HOW CHARACTERS SEE THEMSELVES IN RELATION TO OTHER CHARACTERS

In Joe M. McDermott’s novel The Fortress at the End of Time, Ensign Aldo has just come to a remote space station. The commanding officer is a bit of a fallen tyrant, but still, young Aldo thinks:

I felt alone, torn between obligations, waiting for someone to do something, confused and uncertain about the true path of my devotion. Call it idolatry, but at the time, I favored the admiral, because I saw, in him, my service oath and the path to other colonies.

Later, that belief is shaken:

“Don’t give him false hope, Wong. The admiral is pissed. You’re under Article 32 now.”

The quartermaster looked in at me. “Obasanjo has volunteered to be your advocate. Do you object?”

“No offense to Obasanjo, but I will decline. If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. Who else you got?”

“NetSec says he could do it, in a pinch. He doesn’t like you, though.”

“Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? It is actually not a criminal proceeding or a court martial. It is just an Article 32 trial—a big show because the admiral is pissed. I did my duty. Sergeant Anderson was very sick. He will be back. Corporal Jensen deserted on her own, likely with help from Wong. Let’s try and make the old man happy, okay? What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? I have nothing to hide. My reports are honest. I did the right thing with Anderson, and I failed to capture Jensen, who was in collusion with Wong and the monastery. I am a pilot, not a security officer. I have limited hand-to-hand, no investigation training.”

Q put his hand on my shoulder. “The admiral hates you. The best thing to do is take whatever he gives you and prepare for the next phase, after service. I will alert Lieutenant Commander Obasanjo and Captain Nguyen.”

I said nothing else. What was there to say?

Notice that most of this is about Aldo’s sense of who’s with him and who’s against him, who might be trustworthy and who might make his bad situation worse: If the admiral is pissed at me, I would prefer an advocate that doesn’t cause any more friction. He even gets into what Aldo thinks other characters think of a particular character: Well, at least the admiral likes him, right? A subject of great concern is what another character is thinking, what might be motivating him: What is his goal here? Am I an example to others to maintain order, or am I actually under investigation? And relationships are defined in a sometimes categorical, perfectly direct manner: The admiral hates you.

Like it or not, we often see ourselves in terms of how we relate to other people around us. There are people we admire and seek, at least in part, to emulate, and people we see in a negative light for some reason or another, and from whom we hope to differentiate ourselves. This goes back to my purposely reductive definitions of a hero and a villain from The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction:

If a villain is someone whose motivations we understand but whose methods we find abhorrent, a hero is someone whose motivations we understand and whose methods we find inspirational.

The point there being that, either way, we understand why that person is doing that thing, even if we’re not a fan of the means or the end.

Though we spend a certain amount of energy trying to make sure that our heroes are “likeable” and our villains are well motivated from the point of view of our readers, do we spend the same energy making sure that the hero is likeable to the other characters in the story, and that the villain’s motivations are understood by other characters in the story? In fact, the best way to show your hero being likeable and your villain being plausibly motivated is in their reactions to others.

I’m a lifelong Trekkie, and a particular fan of what I call the “thinking person’s Star Trek”: Deep Space Nine. Years ago—when the series was still on the air—I picked up a copy of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Writers/Directors Guide at a convention. Written by Rick Berman and Michael Piller, this slim little document is only nineteen double-spaced pages long, and serves as a quick rundown of the basic concepts of the series, with sections entitled THE BAJORAN WORMHOLE, THE BACK STORY, and DEEP SPACE NINE (which described the station itself). But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that the lion’s share of the document, pages 7-19, is all about the characters. Each one of the show’s outstanding ensemble cast gets at least a short write up, but what I found interesting when I first read it were the short sections at the end of many of the character write ups in which the series creators called out important relationships.

Kira, for instance, has three key relationships called out:

KIRA AND DAX: Dax and Kira have formed a very strong friendship, though Dax’s free-wheeling attitude toward life has yet to rub off on the Major.

