WHAT READERS DO WITH YOUR WRITING

A little bit ago, I wrote a post on the subject of theme—what your book is really about. There I suggested you think, in reasonably concrete terms, what you’re actually trying to say with your novel. Then move forward with that understanding so your book “is to be about” some universal truth or political or cultural assertion, and so on. Does this mean that, once finished, your book will then stand as an authority on that subject, having built an irrefutable case for or against such and such… or will it be wildly and roundly misunderstood? Will some or even most of your readers come to believe that it “is to be about” something completely different?

Well, buckle up, people, because the latter is more often true than the former—at least as often.

Frank Herbert called out seven thematic goals he had in mind for Dune, but not everyone saw those same seven elements, or concentrated on all of those seven. For me, Dune was all about the dangers of a single resource economy. It was a book about oil, not too thinly disguised as spice. I never really focused on “the myth of the Messiah.” I guess I just took that for granted having read enough fantasy with its various People of Destiny. Likewise, “an examination of absolute prediction and its pitfalls,” fell into the background for me. Paul’s prescient powers felt, to me, as a means to differentiate Paul from the herd, but not otherwise of particular thematic interest.

Charlie Jane Anders, in “10 Great Novels That Weren’t About What You Heard They Were About,” quotes Alan Beatts with Borderlands Books in San Francisco, who maintains that Dune was “about the dangers of theocracy, and ‘the harm a messiah can cause, even with the best intentions.’ ” Though that is certainly true of later books like God Emperor of Dune, we didn’t really see that in Dune—I didn’t, anyway—though it was sort of coming to the fore in Dune Messiah.

Not being quite old enough to ever have been a hippy myself, I was more than a bit surprised, maybe even confused by “The Hobbit and the Hippie” by William E. Ratliff and Charles G. Flinn, from Modern Age, Spring 1968, in which the authors contend that:

Some hippies, on the other hand, consider the trilogy (or parts of it) a “ psychedelic manual,” akin to Hermann Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf, the Chinese Tao Teh Ching, Alice in Wonderland, or any of a number of other widely varying types of writing. Passages from The Lord of the Rings read before or during an LSD “trip,” for instance, may greatly stimulate the individual’s mind and make his “trip” seem much more meaningful. It is no coincidence that both the hippies and Professor Tolkien feel particularly close to nature. Even those of us the hippies call “straight people,” after reading the passages about the Old Forest and the Ents, come away feeling greater communion with forests in general and trees in particular. That the acid heads (and their turned-on fellows who avoid drugs) make use of passages such as these in order to “expand the consciousness” is hardly surprising. The splashy covers of the Ballantine edition of the trilogy are themselves somewhat reminiscent of one possible LSD-influenced vision of the story—covers which Professor Tolkien has described to the authors as “absolutely foul.”

Sure. Blame the cover art.

I’m pretty sure there was more to the Lord of the Rings trilogy than just the ents. To me it read as a sort of sanguine, longing look back at the British Empire that was, and the scary new world populated by great evil but with some slim rays of hope for which an English gentleman of Tolkien’s era could easily be forgiven. Psychedelic? Well, my one and only LSD experience came at the height of my punk rock teens, so I guess I was going into both LSD and LotR with a whole different mindset than the previous generation.

And we’re not done with the hippies yet. In what might be the SF genre’s most notorious clash of author and audience, a similar fate befell politically conservative author Robert A. Heinlein, described in a post by Ted Giola at Conceptual Fiction:

Two years after his novel Starship Troopers, which incurred charges that he was a militarist, Heinlein offered up Stranger in a Strange Land, which would establish him as a free love guru of the hippie generation. That must be like attending West Point in the morning, and leading a protest at Berkeley in the afternoon. Certainly somebody must be confused here—either Heinlein or his critics?

I’ve heard anecdotal stories about hippies showing up at Heinlein’s house on some kind of spiritual quest only to be unceremoniously turned away by a gruff member of the not-to-be-trusted over-thirty generation.

Scott Parker Anderson elaborates in “Banned Books That Shaped America: Stranger in a Strange Land”:

Stranger appealed to many far flung subcultures: it was a novel equally well-suited to conservative, hardcore science fiction fans and to radical members of the 1960s hippie movement, since the free love and communal living of Valentine Michael Smith’s church anticipated many hippie tenets. Some avid fans of the novel went so far as to found cults of their own based on Heinlein’s “teachings.” Heinlein kept as much distance as possible between himself and these fans, whom he felt had emotionally overinvested in what, for whatever wisdom it may have contained, was still only a work of fiction. After Charles Manson and his “family” committed multiple murders in 1969, it was widely rumored that Manson had been inspired by Stranger, though those rumors proved to be unfounded.

