work out where my story is then write like the wind to meet the deadline – of, if that doesn’t work out, take the time to get it right next month.

With Penal Colony, I’ve got to start from scratch: learn who the characters are and how they act; make sure I understand the world of the story; and consider how to get the most out of it and make my characters work for their victories so they meet their destinies when the time is right, not when I really want it to happen.

On Sherlock, writing, and cheap tricks

Having just watched the third and final episode of Sherlock season three on BBC 1, I have some rather strong feelings on a certain event in the episode as regards to writing. If you have not seen the episode yet and want to, look away now, because this post will contain spoilers.

Continue reading On Sherlock, writing, and cheap tricks

My NaNoWriMo: the antagonist group

Last time I looked at the characters who are Fiarra’s friends at the start of the story. Today I’m looking at her enemies.

The Antagonist

Known as the Governor (and not to be confused with the pre-plague official governor, who I refer to with a lower case g), the antagonist’s real (but rarely used) name is Entis. She was sent to the island innocent of the crimes she was accused of, following a grossly unfair trial even by her society’s standards. She therefore has a major grudge against the established government. Her goal is to set up an independent nation on the island, which will require the ability to repel the official governor and his soldiers when (or indeed if) they return. After failing to persuade the rest of the island to help with this goal, she decided to use force to achieve it.

Continue reading My NaNoWriMo: the antagonist group

How important is a novel character’s appearance?

It occurs to me that in yesterday’s blog post about the protagonist for my upcoming NaNo novel, I didn’t provide a physical description of Fiarra. In fact, in a lot of what I write I don’t describe or mention physical aspects of characters much, beyond gender (essential for pronouns), characters’ ages (though these are often relative to one another than absolute) and occasionally general information like height and build.

Continue reading How important is a novel character’s appearance?

A guide to writing female characters for those who struggle

Occasionally a forlorn male writer posts somewhere on the internet that he struggles with female characters – he just can’t get into their heads, he doesn’t understand women. And occasionally I read a book by a published author for whom this is clearly a problem. You know the type: where the sole female character with more than a line of dialogue is described as sexy and sexual, and sure enough eventually sleeps with the male hero.

But, to be honest, it’s very simple:

You write her like any other character.

Now, if that was all I had to say, this’d be a very short blog post. So I will expand by describing a few ways in which you can write a believable female character, with some tips on how to avoid attracting criticism of female characters.

Continue reading A guide to writing female characters for those who struggle