Characters of Chaos: Crafting Responses to a Crumbling World

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Late last month, right before I took my trip to Las Vegas, I hit a milestone in my life.  I turned 30 years old.

I’ve never been someone who’s been that obsessed with my age.  People generally think I’m older than I am – the copious amounts of gray hair might have something to do with it – and I’ve always been perfectly happy to let them.

Being young is no fun.  Your opinions are dismissed and your experiences trivialized.  You don’t get any discounts on stuff between the time you forfeit your student ID and the time you join AARP.  Strangers think they can tell you what you should or should not be doing at your age, and give you unsolicited advice about a future that looks absolutely terrifying at the best of times (thanks, Baby Boomers).

I’ve always wanted to be a grown-up. I’ve always wanted to do grown-up things like buy small home appliances and have a reason to hand out business cards.  My teenage years were tough, and my 20s were even tougher – I’m not that sorry to leave them behind.

One of the (many) reasons why I struggled with my youth was my absolute faith in institutions.  I was raised to respect authority, which is a good thing, but I also read way, way too many Victorian-era novels that also made me afraid of it.

Pro tip: don’t let your seven-year-olds read abridged versions of Dickens unless you want them to grow up with an unshakable fear of getting caned for speaking out of turn.

Teachers and professors, doctors, bosses, older colleagues or peers, rules and regulations – they were all infallible.  They all said and did things for a reason.  A good reason.  A reason that must have been thought about and examined and tested and passed down as the wisdom of the ages.  And I, young and naïve and painfully sheltered, must be the one who was getting it wrong.

The world had a lot to teach me, but not in the way that I first thought.  The more I learned about institutions and authorities and experts, the more I realized that the people in charge were winging it almost as much as I was.

Not all rules exist for a reason.  Saying something with confidence doesn’t make it correct.  Even if you read it on the internet, it may not actually be true.

That can be a pretty big shock to someone who used to plan out her birthday party schedules down to the minute and is still deeply uncomfortable with the idea that anyone would call a college professor by her first name.

I like order, and I like feeling as if things make sense.  I like institutions, and evidence-based decision making, and I like data.  I don’t like that the world is, fundamentally, an unstoppable whirlwind of pain, loneliness, confusion, and chaos.  I’d rather believe that someone out there knows what they’re doing, and that there’s a possibility that I might be able to do the same thing.

The notion that things happen for a reason – or happen according to reason – is a comforting one.  It gives us a sense of belonging and purpose, and cushions our shortcomings when something goes awry.  A black and white existence is a simple one.  Simple can be good.

And that’s where you start a fantasy novel.  In a world that makes sense.

Whether it’s on the family homestead with your adolescent hero or in the halls of a king presiding over a golden age of peace, most stories start at the breaking point, when the good king dies and leaves his country without an heir, the princess realizes that her intended is a traitor, or the Sherriff’s men destroy the village and leave shattered innocence in their wake.

The beginning of a good story rips away those false foundations of false surety and throws the main character into an unfamiliar and dangerous world.

A good character is built on how he or she responds to that.  And that is, fundamentally, what all stories boil down to.  What do people do when faced with bad things?

I think we’ve all seen the charts that divide characters by the influence that they exert on the world.  Chaotic neutral, lawful good, true neutral, lawful evil: this is a great way to codify how they impact the plot.

But it doesn’t specifically show why they act that way.  What makes them believe that there is good in the world?  That people are fundamentally bad?  That there is a god(s), or that there isn’t?  To do that, we have to move beyond the basics and take a deeper look at their response to the realization (or lack thereof) that the universe is a big, scary, chaotic, anarchic place.

So here are a few character archetypes I’ve come up with based on their response to chaos.

The justifiers

The ingénues

“Ignorance is bliss” would be the motto of these characters, if they even knew they were being ignorant.  Children too young to form rational thoughts and spoiled pets are the only ones who can really fit into this category.  Someone who has never experienced any sort of unpleasantness, conflict, or misfortune is rare, and usually unbelievable.  Most characters who seem this innocent are either hiding something or willfully ignoring something, which tends to put them in one or both of the next two categories.

The faith-driven

Faith is a powerful force for a whole lot of people.  Entire societies are built on it.  Entire eras have revolved around it, and it’s one of those basic tenets of pre-modern societies that play a major role in the fantasy world.