KIRA AND ODO: Next to Dax, Odo is Kira’s closest confidante on the station. Kira trusts Odo. Ironically, his stoic demeanor gives her the security to reveal her more vulnerable side.

KIRA AND QUARK: Kira has no tolerance for Quark’s shenanigans. She feels he is a corrupting influence on the station and believes they would be better off without him. Perhaps this is why Quark finds her only the second most desirable woman on the station.

O’Brien only one:

O’BRIEN AND BASHIR: It’s not that O’Brien doesn’t like the young, enthusiastic Doctor, it’s just that he… prefers not to be around him. For some reason, everything Bashir does annoys him. They’re just two very different people and O’Brien can’t understand why Bashir wants to be his friend.

Some characters, including Quark and Dr. Bashir, have none, but are more or less covered in the sections for other characters.

This was a real lesson for me, and I’ve carried through something similar in my own writing. When thinking about characters, writing up notes like this, I actually write these sections—at least for a handful of key relationships.

Of course it’s still important to get into each major character’s inner experience, and of course it’s important to consider how those characters might appear to your readers, but add this layer, too. How do they appear to each other?

After all, that’s really how most of us live our lives—much more concerned with what a few key individuals in our lives think of us, rather than how me might be remembered by history.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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A LITTLE ABOUT ENDINGS

I’ve written about starting a novel or short story, and what you might need to know or do to get started writing or what elements readers will respond to in the first sentence, paragraph, or page, but I’ve written very little about endings beyond part of some musings on the three act structure in which I dare you to ask: Was it worth it? In that post I said:

These are people, agents and editors, who are accustomed to reading first drafts, and so will be forgiving of typos and whatnot, but not terribly forgiving of flat, lifeless endings. If you’ve convinced one of these busy professionals to read past the first chapter, kept them in over the last 90,000 words or so in the middle, then drop on them a “to be continued in Book II: The Seriesing” or decide that endings are “unrealistic” and you have some kind of plotless literary non-ending in mind, or the dreaded deus ex machina arrives to pull everyone’s fat out of the fryer, or any other ways in which you can blow the ending of your book… well, now you have a busy professional who wants to murder you.

Let’s dive just a smidge deeper into this extremely important aspect of the art and craft of fiction: endings. And still, in the context of a blog post like this, we’ll just be scratching the surface. First, let’s run through the examples from that last post.

To be continued in Book II: The Seriesing might be okay in a few limited contexts. I did it myself in the Watercourse Trilogy, and it was a feature in R.A. Salvatore’s War of the Spider Queen. But for new authors trying to “break in,” it can be a serious problem area. The generally gun-shy publishing business, and almost-as-gun-shy reading public, don’t necessarily want to commit to more than one story from someone they’ve never heard of. To this end, I’ll refer you back to my post “Once More With Feeling: A Stand-Alone With Series Potential.”

Endings are “unrealistic.” Are they? Let’s ask Kurt Vonnegut:

“Nothing ever really ends. That’s the horrible part of being in the short-story business—you have to be a real expert on ends. Nothing in real life ends. ‘Millicent at last understands.’ Nobody ever understands.”

So yes, you’re right—in real life (whatever that might mean to you) we rarely get to some final wrap-up, the medal ceremony at the end of Star Wars, or the winning smile from Captain Kirk at the end of most episodes of Star Trek. We tend to actually fade from one “story” to the next.

But we’re not writing non-fiction, are we? We’re writing fiction, and what a lot of people—I daresay most people—come to fiction for is that it can make some sense of an often senseless world. And one of the ways it does that is by providing a discernable ending, replete with some new understanding of… something. Anything.

And boy, if you don’t already know that the deus ex machina (Machine of God), is no way to end a story…

But the deus ex machina can come in many forms. The one that’s still unhappily common is the climactic coincidence. But as we learned from Pixar’s Story Rules

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

Or from pulp master Lester Dent who asked: “Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?” after calling on us to arrange for, in the last quarter of a 6000-word short story: “The hero extricates himself using his own skill, training or brawn.”

