Monday Challenge: That’s What She Said

Yup.

I’m putting words in someone’s mouth. Again.

Just another part of the job, along with making floor plans for places that don’t exist and getting on a government watch list with every Google search. Writing fiction is telling someone else’s story in our words. Ever wonder how much of it we get right? Or, more interestingly, how much of it we get wrong?

Readers of Stephen King’s novella collection Different Seasons will remember this motto: “It is the tale, not he who tells it.” But the teller has their part to play as well. After all, what is Nabokov’s Lolita without its fundamentally untrustworthy narrator? And I bet Vader had a different take on the lava fight than Obi-Wan.* There’s more than one side to every story, certainly, but there’s also the difference between the events as they happened and the story that is told.

Hell, we don’t even have to go that far afield. You mom probably tells the stories of your youth differently than you do. How often have you interrupted a friend who was attempting to tell a story of which you are a part? That’s not how it happened, you say. Let me tell it.Here’s how it really went…

And who’s right?

Hard to say, without a memory machine. And even then, things are open to interpretation. Which is part of the fun.

Monday Challenge, should you choose to accept it: write a character telling someone else’s story. How well do they do it? Do they get it right? Do they even try? Are they trying to make themselves look good at someone else’s expense? Or are they just doing the best they can?

*Did anyone else find that part super fucking weird? “Oh hey, you’re terribly injured and in a lot of pain. Think I’ll leave you here to die slowly. And I’m the good guy!”

Muffin Basket From The Evil Queen: Creating Characters With Depth

Go ahead. Try one.

In most stories, there are good guys and bad guys, and you can tell who is who. The difference might be fine–you might be choosing between two kinds of asshole*–but you can usually tell who you should be going for. Good versus evil.

But good and evil aren’t that far apart, especially when it comes to people.

I prefer to think of good and evil as a progression. A sort of line with nauseatingly good angels on one side and mindlessly boring devils on the other. Where your characters sit on this line is largely due to their actions, but, and this is important, their position is not static.

Fact: good characters do evil things. For all kinds of reasons. Maybe they think they’re doing the right thing. Maybe they think the ends justify the means. Maybe the good thing is just so hard, so they slip and take the easy way out. Real people do this all the time, so why wouldn’t characters?

Likewise, evil characters do good things. Sometimes it’s to maintain an image. Sometimes it’s to fool someone. But sometimes they do a good thing because they want to.

Characters with depth slide back and forth along the line of good and evil. They might be mostly one or the other, but they’re not all one or the other. The good prince strikes out in a moment of jealousy. The evil queen aids a quest because the adventurers remind her of her friends from childhood.

If you want your characters to have depth–to be believable, because there’s no one out there who makes the right choice every single fucking time–then slide them back and forth along that line. Make their choices count. Give them consequences. They can come back to their core alignment, but it should be a choice, not a given.

Because static characters are boring characters, and, in fiction, nothing is worse than boring characters.

*Which I’ve never felt is a great story. I love a good anti-hero, especially when they’re contrasted with other characters, but having everyone be a dyed-in-the-wool bastard out only for themselves is boring. And interestingly, I’ve never read the reverse: a story where all the sides have good points and you don’t want anyone to lose.

 

Monday Challenge: No One Rides For Free

You can get a lift, but it’ll cost you.

Let’s talk about compromises.

Your characters, if they do anything interesting at all*, will sooner or later have to make deals with other characters. And those other characters will want things in return. Things that your character might not want to give. But, if an agreement is to be reached, they will. Or they won’t, and there’s no deal.

This is about cost. As the old saying goes, ass, gas, or grass: no one rides for free.

It’s especially true in fiction. If conflict is the essence of story, then why make things easy for your protagonist? Don’t give them a free ride. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly, anyone who gets things too easily is either boring or hated. Either way, not protagonist material.

What is your character willing to pay in order to get something? What kind of deal will they make? And with whom? Are they sure they can trust that person? And, if they’re not, then why are they making the deal?

Monday Challenge, kiddies: Write someone making a deal at great personal cost. What kind of deal, what kind of cost? Hey, that’s your call. You expect me to do everything around here?

Now, go write.

*And if they don’t, then, seriously, why are you writing about them?

Monday Challenge: Eye/Nose/Sensing Tentacle of the Beholder

The object of the game was to make the Beholder realize it was beautiful just the way it was.