Faith-driven people believe that there is a greater force watching over them, guiding them, and laying out the rules.  They may believe that there is chaos in the world, but it is often the work of a single great adversary (the devil or other dark spirit).  Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is usually unknowable.

While this can be frustrating to those who think differently, it can be a great source of comfort to the faith-driven, who may look beyond the suffering of the mortal worlds towards the promises of a glorious afterlife.

Faith-driven people can often have a lot of experience with pain, poverty, grief, stunted freedom, and/or helplessness.  Their choice to believe that there is a greater purpose – that happiness is achievable and the chaos can be conquered by their deity – is how they cope with that.

The law-driven

Law-driven characters also turn to an external concept to find comfort and make sense of their world.  They may also have strong faith in a deity, but their primary god is duty and honor.  They may be strongly attached to a monarch or other figure of authority, or they may make the abstract concept of “the law” or “the right thing to do” into their primary motivator.

They may believe in adhering to this code of ethics no matter what the consequences, and might think that they will be rewarded for loyalty and honor in the long run, even if it’s in the afterlife.  On the flip side, they could be cowardly and blindly obedient, unable to reason for themselves.

They can be stubbornly rigid in their view of how things should be, which can make them unpopular, or they can be genuinely eager to make the world a better place.  They believe in solutions of one kind or another, and they want to fix things according to their own notions of right and wrong.

A subset of the justifier archetype is the love-driven character.  They may include elements of both the law-driven and faith-driven person, but their object of orientation is a romantic relationship.

The observers

The jaded

This is where a lot of modern heroes and heroines live, I think, since moral ambiguity is all the rage these days.

The jaded are those who might see the chaos, recognize it exists, but just try to do their best to get on with their lives.  They are neither strongly faith-driven nor overly concerned with adhering to the precepts of another person.  They are not actively evil, but they are generally not spotlessly good, either. They might believe in right and wrong, but they can fall on either side of the line – or ignore the line all together.

They might rely strongly on luck, happenstance, or good fortune to explain why they haven’t been totally annihilated just yet.

Whether they’re soldiers of fortune, fallen angels, wandering samurai, or disgraced civil servants, these are people who have probably tried to follow the herd, but have failed to find fulfilment or success in a normal life.

They can be interesting characters, and they may claim that they hold no allegiance to anyone other than themselves, but at the end of the day, they have to make a choice or a sacrifice that sticks them on one side of the good/evil divide, and could determine the outcome of the story.

The opt-out

Those who don’t make the choice – or made the wrong one and want to lament about it for a few pages so your main character will learn from the mistake – might fall into this category.  These are your hermits, your mad monks, your wandering wise women, and your myopic scientists.  They might care about the chaos, but only because it’s statically significant.

Honestly, these characters aren’t really that interesting on their own.  They may serve to give help, information, exposition, or insight to the main character, and they make great plot points but people who don’t make choices don’t have much of a reason to be a sustained player in the story.  If you rely too heavily on these people to drive your plot or provide a running commentary, it’s going to end up pretty weak.

The manipulators

The puppeteers

Now we get to the fun part.  The bad guys.  These are the people who know the world is going to hell in a handbasket and love every minute of it.

The puppeteers are primarily concerned with manipulating the chaos for their own selfish advantage.  The scheming courtier; the traitorous servant; the lieutenant who will stop at nothing to drive the hero to madness.  The one with the evil plan that may or may not get away from him.  The second-in-command to the really big boss who hopes his nefarious activities will net him some coveted reward.

These are great supporting characters, but when it comes down to it, the puppeteers usually find that their own strings are being held by someone even worse than they are…

The masters of darkness

…like the pure evil of the master of darkness.  Now you’ve got your dark wizards, your warlords, your Queens of the Underworld, and your dastardly masterminds.  These are people to beat.  They don’t just accept that there is misery and evil in the world – they want to set it free to consume all that is good and holy just because they like to watch things burn.

Adding nuance to these characters can sometimes seem difficult, especially since they often only exist just to give your hero something to do with his life.  But if you think about them in terms of input in addition to output, you can create a backstory that is a little more elegant than just saying, “Well, someone has to be the bad guy.”

