Tag Archives: craft

Stealing the First Chair

DM-NO On Facebook the other day I asked the question, “What story has your favorite secondary character, the one that really outshined the primary character?”. I got a whole slew of answers.

Fiona – On tv, it’d have to be Avon in Blake’s 7. He’s given all the best lines.

Nobilis – Nearly all of the secondary caracters in the Stephanie Plum novels are incredibly awesome, bug Grandma Mazur stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Rick – Game of Thrones: Tyrion and The Princess Bride: Inigo Montoya

Rebecca – The Shining

Mark – Wheel of Time. Mat was way cooler than Rand.

Chris – Probably “Sword of Truth” before Goodkind beat a dead horse with pulp.

Thomas – Lt. Dan!

Dan – Easy. Han Solo.

Wolf – (Almost) every single character in Scott Siglers Earthcore!

Steve – Brian Daley’s JINX ON A TERRAN INHERITANCE series. Alacrity Fitzhugh made those books awesome.

Chris – Harry Dresden has some of the best secondary characters ever. Bob, Susan, the Alphas, McCoy, Butters…

August – Thomas (Dresden Files) and (i)n Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy, The Fool, although he becomes a much bigger character in later trilogies.

Scott aka “Jar Jar” – Star Wars: The Phantom Menace… that Jar Jar is a dreamboat.

Dave – The Scar, by China Mieville. I love the protag, but Uther Doul is hard to beat

Laura – Hmm, That’s a hard one Book, I would have to say Deborah from the Evolution series by Starla Huchton, TV show: Gajeel from Fairy Tail. Movie: The Irishman from Braveheart.

TwoStepsFromHellsmScott aka “Jar Jar” – Seriously though: In Raymond Feist’s first four books in the Riftwar series (Magician: Apprentice; Magician: Master; Silverthorn; and Darkness at Sethanon), Jimmy The Hand shines as my favorite. He (literally) steals the show.

Timothy – Hyperion by Dan Simmons is full of amazing characters.

Thomas – There’s always john smith, John smith, John smith, John smith, John smith, John smith & John smith from JC Hutchins 7th son novels.

James – Gurney from Dune. Especially played by Sir Patrick Stewart.

That’s quite the list. As an author I’ve had that happen I’m sure. One really interesting instance is from my book Two Steps from Hell. We get to know one character somewhat posthumously. When I got the chance to write a story for Dirty Magick: New Orleans, I decided I wanted to use the same universe in my story since it took place in New Orleans. I also decided that I wanted to use this dead character, Willie Evans, as my protagonist. Only I needed him to be alive. So I placed the story in TSfH’s past. In writing this story I fell in love with him even more. That makes me feel a little bad about his ultimate fate, but we all become worm food sooner or later. And this way I get to play with him for a little longer.

The goal for any writer, I believe, is to make all of your characters so rich and so real that you could tell your stories with any of them. You don’t want to outshine your protagonist. That does happen in some of the above stories. I’m thinking of one Scott Sigler story in particular (CHANG BANG!!). It also happens, in my opinion, in Patrick McLean’s How to Succeed in Evil, where the comic foil become my favorite. Thankfully the main character just shines in a different way.

Here’s a bit from my story “Stigmata” that will give you some insight into Willie:

He took a moment to look around. The ceiling was crazy high, and the benches were gorgeous things made of wrought iron. He walked past the font of holy water and dipped his fingers in. He flicked the water into his own face, hoping it would wake him up a little. “Hello? Anyone in here?” His words echoed back to him. The place was deserted. “Maybe I can catch a few winks and go to the nearest crowded cafe.” He still wasn’t sure why or who was chasing him. It could have been nothing more than his own personal demons, but drunk or straight he had never been this paranoid without reason.
If he could just spot who it was, he’d call his sister the detective. She’d ream him out in good fashion, but then she’d listen and maybe he could crash on her couch for a day or two while she looked into it. Until he could identify them, it wouldn’t do any good. She’d chalk it up to his penchant for telling stories and ask him when he was going to get his shit together.
Halfway down the center aisle, he saw the crucifix. They were the creepiest fucking things. Christians complained about Islam being a religion of violence, but they seemed to forget that a man on a massive torture device hung in the middle of theirs. He looked closely at the artifact. He’d always thought Christ was supposed to be naked. This guy was wearing all black. He had the crown of thorns and blood smeared face Willie always heard about, but the blood looked wet in the candlelight.
When he smelled blood and shit, he realized this particular torture victim was flesh and bone and not a wooden representation. Now he had a reason to call Helen. He just had to find a phone.

