Writing Strong Female Protagonists

Good post from Ricky Schaede on how to write female protagonists who the reader will be glad to read about over and over. I highly recommend it. Writing Strong Female Protagonists.

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Characters: Conflict vs. Suffering

Characters are the reason fiction exists. Or so I am told. And this means it is most important to ripen your characters until their stories satisfy the reader. If you focus on plot before character, you’ll get a cool summary of events, but it reads like a news story, and it will be virtually impossible for readers to be immersed and feel like it’s happening to them. If your emphasis goes to worldbuilding, you might get a nice 400 page travelogue (whether or not it’s a world you made up), but again it will be a little cold and aloof — two things fiction are not supposed to be.

Characters are important, is what I’m saying. And one of the basic commandments for a writer is “Make things difficult for them.” Often this has been spoken of in terms of a character “suffering.” It might also be referred to as “conflict.” Interest can only be maintained in a story if something prevents a character from getting what they want.

For the sake of honesty, I’ve lately discovered that I prefer the second term. Maybe that’s just for me individually. I haven’t lived an especially hard life, and like most people I hate the idea of bullying or making anyone suffer. For me, there’s something deeper and more painful than mere discomfort that springs from the idea of maliciously forcing a person to go through a hard time even if it’s for a good end, like writing a satisfactory tale. Just because I want a character to rescue his/her one true love from an assassin and want to make the task overwhelmingly hard doesn’t mean I’m going to do something I hate. If you can do this (to fictional people, mind you) and still tell a great story, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.

However, I can still make the character’s journey difficult and keep myself inspired and glad to be writing at the same time — if I tackle the same problem from the approach of “conflict.” For some reason, that approach gets my own gears turning. Ideas pour out onto the page when I’m not putting some obstacle in the way of a protagonist out of some hidden malice, but because they need a problem to solve that is interesting, urgent, or high-stakes.

Probably a matter of semantics, I know. Nevertheless, even if the character is traumatized and suffers because of the “conflict,” I still need to treat it like a puzzle, and hope to God that I don’t end up with cold, aloof fiction. The approach may be a little more detached, but I take more joy in it, and still realize its final result must hit home for the reader and engage them emotionally.

By the way, yes, I know these characters exist only in my head. It’s still my job to regard them as colleagues and human beings. After all, I’m telling their story, and trying to make readers care about them.

How about you? Do you like approaching characters from a standpoint of suffering or conflict, or something else altogether? I’d love to have some input and get a discussion going. That is, when I’m not frantically trying to finish my own novel’s edits.

Thanks for putting up with another of my dry, abstract ramblings. I do appreciate it!

Writing Prompts for the Holidays

Many writers are gearing up for NaNoWriMo, so I’m offering you some writing prompts for (hopefully) inspiration and keeping you tapping away at that keyboard. Even if you don’t feel like doing 50,000 words of fiction in a month, maybe you can still find these helpful for devising a new story, looking at something from a new angle, or simply getting unstuck. I need to do all three myself, so I plan to use each of these at least once

1. “It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

2. Lots of characters face conflict because they are late for their engagements. What about a character who is always early? How can being early create conflict?

3. What’s the worst that could happen during a nice afternoon chat?

4. Many fight scenes with dozens of combatants occur in a bar or tavern. So, what if a crowd of “normal” people got into fisticuffs in a more unusual place? A museum. An auction house. An observatory. The Louvre. The nearest Village Inn. A train station. Anyplace where you’re not expecting to step on someone’s recently dislodged tooth.

5. How would a big battle scene change in the transition between night and day? Whether they’re fighting at sunrise or sunset, think about the changes of mood, the tactics each side would switch over to, the soldiers having to adapt to the new environment. Contrast the features of nighttime combat and daytime combat as much as possible.

Hope these are of some use to you. Thanks for your time!

Double Review: The Never Prayer, and The Whitefire Crossing

On the Colorado writing scene, there are many fine talents and local stars. I have had the great privilege to read two of the books on that scene in recent months: The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey, and The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer. Today, I finally get to review them for you.

In short, both novels are excellent, and I highly recommend them if they sound like your kind of books.

The Never Prayer by Aaron Michael Ritchey is a YA urban fantasy novel that hits harder than most in that genre. Teenager Lena’s parents died in the aftermath of a car crash, and she is trying to support her little brother in a small Colorado town that is facing hard times of its own. Lena is desperate to bring in money, even if it means being courier for some drugs at her high school. Things go from bad to worse when she winds up in a tug-of-war between a demon and a “fallen” angel as they try to influence humans, pushing them toward good or evil.

I liked how Ritchey keeps Lena’s head above water in terms of social status. She’s unique, and a lot of people feel sorry for her or don’t like her, but she’s not a complete outcast, and can adapt well enough to move through the various cliques of her school. He also does a terrific job at giving us reason after reason to care for Lena’s plight without turning her into a pitiful mess. She is simply trying as hard as possible to provide for what’s left of her family, and that makes her a character worth cheering on.

