If More Isn’t Better, What Is?

Last time I made a case for writers slowing down their writing rather than flooding the market with less-than-best novels. With the change of status of the e-book and the ease, as well as the lower cost, of publishing that format, authors may be tempted to increase how fast they put out books rather than to slow down. I think that would be a mistake.

Writers should continue to improve. How can they when they barely have time to get a story down and turned in on deadline, even as they put in hours promoting the previous book?

But how, exactly, can a writer improve?

Last time I mentioned that characters can improve with time. As a writer gets to know the characters, they become like real people and therefore behave on paper in realistic ways. Gone will be the lines of dialogue the author forces on them because readers need to know certain things. Instead conversation, thoughts, and actions will fit naturally because this particular character would say, think, and do these particular things.

But it’s a stretch to make characters unique. No two people are alike, and an author needs to work hard to make no two characters alike, in what they do, how they think, how they sound. In addition, no character should fit a mold. Just like an author should avoid cliched expressions, she must avoid cliched characters.

Along those lines, a writer aiming for better, not just more, should avoid cliched answers to the difficulties she puts her characters in. Finding an uncommon way of escape is a challenge on several levels. One is to find something that hasn’t been done to death already. The other is to foreshadow it properly so that the problem isn’t solved by some force or mechanism that appears conveniently at just the right moment when nobody (especially the reader) expected it or looked for it.

Besides believable plot points that are properly foreshadowed, the better plots are not convoluted. Once I had an editor call a synopsis I wrote “convoluted.” He was right. I hadn’t written the book yet and put the synopsis together based on ideas I had for the story. I knew where I wanted to go but not what all I wanted to happen on the way. I put in all the interesting things I considered. It was too much and of course as I began to develop the story, it was obvious to me which ideas didn’t fit.

Unfortunately, it seems like some books retain all the interesting ideas even if they don’t fit. Plots should not be hard to follow. They can have interesting twists, certainly, but the bottom line should be, the protagonist has an objective and a plan of action. So does the antagonist, and the two are on a collision course.

Most importantly, however, books should say something. Unless they are modeled on fables in which a stated moral is part of the story, the something a book says should be woven into the fabric through symbolism, character growth, plot developments, and resolution.

Such weaving takes time and is often a result of extensive revision.

I could go on and discuss character motivation and language and imagery and subplots and a host of other things that better stories have, but I think it’s probably time I put this particular rant back into its cage for a while. Let me end with a simple answer to the title question: If more isn’t better, what is? Creativity — and that takes time.

Determining What Readers Want

I was between books. Nothing in my to-be-read pile seemed quite right, even the half dozen books I’d started. I found my way to the library and checked out a novel by an author I’d met. It wasn’t in my normal genre, but I was OK with that because I find it to be a nice change of pace now and then to read something different.

The next day, however, a book arrived that I’d been waiting for. I ripped open the package and read the first two chapters during lunch.

So now I had two books going. Two books I wanted to read.

And which one did I choose? The one with the character I liked better. Never mind that it used considerable jargon I didn’t understand or that it didn’t read as smoothly as the other one.

Please note, I didn’t sit down and analyze the characters to decide which book to read. I simply went with the one I felt like reading. At first I chose the one I thought more appropriate for putting me to sleep since I was reading right before bedtime. But the next time I chose, I reached for the same book. Finally it dawned on me, that’s the book I really wanted to read the most.

Why was that?

I looked at the various fiction elements in both books and knew. One character I liked and the other irritated me.

The one I liked wasn’t perfect, mind you. He was doing some dumb things and suffering the consequences. But he didn’t appear to be arrogant; he didn’t treat others as if they didn’t matter or were an inconvenience to him.

I suspect I tolerated and even felt empathy for him in the midst of his mess because I liked him. I’ve tried to pinpoint the likable qualities.

One thing that stands out is how other characters treated him. A good number were patient with him, were willing to help him and counsel him—even some family he pushed away. There was also a selfish character who pushed him away, which made me feel for him and like him all the more.