Ever get weirdly thoughtful about how your cat sees you?

No, I’m not high.

I’ll back up a little.

I was doing some reading the other day on sensory perception. How it differs across species. And across time; we don’t see things the way our ancestors do, and I’m talking about more than having to put up with Bieber’s smug, punchable face sprayed across every magazine I pass. The Ancient Greeks saw colours differently than we do because of a difference in the eye’s ability to perceive; hence Homer’s description of the “wine-dark sea”.

Some scientists believe that it also differs across gender–women see more shades of colours than men, probably due to genetic selection for finding food–and, possibly, across individuals. There’s no guarantee that what I perceive is the same as what you do, even though we might put the same name on it.

It’s about this point that things start to devolve into the kind of thoughts one normally gets from the cataclysmically stoned.

However, for the sober writer*, the questions bear some interesting fruit. Especially for the speculative fiction writer, which usually has some kind of non-human being to deal with. How does that race of aliens see us? Do unicorns see into the magical spectrum? What does the sentient magical sword perceive? What does it think of this scabbard? Is it so last season?

Monday Challenge: write about beauty from the point of view of a non-human being. How would their perception differ from ours? What would they find attractive? A sentient crow, for example, would think more about air currents and thermal lift than we do, and less about traffic. To it, beauty might be movement. A plant-based being would perceive light more completely, so their idea of beauty would take into account spectrums for which we have no words. Metallic creatures might adjust to resonating frequencies, and read their environment in vibrations, leading to the development of the phrase, “Will you listen to the ass on that one?”

Try not to be lazy. If you use another humanoid character, try to make something very different. Infrared vision, extra senses, alien physiology. Stretch yourself. Expand your mind.

And remember that beauty is often in the tentacle of the beholder.

*Contradiction in terms, right? Right? (silence) …I’ll show myself out.

Guest Post–Factory Defaults: On Character Motivation

No, you’re the one being irrational!

[As a special feature for the time I’m on vacation, Bare Knuckle Writer is bringing you Guest Posts by random mental patients friends of mine. Be nice to them.]

The other day one of my characters said something stupid. Not stupid like ‘dude, read a book’ but stupid like ‘dude, stop systematically destroying every good thing in your life.’ Thing was, the character saying it was not a stupid man; he was in fact highly intelligent, and compassionate enough to care about hurting the person to whom he was speaking. So why did he still say something he knew would be a painful verbal blow to a man he loved?

Because, particularly in the heat of the moment, we (meaning humans) don’t act intellectually; we act reactively. And our reactions are based not on logic and reason but on habit and compulsion.

Most of us are motivated at least somewhat by noble aims and ideals we strive towards but, for my money, I say those motivations take a back seat to the things more fervently fuelling us: the wants, fears and world view that are a product of every moment of experience preceding this one. If this wasn’t true, any of us that have ever decided we’d like to get into better shape would just go to the gym, as opposed to partaking in daily internal negotiations that somehow end up with us eating nachos and watching Netflix instead. Any of us that have longed to be in a loving relationship would seek one out enthusiastically, as opposed to being too wary to ask that girl out because what if she says ‘no’ and even if she says ‘yes’ initially every moment afterward is just another opportunity to get hurt as badly as you did last time.

We are less graceful than reason. We bottle things up when we should let them out, and we lie when we should speak honestly. We snap at people we love and we drink when we swore the last one would be our last. We head down roads we know will lead to folly.

Writing believable (and interesting) characters means making them just as flawed and prone to poor choices as ourselves. But here’s the catch: They need to have reasons for making those poor choices. They can be terrible reasons, but they must make sense for your character, even if that sense falls to shit when examined anywhere outside of their psyche. A psyche that will, again, be the sum of their collected experience.

So an intelligent and compassionate character can choose to rip into his lover because, in his youth, every person he ever loved was stolen from him in an act of brutal violence. Aside from leaving him obsessed with becoming stronger (so that never happens again) the experience has, on a deeper level, left him terrified of the pain of both loss and survivor’s guilt. So when the man he loves expresses reasonable disapproval of even a minor infraction, his reaction is not to open a patient and reasonable dialogue to work towards solution, but to lash out, and declare he never cared to begin with. Because, if he can convince himself of that, maybe he won’t have to experience the pain of loss and guilt all over again.