You also have to admire his willingness to admit that doing the right thing is often the most painful. There are consequences you may not want when you make the right choice, and he pulls no punches in having his characters glean that lesson. The book is kept intriguing along its journey, even when you realize the trajectory it’s taking, and it hit me with a strong ending I did not expect, but played fair with the rules Ritchey had established.

If there was a complaint I had, it’s a minor one. Lena seems very quick to accept that she’s part of a supernatural conflict. Even though the angel is revealed in a dramatic fashion right beforehand, most likely she would still have a harder time taking in the change of circumstances.  But that’s hardly anything but a nitpick, so don’t let it stop you from picking up a copy of Ritchey’s remarkable debut novel. This book is dark, thrilling, and thought-provoking, and I am more than happy to recommend it to you. I can’t wait to see what else Aaron has in store.

It can be a tricky situation if your freshman novel is an epic fantasy. Most of the time in that situation, an author succeeds by coasting on a few great strengths, but the book’s quality is dragged down through equally strong weaknesses (for example, you might get a book with great dialogue and worldbuilding, but its characters are flat and the storyline is confusing). And it’s easy to make the work derivative, giving regular readers of the genre very little reason to pay you any attention.

Thankfully, none of that is an issue with Courtney Schafer’s debut The Whitefire Crossing. This is a book I cannot recommend enough. Seriously, if you read fantasy books, please read this one. Pretty much every aspect of it sings with quality and dedication. The story is one that hooks you right from page one and keeps you invested through the next three hundred, the worldbuilding is excellent when it comes into play, and the characters are absolutely satisfying in their depth and choices.

The story has two viewpoint characters, equally captivating and relatable. First there’s Dev, a smuggler who takes magical charms from the city of Ninavel, across the Whitefire Mountains and into the country of Alathia. Mages rule Ninavel like sin rules Las Vegas, but in Alathia almost all magic is outlawed, so Dev finds steady work in “clandestine imports” of magical items. Only problem is, he’s been cheated out of his money, and he’s taking anything he can get to fulfill a friend’s dying wish. The second viewpoint character is Kiran, a mage who is desperate to hire Dev to smuggle him across the mountains and into Alathia, the one place in the world where Kiran can escape and hide from a vicious authority figure.

To call this an “adventure novel” might be downplaying the tough journey Dev and Kiran take together. They suffer through this story, and no decision is an easy one. Normally I don’t care for novels that are quite so ruthless toward their characters, but Whitefire was such an enrapturing, detailed, and fast-paced book I had to keep turning the pages.

One of the best strengths in this book is the magic system Schafer has set up. Based around simple or familiar things in fantasy magic, like blood, charms, runes, and metals, she constructs one of the most intelligently built magic systems you’re likely to find. For a worldbuilding nut like me, it’s a delight to see her lay out the rules of magic, usually in bite-sized chunks that don’t slow down or halt the story. She keeps things moving, and gives you a chance to learn a lot of her world along the way.

If I told you anymore, I’d probably risk contaminating the enjoyment and level of surprise that this book delivers. Schafer’s debut is a strong one, and she is certainly an author to watch in the coming years. Plus her sequel The Tainted City has just been released, and I can’t wait to get my copy to continue Dev and Kiran’s story.

Writing Suggestion: Fictional Gambling

Having trouble coming up with new ideas for a story? Here’s one possible solution: Gamble.

But not for money. Almost certainly, the spinning roulette wheel is just going to be the accretion disk around a monetary black hole. The house always wins, and writers make little enough money as it is. So instead, gamble for ideas. All you need is a little bit of creativity, a die (with any number of sides you want), and a list of possible outcomes.

Let’s say you’re having trouble finding the personality and occupation of a character to write about in your story, and you have a six-sided die. You can write a list that might look a little something like this:

1. Hard boiled bounty hunter.

2. Optimistic surgeon.

3. Big-hearted bouncer.

4. Alcoholic florist. (Don’t ask)

5. Kleptomaniac plumber.

6. Philandering cyborg.

Then, of course, you start developing the character that the die rolls on.

One advantage of this is the variety, both in outcomes and in the aspects of story creation it can be applied to. Thousands of combinations can be found if you write similar lists for possible plot developments, character fates, worldbuilding, possible villains, subplots, inciting incidents, and possible stakes in the story.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of this game, however, is that it can be ignored. If the die rolls on the philandering cyborg but you really wanted to write the alcoholic florist, then of course you can dispose of the bucket of bolts and overactive flesh. Sometimes just thinking about different options gives you the push you need.

Now go create, and may your imaginings never run dry.

Report: NaNoWriMo, and 10 Ways to Kill the Fairies of Creative ADD

Mythic Scribes has released yet another awesome article that I recommend to fellow writers. Every one of the items in “10 Easy Steps to Crush Creative ADD” is quite helpful, and I find it especially applicable at this stage of revising the novel. Let me know if you find it helpful, as well.

