The World Of The Songstress Murders: That Old Timey Religion! a.k.a. Religion, Culture, and Characters

This week’s The World Of .. focuses on fantasy gods and religions, as well as how those things can influence and inform us about the cultures and characters in those worlds, using examples from my next book, The Songstress Murders!

Remember, there’s a little less than two weeks left to get your pre-order of The Songstress Murders!

Writing Is A Bad Habit In The World Of … : ‘Strong’ Protagonists! It’s More Than Coolness, Yo!

So demands for planing for Mobicon, work for editing clients, and other shenanigans, I regretfully inform you that I won’t have a Starving Review served up today.

However, I present as a substitute some extended thoughts on the ‘strong’ protagonist, male or female, and how to create and think about your creations, alongside examples culled from my own writing.  An extension of this Wednesday’s Writing Is A Bad Habit, the audio log takes things deeper than before.

If you enjoy this, please let me know so I can plan to do more of these podcast-style articles in the future!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: This Is Just Like Budapest a.k.a. The Noodle Incident

It’s been a while since we’ve sat back and talked about a writing trope or two.  With that in mind, let’s take a casual day today and talk about an interesting bit of trope-y-ness: the Noodle Incident.  Sometimes known as the Throwaway Backstory Event, a Noodle Incident (NI for the remainder of this article) is some piece of past history a character in a piece refers to, but never elaborates on, usually with the implication that the event was too ridiculous, unbelievable, or over the top to need to be elaborated on.  Whatever the reason for doing so, the NI remains a point of untouched history and, in a long series, may be referenced multiple times.


Writing Is A Bad Habit: Can a Mountain Get a Close-up? a.k.a. Environment as Character

The cast of characters in a book is usually pretty obvious because, well, characters are people, right?  You get all the people in your cast together and there you go … characters!  Well, yes and no.  Characters usually are people, sure, but they can be more than that.  One of the most overlooked ‘characters’ in a creative work is the environment itself.

Yes, while the world around us is considered an inanimate object, it is often an important player in any book.  Think about it like this: the environment around you is a constant actor that influences a multitude of decisions you undertake every day.  Is it rainy?  Well, you likely aren’t going to be taking a long walk on the beach.  Is it sunny?  You might forgo the movie theater for the sports stadium.  Is there an earthquake? OMFG RUN!


Writing Is A Bad Habit: The Eight Deadly Words a.k.a. Creating Character Investment

“I don’t care what happens to these people.”

These eight deadly words comprise the sentence you never want your readers to utter.  It is the death knell of creative character-driven media of all kinds.  If the readers don’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your narrative either.  It’s important to note that ‘caring’ about characters does not always equate to ‘liking’ them.  A reader might like a character, but not be invested in them and, to flip it around, a reader might hate a character but be totally entranced by their actions.

So how do we combat this and avoid those eight words?  The first and most obvious step is character relatability.  Again, a relatable character doesn’t have to be liked or disliked, just understandable.  We’ve talked about this quite a bit, but it never hurts to reiterate this.  Characters need to have motivations, thoughts, and feelings that make sense.  If these things make sense to your audience, they will relate to the characters and, likely, become invested in them.  It’s the classic ‘we like what we understand’ thought in action.

There are other things we should do to create this needed investment.  Another way to create that ‘caring’ from the reader is to ensure that there is sufficient risk in the plot line, that there are stakes to the conflicts involved.  Not just stakes, but stakes that fit the conflict involved.  If there is no risk or stakes or drama connecting the plot and the characters, there’s no compelling reason for the reader to become invested in the plot, no matter how they feel about the characters.  Yes, you can have a fully character-driven scene or story, with no real tension from the plot, but that won’t sustain a full-length novel very well.

I think the ‘appropriate stakes to the conflict’ part is something that is often a stumbling block.  Not that you can’t sometimes overblow the stakes, hinging lives on a stand-up comedy routine as an example, but it’s usually best to keep them under wraps.  You especially can’t understate the stakes.  The stakes to a gunfight, for example, needs to, at the least, be the lives of the protagonists, if not more, otherwise there is no tension and no investment.  Risk, sacrifice, and threat are all vital to creating that investment we all desire, be it physical, emotional, spiritual, or social.

What techniques and elements do you use to ensure that your readers care?  If you’re just a reader, what do you look for in the characters that you do invest it?  Let me know in the comments below!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: Ain’t Nobody Speaks Better’n Me a.k.a. Character Voice and Dialogue

People have different ways of speaking.  Yes, I know this is the most shocking revelation of 2015, but bear with me a moment.  This may be an obvious statement, but it doesn’t always get translated properly to the written page.  It’s often impressed on starting writers to maintain proper grammar throughout their work.  Now, this advice is meant specifically for the non-dialogue segments but it’s very easy to take that too far and apply it to the dialogue as well.  Complicate that with the fact that sometimes we writers fall into a rut, allowing our own speech patterns to color every character in the book until, subconsciously, we’ve made them all speak with the same voice.