Happily, I too have no Manson misinterpreting anything I’ve written—at least as far as I know. But I did write a Forgotten Realms trilogy inspired by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and as a result I’ve been mistaken as a Libertarian by more than one person, sometimes seen as a fellow Objectivist, sometimes reviled for my apparent devotion to Mistress Ayn. I thought I was just riffing on the ever-fascinating D&D alignment system. You can read all about that here.

But think of it this way, with a truism I often drag up in reference to outlines: “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

In this case, the “plan” is your intended theme, and your “enemy” is your readers. Reading is a creative act in and of itself. And just like you’re a human in the world with something to say and the means to say it, your readers are humans in the world with their own experiences, perceptions, pre-conceived notions, and so on—and they’re going to read your book in their own heads, not yours.

Believe it or not, that’s a good thing. And look, if this progressive Socialist can withstand the occasional “attaboy” from the reactionary Objectivist right, you’ll survive similar assumptions about your own work.

I’ll leave you with something Marcel Duchamp once said:

All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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IF AREA EDITOR READS A POINTLESS TRAINING SESSION ONE MORE TIME

With a nod to the Onion

I’m trying not to fly off the handle, but please indulge me, at least at first, in a bit of tough love.

If your current work in progress contains a scene, or worse, a sequence of scenes, in which the young protagonist spends his or her days at sword training or magic training or frickin’ social studies you must immediately highlight all of that text and delete it now, before it does you any actual harm.

And it will do you harm.

By now I hope you know that I’m not big on hard rules—you have to do this, you can never do that—but the obligatory fight training has, for me at least, gone from cliché to actual annoyance. And it’s in at least half the books I read—maybe two thirds.

As far as I can tell, here’s why those scenes are there, in no particular order, and sometimes for a combination of these reasons:

  • You started your protagonist off too young.
  • You feel as though you need to explain everything, including how he or she got to be such a great sword fighter (or whatever).
  • You’re trying to hide a worldbuilding info dump by wrapping it in a classroom—sending your readers to worldbuilding school along with your character(s).
  • You’re establishing a strength and/or a weakness that will very obviously come into play later.
  • You’re trying to establish certain key character relationships in a non-threatening way.
  • You’re essentially re-writing Harry Potter or Ender’s Game because they sold really well.

I could think of more, but these are enough, I hope, to convince you not to do it. And anyway these are essentially half a dozen different ways of saying:

During this part of your story, nothing in particular is at stake.

The swords are made of wood, so no one is going to get hurt. We get that the young protagonist is going to grow up to be the hero, so let’s just see him or her being the hero.

But I can take them one at a time with a bit more detail, combining the first two:

You started your protagonist off too young, or you feel as though you need to explain everything, including how he or she got to be such a great sword fighter (or whatever).

There is no reason to believe that a character has to be revealed at all life stages. If the hero does the exciting heroic thing as a thirty-year-old then let the hero be thirty years old and cover essential snippets of his or her formative years in interesting flashbacks, if at all.

You’re trying to hide a worldbuilding info dump by wrapping it in a classroom—sending your readers to worldbuilding school along with your character(s).

An info dump is an info dump is an info dump. If you’re explaining, you’re not storytelling. If you’ve built a part of the world that doesn’t actually intrude on the story then you don’t actually need that bit of worldbuilding. Leave it in your notes. Stop setting the scene and start writing it!

You’re establishing a strength and/or a weakness that will very obviously come into play later.

This definitely comes down to the question of stakes, which underlies all this. If you’re showing us a strength or weakness when it doesn’t matter, all you’re really doing is telegraphing the fact that eventually it will matter. So then just get to where it matters. Of course you should tease that the hero is lacking in some regard or particularly talented in another so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere at the convenient moment, but show that in action, where it matters. Show this character fail, and maybe get one of his friends killed or suffer some other significant setback in real time, when there’s real loss. When we (your readers) experience that, we then worry he’s going to make the same mistake in a later pivotal moment, and there’s suspense because we’ve seen the visceral results of failure spelled out in blood, not some vaguely threatened results communicated by a teacher. Whatever it is, it should matter in Act 1, blow up in his face in Act 2, and matter most of all in Act 3.

