Monday, July 16, 2018

Life Experience and Writing

QUESTION:  Do I really need real world experiences to write fiction?  In other words, can I write a fight scene if I’ve never hit anyone or been hit?

Real life experiences can certainly inform your fiction and give it realism, but I don’t think it is absolutely necessary.

I have written space battles without being an astronaut, diving scenes and I can't swim, and fight scenes using swords, fists, and futuristic weapons, and I have never used any of them.  (I am a pretty good shot, though.)

I've never had the first reader tell me that I got any of my fight or action scenes wrong.

I have never been punched, but I used to ride.  I have had a horse smash her head into me. I've been kicked and knocked into a tree.  I’ve also had a six-hundred-pound horse fall on me then step on me when she was getting up.  

All that has given me more than enough visceral information about taking physical abuse to use in my writing.

I got my diving scene right through research, then I ran the scene past friends who do dive to check for accuracy.  

However, the more you write about something in particular, say your main character is a diver who spends much of the novel underwater looking for a treasure, the more important having personal experience is.  This is particularly true for a real-life task that readers may have experienced themselves.

As a non-swimmer who has never dived, I would never choose a main character who spends important parts of the book underwater because no amount of research will keep those scenes as authentic as they need to be.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Making Your Characters Sound DIfferent

QUESTION:  My critique partners say most of my characters sound alike in dialogue.  Help!

Cast all your characters with actors you are very familiar with so you can hear their voices when you write dialogue.  Unless you have a tin ear for speech, you will rarely have two characters sound alike.

When you pick your actor, consider what part of the country or country of origin your character is from.  Make sure their voices reflect that. You don’t want an actor from DOWNTON ABBEY to play a cop from Philly.

Writing dialogue as what it sounds like rather than the proper spelling is frowned upon these day unless used very sparingly so don’t go overboard with phonetic spelling ("Yo' ole father doan' know yit what he's a-gwyne to do. Sometimes he spec he'll go 'way, en den agin he spec he'll stay.”--from HUCKLEBERRY FINN) or apostrophes to show words that are slurred together. (“If’n you think, I’s stupid.  You be wrong!”)

If you aren’t that familiar with a region’s speech, be very careful how you write it because it’s easy to stereotype or get it wrong.  For example, most of us in the Southern US don’t use “y’all” that often, and when we do in very informal speech, it’s plural meaning more than one “you.”   (Jennifer turned to her cousins and smiled sweetly, “Y’all come home with me and have some supper.”  Her voice turned frosty as she glared at her brother.  “You don’t come, period.”)

You should also consider social class and education.  Someone with a college education and an upper middle class background won’t sound the same as someone who never finished high school whose parents never finished high school.

Read your dialogue aloud or in your head to see if you’ve got different voices, or ask a few friends or family to read your dialogue like a play to see how it sounds.

Another good test is one line of dialogue that isn’t attributed to who is saying it.  If a reader can tell who is saying it by how and what is said, then you’ve succeeded at your task.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Adding a Romantic Partner

QUESTION:  I’m writing an action adventure novel and someone told me I needed to add a girlfriend for my hero so he could save her and win her love.  What do you think?

One of the problems with the hero getting the girl/love object in the end is that it harkens back to the idea that the girl is only a sex partner/thing to be won, not an active participant who deserves the happy ending.  The passive love/sex partner really annoys most readers who find it either sexist or boring.  

If you put the girl/sex partner in, you have to make this character a participant in the story in a very important way, and she must be more than a sex object/prize.

My own advice is that it isn't romance but love that makes a novel stand above others.  The main character must love— be it a romantic partner, his family, or some ideal like his country.  That love must drive what the character does and what the character is, or the novel lacks the something that makes it more than a quick read that is quickly forgotten. 

Monday, June 25, 2018

Getting into Your Character's Head

Creating a character is emotional detective work. You need to deduce what has happened to this person over the years because of the situations they've gone through then decide how that has affected them and how they react to different things because of those situations.

Let's say that your main character is a woman in her late twenties who has had a relentless stalker after her for eight years. Every time the stalker finds her, he will hurt anyone close to her, he will destroy her reputation and her job, and he will generally make her life hell. The police have been unable to stop him, when they actually try, so her only recourse is to change her name and run.

Imagine yourself as this character on an average day doing average things like meeting new people. What are your thoughts?

You and I would probably be thinking very different thoughts meeting a new person as opposed to your heroine.

You and I probably don't have an escape plan if someone threatens us. Would your heroine? How would she live her life knowing she might have to flee at any moment? Would her apartment be filled with memory items? Or would it be fairly empty of personal stuff? Would it make her messy or neat?

If something unusual happens, would she immediately expect a threat?

In your plot, what characteristics will your heroine need to survive? What characteristics would make it harder to survive to add to the tension of the story?

These are just a few questions you should ask yourself.