So, who’s your favorite second fiddle who jumped over to the first chair?


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Change Your Defaults

default-setting An author recently said in an interview that the reason his books don’t have many females, much less female protagonists, is that he grew up in a home with only brothers and doesn’t know much about women. There was a fire storm that followed that interview. I think, as firestorms go, it was somewhat justified. The purpose of this post isn’t to talk about that, but it certainly springboards off of it.

As a writer, I consciously chose many of the things about my stories, but you’d be surprised about the unconscious choices. I’m a heterosexual, cis-gendered, white guy in my middle years. As such, it’s something of a default mode to make my point of view characters a lot like me. That choice is rarely a conscious one. I’ve put a lot of thought into it over the last couple of years though and I’ve started taking more and more risks. I’ve changed my defaults, and I hope it’s making me a better writer.

Ginnie Dare is a female teen with dark skin and kinky hair. I don’t make a big deal of her race, as it’s set in a future where my hope is that we’ve just found other things to kill each other over. Still, I’m writing from the perspective of a teenage girl, and that’s risky. I could easily make a mistake and alienate a chunk of my audience. I have a daughter, but there’s a difference in having one and being one.

Esho St. Claire is a black man in nineteenth-century Manhattan. Not only that, he’s also a first generation immigrant. In a world where slavery is still a very fresh memory, I won’t be able to avoid dealing with the issue of race as it stands in that time. And I don’t want to. Because I made the choice, I had to put some time into researching what life was like for minorities over a hundred years ago. Most of Esho’s clientele will either be coming to him because they are themselves members of a minority group or because they literally have no other choice. There’s a lot of potential for conflict there. There’s also the chance that I’ll make a whole slew of mistakes.

Melody Lakewood is the protagonist in a story I’m working on currently. Not only is she a teenage girl, she’s also got cerebral palsy. She walks with the aid of crutches and has a large family. I don’t know anything about any of that, other than what I read. I’m sweating bullets to get the story and characterization right. Given that she’s the only living character in the story, if I get her wrong there’s not much left to get right.

Changing the “defaults”, whether they’re your own writing habits or those tropes that your genre holds dear, is risky. But without risk, there’s no reward. If you follow the crowd or stick to writing what you know, it will make it harder for you to stand out and you might stagnate as a creator. Admitting to ignorance is fine, and it’s something I have to do nearly every day. Being willing to stay in that state, unwilling to push yourself or your readers outside of the comfort zones we all have, is to me unacceptable.

What safety net are you using as a creator? What are your default settings and how are you changing them?


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Gender In Writing

A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1 I’ve been studying both French and Spanish over the last few months. I was fluent in French at one point and am working to regain that. I’ve never studied Spanish, but I’m finding that the dribs and drabs I’ve picked up over the years is leaking out of my brain and gaining flesh as I study. I’m using a combination of the Duolingo app/website and the podcasts produced by Radio Lingua.

One thing this study has reminded me of is the concept of gendered nouns (regardless of whether or not the physical object has a gender), and the fact that both languages change the spelling of adjectives based on the gender of that noun they describe. I wondered if that was changing at all in practice the way that it is, to a lesser degree, in English. While we don’t have gendred nouns per se, I can’t help but think how I’ve gone from saying “fireman” to “fire fighter” and “policeman” to “police officer”. There’s another change in usage that I’ve noticed. Certain masculine words like “waiter” are supplanting their feminine versions entirely, in spite of efforts to create words like “waitron“. Then there’s the question of pronouns. All three languages I speak have “him” and “her”, but the only gender neutral term I know of is the English word “it”.