You’re trying to establish certain key character relationships in a non-threatening way.

Never do anything in a non-threatening way. If at the beginning of the scene we’re told everything is going to be okay but maybe she’ll get a D instead of an A, but it doesn’t really matter because let’s be honest, grades almost never do, then at the end she gets a C+ and is pleasantly surprised, well… I won’t know because I will have already dozed off. Again, what’s actually at stake here?

You’re essentially re-writing Harry Potter or Ender’s Game because they sold really well.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

So then all that having been said, just as I’ve called for a United Nations Resolution banning all vampire stories for at least ten years—but then there were some weird, unique, cool vampire stories like Let Me In and 30 Days of Night that I actually liked—well, show me a training session that matters and I’ll gleefully toss this “rule” aside. Infuse every word of it with essential story, with emotional and physical stakes. Make it matter right in that moment, not eventually down the line. Make what they’re learning dangerous, set a clock—we figure out how to work together by Thursday or the world is doomed—or make the whole thing a huge twist, like: “Wait, I signed up for Kung-fu lessons, but this is actually a cult that’s training me to be a terrorist!”

It has to matter beyond what is actually being learned (sword fighting or magic or worldbuilding) and do more than just say “she was a lowly chamber maid but they’re teaching her to kick ass with a quarterstaff,” or whatever. If the story is about her kicking someone’s ass with a quarterstaff, get to the ass-kicking, and maybe throw in an offhand reference to her having been trained in the Monastery of von Staffenstein. Or maybe you’re writing the fantasy equivalent of Psycho where the young protagonist is killed in training and a new protagonist takes over—in which case, yes, please, write that book. That would be cool.

Either way, it must matter.

Always.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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THOUGHTS ON LESTER DENT’S “WAVE THOSE TAGS”

If you haven’t read the complete text of the original essay, go back to Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name to get caught up.

Having read what pulp fiction maestro Lester Dent had to say on the subject of characters, from way back in 1940, I’d like to add some thoughts of my own. So, here goes…

It’s long, long overdue that I write a post entirely on the subject of creating distinctive names for fantasy and science fiction characters. In fact, I plan to revise my online Worldbuilding course to give the subject of naming thing, in general, it’s own full week—it’s too important not to address in detail. But until I get to that, looking at the first part of Dent’s “Wave Those Tags,” I found these bits particularly interesting:

Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.

I’ve seen advice in other places, usually in the screenwriting universe (a peculiar alternate dimension all its own) that actually attempt to impose a rule that no two characters can have names that begin with the same letter. Though I tend to bristle at seemingly arbitrary rules, especially those that assume a certain low level of intelligence on the part of the reader, there might be a smidge of truth in this. Though I think you can have a Phil and a Pete in your story, especially since the PH in Phil is pronounced like an F, Dent’s example of Morgans, Mermans and Murtons is something you’ll want to watch out for.

This is another important part of your worldbuilding thinking, too, so that if you’re imagining a society based on some kind of real world culture, or you’ve created a sort of homogeneous culture that might have strict rules for names, be careful not to let character names sound too close together. What amounts to “too close together?” If you’re worried they might be too close together, assume they’re too close together and change one of the names. It isn’t scientific, but then neither is any of the rest of creative writing.

Dent made a good point here, too:

It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character—convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.

I will refer you back to my cautionary tale of common nouns, etc. in place of names that come off as placeholders before you take Dent’s advice too literally. But here’s one trick you can try if you promise not to be too obvious or over use it: Take that placeholder keyword that describes that character, but run it through Google Translate. So if you’re considering naming a character Ghost, or have that as a placeholder, you could call him Mamua instead, which (according to Google Translate) is “ghost” in Basque.

I’ll have to leave you to find the fine line between clever and gimmicky on your own, with a similar cautionary message from Mr. Dent:

In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.

So, no Sword McSlash or Astro Spaceson. Sorry.

Oddly, I think this bit of advice from Dent still seems to hold up:

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.

Let’s see… the Sith, Lord Soth, Saruman, Strahd, Sauron, Szass Tam, Cersei… Okay, I get it. I’d also add hard consonants, especially K, to that: Harkonnen, Dracula, Katrina Crane… or a little of both like Frankenstein.

Then in the second section, about external tags, those weird hobby things or visible quirks, if given a more subtle hand than Mr. Dent might have utilized himself, can be of real value.