The agents of entropy

On the far end of the scale is the agent of entropy.  These are not evil characters, exactly.  They just exist to mess things up.  The meddling mother-in-law, the trickster god, the unlucky peasant pushed out of the way of the prince’s runaway horse by the hapless heroine.

Sometimes these are quick encounters that serve only to move the plot forward.  But other times they are a force to be reckoned with.  A best friend with a penchant for getting in trouble after a night out isn’t just a one-and-done plot device.  The whole story could be about the main character wrestling with the boundaries of friendship, or getting deeper into some kind of mess when trying to fix whatever their friend broke.

Entropy is required to drive the story forward to its crisis point, and these characters often cut across other archetypes as they move the plot along.  I think these can actually be really interesting, especially as someone who doesn’t really understand people who love chaos for chaos’ sake.

As far as my own character type goes, I’d call myself a jaded but law-driven observer.  I want things to make sense and to obey the rules; I want to try to make the world better, and I want everyone to be wonderful all the time, but I don’t necessarily think there is any surefire strategy people can use to ensure that they will get their happily ever after.

In any case, I hope that looking through this particular lens can help you view your characters in a different way.  If you think I’ve left anyone out, or you just want to share what type of person you think you are, leave a comment!

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Editing Bootcamp: Smile and Nod

Creepy.

Creepy.

Polishing a manuscript might be tougher than writing the first draft.  When you’re in the middle of the wild abandon of creativity, pouring words onto the page and flinging characters into mortal peril without always knowing how you’re going to get them out again, it’s easy to push your inner editor into a cage and tell yourself that you’ll just get back to all those weird quibbly bits on the second pass.

But then you’ve got to make the second pass.  And the third pass.  And the fourth, and maybe even the fifth.  And then you realize that after focusing intently for three days on a single scene, choosing every exactly perfect phrase and gesture, you’ve already used the word “prevaricate” on the previous page, and twice in the last chapter, but you forgot all about it, and now you don’t know what to do.

We all have particular words that we’re in love with, and we all have natural rhythms to our writing that can become a little tedious when repeated time and time again across a long manuscript.  It’s really hard when feel like you’re just on the verge of getting things right, and then something silly like the overuse of a distinctive sentence pattern throws you off your game and jars your readers into wondering if you even noticed how many times Joe has whirled around in surprise in the last ten pages.

So what are some of the things to watch for in order to ensure that your writing flows smoothly, contains enough interesting variety, and yet still gets your point across?  Everyone knows that you’re not supposed to use too many adverbs in your writing.  I happen to love adverbs, so I’m not going to push that one.  What I am going to focus on is stage directions.

She smiled.  He laughed.  She nodded.  He sighed.  She looked down at her hands.  She shook her head.  These little ubiquitous actions can convey a lot of emotion when used properly, and they’re really good “spacers” when you want the reader to pause for thought before hearing what a character thinks.

It’s tough to cut out these gestures if they’ve turned into crutches for your dialogue instead of enhancements.  But your dialogue needs to stand on its own merits without the director’s megaphone.  If someone is laughing, the previous sentence should have been funny or embarrassing or silly.  If the joke is successful on its own, your reader already knows that the second character is going to laugh before she replies.  If it isn’t successful, there’s no point in saying “she laughed”, because no one is going to be laughing with her.

When I write my first draft, I often put in these stage directions to anchor the feeling of the scene for my own benefit.  They’re my own behind-the-curtain cues to make sure that I’m getting across the reason behind why he’s sighing or she’s shaking her head.  When I’m doing my editing, I make a list of words that I’ve probably overused (jumped, whispered, nodded, screamed, sighed, grinned, ignored) and do a targeted search through the entire document to see where I can cut those words or switch them up a bit without losing the meaning of the action.  When you’ve said the word “sigh” 72 times in your manuscript, you know there are some adjustments to be made.

I really strongly suggest this step (and I will use an adverb to do so).  You might want to use a word frequency tool to help figure out what your overused phrases are.  Variation keeps your readers engaged and your prose flowing.  It pushes you as a writer and helps you examine the strength of your dialogue and the emotions you’ve created  in every scene.  So take a few minutes to scan your manuscript for words that stick out and words that are way too common.  I guarantee your work will be better for it.