The problems with this should be as obvious as my opening statement.  Speech patterns and vocabulary can provide as many points of characterization as any other facet of a character, maybe more than some.  Remember, speech is our primary form of communication and it’s one of our most valuable tools for learning about our fellow man.  It’s not just the actual words we say, but how we say them, our mannerisms, and our priorities of communication.

Now, obviously, minor characters might be a bit generic in terms of dialogue and that’s acceptable (though if they speak in a dialect that is real or established in the story, they had better use it).  However, if you have, say, the protagonist and antagonist in a conversation, you had better be able to tell them apart without dialogue tags!

In fact, thinking about it, you could use that as a bit of soft test to see if you have established a proper voice for major characters.  Write a scene of them in a long conversation, then drop the dialogue tags or any clear identifiers after the first exchange.  If you or your beta readers or whoever can tell the speakers apart, then you’re fine.  If not, well, you might need to work to establish more of a voice for them.

However you decide to go about it, never stray from the importance of character voice.  It is one of the key ways you can bring your characters to life and one of the best ways to deepen the characterization of them.  If you ignore it, don’t be surprised when you loose readers as they complain about cardboard characters and hard-to-follow dialogue scenes.

What do you think?  Do you have any other tips or tests to help sort character voices?  Leave them in the comments below!  Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: Just Lie To Me a.k.a. The Unreliable Narrator

A key element to creating intriguing fiction is to have an air of mystery and the unknown during the plot.  It works on the basic premise of human curiosity.  We want to know things, to understand things.  There are many ways to go about this, but one particular device that adds a human element to the mystery is the use of unreliable narrators.

An unreliable narrator is, if you didn’t know, a viewpoint character in a story that does not necessarily tell the whole truth.  The actual facts of any scene they are in or story they communicate to the reader may be distorted or straight out fabricated compared to the ‘true’ plot of the story.  It doesn’t matter the character’s reason for doing so or if it is intentional or not; they are still unreliable narrators.

Why bother using such a character as a mouthpiece?  After all, technically, the writer can simply misrepresent facts in the text on his/her own.  There is a problem with that though.  Readers consider words from the author, such as text that is not attributed to the viewpoint of a particular character, as being, in essence, the word of God, true facts.  If you, the author, as the voice of God, lie about the truth of any situation you describe, you build mistrust with your readers directly and they begin to question the entire narrative that you are weaving.  By putting the source of distrust into a character’s viewpoint, you avoid that intrinsic mistrust with the fictional world as a whole.  Any person can lie for whatever reason; the gods don’t.

Now, at first thought, you still might shy away from the concept of unreliable narrators.  If your Point of View character is your protagonist, for instance, and you’ve established her as scrupulously honest, you might feel it’s a breach of character to interject any kind of mistruth to their tale.  However, remember that just because someone always tells the truth doesn’t mean they always speak the absolute facts.  Maybe they don’t know all of the facts and thus have to make conjectures.  Maybe they didn’t see the whole situation and thus misrepresent it unwittingly.  Maybe their other emotions and experiences color their perceptions, turning the facts somewhat into their own personal truth.  Or maybe you just want to have a point-of-view character who is far from honest.

Even if you don’t intend to have a traditional unreliable narrator, you can still take elements of this trope to interject some uncertainty and drama into a story.  If you go with a first-person perspective or a limited third-person viewpoint, there is always room for uncertainty as the information and viewpoints that you use to transmit the story to the reader is limited.  The viewpoint characters probably don’t know everything or perceive every event, so their recollection is inherently skewed.  You can use that to your advantage to turn what the character (and reader) thought was fact into fiction.

In the end, consider using an unreliable narrator, in any permutation, from time to time.  They can add a dash of uncertainty and drama into any literary concoction!

Until next time, good reading, good writing, and good luck!

Writing Is A Bad Habit: There Are Only So Many Stories a.k.a. How Original Can You Be?

You think you have the greatest, most original plot idea ever … until you wind up looking through your bookstore and see it.  There, right there, is a book that seems to be your exact same concept!  Someone beat you to the punch and so there goes a great idea!  Or does it?

They say there are only seven core plots in the world and that’s pretty much right.  No one has a problem with that.  It is even said there are only so many stories ever and that even makes a certain degree of sense.  When you have billions of people in history all being creative, there’s bound to be convergent thoughts that lead to similar plotlines and story ideas.  That doesn’t mean you should give up or simply throw away anything that seems similar to previously told stories.