Years ago—more than a decade ago—my wife read a biography of TV star Lucille Ball and couldn’t stop talking about one small story in a long book, and that was that Lucy would horde pencils. She bought pencils and stockpiled them because she grew up poor and—if I’m remembering this correctly—had a traumatic moment as a little girl in school when she didn’t have a pencil—her parents couldn’t afford it. So for Lucy, “success” meant constant access to pencils.

The point here is that every time she sees Lucille Ball on TV, if she’s mentioned at all, in any context, my wife immediately brings up that story. Out of all the rest of that book, this “external tag” of Lucy’s really struck her, and stuck with her for years to come.

And this thing about Lucy’s pencils is interesting to me, too, in that it transitions from Dent’s fairly well thought out look at external tags to where he more or less punts when he gets to the question if internal tags.

Reading Dent’s fiction it’s easy enough to see that less thought—much less—was put into emotional depth than it was to gadgets and explosions. But that external tag of Lucy’s—she obsessively hordes pencils—is actually a symptom of what makes her (as a character) much more interesting. Lucy was filling a whole in her psychological and emotional life with pencils.

Go ahead and assume that pretty much anything and everything else I might write on the subject of creating characters focuses in on this third part of Dent’s efforts. He was clearly uncomfortable with it, but I’m not, and not only shouldn’t you be but you just can’t be. Your characters will live in the emotional verisimilitude, in their internal life. If they’re all external they’ll fall flat on their faces.

The last bit of advice I thought was worth calling out is:

There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.

Absolutely yes, but go beyond that. Include real people—your friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, etc.—and people from the news and from history… anywhere and everywhere.

And now let’s wrap up by having a little fun with what seemed to make sense, seventy-seven years ago, but that now might make us cringe—or worse:

If heroes have manly names, it may help.

You definitely wouldn’t want a hero named Ripley in your science fiction story, because that’s not manly enough. Instead, make sure that the hero is a manly man, and as for the fairer sex:

Apparently the names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yarn. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.

I love that Dent says that “apparently” female characters have names like this. God knows he never had women in his stories anyway—and he actually very, very rarely did.

Okay…

External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be ironclad.

Holy…

But I have to ask, have you seen a disabled hero in anything?

Hmm…

 

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

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LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 4: NOW MAKE USE OF CHARACTERIZATION TRICKS IN WRITING THE STORY

If you haven’t read the first three posts in this series, go back to Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name to get caught up. Then we’ll press on with the fourth and final part of pulp icon Lester Dent’s look at characters…

NOW MAKE USE OF CHARACTERIZATION TRICKS IN WRITING THE STORY

These seem to be a few of the most-used characterizing tricks.

Wave the tags.

It probably helps to introduce the hero very early—in the first paragraph, usually—and have him strut his stuff, because first impressions are the strongest. This is just about the No. 1 writing rule in the pulps.

A hero may be built up by having the other characters refer to him in terms of admiration or awe. The pitfall here seems to be that the references can be made over-dramatic to the extent that the device may strike somebody as obvious and silly.

Villains may be built as villains in the same fashion, by having other characters mention their dastardly nature, their previous evil deeds.

Have the hero behave like a hero when faced by trouble.

Hero might stay human, though. He can get as scared as the next guy, but his courage will carry him through.

Minor characters can also be built by having the other actors refer to them, either to their external tag, or to the kind of stuff that is inside them.

Often quite a build-up can be given a character before he or she even makes a personal appearance in the story. This device is difficult to employ successfully in shorts, but it is often used in longer pieces.

It is easy to overlook the simplest must of all, that of having the actors keep in character. The hero can hardly go around kicking dogs and making nasty cracks to people weaker than himself. If he makes a nasty remark to a weak and helpless person, he’s a cad as far as the reader is concerned. If he stands up to the big, mean boss and makes nasty cracks, that is different.

And it goes without saying that the villain should conduct himself in a thoroughly villainous fashion. There are black villains,* and half-likeable villains. The black villains never do or say anything pleasant. The half-likeable cads may be pretty good guys, but just weak. The slicks seem to prefer this type of villain, but the pulps want ’em black.

It does not seem to be a good idea to have the villain become too melodramatic in his villainy. If his badness can be spread out, if he can be kept consistently bad, the same effect may be achieved without the chance of somebody bursting out laughing.

There are many tricks for getting character effects, but probably the best way of securing them is to wade through published material, purloin what seems good, and adapt the idea a little.