In fact that loss and another one of note, made him seem vulnerable.

At the same time, he had a number of admirable qualities. He was responsible and brave and selfless. And when he blew it, he was remorseful.

He wasn’t cocky or arrogant, yet he had a problem with pride. He wanted to be in charge, to rule what he couldn’t rule. But he wasn’t a bully or a snob. His problems put other people in jeopardy, but he suffered too.

Often times, I think I like a book for the story. I say with some frequency that story trumps all. But what I’m learning is that a good character makes the story. If I can’t connect with the character, then I have little interest in seeing him try to save the day or woo the girl or become a man.

Ho-hum, I think, a book with a protagonist I don’t connect with might still be good for one thing. It might put me to sleep. 😉

Published in: on March 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm  Comments (2)  
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What Makes Fantasy Work, Continued

When I first posed the question, What makes fantasy work, my immediate thought was, an engaging character. That’s when I realized that there might not be so much difference between fantasy and other fiction.

In some of the fantasy I mentioned yesterday that I don’t think is working, I found two problems with the central character—either she/he was nondescript or whiny.

To make a character seem real, he must have a rounded personality. For fallen humanity, that means weaknesses and needs as well as strengths and things to offer others. At times, however, a character weakness can be painted with too much emphasis. I know because I created such a character.

It crushed me at first when members of my critique group told me they hated my main character. Hated him? I loved him. How could they misunderstand him so completely? Yes, he had problems, but don’t all characters? I mean, isn’t that part of the character arc?

That, in a nutshell, is the balancing act authors must achieve—give the character problems but not let him become embittered, sullen, whiny, complaining, slothful.

In some ways, Jonathan Rogers’ Grady in The Charlatan’s Boy is the perfect character. He’s got a problem—he’s an orphan, but that’s not all of it. The only person who knows anything about where he came from is unreliable—worse than unreliable. He twists the truth at will, however it suits him.

But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Grady makes the most of his circumstances. Here’s where the reader sees his real strengths. He’s loyal, hard working, and humble enough to play whatever part is given him.

So the first thing fantasy has to have in order to work is a main character that is believable and engaging.

The second thing, because this is fantasy I’m talking about, is a well-developed, consistent world. This is the aspect J. K. Rowling mastered. If I were to grade her, I might give her a C or C+ for her character. Harry wasn’t particularly believable in the first book because the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Dursleys was over the top. Nor was he particularly engaging. He didn’t whine but neither did he do anything to change his situation.

But the world Rowling created was unbelievable. Well, believably so. I mean, she did such a great job creating a magic place that the story came alive. She paid attention to detail and didn’t overlook anything.

In Hogwarts, food appeared magically on plates, the ceiling in the dining hall changed to appear like the outdoor sky, persons in portraits moved (and moved from their own frame to another’s), persons in newspaper photos moved too, and so did the figures on the cards that came with certain candy. And those chocolate frogs could actually jump away. The students had to be taught how to fly a boom and how to use their wands. And on and on and on. So many little details, everyday things twisted to fit a place where magic was real.

But there’s still more to this “What makes fantasy work” question, so I see I’m going to need another post on the topic. We’ll just say this continuation is to be continued. 😉

Characters – Who Do You Love?

Because I’m a writer, I think about writing technique and writing components and writing style and writing voice (the subject of my last Rewrite, Reword, Rework writing-tips post). One of the “components” of fiction, of course, is characters.

As I wrote my review yesterday of Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand, I once again thought about characters and what makes readers love them—or at least like them enough to read their entire story.

I suspect characters in novels, like real people, will draw those to them who admire them or connect with them or sympathize with them. Yet occasionally, along comes a truly charismatic person who seems to draw people to him from all walks of life.

A friend of mine is reading a biography of Benjamin Franklin filled with primary sources—letters he wrote and letters he received. It seems good ol’ kite-flying Ben was more than a statesman, more than an inventor. He was a charismatic individual others wanted to be around, whether those “others” were in England or France or back home in America.