Cake or Death…But Mostly Death

graveyardLet’s talk about death.  No matter what you write (except perhaps picture books), killing characters is something that every author has to face at some point in their career, and it can be a difficult thing to tackle.  Death is a part of life, and therefore a part of every story.  Grief and loss are powerful motivators – death is the ultimate motivator, really – and finding a way for our characters to face their mortality (or lack thereof, in the case of someone like Tev) can elevate our emotional narratives to heavenly heights…or drag our stories into the ground to be buried and forgotten along with the fecklessly slaughtered masses.

In fantasy, there are three types of death for characters that have some sort of effective role in the narrative (we’re not talking about genocide or massive troop deaths in battle right now).  There’s the heroic death, the punishment, and the out-of-left-field whacking.  Each has their place in the story arc, but overusing death as a plot device can leave your readers feeling weary, disenchanted, and disconnected.

The heroic death is usually a plot-starter or a climax event.  A character’s slain parents or murdered best friend can propel your protagonist to seek revenge or thrust him into an adventure, and kick off his search for redemption, a new place in society, or the six-fingered man.  It can also cap off the action as a final push towards the resolution: the sacrifice of the second fiddle for his comrade, or the tragic end of a star player that leads to the popular revolt that overthrows the evil monarch.

The heroic death is the handiwork of evil or injustice and is always somehow righted or mitigated by the forces of good.  It’s the darling of standard issue sword-and-sorcery, and has very specific applications within the arsenal of plot devices.  As a fantasy traditionalist, I love a well-placed lieutenant taking a bullet for his captain, or a gruesome murder that gets under my character’s skin and drives him to seek revenge.  It’s nearly always effective, as long as it isn’t overplayed, and it gets me right in the gut every single time.

The punishment is similar to the heroic death in that it is a pawn in the game of good an evil.  The fact that the bad guy gets the axe is the necessary conclusion to most standard fantasy tales.  The wicked are stymied by the good guys, and the status quo is reestablished with the removal of the dastardly stressor.  The punishment wraps up loose ends and brings us to our happily ever after, pure and simple.

Both of these devices are about creating order, and I think that’s what fantasy in general tries to get at.  In a fantasy story, we’re either fighting off a chaotic Other (evil orcs, sorcerers, rival countries) or fighting off the chaos within ourselves.  Both, usually.  In order to rationalize this struggle, we see death as a part of the chaos, but something that is deserved.  Humans are confused and rattled by senseless death.  As with the heroic death, the out-of-left-field whacking can be a great motivator, an earthquake that jolts a character out of his complacency and make him question his choices, his goals, and his very existence.

That can be great for a story.  It adds depth and an emotional connection with the deepest of our silent fears: the random, unforeseeable, unjustified end to our lives.  It’s terrifying and paralyzing, and it can change the course of everything in the blink of an eye.  Heroism is the ability to overcome that paralysis, and many people read fantasy because they are struggling with helplessness in their own lives.  Fantasy helps them make sense of it, or at least helps them cope by removing them from it and thrusting them into another world.  However, the random whacking can be easily overplayed (I’m looking at you, GRRM), and when that happens, you start to lose me.

When you deal out death like candy, you run the risk of cheapening everything that your characters do while they’re alive.  You start to wonder why they even bother trying if they’re just going to be slaughtered at some random point in their journey, purely for the shock value.  Once that happens, the story loses its power.  Sometimes characters have to fail, because that’s how you pull on the heartstrings, but sometimes they have to succeed, because that’s what keeps those heartstrings taut enough to pluck.

Whether random or foreseen, death should be personal and emotional and brutal, shocking and satisfying, mournful and gleeful and cruel.  It should make us bounce up and down in our seats and shut our paperbacks in a wave of wrenching emotions before opening the book again to greedily devour the rest of the chapter.  It shouldn’t be something so commonplace that you end up idly speculating about it around the water cooler on a Monday morning.  Buckets of blood are all very well, but unless those deaths operate within a framework that speaks to the human experience, you can pour on all the gore you like and you’ll only be digging your own grave.