Always remembering: WAVE THAT TAG.

 

—Lester Dent

 

Next week we’ll break this down and look at both its positives and negatives for a contemporary author.

* Do I have to point out here that Dent isn’t referring to the villain’s race? Given the cover art of the magazines of the era in question, I probably do. But what he means here isn’t the color of that character’s skin but in the sense of a character who has gone over to the Dark Side, is a black-hearted beast, a blackguard, etc.

 

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LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 3: FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

If you haven’t read the first post in this series, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on with the third part of pulp icon Lester Dent’s look at characters…

 

FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

This seems to be a tougher one.

But it’s important.

The something inside the character isn’t solid and readily grasped, as are the external tags. Abstract is probably the word to use. So an attempt to explain what goes inside may do one of three things—fail to explain anything, ball it all up, or sound asinine.

Sometimes an approach to the problem can be made by going back and thinking about the character, starting at birth and following right through, so as to get the feeling of knowing just how the character happened to be a certain kind of person.

In the pulps, seems this doesn’t have to be very subtle. The hero’s sister is killed by crooks, and so he turns detective and is ever-after the implacable enemy of crooks. Slight variations of this old one are run ragged in the pulps, and in a slightly refined state, again run ragged in the slicks.

The whole idea is to dope out some reason for the character acting like a hero, a villain, or whatever.

While this is being done, it may prove convenient to concoct a reason for the character carrying the external tags which had been previously devised. In the pulps, the reason can be simple. Clancy, the cop, has walked a beat so long he’s got flat feet, and therefor foot trouble—and because he’s walked the beat so long, he has a consuming ambition to get in the detective bureau and show up these young school-trained cops who lack the Clancy experience. The ambition is what drives Clancy to do the things he does in the yarn. Now and then somebody even dresses this one up and sells it to the slicks.

What is inside the character seems to be highly vital. It will probably tie in with the motivation of the story, help furnish the reasons for things happening.

The higher the quality of the story, the more important what is inside apparently becomes.

Maybe the less said about this the better, because it is an abstract process, and probably the only thing to do is to sit down there and dope it out.

 

—Lester Dent

This part is particularly fascinating to me as we see Lester Dent, co-creator and principle author of Doc Savage—a character not know for his internal subtlety and nuance—essentially punting on what is actually the most important aspect of creating a character worth reading. And yet, people are still reading the old Doc Savage stories, so what do we take from that? That Dent managed to “sit down there and dope it out,” in a way he couldn’t explain, even to himself? Maybe, but let’s get to breaking this down and reassembling it after we finish up with the essay itself:

Next week… PART 4: NOW MAKE USE OF CHARACTERIZATION TRICKS IN WRITING THE STORY

 

 

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LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 2: FIND AN EXTERNAL TAG

If you haven’t read last week’s post, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on without further preamble…

 

This is probably the most important step.

Tag seems to be the term generally used. It means that the character is next equipped with something that the reader can readily recognize each time the actor appears on the scene.

A simple example of an external tag for purposes of illustration might be the one-legged old rascal in Treasure Island. The wooden leg is the thing that is remembered, hence it can be considered the tag.

External tags are peculiarities of appearance, manner, voice, clothing, hobby, etc. Incidentally, it might be wise to neglect wooden legs, because editors have a horror of cripples in yarns. This taboo against cripples is worth remembering, because it seems to be ironclad.*

Tagging is reliable stuff, apparently, judging by how much it is used in fiction, plays, radio, movies, books. The motion pictures usually apply a very obnoxious form of external tag to one or more minor characters. A supporting player in a film who goes around trying to do something—work a magic trick, for instance—throughout the picture is an example of such a tag.

If the character is a minor one in the story, it seems possible to hang on a very obvious, even humorous, tag.

If the character is the lead—be careful.

Be wary within limits, that is… Don’t make the tag too goofy, although the manner of handling may have a great deal to do with whether the tag makes the character seem silly or not. But make it interesting and intriguing enough to be what it is supposed to be—a label.

As a further example of varyingly bizarre tags which are made credible, it might be convenient to return to Rex Stout and his Nero Wolfe character. The character is a tremendously fat man—which is a not-so-zany tag. But Wolfe also raises orchids, and will not be disturbed by absolutely anything when tending them. He drinks prodigious amounts of beer, which must be exactly right as to temperature. He has a ridiculous horror of any moving vehicle. He is a nut on food… which, incidentally, is not the full list of tags on this character, but the job is done quite entertainingly. The moment Wolfe comes onto a scene, one of the tags is waved like a flag, so that there is no doubt about who has appeared.