So here’s the connection: might there not be characters who draw crowds the same way Ben Franklin did? Or the way, apparently, LeBron James does today?

Same friend asked me what the big deal was with LeBron James that he would merit an hour show to announce where he was going to play basketball. Charisma, I said. Or charm. He has a way of wooing reporters to his side (referees, apparently, too).

Charisma might be different than charm, or maybe that’s just in my mind. But again, the point here is that some characters could foreseeably be the kind that inspire devotion, couldn’t they? I’m not talking about a niche group of devotees, either.

Hans Solo is an example of the kind of character I’m referring to. Or how about Magnum from TV’s Magnum, P. I.

Who in books has that kind of charisma? I think of my favorites and I’d have to say, those stories don’t have charismatic characters. At least not as protagonists.

Aslan is charismatic in the Narnia books. Gandalf, too, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But Harry Potter? Though he was a nice boy, he wasn’t the driving force, the compelling reason I wanted to keep reading those books.

So how important is a character readers love? I think it might be an important enough question for me to poll you all and see what you think. Thanks in advance for your participation. 😀 Feel free to leave comments as well. The more I hear what others think, the more I learn about crafting characters.

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 5:17 pm  Comments (16)  
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Writing Dialogue – Develop Character Voice

I haven’t mentioned this I don’t think, but I’m putting fewer “writer posts” on A Christian Worldview of Fiction since I started my editing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework. But because I’m a writer and because I read a lot of writing related blogs, I can’t leave off the writing discussion for long.

So today, in thinking about a blog topic, I perused a few of other sites and came upon Kay Marshall Strom’s excellent post, “Write good dialogue,” she said.

Kay finished with this:

Okay, that’s my ”get started” list. Any dialogue hints you want to add?

I thought a minute and came up with one—characters need unique voices. I added that not-original bit of advice in the comments and started to illustrate. Then it hit me! No, this should be MY blog post.

Characters need to be different from one another and recognizable by what they say. Not cliched, however, or stereotypical.

So I decided I wanted a challenge. I want to write a number of lines of dialogue and see whether or not you can match each to the correct character. I’ll put the answers in the first comment. I’d love to know how many of them you got right and whether or not you think I made them too cliched.

Of course the real secret to good dialogue is sustaining a unique voice throughout a novel. It’s one thing to write a single line that may hold context clues to what character said those words, but another to write line after line that maintains a particular character’s diction, worldview, vocabulary, accent, occupation, history, and so on.

Still, I hope this exercise might serve to illustrate how dialogue should reveal character.

So here we go.

The characters:

    a. teacher
    b. sales clerk
    c. freelance writer
    d. detective
    e. hospital volunteer
    f. butler
    g. athlete
    h. car salesman
    i. high school student
    j. stand-up comic

The lines of dialogue:

    1. “Y’all having a good time tonight?”
    2. “Will there be anything else, madam?”
    3. “No way. She said it was due tomorrow?” That’s so unfair!
    4. “I have a favor to ask. Can we make the deadline somewhat flexible?”
    5. “I can tell you have a good eye for quality.”
    6. “Weren’t we supposed to go on break a half hour ago? My feet aren’t going to hold me up much longer.”
    7. “Attention please. I have an important announcement to make.”
    8. “Here you go, Mr. Jones. I’ve put your water on the table next to your bed.”
    9. “He’s doing another photo shoot? What’s up with that?”
    10. “Excuse me, sir, are you the gentlemen I spoke to on the phone?”
Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 2:22 pm  Comments (6)  
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Refreshing Fiction Continued

As most writers know, there are no “new” plots. That doesn’t mean there are no new stories, however. An oft-done plot can still be made into a fresh and entertaining story.

Take romance for example. Everyone knows that the traditional plot form of a romance is boy meets girl and they fall in love, but Things happen to keep them apart. In the end, however, they conquer or their love conquers and they get together.