The more I read when it comes to gender issues and the use of descriptors like cis-gendred and genderqueer to name but two that are new to me, the more I wonder if this neutrality trend is good or bad (or neither). As someone who writes some science fiction, I think about how to use language like this in my stories. It’s somewhat pointless to try and be accurate about how we’ll speak in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. No one can be sure how language will evolve in the coming decades. We only know that it will. Still, it’s fun to think about. Then there’s the matter of respect for the communities that use those terms currently.

Given the choice between using words that are gender neutral, gender specific, or applying the current gender specific masculine (or feminine) term to the broader group; how do you address that in your writing? Does that depend on your genre and audience, or do you have a rule that applies to all of your writing?

“A TransGender-Symbol Plain1”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1.png#mediaviewer/File:A_TransGender-Symbol_Plain1.png

Who Do You Write For? Who, who? Who who?

Glasses Hang I have a friend who actually writes for a living (I have a few of those actually). This particular person writes for a game company. I’d be wrong if I told you that didn’t make me a little jealous, but that’s a WHOLE ‘NOTHER post. So he says on Facebook “One of the most oppressive yet necessary aspects of writing fiction, at least for me, is the constant awareness that I am writing for other people.” That made me raise an eyebrow.

One thing I have often been told is, you need to write for yourself. You need to create what you think is cool/neat-o/awesome. “To thine own self be true”. Etc. There’s some truth to that, but upon further questioning my friend, he said “Because, you see, if I’m writing just for myself, I have nothing to say that I don’t already know. So basically I have to think about other people actually reading my stuff if I am going to write in the first place.”

Setting aside for the moment whether or not you agree with that as a motivation for writing, this is actually good advice when you talk about the craft of writing. One issue I’ve had pop up time and again in my rough drafts is my brain taking short cuts. I know what’s supposed to happen and where and when (sometimes anyway). Trouble is, not all of those things make it on to the page. For example, in the Ginnie Dare sequel I mentioned the Perry-Gamblin drive fairly early on, without saying what that is. Part of my brain assumed that the reader would know that that was the name for the FTL drive (and in that there’s an assumption that you would know what “FTL” means). My editor, angelic demon spawn that she is, was quick to point out that I needed to clarify. That aspect alone makes my friend’s post worthwhile.

This is why you often get the advice “let your writing breathe”. You need to set aside your work long enough so that you come to it with fresh eyes. Then hopefully you’ll catch things like that. You need to read this like you’re a complete stranger to any and all most of the ideas contained within. Since that’s not completely at all possible, you need to at least get a beta reader involved. It may even be worthwhile to get someone who doesn’t read in that genre to check it out. Their unfamiliarity with the tropes may lead to changes that make your fiction more accessible.

Now, on to what I think he really meant. The purpose of his writing a story is so that someone else can read it. I grok that after thinking about it. As someone with a rich imagination, I often tell myself stories that no one else gets to see. When I get an idea that I want to share, I have to write it down to do it justice. In other words, I’m writing for other people. Am I also writing for myself? Sure. I get pleasure from the act of writing. Taking my thoughts and putting them on paper or LCD screen can help me flesh them out. In fact there are a few stories in electronic files that I’ve written almost solely for me. I may or may not ever share them. I wrote them as either an experiment or an exercise, and thus those are only for my benefit. If I ever released those I would have to go through them and at least re-write them for someone else.

So here’s the Q&A – Who do you write for and why do you write? What do you think of my friend’s notions?

Watch Your Language

I don’t read or listen to a lot of fantasy or historical fiction, but two things I consumed recently caught my interest. I just finished listening to The Ballad of Iron Percy and I’ve been watching Sleepy Hollow religiously. Both had instances where I wondered, “Would a character from that time period, or a similar time period, speak in that way?”

In the case of Iron Percy, the character of Elise Aranoun had what struck me as a very modern way of speaking. I don’t remember any idioms right off the top of my head, but more than once I thought about her manner of speech. Granted, the world it takes place in is completely fictional. That should give the author some freedom. More on that freedom in a bit.