And for me that’s really the key.

As I said—and I stand behind this—in “All the Story Structure You’ll Ever Need”:

The villain starts the story, the hero ends it.

For “outliners” like myself, endings can be at least a little clearer. I’ll often come up with an ending first and craft a story that drives to that. Pixar agrees with me, sort of at least, on that score:

Pixar’s Rules #7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

And there are other famous outliners out there, not the least of whom was Edgar Allan Poe, who wrote in his “The Philosophy of Composition”:

Nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its dénouement before any thing be attempted with the pen. It is only with the dénouement constantly in view that we can give a plot its indispensable air of consequence, or causation, by making the incidents, and especially the tone at all points, tend to the development of the intention.

Though I always end up changing direction at least a little, or failing outright when I drive to the ending no matter what, sometimes ending up putting “clever” above “good” or “readable” or other truly more important aspects to a good story. See my act of self-flagellation on that score  here.

So yes—have an idea of what you’re driving to—some destination—but be prepared to change course, or change destinations, somewhere along the way. This is as true for “outliners” as it is for so-called “pantsers,” which are authors who “write by the seat of their pants”—developing the story and characters as they write rather than in the form of an outline or notes beforehand.

E.M. Forster, in an interview with The Paris Review, said:

Of course, that wonderful thing, a character running away with you—which happens to everyone—that’s happened to me, I’m afraid.

I had trouble with the junction of Rickie and Stephen. [The hero of The Longest Journey and his half-brother.] How to make them intimate, I mean. I fumbled about a good deal. It is all right once they are together… I didn’t know how to get Helen to Howards End. That part is all contrived. There are too many letters. And again, it is all right once she is there. But ends always give me trouble.

It is partly what I was talking about a moment ago. Characters run away with you, and so won’t fit on to what is coming.

Then, yeah, get a new sense of what is coming, or where they should end up.

I guess what all this leads to is as simple as: Yes, have an ending.

Don’t let your story just fade out, or end on a frustrating cliffhanger, or ultimately rob your protagonist of his or her agency.

But of course there’s more to it than that. Endings, like beginnings, can be the most dangerous points in the journey of a story or novel. Like taking off or landing in a plane, it’s the context in which everything else makes sense. The middle (most) of the story is where the work takes place.

Following that airplane analogy: “We took off from Seattle and landed in Las Vegas more or less on schedule,” is not much of a story. It’s not a story at all, actually. But: “We took off from Seattle on our way to Las Vegas but had to land in Portland because…?” is at least potentially an interesting story—something outside the expected has happened. Stories are about characters in conflict, or at least about something going wrong.

The importance we put on beginnings and endings in fiction doesn’t just exist in a bubble. Despite Vonnegut’s caution to the contrary, we actually do seek out those moments in our own lives. Think about it: We celebrate our birthdays (the beginning of our lives) and gather for funerals (the ending of our lives) or might have adulthood ceremonies that mark the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood… but no religion has a ceremony celebrating your turning thirty-two.

Like humans in their thirties, who mostly just work all the time, stories in their middles get shit done, hoping to drive to a satisfactory ending.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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MOVING FORWARD WITH BACKWARD

As a copy editor, I’ve changed the word backwards to backward probably ten thousand times. Like the word towards, which I whined about in detail for other reasons, the difference between backward and backwards is likewise symbolized by the Atlantic Ocean—the line of demarcation between the two Englishes.

Don’t believe me? Okay. I have sources:

Grammarist:

Backward means the opposite way, behind, in reverse, away from the front. Backward may also mean shy, not socially adept, or regressing instead of progressing. While technically backwards is interchangeable with backward, the overwhelmingly preferred spelling in the United States is backward, whether it is used as an adjective or an adverb.