Seven Things You Should Never Do Unless They Work for You

flowerWrite every day.  Write when you feel like it.  Drink green tea.  Don’t drink anything so you never have to get up to pee.  Only use the 2008 limited edition Graf von Faber-Castell Collection pencil, made of 240-year-old olive wood and 18 carat white gold, and the finest 14th century cured calf skin parchment when jotting down notes at Starbucks.  While not drinking anything.

While it’s impossible for one person to know what’s going to work for another, writers are constantly bombarded with tips and tricks, advice and anecdotes from people who claim to have all the answers.  It can be infuriating, but it’s also how we learn what’s good and what to chuck out the window.

Yeah, I’m going to be one of those people for a minute.  I’m only making this list because these things are important to me.  They’re things that I struggle with or things that I think I’ve learned so far.  But you might not give a damn.  You might do exactly the opposite and have great success.  And that’s totally okay.  I’m gonna do it anyway.

Back up

The cold, simple truth is that there is no book unless you write it.  There are no words unless you tap them out on your keyboard, or scribble them with your ridiculously overpriced pencil.  Writing that book is going to be hard.  It’s going to make you feel like an idiot half the time, make you suspicious of your sudden genius the rest of the time, and it’s going to scare you into running away.

Don’t do it.  Don’t back down, and don’t shut that laptop until you type “the end”.  Your first draft is totally going to suck, but that’s why you work on a second.  And if your second draft sucks, then it’s time for a third.  But you can’t improve a blank page.  Just write.

Don’t back up

For the love of all that is holy, use the freakin’ cloud.  Use Amazon, or Dropbox, or Google Drive, or whatever alternative you like.  Email your book to yourself every day.  Wear a necklace of USB drives instead of that one with the dried severed ears of your enemies.  Carve your draft into a mountain and keep a picture of it on your cell phone.  Then email it to yourself, print it out, and hang a laminated copy on your wall.  Back.  Up.  Your.  Work.

Ignore your image

It’s awesome that your four-year-old drew a picture of your main character on some notebook paper during art class.  It’s totally great that you learned how to use MS Paint and made your very own book cover featuring little Sally’s masterpiece and some wicked Times New Roman action.  But let’s think for a minute about what else is on the shelf.  Let’s think about the picture of yourself that you swiped off of Facebook from that graduation party you went to three years ago.  You’ve got a beer in your hand.

You don’t have to drop $500 bucks at the portrait studio.  You don’t need to hire a web designer.  It doesn’t take a lot of money to publish a professional-looking book.  There are templates and free stock art (make sure it’s free for commercial use, please).  There are helpful people in forums that enjoy making your work look the best it can.  There are a hundred thousand other self-published authors to compete with – and to learn from.

Study up.  See what works.  See what attracts your own eye.  It might be as simple as a clear picture with a smiling face and an easy-to-find email address, but your readers are going to see that before they even get to your book.  Make a good first impression.

Put the blinders on

I am so guilty of this one.  I don’t read a lot of other books.  But I do follow a lot of other books.  I follow agents on Twitter, and major publishing houses, and successful authors (traditional and indie) in my little niche.  I read the news, and keep up with the statistics, and occasionally, I even write about the state of the industry for all of you guys.

Am I an expert on publishing trends and contracts and mergers?  No, of course not.  But knowing what’s going on around me helps keep me focused, and helps me figure out where I want to go.  Self-publishing is an industry in its infancy, and we are the generation of writers who are going to shape it for years to come.  Knowing what’s happening is only going to help you.

Wear the wrong shoes

I write epic fantasy.  I write a very specific kind of epic fantasy.  My books appeal to a relatively small number of people, and I’m okay with that.  I don’t write urban fantasy, or steampunk, or sci-fi, because those genres don’t fit who I am as a writer.  I’ve found my shoes, and they’re helping me hit my stride.

Just like your high school guidance counselor told you, you’ve got to be true to what you’re feeling.  The words have to flow, and you have to go to bed excited to wake up in the morning and keep typing.  Otherwise, you’re just going to give yourself blisters, and you’re going to resent your work.