By no means does this mean every moment of back story for every player that appears need be explained in your story. But even if not one single shred of flashback ever makes it into your pages, having the shit sorted in your head matters. Knowing your character’s past and factory defaults lends them a consistency that readers will pick up on, even if that is a consistency to be inconsistent. Believe me when I say it shows if you just lend motivations at random because it suits your plot outline.

Because here’s the thing: when you put the time into breathing complex life into your characters, not only will they act in ways they didn’t intend to, they’ll act in ways you didn’t intend them to. Their dialogue will run away from you. They’ll fight, when you expected them to run. They will walk up to a situation you have crafted for them, cross their arms, look you square in the eye and declare ‘No. This is not me. I don’t do this thing.’ And then you can ask them why and they’ll tell you all about that thing that happened in the dark basement of their brother’s pub when they were sixteen and you’ll start wondering if maybe you should create a therapist for them because that shit is fucked up, yo.

Much like you continue to learn about your friends (and enemies) the longer you know them, so it will (or should) be with your characters. Character creation is an ongoing dialogue between yourself and the imaginary people in your head.

And people wonder why writers drink.

Nomadic since the summer of 2007, Krys C is a former traveling tattooist and current aspiring pro fighter. Her wandering has thus far brought her to somewhere between 26 and 31 countries, depending on your politics. She occasionally writes things at The Road To Ithaca.

All The Feels: Making Character Deaths Count

Here lies old Skully Face. He was a skully face.

Here’s a familiar story:

Plot, plot, plot, character does something, plot, plotty plot plot, character does something else, plot, character dies and it’s so fucking tragic. Why can’t you see how tragic this is?!?

Except that it’s not tragic. Because, according to my super-technical summary up there, that character didn’t do much of anything. The plot did stuff, but the character was mostly just along for the ride. They were driven, not driving.

I call this the bystander effect. Too often characters in stories that die are not important. They were either plot devices or someone with so little impact on the other characters that they might as well have had a sign around their neck reading I exist only to provide the protagonist with a tearful moment. If you’re alert, you can see the death coming because that character serves no other purpose.

It’s no good just telling people that an event is tragic. No one likes being led around by the nose. And your audience is smart. They will know when they are being forcibly led, and they will resent you for it like kids being guilt tripped into eating their vegetables by Mom’s descriptions of starving people. And then they stop reading.

Here’s how you make a character’s death count: make them an actual character. They should do things with other characters that have emotional weight. They should have an affect on the world around them. They shouldn’t just be a Feels Delivery System from central casting.

There are shorthands you can use for this–mostly family relationships–but be careful. You might think that your protagonist’s brother dying is a big deal, but unless he had something to do he might as well be a random pigeon that got knocked out the sky. It’s got a hell of a lot more impact if you show your protagonist’s older brother looking out for her and then dying. Then she has to carry the weight of his death as well as the fear that no one can help her now. It makes her hesitate before getting close to people because he already sacrificed himself to save her and why does everyone she love die?

All the feels. Just because her brother was a person with a real impact on her life instead of a random bystander wearing a tag that said “main character’s brother who dies conveniently lolz”.

Remember: every character in a fully realized world is the protagonist of their own tale. They have things that they want. So they will interact with your protagonist with that in mind. They’ll try to move things in their direction. There should be the sense that, if you suddenly stopped following the main character and started following this other guy, the story would not grind to a halt. It might be a different story–and in the case of Brother, likely a shorter story*–but it would still be a story.

Don’t tell me to feel. Make me feel by giving me a reason. And I’ll be with you until the closing pages.

*Also a tragedy.

Meaningful Explosions: How To Get The Reader’s Attention

THE FUTURE IS WRITTEN ON YOUR INSIDES.

If there is a piece of writing advice that is taken too fucking literally–aside from ‘write what you know’–it’s ‘make something exciting happen on the first page.’ You know what that means? That means I’ve read far too many books–and seen far too many movies, because apparently everyone gets their advice from the same place–over the last little while that start with something actually exploding.

This is a problem.