No real surprise in a romance. Then how does a writer make a romance seem fresh? The easy way is to create seemingly insurmountable barriers—cultural or religious mores that keep the couple apart, personality quirks, misunderstandings, irreconcilable differences (until they are reconciled – 😉 ).

Perhaps one character is a faery and the other a human, in a wheelchair. Those are obstacles! Who would even see the romance coming? Which is precisely why R. J. Anderson surprised and delighted readers with Faery Rebel: Spell Hunter.

But what if the couple is already married—a union of convenience or position—and they barely tolerate each other? What if, in fact, the wife holds her husband in contempt because she admires a mysterious someone else who does gallant, selfless deeds to help others?

That set-up describes The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy, one of my favorite novels. I suspect one reason I love it so much is because of the surprise I experienced the first time I read it.

But now those two have been done, so how can a romance writer find a new something? Sometimes the newness isn’t in the plot but in the characters. An interesting character, quirky, engaged to someone else, perhaps single longer than most, with a family who values family and marriage above all else.

Add in humor (which comes from the quirky characters) and you have the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, a surprising smash hit.

Or how about a widower not looking to remarry, with a little boy who longs for a mother, so much so that he makes a call to an all-night talk show and pours out his heart. Interested women start to write. MANY interested women. Now we have distance, reticence, an engagement, the many others, all standing in the way of true love. And that’s Sleepless in Seattle.

Another tack is to merge elements of “already been done” stories. Take Beauty and the Beast, for example, and merge that with Sleeping Beauty and you have Shrek. Of course, the brilliant writers who created all three Shrek movies did much more than staple two threads together, but the point for this discussion is that they worked from familiar storylines. By starting with two that seemed unlikely to fit together, they made a movie (three actually) that seemed familiar yet wholly new.

Fresh stories can also come from different settings. What would a romance set in Louisiana as the state battled the worst oil spill in history look like?

What would a romance between a 9/11 widow and a firefighter ten years after the Twin Towers attack look like?

New places, odd places, uncomfortable places can be fuel for fresh fiction just as much as plot twists or off-beat characters. The important thing, I think, is to imagine beyond the list of “first responders”—the ideas that present themselves when we writers first start contemplating a story.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am  Comments Off on Refreshing Fiction Continued  
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Fresh Fiction Writing Refreshed

Yesterday, the heart of my post about writing fresh fiction was this: A fresh story is a familiar one told in a new way. Or a different story told in a familiar way.

While I think those statements are true, I don’t think they are particularly helpful to a writer who is trying to figure out out to tell a familiar story so that it comes across as something new and interesting.

I think of King Arthur stories, since there are so many of them. It seems next to impossible to tell the tale in a new way, and yet Bryan Davis did in his Dragons in Our Midst series of YA fantasies (AMG Publishing).

Part of his stories, but not all, were flashback scenes of King Arthur and good prophet Merlin saving the dragons from dragon hunters by turning them into people. Reviewers often said their favorite parts of the books were these Arthurian legend scenes.

Obviously Bryan told the familiar in a new way. But how? For one, he linked Arthur with dragons, something I don’t think is part of the traditional legend. He also made dragons in need of saving and gave Arthur a pivotal role in doing so. In other words, Bryan’s fresh take enhanced the existent story and built upon the character’s strengths.

Stephen Lawhead also re-imaged a familiar story in his King Raven series (Thomas Nelson)—Robin Hood. He changed the legendary setting from England to Wales, then in the final book of the trilogy gave a credible explanation how the English adopted the story based on a “real” Welsh hero.

A third example of a fresh take on a familiar legend is the movie Ever After, the story of Cinderella, told as if by an aging relative who passed the true story along to the Brothers Grimm. In this “real” version, Cinderella is anything but a helpless woman, though she is mistreated by her step-mother and one step-sister (the other turns out to be of some help later in the story, though she doesn’t stand up to those who are abusive).