Get overwhelmed

Oh, this is such an easy one to do.  And it happens to the best of us, whether we like it or not.  You’re scrolling through five hundred pages of text you’ve slaved over for the past eight months, and suddenly you want to smash a bottle of wine over your head until you beat the idiotic drivel out of your brain for once and for all.  You’re never going to publish it.  You’re never going to sell a single copy.  No one is ever going to like you, and you’re going to die miserable and alone.  No one’s even going to care if there’s a typo on your tombstone, because they’re not going to visit.  You’re going to put this piece of crap away and never, ever, ever, ever look at it ever again because you hate everything and you need some ice cream right now, damn it.  Right now.

Come on.  Get a grip.  Scroll back up and read the first item on this list.  Leave the house, take a walk around the block, go to Carvel and drown your sorrows in chocolate syrup.  Then get back to work.

Get bitter

So it’s the middle of the month and you’re still staring at the beige bar of shame on your KDP report.  You just got a rejection email from a query you sent out six months ago after forgetting all about it.  Your cat just threw up on the rug, and you have to pay your car insurance.  Carvel was closed.

It’s Tuesday, and that’s when you usually write your blog.  What’s on your mind today?  Hmm.  How about that rejection letter?  How about you blast that hapless agent for not knowing good writing if it fell on her head?  You’ll show her better than to pass on your masterful oeuvre in favor of some two-bit, jumped up amateur with the next derivative, repetitive, boring, poorly constructed vampire novel that’s going to get a WB series and an action figure along with its six-figure deal.  You hope she reads it and goes home crying after being slammed with your scathing remarks.  You hope she quits after realizing she’s a fraud and a failure and no longer fit for the sacred task entrusted to her.

Uh, no.   Because she’s not going to read it, but lots and lots of other people will.  They’re not going to want to work with you.  They’re not going to want to read your book.  They’re going to call you immature, and petty, and angry, and unprofessional.  You’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.

We all have bad days.  And we’re all writers.  We just have to learn not to combine the two, unless it’s going to breathe life into our fiction.  You want to be the cheerful, resilient, level-headed author that’s a joy to speak to at a cocktail party.  You want your attitude to be an ambassador for you, even if you’re secretly steaming mad.

Publishing is business, even if you’re doing it yourself.  Every word you write is a business card.  Every sentence is a pitch.  You can’t control the market, and you certainly can’t control what other people like and don’t like.  All you can do is put your best foot forward, take your lumps, and keep doing what you love.

Third Law

I read one of those “here are all the mistakes novice novel writers make” blog posts on The Passive Voice that contained something interesting.  In a discussion about making sure that your novel has a plot instead of a series of episodes (good advice), Anne R. Allen says that a novelist should “create characters who act rather than are acted upon.”

Now, this is generally a good thing.  No one wants a hero who waits for other people to take care of the heroics.  Characters who are chronically acted upon tend to be whiny and helpless, and you usually just want to smack them.  A glum little vampire wannabe damsel-in-distress comes to mind.

But neither do you want a hero or heroine who miraculously defies all the odds, slays every monster with a brilliant and cunning plan, and saves the princess without knowing a moment’s consternated adversity.  Sometimes you need your character to be acted upon, because that’s life.  You need give and take; you need those equal and opposite reactions.

There are situations that have no clear answers, with no way for your hero to bust out of his chains using brawn and dashing.  Sometimes the world acts on you with all its hell and fury, and you get stuck.  You can’t see your way out, and every time you try to struggle out of the quicksand, you make things worse.  That’s where character development comes in, and that’s at least as important as having a compelling plot.

Writing a story where the hero’s actions invariably “cause each new event” is unrealistic, and leaves you with a shallow plot and a shallow character.  There’s a reason heroes have sidekicks, and it’s not just for comic effect.  Heroes have sidekicks so they can learn humility and the limits of their own strength.  They learn reliance upon others, responsibility, and compassion for those less fortunate than themselves.  That’s where the crux of your story should lie: in the emotional development of someone who thought that they were solely in charge of their own destiny, but who was wrong.

I think this struck me particularly because my main character in SZK, Serdaro, is definitely more often acted upon than not.  He is caught in a huge web of evil, grasping, selfish people; of self-interest and anger and violence that is threatening to tear his world into pieces.  He is a little tiny speck of dust in a crumbling empire, and he doesn’t feel that anything he’s done is making a bit of difference.  Do his actions have consequences?  Naturally.  Do many of his decisions advance the story?  I sure hope so.  Will he be put into a situation where he controls the fate of the universe?  Yes, of course.  But that’s where he’ll show his character, not where he’ll show my plot.