Now, look: I like explosions as much as the next guy. More, probably. And I get that you want to grab the reader’s attention. But having some random tart push a button and explode a mail box doesn’t get my attention. Because, without at least a little context, I don’t give a fuck. For all I know, that’s how you send mail in her world.*

Random explosions, surprise gun fights, being dropped into the middle of a car chase–these are all exciting things. But I could turn on the news and see that shit. Hell, if I turn on Fox News I can get it 24/7, with a side order of wharrrrgarbl. But that doesn’t mean it’s compelling. And it’s a little insulting to your audience to assume that the only way they can be tethered to a story is by having something spontaneous combust.

What I need is story. I need questions. I need things that give me a reason to keep reading. And, sorry to say, explosions are not often it.

You could argue that the explosion provides a question: why the hell did she blow up the mail box? But that’s not a very interesting one. We can do better.

Try this on for size: we see the bomber, feel her nervousness, see the sweat beading on her lip. And she pushes the button. Mail box gets blown to mail box heaven**. Pieces of letters and bills and cards and flyers flutter down from the sky.

And then, instead of running away, the bomber goes toward it and starts snatching handfuls of the mail confetti from the air. Words. Single letters. A phone number, or pieces of one. As sirens approach in the distance, she hunches over on the sidewalk and starts putting the random pieces she collected into some kind of order, reading it like the old shamans would read the future in entrails. Because this is the only way she can find out what she needs to know before it’s too late.

Better, right?

This takes up about the same amount of real estate on the page as just an explosion, so you’re not slowing anything down. And you open up so many more possibilities for questions. The question is no longer why did she destroy the mail box? The question is What is she trying to find out? Or maybe Why does she think she can read the entrails of a mail box? And my personal favourite: Can she?

The difference between ‘things happen’ and ‘everything explodes’ is meaning. I don’t want random explosions. I want meaningful explosions.*** Or at least explosions that hint at meaning.

And, if in doubt, leave out the explosion altogether, and just go with the meaning.

*Side note: I’d mail more letters if this were the case.

**Where all addresses are written clearly with full postal codes, and no one ever tips them over.

***’Meaningful Explosions’ will be the name of my band.

 

Livin’ In A Material World: Characters and Objects

You want a signature object? Try not thinking of this as a Sherlock Holmes hat.

I’m this close to buying a pendant off Etsy because it’s very much like something one of my characters wears. In fact, at this point, it’s damn near identical, because when I saw this version, the one in my book subtly changed to match it. It was too perfect for the character, and now I’m trying to decide if I want a copy of my own to wear while writing about this guy kicking ass and taking names.*

Why? Because things are important.

You can make this as materialistic as you want, but humans place a lot of stock in things. Tools. Symbols. Whether they’re things we need to do our jobs or just things that make us feel like us, things are a part of how we see ourselves and how others see us. A surprising amount of people have a signature item, something that’s always with them and without which they would feel a little…off. Maybe you’re that guy who always wears big leather boots, or has a huge collection of comic book t-shirts**. Maybe you’re that lady who loves red lipstick.*** Or you could be that person with the really cool glasses that you wear all the time. Nor does the item have to be fashion-related. It could be a holy symbol you wear beneath your clothes, or your lucky underpants. It could be a book.

All you armchair philosophers out there who are getting ready to tell me that those things don’t make us who we are…I know they don’t. Because that’s ass-backwards. They’re a physical manifestation of who we are, and who we want the world to think we are. Inside becoming outside.

Characters are the same. They have symbols. Things that they always have with them, that in a small way helps them feel like themselves. So if you really want to get inside their skin…think about that stuff. Give them tokens. Pieces of their history that they carry around, readable to anyone who knows the code. The guy who owns that necklace I’m thinking about buying? He’s had it since he was thirteen, when he killed something to get the pieces of the pendant. The part-time sheriff of his piss-ant little one horse town hammered it together for him so he wouldn’t forget. And he never has.

So, turn out your character’s pockets. Check their clothes and their bags. What are they carrying that’s theirs in more ways than just possession? What defines them, in their own eyes or in the eyes of others?

Figure that out, and you’ll know more about them.

*Ah, who am I kidding? I know I’m going to order this.
**Bonus fact: I am both these guys.
***I’m also this lady.

The Power Of Hate: Making Monsters

You wanna get a drink after we’re done burning this place down?

The opposite of the hero is not the villain*. It is the monster.