Also, decided I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year. The second book in my series, The Wolfglen Legacy: Provoked is overdue for being written, so when revisions on Revived are finished and sent off to an agent, I shall be tackling it. Hopefully I can also establish a stronger continuity in tone and character development by writing the books so close together.

A happy Sunday to all of you!

Feathered Dinosaurs: Vigilance and Room for Artistic License

I’m going to say this right up front: We have found dinosaurs with feathers. That’s a confirmed fact. Small carnivores make up most of the species with this particular trait. Velociraptor had quill knobs on its arm bones, which served as points where long feathers attached. Microraptor had four fully developed wings. Others were covered in what looks like a downy covering, possibly for insulation. There’s even a medium-sized Tyrannosaur with down on its hide (although I think T. rex in particular has been found to have scales instead, and any addition of feathers is pure speculation).

But as I look over the blogosphere and hear the words of fellow dinosaur fanatics, there arises a hysterical cry that scaly theropods (carnivorous dinosaurs), especially raptors, should be tarred and…well, feathered. Fictional treatments of dinosaurs in books, movies, and TV shows are practically burned in effigy if a small carnivore shows up naked (scaly). Tyrannosaurs and allosaurs and abelisaurs can be tolerated without down or full feathers, but God help you if there’s a Deinonychus or Ornitholestes that isn’t fuzzy.

Notice that I said fictional. As in, stories told for entertainment, which are often known for fudging scientific accuracy. That should be expected and understood, even when the creators try to be accurate. This gets you about as far as saying “You can’t hear explosions in space!” We already know that. Now are you going to sit down and watch Star Wars, or do I have to ask you to leave?

I kid you not, one unpleasant man insisted to me that the scaly Velociraptors of Jurassic Park were “abominations” even though their only crime is being outdated. Let’s get something straight, Jurassic Park was released in 1993, at which point any feathered raptors were speculative. The quill knobs on this species’s arms were examined in a paper published in 2007. Call me nuts, but “abomination” doesn’t quite fit.

Yes, he’s a real menace to scientific accuracy. You can see it in those knowledge-hating eyes.

To make matters worse, I’ve seen these self-important, melodramatic bloggers getting upset about episodes of Doctor Who and Terra Nova because they do have feathered dinosaurs, but they’re not “feathery enough.” Why count your blessings when movies and TV shows aren’t furthering your cause as hard as you want them to?

Allow a little artistic license. Come on, people know they’re not looking at real dinosaurs. The Doctor isn’t riding a real Triceratops, and Stephen Lang isn’t shooting an actual Carnotaurus. By all means, correct a museum display that shows a Deinonychus without a scrap of feathers on its skin, because that’s meant to be a scientifically accurate reconstruction. But even then, don’t lose your temper. That’s just childish.

And for the love of everything sacred and holy, stop telling me that dinosaurs had “denser” feather coatings than modern birds. That’s a little hard to establish when you point to feathers on (gasp) a dinosaur’s ankles. And when all you’ve got with dinosaurs is feather impressions in the rock…how do you know the coating was denser than on birds? This is pseudoscience at its finest, folks.

Bloggers and paleontologists, listen. I know you’re tired. You’re tired of people whining “Don’t take away my scaly raptors and replace them with foofy little peacocks with teeth!” I know you’re tired of creationists insisting that Microraptor was nothing more than a weird bird (I don’t even know that much anatomy, and even I can tell you that’s false). I know you specialize in the cutting edge discoveries of dinosaur paleontology, and a lack of feathers can be aggravating.

Nevertheless, seeing this aggravation bleeding out into long-winded rants about how important feathered dinosaurs are can get very tiresome. A raptor without feathers may be scientifically inaccurate, but it’s not a threat to scientific literacy. It’s just outdated. Don’t try saying “feathered dinosaurs are more beautiful,” either, because beauty is subjective, and some people just find a scaly raptor more badass. Too bad. Just because you have the benefit of scientific evidence doesn’t mean you can be a jerk to someone who likes scaly raptors better.

Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Image taken from Wired Magazine.

Eventually the public will come around and find feathered raptors “cool.” Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, however, when you’re doing more whining than they are.

UPDATE: I would also like to point out, just for the heck of it, that many of the same anatomical features on Microraptor that identify it as a dinosaur (lack of a beak, teeth set into the jawbone, large antorbital fenestra, etc.) are traits shared by Archaeopteryx. For this reason, I place Archaeopteryx within the Dinosauria, rather than call it a full-fledged bird.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: I think it’s more likely a given theropod was feathered if it was in a colder climate, such as the Antarctic Cryolophosaurus, Canadian Ornithomimids, or the Mongolian Tyrannosaur Yutyrannus. In warmer climates, they might simply not need them.