As I said, it’s not bad advice to make sure that your protagonist is at least occasionally heroic.  But the pull between action and inaction is the key.  That tension between success and failure – how finely you balance that and how high the stakes are…that’s your story.  Don’t sacrifice action for meaning.  Don’t create a hero who doesn’t feel his flaws.  There’s no archetypical comic book superhero in the universe (or any other universe) who doesn’t get stymied once in a while, and who doesn’t have to rely on something other than his own strength to get out of some mess.  That’s what captivates people.

So throw a wrench in the works once in a while.  Beat up on your hero.  Tie him to the train tracks and see what you get.  You might be surprised at what you reveal when you subvert the rules and make a strong person helpless.  After all, when you’re writing the laws of your own world, every action might have a completely disproportionate and unexpected response.

Tools of the Trade – Redux

I first posted this entry back in May, when I was getting ready to participate in my first CampNaNo session of the year.  But now, with the big tamale approaching us almost as quickly as Hurricane Sandy, I think it might be useful to bring to your attention once again.

Here are some of my favorite things to be found on the internet when it comes to planning, organizing, or goofing off on my writing.  Of course, they only work if your power is still on, but let’s hope everyone stays safe and dry and electronically connected.

My Favorite Outlining Tool

SuperNotecard by Mindola Software is a free download for Mac, Windows, and Linux that allows you to create decks of virtual note cards, shockingly enough, to help organize your outlines.

I love it because you can color code everything by character, category, or place, making it simple to keep track of who is where and with whom and when and why.  It also allows several different ways to visualize this information, including a timeline, which is pretty neat.

The interface is intuitive and easy to learn, and you don’t really have to make the $30 upgrade if you’re only planning to do relatively compact projects.  I highly recommend it for anyone whose typical outlining procedure is this:

I think this show could really have gone somewhere. Oh well.

My Favorite Motivational Tool

WriteOrDie.  Hands down.  I know, I know.  Some people hate the pressure of a time limit, and totally blank out.  I can’t do word wars with other human beings, because I get all panicky like I did when we would play Jeopardy! in high school, and totally blank out.  But computers require no social skills, remember?  Computers are easy.  If I’m really stuck, or I’m just being lazy and want to make my word count for the night, I’ll reluctantly type this URL into my address bar.  And it is a sleek little interface, that does exactly what it says with no fluff, no ads, and no nonsense.  For ten bucks, you can get a desktop version, but the web app works just fine for me.

Pick a goal and a time limit, and it gives you a blank page with a text box and a countdown at the bottom.  That’s it.  It’ll turn red and do a flashy thing if you stop typing for too long, or if you’re approaching the time limit.  It won’t actually kill you, at least to the best of my knowledge.

I wish it did give you a little more time to pause and think before going all drill sergeant on your ass, but I guess that’s kind of the opposite of the point.

My Other Favorite Motivational Tool

Okay, so maybe that one doesn’t work as well.  Darn.

My Favorite Naming Stuff Tool

Because naming stuff is always my downfall.  Aside from the fantasy character/place name generator I talked about last time, I discovered this fantasy novel title generator when I was desperately searching for a title for TLDTC.  I had been using a working title that I won’t even bother repeating, and I knew it was just pretty bad.  I’m terrible at naming my work.  If I could get away with calling everything “Untitled”, or “Shrug In Your General Direction and Hope You Read It Anyway”, I probably would.

Most of the things this generator comes up with are silly and unusable, but occasionally something halfway decent will pop up, or something will spark an idea.

“The Autumn Doll” isn’t bad, and “Dancing Prophecy” could be worked with.  I’m not sure I really want to know exactly in which part of the slave that talisman ended up, but you get the idea.  It’s a fun thing to play with, and it can be properly helpful.

My Favorite Toy

I don’t know about you guys, but I tend to use the same words over and over to describe stuff without knowing it.  I can’t even tell you how many times my characters say something sharply, or sigh, or smile, or snap, or even glower – at least in my first drafts, before I realize I’m being repetitive and unoriginal.  That’s what first drafts are for.