That last statement is the idea.

Wave the tag. It is supposed to be an unmistakable label by which the reader can recognize the character instantly.

Frederick Nebel, in a series of good pulp yarns he once did for Black Mask, used a minor character, a cop, who ambled through the yarns devoting his time to snitching things to eat, and it was entertaining. After stepping into the slick magazines—which he did quite successfully—Nebel refined the tagging device somewhat. As example, in a recent short, he used a grandmother who devoted herself assiduously to eavesdropping, the eavesdropping being an obvious character tag.

If the tag can be used in the plot of the yarn, so much the better. The best yarns appear to be those in which there is no deadwood, so if the tag pasted on a character should happen to be the fact that he is an amateur camera fan, it might help a great deal if the fact can be made use of in the yarn—possibly the knowledge of photographic chemistry enables him to recognize a poisonous chemical which has been used for the murder method, and thus thwart the villain somehow.

In Doc Savage Magazine, a pulp, this external tagging has been utilized freely. One of the characters is always dressed in the height of sartorial perfection, the fancy clothes being his tag. Another character has one of his tags following around after him; it’s a pet pig. A third uses words of the most ungodly length, jawbreakers nobody can understand, at the slightest excuse. And Doc himself has been labelled freely with typical hero tags—great size, bronzed skin, compelling flake-gold eyes, quiet manner, amazing strength, fabulous knowledge of various subjects.

The variety of available tags seems to be legion. One of the characters can hate something intensely and spend his spare time grumbling about it. Or he may have a pet peeve on yet another character in the story and start a squabble at every slight opportunity.

Now… How to dig up these external tags?… This is somewhat more difficult than finding a name. Unfortunately, there is no thesaurus of character tags.

Some professional writers, in order to simplify the problem, assemble tags as they come across them and file them away on indexed cards. The biographies of famous persons are sometimes used as source material for character tags.

Perhaps there is no way of solving the problem except to sit in front of a typewriter and write down different possibilities until one happens along and clicks.

It may prove wise to give some thought to the character tag before deciding definitely to use it… That is, can it be used conveniently in the story? It’s embarrassing to think up a swell, intriguing tag, then find out that the thing will not fit in at all with the plot or the action of the story.

Acquiring the habit of looking for character labels when reading published yarns may be a help. The name writers, the ones who appear issue after issue in the pulps and the slicks, appear to be the ones who use the most character tags.

Often more than one tag is hung on a character. There seems to be no rule against it.

But for simplicity of handling, it might prove more feasible to devise one main tag, and wave that one like a flag whenever the character moves on the scene. Then the other tags can be subordinated and used whenever convenient.

In summary: The tag is simply something that identifies the character throughout the story. If, for instance, it should be decided to give Clancy, the cop, some foot-trouble for his tag, it might start out by having him getting a new pair of shoes near the opening of the yarn, a special pair of shoes which he knows will relieve his feet. On Clancy’s next appearance, he has the shoes on, and they’re wonderful. Next appearance, the shoes aren’t wonderful, and they hurt like hell. Then he takes them off. Finally he winds up carrying them. and possibly in the climax he uses one of them to bean the villain. God knows how many times that one has been used, with slight variation.

Now, the next step in making a character:

Next week… THIRD—FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

 

—Lester Dent

 

* Trust me, I’ll be circling back to this bit of flagrant insensitivity in the weeks ahead, but, yeah… you stay classy 1940.

 

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LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 1: FIND A NAME

I’ve been running an online Pulp Fiction Workshop, which uses as its starting point author Lester Dent’s famous “Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot,” and you’ve seen it quoted here several times in various contexts. But Dent (co-creator and principle author of the classic Doc Savage stories, among many, many other stories across multiple genres) had more advice to offer his fellow authors. With some previous posts touching on character names, and my apparent reluctance to get into that all-important aspect of fantasy and science fiction worldbuilding: naming people, places, and things, it’s a good time to find a common starting point. If Dent can start us talking about plot and story structure, maybe he can start the conversation in terms of characters as well.