Sleepy Hollow is more of a bit of historical fiction. Ichabod Crane awakens from a two century long nap and has no problem understanding or being understood. That’s not a big issue. He does need to be told about modern idioms, which is good, but while I know our language hasn’t changed a gret deal in the main points over the last two hundred years, I would think it would be a little more challenging. In a recent episode I was pleased that they had someone who spoke Middle English.

So, in a purely fantasy setting, where the world resembles in some fashion our own medieval times, how important is it for the author to use a more archaic form of English for speech, or at least to avoid modern phrases? I could see using the argument that what we’re getting is perhaps a “translation” of the happenings in the native language. The same would be true of historical fiction from a non-modern or non-English period. What do you think?

Moving Ass – Literarily Speaking

Dan Sawyer laid down a challenge back in June of this year. He called it The Great Ass-Moving Experiment. He wanted to get off his backside and send his written works out to publishers and he wanted to take some people with him, make it interesting.

Here’s the proposition:

We’ll go from now till the end of the year (or perhaps we should go to next Balticon?). Everyone bets $10. Every story we submit gets 3 points. Every novel proposal we send in gets 4 points. Every nonfiction submission/query gets 1 point. Every sale – of any fiction – gets 8 points. Every sale of nonfiction gets 3 points. Any sale that pays money and has a contract counts. Non-paying and/or clickthru and/or under-the-table markets do not count.

At the end of the year, the person with the most points wins the pool (which will operate on the honor system – those of us that lose will paypal our $10 to the winner).

I, and several other authors, took him up on it. Recently he skipped way ahead and I wanted to know how he did it, since it looked like he was bending “the rules”. (Not the rules of his game, the rules of the publishers’ game.) I wanted to know why and this conversation resulted.

If you want to know how to move your ass, give it a listen. You should also check out the Association’s website too.

Sympathetic vs. Interesting Protagonist

In the latest feedback episode of the Cybrosis podcast novel an email I sent sparked a conversation about writing your protagonist as sympathetic vs. interesting and the challenges therein.

In my own writing I tend to try and make my main characters likable (or at least sympathetic/understandable). I’m not necessarily looking to make someone who you’d want to go out and have a drink with, but I want them to at least have something appealing about them. If you can’t like them then you should at least be able to say “I can see how they got there”. I want you to want to know them better or at least care about them and what they’re going through.

When they were talking about characters that are more interesting than likable/sympathetic, they seem to fall into talking about the ones that you love to hate/hate to love. I find Cyris, P.C.’s protagonist, to fall more into this category. While not the most interesting character in the story, she is interesting and that does save her and the story. It sounds like he’ll be transitioning her into a more sympathetic character as the novel progresses. That will be a nice trick if he can pull it off. I say that, not because I doubt P.C.’s skill, but because making that change without losing who you’ve built her to be in the course of one novel would seem to be quite the challenge.

So, sympathetic or not, your main character has to be interesting. As I said, I want my protagonists to be both interesting and sympathetic and I think that’s what most writers are really shooting for and what most audiences want to see. On the other hand, writing/watching anti-heroes or real shady characters can be a lot of fun. But if you go that route, the more unlikable they are the more interesting they have to be to strike a balance.

Some examples of unlikable, but interesting protags from my tweet stream are Grendel, Thomas Covenant (yes!), Sandman, Perry Dawsey (yes and yes!), Tony Soprano, Dexter, Francis Urqhart, Cal Mcaffrey. Looking at that list, the ones I’m familiar with, definitely show that to take the real chumps/rotten apples and maintain your audience’s interest in them you definitely need to make them interesting. I recently wrote a short story for Great Hites and I’m not sure which camp Bogdan falls into. (Maybe you can give it a read and tell me?) I don’t really like him or what he stands for, but I can at least see why he is what he is and feel sorry for him. My hope is that that tension makes him interesting even if you hate him.

So what’s your experience here? Can you think of some (un)sympathetic protags that weren’t interesting enough to save them? How could they have been improved?