Grammar Girl:

The way I remember the difference is to think that Americans like shortcuts. For example, I’m willing to bet that we eat in our cars more than British people do. So think about how Americans like shortcuts, and think about how we lopped the s off backwards to make it shorter. In the US, we use the shorter word: backward.

Writing Explained:

Backward is an adjective that means regressive or underdeveloped. It is also a directional adverb in American English. In British English, it becomes backwards as a directional adverb, so keep your audience in mind when choosing one of these words.

And one of the very best sources, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage Edited by R.W. Burchfield:

Backward(s) in most adverbial uses: backward and backwards are interchangeable, but usage varies subtly from person to person and from region to region. It is broadly true to say that in North America backward seems to be somewhat more usual than backwards and in Britain the other way round. As an adjective, the only form used is backward (without a backward glance).

So there you have it, my fellow Americans. It’s backward, leaving off the s for freedom!

Taking this a step farther, I also sometimes see backward used improperly, where the word back is actually the better choice.

If you’re standing facing north, say, and place your foot behind you, moving southward while still facing north, you are moving backward.

If you’re facing north and someone pushes you by placing his hands on your chest, causing you to fall in the direction of south, you have been pushed back, even if your face is still directed to the north.

Here are a few examples that might help:

Bronwyn, having pushed Galen back on his ass, walked away without a backward glance.

Galen, realizing Bronwyn would never change her backward ways, got up and went home without looking back.

“Let’s move the noon meeting back to two p.m.,” Bronwyn said into her communicator. “I think my relationship with Galen just took a big step backward.”

Fine distinction, yes, but no one ever said this was going to be easy!

 

—Philip Athans

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WHAT I’M THANKFUL FOR, 2017

Well, it’s Thanksgiving week again here in America, and though I’ve skipped this post three out of the past nine years, I thought this year deserved a more considered essay than last year’s outburst. And indeed, this year there’s been lots more to be thankful for than what was a very difficult 2016—difficult enough that we’ll just let it sit there and move on.

So what is there to be thankful for in 2017?

I’ve been working through some conscious efforts at self-improvement and personal and professional growth that have actually moved me a little bit in a positive direction. That might not seem like much, but you’re dealing with an old dog here, and new tricks are rarely welcome and when they are, can be devilishly hard to adopt.

Still, I’m enormously thankful for… who? Any of the authors of the books I’ve read or audio programs I’ve listened to? Sure, I guess.

Or am I thankful for my own ability to push past the crusty old man exterior that’s descended over me to start taking some added measure of responsibility for my own reactions to things? I suppose.

But in the final analysis, what I’m really most thankful for is the access to new ideas and information that’s constantly at my fingertips. Sure, there’s way too much so-called “outrage porn” out there and cyber-bullying in all its demented and sad, petty little faces, and last year’s horror show of an election became… what it became… But still I get to explore the Information Age on my terms, find help, weed through various ideas and methodologies, try new stuff, set aside what doesn’t work, adopt what does, and hybridize my own new ideas and patterns out of the mix, and now here I am actually doing better, believe it or not, psychologically and financially, as a result.

So yeah, I’m thankful for being a reasonably smart person in a world of smart people, sharing ideas and opinions and jokes and strategies and stories and innovations.

I’m thankful that I can still change my mind about things.

I’m thankful that I can still change my behavior for the better.

I’m thankful that I’ve found ways to ignore the things that don’t matter, engage positively with the things that do matter, and discover new ideas then get to decide whether or not they matter.

I’m thankful for being a human with something to say and something to offer in a world full of humans with things to say and things to offer.

Some crap happened in 2017—crap always happens—but some good stuff happened, too, and unlike last year, let’s grab on to the positive and move into 2018 on that note.

One of the things I didn’t so much learn but was reminded of in 2017 is that you can’t always be in charge of what happens to and around you, but you can be in charge of your reactions to those things, and small steps in the right direction starting in January can take you a very, very long way by the end of November.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

—Philip Athans

 

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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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