The magic elements of the story are changed into real events/people, with only a perception of the fantastic. Another twist is that the prince, when he learns who Cinderella actually is, feels betrayed by her and is unwilling to marry beneath his station. Later he comes to his senses, rushes to save her from a brute who has bargained with her step-mother to marry her, but finds she has already freed herself from the man’s evil clutches.

These three examples do not hide their source but make a concerted effort to alter the story in some significant way: Davis by incorporating dragons in the Arthurian legend, Lawhead by changing the setting of Robin Hood, and Ever After by explaining away the magic of Cinderella and adjusting the plot accordingly.

Making full use of myth and legend while altering the source in some significant way is just one method of telling the old in a new way. But I’ll save any further discussion of fresh fiction for another day.

Making Characters Likable

When I get a chance, I’ll jump into the discussion about climate change, but I’m sagging off the topic to write about what’s on my mind now. I just finished an editing project and am back at work on my own writing. This is what I love, but I feel like I’m still learning.

This weekend I was once again thinking about the magic that happens when a reader takes to a character in a novel. For one, readers are forgiving of lots of other things—wordy descriptions, predictable outcomes, sketchy settings, plodding prose.

Mind you, I’m not advocating the idea that writers should concentrate on writing great characters so they can slide by in other areas. I’m just saying, when readers fall in love with a character, they will overlook other problems.

Another bit of the magic that occurs—readers don’t forget books when they love the character. They may even line up to get the next one, if the same character is the star.

But most importantly, I think, when readers love a character, they think about the character’s dilemma and heart aches and decisions and dangers and changes. In other words, they are engaged with the character in a way that makes them think about the larger issues.

The question is, how does a writer create characters like this? Over the years I’ve written on this subject quite a bit, but I think I stumbled on something I hadn’t thought of before, at least when writing female characters. (OK, I just saw this same “discovery” in a post I wrote three and a half years ago, so I guess this isn’t new at all. I just forgot it! 😳 )

I think a likable character will not only have strengths and weaknesses, be larger than life, be properly motivated, and have all the other necessary elements, but also will have vulnerability. A character readers love is a character they feel compassion for. Not pity. And not disdain.

So the character can’t feel sorry for herself or do stupid things because of the plight she’s in. She needs to be strong enough to keep going forward, but not so strong she seems to need no one else.

As I think about it, I belief Knife in R. J. Anderson’s wonderful Faery Rebels is an example of this kind of character. She was tough and resourceful and eager to be out in the world, but when she got there, she came face to face with things she didn’t have and people she didn’t want to lose. The further into the story, the more her vulnerability showed.

Anyway, now I have to think about whether or not this trait is something male protagonists need too, and if so, in what ways it differs from their female counterparts. Your thoughts?

Published in: on May 11, 2010 at 5:06 pm  Comments (4)  
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Women Protagonists and the Men Who Don’t Want to Read about Them

I realize that I am walking a thin line between understanding the male mind, when it comes to reading preferences, and stereotyping.

Some, of course, think I am stereotyping simply by referring to “the male mind” as if all humans have the same basic structure, with only individual distinctions. Well … no … besides being human we are male and female, as God created us. And then we are individuals.

Consequently I have no problem discussing “the male mind,” with the understanding that individual men will vary on either side of a continuum identified with “maleness.” But keep in mind, what I am saying on this subject is my opinion, based on my observation, not on a scientific study or even a poll eliciting corroborating (or conflicting) views.

Recently a visitor here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction asked some questions after one of my posts on women protagonists, “Women in Fiction, Part 3”:

As a female who reads a great deal, I would agree with that statement [that women can identify with female characters and better understand men by understanding the male character]. I am curious, though. Why wouldn’t the reverse also be true? Why do you think that men can’t learn about us through reading books with female main characters?

I think there are several reasons for the difference I see (and remember, I’m not saying every man will fit in every one of my points—some may not fit in any).

First, contemporary American society has created an atmosphere that can easily cause a man (and especially a boy) to be insecure in his identity as a male.