Wordle is not entirely for pointing out how horrible of a writer you are, but that’s an added benefit.  What it does is take the word frequency of a sample of text and make a pretty, customizable word cloud, like the kind you see on motivational posters and teenage girls’ Facebook walls.

Just go to “create” and enter your text, anything from a quote you like, to your entire manuscript.  More frequently used words will appear bigger, so you can skew the results for shorter bits by adding multiples of that word if you like (I I I I I want ice cream cream cream cream cream).  Here’s the one I did for TLDTC.

Is it a fantastic breakthrough that will jump-start your writing career?  No, of course not.  But it’s kind of neat, in a procrastination sort of way.  And you can get access to the compiled word frequency list to check it out.  If you’re ever unsure who your main characters are, this is one way to be absolutely clear about it, at least.

I hope these help!  If you haven’t already, please feel free to make me your writing buddy.  The more of us banding together against the forces of procrastination, the better.  Good luck!

The Minor Fall, The Major Lift

I really love secondary characters.  The dutiful lieutenant, the third wheel, the sidekick you wish had a little more screen time.  You can keep your flashy superheroes, your brave solo adventurers, and even your brooding loners with no one to rely on.  Give me the awkward strain of the muted ambition of someone destined to support their pal in the limelight, or the true, self-sacrificing loyalty of a Sam Gamgee.  Show me that no hero ever gets that way by making it alone, and I’ll see a story that just got an immediate boost in character depth and development, just the way I like it.

How can you say no to this face?

From a purely technical point of view, having a buddy, or brother/sister/cousin for your main character just makes things easier.  You’ve got someone right there to talk aloud to, argue with, bounce ideas off of, and be appropriately skeptical about the daring, foolproof plan so you don’t need to have all those conversations in one character’s head.  They can move the story along by getting into trouble or getting your hero out of it, but they have to be more than just a plot device.

Because as we all know, everyone is the protagonist of their own life.  They may intersect with your hero’s journey for a moment, but even the most minor character has a story with a beginning too, and if your hero doesn’t get them killed, they’ll have their very own hopes and dreams, accomplishments and failures leading towards their independent end.

We’re all part of this giant web of spheres and bubbles and connections, touching one another at one tiny point in a long, long line.  It’s huge and wonderful and terrifying to think about.  If you’ve ever been on a bus or subway and seen everyone in their own little universe, moving towards the same destination for a hundred different purposes, thinking a million different thoughts with their headphones in, you know what I mean.

Just think: in my story, you’re just one of my blog readers.  I see what you say in your comments to me, and I weave you into my narrative by using your support as evidence that I’m an awesome writer and should succeed in my chosen objectives.  You don’t know what I do when I’m not blogging, and I don’t know your kids.

I don’t know that your dog just threw up on your favorite rug, or that you’ve got a really important test next Tuesday, or that your husband just bought you that diamond necklace you’ve been eyeing, but hasn’t gotten around to giving it to you yet because in his story, he’s stressed out because his boss is having his own novel-worthy drama about his wife, and so on, and so on.

And that’s the point.  Even your minor characters should be novel-worthy, in their own way, because that’s how rich and complex a universe should be.  I don’t mean the servant that opens doors should get six paragraphs about how his grandfather has gout, but those supporting roles that do get some exposure?  That prison guard that your hero befriended and then drugged so he could escape is so going to get fired.  Maybe the widow and baby of the only-kinda-bad-guy he killed are going to end up in the poorhouse because she can’t support herself without being able to read and write, so what’s she going to do?

It’s stuff like that that humanizes a story, gives it an extra dimension and a realistic grimness that makes every choice your hero faces important in its repercussions, if not its immediacy.  It’s why you sometimes have the fighter that refuses to kill, and those moments of mercy and compassion that endear your characters to your readers.  It’s also how your story can grow monstrously out of control in seconds, but that’s another post.

Those secondary characters are your gateway to that world.  They’re an amazing opportunity to bulk up your reality and relatability quotients, and unfortunately, that opportunity is not always exploited to its fullest.  So next time you’ve got to create Minor Functionary #3, think about what his living room looks like, and the fact that he hates mushrooms and can’t swim.  I guarantee your world will come even more alive in your head, and it will translate onto the page.