To that end, let’s spend the next few weeks looking at Lester Dent’s essay “Wave Those Tags” (aka “Tag ’Em”), which was first published in the 1940 Writers Digest Yearbook:

 

This, again, is a personal opinion…

Here is a formula. It is a formula for creating characters to put in fiction yarns.

A blueprint, to say it another way, for making characters.

Now… before launching out in this character blueprint, it might be a good idea to borrow some sales psychology and build up the thing a little. To show, in other words, that it’ll work—that it is being used successfully.

While there seems to be some wariness about admitting it, most writers apparently work to formula to a great extent. Most pulp writers have seemingly devised a sure-fire masterplot, and have been writing and selling the same yarn over and over for years. A surprising number of the slick* authors seem to do the same thing. And there appears to be an inclination among editors to have their own idea of a formula for a yarn, and not buy anything that doesn’t fit. They call this the groove, or the slant.

[I’ve edited out a few notes from the original Writer’s Digest editors here, preferring to stick with Dent’s central point. —PA]

In order to write a story, it seems best to start with a plot and characters. Yarns can be written without either one, but it may be a little difficult to make a living selling them.

Whether the plot comes first, or the characters, seems to be a subject for argument. One method is to build the characters, then dope out a plot in which they strut their stuff in their respective manners. The other system is to construct the plot, then manufacture characters to fit it. Possibly an argument can be avoided by saying: start out the way that seems most convenient. Professional writers make both systems work. Most of them apparently mix the two systems.

Since this isn’t about plotting, it might be best to say nothing more about plots.

Possibly the initial step in creating a character should be.

 

FIRST—FIND A NAME.

It is very doubtful if the name is the most important step in creating a character—but it does seem to be the natural first thing to do.

Names are convenient as handles. But it helps if the characterizing doesn’t stop with merely finding a name. One of the loudest squawks from editors is that so many characters are just names being dragged through yarns.

Making the name of the character different from that of any other actor in the story is usually a good idea. Should there be Morgans, Mermans and Murtons in the yarn, somebody may be inclined to become confused.

It may also be nice to have the name sort of express the nature of the character—convey some suggestion as to his manner, appearance, nationality, occupation, or something. This gag appears to be quite widely used.

Examples: Dashiell Hammett used a detective character named Spade, which was a hard digging instrument quite in keeping with the name… Another writer of whodunnits, Rex Stout, seems inclined to make use of predatory animals as a name source—Nero Wolfe and Tecumseh Fox being two instances. A further analytical dissection of these last two names might lead to the surmise that, in the case of Nero Wolfe, the name Nero was used because it conveys the idea of a guy who is inclined to fiddle while Rome burns, which the fiction character at times apparently, although never actually, does. The name Nero might also have certain inherent leonine qualities. The Tecumseh Fox name might be analyzed as implying a man who was as sturdy and inscrutable as the old Indian chief, externally, while actually being as sly as a fox… Erle Stanley Gardner has had great success with a character named Perry Mason, although here an analysis might approach conjecture. A mason is a builder, and the word parry means to fend off: which is the way the character works—fending off numerous enemies while building his cases. (No guarantee went with this paragraph of mindreading.)

If heroes have manly names, it may help.

Taking a thesaurus and looking up words with strong, manly meanings, then improvising upon them, might be a trick worth trying.

In the pulps, this approach to name-making often is obvious. Pulp hacks are guilty of characters with such names as Click Rush and Mace and Lash.

Apparently the names of flowers and pretty things are frequently used for the beautiful young heroine in the yarn. The thesaurus could be consulted for these, too.

A reliable old gag for getting names for foreign characters is to open an atlas, look at the map of his native country and pick out a town, river, mountain or anything that has the flavor, and use that.

Foreign language words for trees, flowers, food or such things can be used, providing one has a book on how to speak the foreign language.

Villains may possibly be made to sound like rascals by using harsh, unpleasant names. Example: Didn’t Hammett use a villain named Gutman?

A good hissy, snaky sounding name has helped make many a villain.

Telephone books can be a source of names, or of confusion.

The gag of using expressive names, while a much-used one, might possibly be overdone. The comic strips make use of it to an extreme degree, but editors of fiction magazines may prefer that it be tamed down a little, made more subtle.

Now… here is the next move in creating a character:

 

Next week… SECOND—FIND AN EXTERNAL TAG.

 

—Lester Dent

 

* In the parlance of the day, slick = the highbrow magazines printed on higher quality paper vs. pulp = lowbrow magazines printed on cheap wood pulp/newsprint paper.

 

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