The trick about writing is not always coming up with a unique idea (there are few, if any, of those left), it is how you tell the story itself.  No one tells a story in the same way and no two characters are totally identical.  You can take a plot that may be identical in its key points to another story, then change it all up by implanting different characters, different styles, and different dramatic beats.  New themes, new ideas, and your own unique perspective can radically alter a tale.

All the same, if you do find that you’re looking at a mirror image of a book on the shelves, it might not hurt to compare them.  The last thing you want is to wind up on that one-in-a-million chance that you running on such a convergent set of thoughts that it really seems like you *are* copying the other work!

In the end, you can take any plot and apply your own unique style and outlook to make it your own.  Until next time, good luck, good reading, and good writing!

Plot and Motivation: No Plot Survives First Contact With The Enemy

Hey folks!  Between writing chapters for my next book (the last book of Three Seconds to Legend) and getting the next Starving Review ready, I’m behind on actual writing thoughts.  However, today’s writing inspired me to fire off a quick article for you folks out there.  Today’s Plot and Motivation deals with all of your hard work on plot and how it can all fall apart in a moment.

I think every writer would offer as advice that preparation and research is vital to writing.  Just as likely, every writer will also suggest that it is also vital to be ready to shift your plot and preparation when it feels wrong or when the actual writing starts to trend away from the preparation you have already done.  This is horribly contradictory advice to some and, on the surface, it is.  We say ‘prepare and plot ahead’ and then say ‘ditch that work at the moment’s notice’.  What does that actually me?

Experience in writing now makes me realize what this all really means.  At least to me, what this means is that to write something properly, to write about things we don’t know about, we have to research it to give it truth and to make it understandable and believable.  Also, for many writers, pre-plotting and figuring out a series of events before starting a longer piece can be very helpful in avoiding continuity and character problems later in the book.

However, with that said, the second bit of advice is critical as well.  What *that* advice actually means is that it is very possible to start writing a novel and, in the course of the practical application of your outline or pre-plotting or what not, realize that there are errors and flaws in what you had originally planned.  Was your original plot flawed?  Maybe but possibly not.  Things simply could have changed.  You could have had inspiration that makes some of your old ideas seem out-of-date now.  A character could seem different when written than your original conception.

When this happens, you are almost always going to be best off following that new inspiration or new idea.  You have to be unafraid of your instincts and unafraid of being able to change when the needs of the piece demand it.  The trouble some people have with this is that they are afraid of making changes that lead to a series of second-guesses that unravel their entire concept.  Overturning even the best ideas they have when those bad ideas hit.  It’s an understandable fear.  As with all things though, there is a vital middle ground and here it is the place where you, as a writer, realize when a new flash of inspiration is for the best of your book and when that flash is just a sizzle in the pan.

Until next time, good luck and good writing!

Looking at Character: He, She, or People? Characterization and Gender Identification

Hey there folks!

As I wait for the Amazon and Smashwords engines to chug forward in publishing my latest book, it would be a good time to get back in the swing of things and get a new Looking at Character article out.  This is one I’d been meaning to do for weeks now, inspired by some strangely coincidental input I’d received from multiple sources, all within a day or two of each other.  Let’s talk about characterization in light of gender, which is a way of asking ‘Is gender an elemental part of characterization?’

Maybe I should explain better.  Some people believe that a character should be identifiable as a gender simply through characterization.  A woman, for instance, should be recognizable as such without direct gender tags simply by how her actions and personality.  Others believe that this isn’t necessarily the case.  While a character might have identifiable gender traits outside of direct description, it isn’t always the case, the argument being that people are, at their core, people regardless of gender.  One could even expand these two opposing arguments to include ethnicity, sexuality, and other ‘intrinsic’ characteristics.

Which is right and which is wrong?

Gender politics aside (one could make a very strong case that the ‘gender is a base personality trait’ is sexist to both genders), I think the best approach to finding the answer is to talk to people.  Ask a man if he thinks that being a ‘man’ is more important than being a ‘human’ and the same with women.  I can tell you what I have discovered from asking everyone I know over the past few weeks.

No one wants to be stereotyped by their gender.  Well, most people don’t, at any rate.  Most people believe that who they are, their personality, is more important to their identity than their gender.  If that’s the case, why treat the characters in your writing any differently?

Obviously, there WILL be times when gender is important to plot and characterization.  There are gender issues, political, social, and physical, that can play a role in things and, yes, sometimes even be vital to a character’s overall personality.  However, these are not the norm and shouldn’t form a baseline of personality traits to add on to.  A person is a person first, then a man or woman.

I can’t claim to be an authority on this.  However, from both my writing instinct and my moral compass, treating a man or a woman as a person is simply the right way to characterize them.

This might be a divisive topic but I would also love to hear other takes on this.  Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your comments as long as you keep your tone and arguments civil and rational.

Until I can make an official post on my book publication or the next Starving Review, good luck and good writing!