What is a man? Not so long ago answers to that question might have included “bread winner” or “leader” or “head of the household.” These things are no longer a given, and a man who wishes to claim those roles may be disparaged by society.

Being a man, then, has been reduced to a list of actions, often unattractive (scratching, spitting, ogling, and the like), but sometimes macho (assertion of power and prowess).

What man, searching for his identity in this climate, would then rush out to buy and read books starring women?

My contention is that men who have no problem reading books with female characters are probably quite comfortable with their identity as men.

I believe a second reason fewer men read books with women protagonists than do women with male protagonists, has to do with the differences in our gender make-up.

Women are emotional. Well, men are too, so let me back up. Women are more comfortable expressing our emotions than men are. In fact, I’d say women don’t feel we know people well unless we know the emotional side of them. We explore emotions because we want to connect with emotions. I suspect some men reading this paragraph are just about ready to gag. 😀

Typically men are less likely to show emotion and may even be uncomfortable around others who readily express feelings. I’ve seen boys mock boys for no other reason than for caring deeply.

And in books with women protagonists? I’d bet they all cry at least once. 😉 In fact, many of us as writers hope to induce our readers to cry (and laugh and feel some fear or worry or … emotion). Do guys pick up a book hoping they’ll cry? I doubt it! (Do male authors even wish to generate emotion the same way women writers do? Now that’s a question I haven’t thought of before).

There may be a host of other peripheral reasons why men and boys, in general, prefer to read books about guys not girls, men not women. I thought I could explore some of those as well, but I forgot how I tend to go on and on. (Perhaps a trait endemic to my role as a woman. 😉 ) Anyway, I think these two may be at the heart of the matter. Let me know what you think.

Published in: on April 30, 2010 at 9:28 am  Comments (5)  
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Women in Fiction, Part 3

So my contention is that men don’t want to read books that feature women. (Unless, of course, there are pictures! 😳 )

Here’s my thinking. Part of the reading experience is identifying with the main character. Men don’t want to identify with a woman. They’d feel less than a man.

Women, on the other hand, like to read books about either gender. We can identify with the female character and we can better understand men by understanding the male character.

Big generalities, I know, but I think there’s something to it. Here’s my theory.

What do we have in the book business? Mostly romance, written mostly by women. And yet in the CBA, most of the acquiring editors are men. I’m guessing a good number of the individuals on the pub boards (the ones making the decisions about what books to publish) are men, too.

The men making the decisions don’t know that women readers will read books with a variety of protagonists. They think women readers are like them, wanting to read about a character like them.

So they acquire books they think will appeal to women, knowing that manly-men won’t touch those books with a pole-vault-sized pole.

The problem is, those books only appeal to some women and to no men. The market is fairly closed, and perhaps even shrinking.

The “man books,” however, seem to do pretty well. Of course, I’m not privy to sales records, so I could be wrong, but I’ve seen Ted Dekker’s name on the best selling list a time or two. 🙂

But not every author is as successful. One of the best authors in the CBA, in my opinion, is one few have read. Why? His books are “man books” and men didn’t find out about them. They’re also “man books” dealing with overly-mined territory.

But here’s what happens. Because those books didn’t meet the publisher’s expectation, the report is, this particular house won’t be publishing any more books for men. They tried, and it didn’t work.

One series.

Guys who like sports might prefer a sports book, but that wasn’t an option. Those who want to read books with car chases and lots of explosions wouldn’t have found a book to their liking. In other words, no one novel fits all men.

And no one novel fits all women. But that’s not something women have to worry about because publishers have expanded their fiction selection for women. Besides romance (and there’s an abundance of that) women can choose from suspense, cozy mysteries, woman’s fiction, historicals, and even fantasy (think Karen Hancock and Sharon Hinck).

How many of those books are gender-crossovers?

Are such books possible? Desirable?

Still more to say about this subject. Another day.

Published in: on April 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm  Comments (5)  
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