If this is hard for you, try to think of a character similar to your major character in a book, TV show, or movie you've seen that really grabbed you. That may give you some ideas, too.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The Minor Character

A minor character is a character who makes one or two appearances in a story, or if he has more appearances, he has no real character growth. He can be anything from the stable boy who tends the horses to the best friend’s brother who has a few comic moments.

Here are things to consider when you have minor characters in a scene. 

If all the characters in a scene are minor to the plot, you need to ask yourself whether you need the scene.  

If the minor character scene is only there to tell readers something about the main character, then you should move it to a scene that is necessary with characters who are more important.  

If the person is familiar to the point-of-view character, very little physical description is needed unless the physical description has importance in the scene.  

For example, Jim studies his friends and decides to take Fred with him to meet the bad guy because Fred is built like a linebacker and is good in a physical fight.

However, if it's in the heroine's viewpoint, and she's introduced to the hero's friends, she will pay attention to what they look like and their names so more physical detail is needed.

If the scene needs a waitress who adds nothing to the scene beyond taking the food order, you can use some line like "the waitress took their order and left."

If the hero is flirting with the waitress to make the heroine jealous, then a bit more of a physical description may be needed and a bit more personality if the character flirts back.  

Monday, June 11, 2018

Character Change and Backstory

QUESTION: My main character used to be a bad guy, but now he’s not.  He’s gone elsewhere and changed his name.  How much of his past should I include?  Do I need to write scenes from his past?  Will readers believe he has changed?

If his past (backstory) is important, and it probably should be, you don’t have to include scenes of that past unless you think the reader wouldn’t understand him or his backstory is really complex.  Usually in a case like this, his past life must impact his present one, and backstory scenes are interlaced with the present day.  

Remember that every time a scene from the past is inserted, the reader stops dead to get his mind into the past then must stop dead again to get back in the present.  This kind of back and forth is not a good thing in popular fiction like fantasy.

Backstory can be inserted easily enough during present time scenes through dialogue, thoughts from the main character, and events.   

He could be in a tavern to meet another character and hear a drunk nearby talking about his former identity's bad-ass behavior and think — “He'd piss his pants if he knew he was sitting a few bar stools away from me."  Then you could have another character say, "But (insert former name here) was decent enough.  He'd never fight around civilians and that time he rescued the child from the burning house instead of taking the money.  You wouldn't see (insert new bad guy's name here) do that." 

Sooner rather than later, you’ll also need to tell the reader why he chose to change.  Again, it need not be a huge info dump.  

As to whether readers will accept a bad guy as a good guy, part of this is determined by genre expectations from its readers.  A truly despicable character would never be accepted as a hero in a romance, but, elsewhere, readers have a lot more forgiveness about this.  In your reading of the genre you are writing, do you recall characters who switched moral sides and did it work and why?  

Two superhero movies I can recall where the bad guy turned into the good guy are MEGAMIND and DESPICABLE ME. The change in their characters was the story. 

And think also of Magneto in the X-Men series.  As a bad guy, he is morally and emotionally complex, and he's helped his former friend Charles Xavier more than once to save the day for everyone's sake. 

Usually, bad characters who change sides have already shown they are capable of good behavior with the bad behavior.  That makes it more believable.  A psychopath who changes to become a hero is totally unbelievable.

The trick is making your character's choices and changes believable.  If you do, the reader will accept them. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

State Your Full Name for the Jury

When I started writing, one of the standard rules of a novel was that the writer should tell the full name of a main or viewpoint character in their first viewpoint appearance.  Mary may be Mary for the rest of the novel, but her first viewpoint scene should have her as Mary Smith in that first mention.

This rule seems to have fallen by the wayside in many of the novels I read, and that’s a pity.  

I write mini-reviews of every book I read and share it with some of the reader lists I belong to, and I’ve spent lots of frustrating time trying to find a main character’s full name.  Somehow, just a first name doesn’t seem enough when talking about a character to me.  

Even more frustrating is an author who refuses to give any name to a viewpoint character.  One well-known paranormal suspense writer has gone to the extreme in this.  Her series is a paranormal version of CRIMINAL MINDS with psychic FBI agents and bad guys.  Many of the characters have viewpoints in each novel, and members of the FBI team makes appears in some novels as minor characters with viewpoints.  In an attempt to increase suspense or to be annoyingly coy, she will often not use the character’s name until late into the novel although who that character is doesn’t change anything when his name is mentioned.  

This is so beyond frustrating that I want to grab her lapels and tell her to stop it.  

One of the most important commandments of genre fiction is that the author does nothing to stop the reader in his tracks and jerk him out of the dream of the novel, and this kind of nonsense definitely does that.

Now, there are exceptions to always using a name.  If your bad guy has a viewpoint and you don’t want to reveal his identity yet, it’s perfectly acceptable to identify him as “he” or some other way.    Just be sure that the reader has some means of telling that “he” is the same person each time.