The hero and the villain are often flip sides of the same coin. One dark and one light, they nevertheless have a connection. A common background, a common cause, a shared set of ideals…the villain has something of the hero’s, just twisted.

The monster, however, is a different beast altogether. They can sometimes be the villain, but not always; sometimes they’re an associate or a secondary villain, sometimes they’re a henchman** who lurks in the corner, exuding menace like Axe Body Spray at a junior high dance. Whoever they are, wherever they are, they are the one who does the unthinkable: sets fire to the house with the kids still inside, butchers the village even after they collected the taxes, lets the virulent toxin loose in the air recycling systems of the old folk’s space station. The monster goes toward evil—and then goes a step further.

If you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie where there was a bad guy…and then the guy that you really hated, you’ve met the monster.

Sometimes the villain and the monster are the same person. One memorable Stephen King book I read had the villain, very early on in the book, beat a dog to death because it tore his pants. It was a horrifying act, clearly defining that man as both the villain and a monster. Heroes are often said to have a ‘Save the Cat’ moment—the point in the story where they, literally or figuratively, save a cat from a burning building because they’re the hero, god damn it. Monsters can have the opposite: a ‘Kick the Cat’ moment. Or, in this case, kick the dog. The point where they hurt someone because they can.

To take a pop culture reference: in the Harry Potter series***, Voldemort is the villain, hands down. But Bellatrix Lestrange is the monster. [Spoilers coming, though if you haven’t read the books or seen the movies by now, I doubt you’re going to, so quit your fucking complaining.] She kills Sirius, tortures Hermione, and is not only responsible for the worst crime of the entire series, but gloats about it. The characters fear Voldemort; they hate Bellatrix.

And that’s the point of the monster: to make us hate. It’s an emotional investment in the story. Just like the characters we love, the ones we hate draw us in. Some villains we can understand, or even empathize with, despite their actions. But not these guys. We just want them to die. Or, at the very least, be confined to the deepest, darkest prison imaginable with no hope of parole. They become the lightning rod for our desire for revenge and we want to see them go the fuck down.

Even better: because of their nature, we can safely hate them. They have no hope of redemption. There is no saving the monsters.

Nor does there need to be. Because there’s nothing that gets your audience going like the character they love to hate.

*Or not always. Read the rest of the post, ding bat.
**Women are significantly underrepresented in the henching fields.
***Using this one because I’m reading it again.

I Heart Sketch Bags: Writing Broken Characters

Totally not sketchy.

Everyone I like is a sketch bag.

Not my friends—at least, not all of them. Friends, you know who among you is a sketch bag, and rest assured if I haven’t beaten you with a sock full of nickels yet I probably find it endearing—but my fictional characters. Some people gravitate towards the Captain Americas and Supermen of the fictional world.* I am not one of them.

No, give me your broken women and fucked-up men, your people that fall down over and over again. Give me the ones that fail.

It’s a little too fucking trite to say that I like those characters because they remind me of myself. It’s a little too small, as well, because the truth is that they remind me of people. Because people mess up so much. The ability to fail—to fuck up, to make bad choices, to identify the right choice but still make the wrong one—is a compelling character trait because it reminds us of ourselves and everyone we know. We’re all a mess, in some way or another, so characters that reflect that are more believable.

But there’s a flip side to the sketch bag character coin, and it has a name: redemption.

We need characters that fuck up because we need to them to redeem themselves. You can’t redeem someone who’s already perfect. They need to be damaged before they can be fixed. And they have to fix themselves. It can’t be a case of some other character swooping in to solve the problem. That is annoying as hell and makes me want to set the book in which it occurs on fire. No, whatever is messed up, they have to untangle that ball of yarn on their own. Other characters can help, offer advice, maybe supply that crucial piece of the puzzle when it’s needed. But in the end, the character has to choose.

A compelling fucked-up character is one that makes the wrong choices a lot, but when it comes down to the wire, they choose right. Even if it hurts them.

This may result in new problems and emotional baggage and scars. That’s fine; change isn’t always good. But the character should be moving. Fuck ups who remain fuck ups in the same way are boring. Fuck ups who change are not only interesting, they are believable. And, hey, like the rest of us, they can always try again.

*Even in the RPGs I play, I’ve only ever played a lawful good/principled/fill in your system’s term for the quintessential Good Guy here character once; it was in a short campaign and I mostly played it for the lols.