Monday, December 28, 2020

Worldbuilding and the Passive Main Character

 In a novel I read recently, the heroine is in the middle of a paranormal political mess.  Some of the supernatural races want to control her power, others want to kill her because they can’t control her power, and all of them are fighting against the others to gain the upper hand in controlling the world.  Meanwhile, the big bad mythological super villain is in the wings waiting to strike at all them.  

Sounds like the recipe for an exciting novel, doesn’t it?  It wasn’t.  I struggled to keep reading because the heroine was like a ball on a field being bashed around in different directions with no real goal or control on her part.  She spent the entire novel fighting to stay alive or keep her friends alive at each new attack.  She was reacting, not acting, which made her a passive and boring heroine.  

No matter how complex the worldbuilding in your novel is and no matter how Byzantine the politics are, they aren’t the plot of your novel.  The main character’s struggle to obtain her goal is the major plot of your novel.  Don’t forget that as you create the complexity of the world that main character lives in. 

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Monday, December 21, 2020

Sameness and the Second Book

 QUESTION:   I have just finished writing the first draft of my novel, now given to beta readers to test it out.

In the meantime, I am starting a new one, but all my inspiration seems similar to my previous work. Perhaps I am too absorbed in that type of story.

The things that are the same are the team composition of the antagonists, though in my new work they have different behavior and abilities.   Also, my new work takes place in a similar fantasy world and has a similar magical system.

First, congratulations on finishing your novel.  Of the many who start a first work, very few finish it.  Well done!

Whether there is too much sameness will only be obvious in the final product so it's hard to say.

Some very successful writers write the same story and characters with variations over and over again, and some readers don't seem to mind it.  Others do.  

Each character should have a specific role in your story, and he/she should be written to fit that role.  If you want to shake things up with the casting of those roles, you could try what Hollywood calls casting against type.  For example, make the second in command a charming goofball who has a hidden sadistic streak.  Or switch genders.

You may want to do a few major changes to your world and magic system, but a massive overhaul isn't necessary if the world and the magic fit your story.  Or you can set your story in the same world during a different time period or a different part of the world and not worry about the sameness.  

These days, a reader will find one of a writer's books, and, if he enjoys it, he will buy the next book by the author immediately and read it.  So you want to offer both consistency and surprises.  

As a career move, writing similar books is a good thing.  Many readers are like kids with a bedtime story.  They like what they like, and they want the same thing, but different, each time from the writer.  

Successful authors who want to write a second series move laterally by writing subgenres that their main readership would enjoy.  For example, Jim Butcher’s extremely popular Harry Dresden series is urban fantasy, but he's written a traditional fantasy series which many of the same readers read.  

Then there's writers like me who write all kinds of genres from science fiction adventure to paranormal romance.  Many of my readers never followed me so I had to fight for every reader I got when I switched genres.  It wasn’t a good career move, but it kept me amused. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

What Is My Novel About?

When you are in the process of starting your novel, you may have trouble figuring out what your book is about and what your main characters' goals are.  Here are several suggestions to help you clarify your thoughts.

One is to write a description of your novel as I do when I write a novel blurb description for a query letter or the back cover copy of the novel.

In a short romance, I usually use two paragraphs to describe the book, longer or more complex books three to four paragraphs. If some important point fits one paragraph better than another, don't feel as if you must follow my structure. Put it where it fits.  Interior and exterior conflict, especially, can be switched.  

First and second paragraph: Introduce hero and heroine and give simple plot set up.  What is the interior conflict of the novel? (What tears the hero and heroine apart emotionally?)  Examples are from my unpublished novel, THE LORD OF THUNDER. 

KATE GRAEME, a professional landscape painter, has been hurt by a man who used her love to manipulate her, but she still retains her romantic ideals about love and marriage.  MORGAN DESART, however, has turned his own emotional hurts into a coldly cynical attitude.

Enthralled with each other, Kate and Morgan want a permanent relationship but can't agree on the ground rules.  Kate seeks a loving romantic marriage, but Morgan demands a marriage of convenience with a prenuptial agreement.  Neither will bend emotionally.

Third and Fourth paragraphs: What is the exterior conflict of the novel?  What must both achieve or defeat and what do they have to lose? This can include plot set up, place set up, the important secondary characters, and the villain. 

When they become trapped alone together on Morgan's island estate for a week, open conflict erupts as they seek to convert each other to their own viewpoint.  Morgan tries to entice her into a loveless marriage with his sexual mastery, but Kate resists this ploy and tempts him with romance and samples of a life together rich with love. 

In this war of sexual desire versus emotional need, both know one of them will have to give in before the week is out because the magic between them is impossible to withstand.

If you'd like more examples or your book isn't a romance, read my article on writing back cover blurbs.

If your book is still pretty vague in your thoughts, I suggest you try the Bova method for firming up your characters and plot.  Ben Bova's method is described in his THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. Yes, it's about science fiction, but it works with most popular genre fiction.  (More on Ben Bova’s method.)

The Bova book explains the dynamics and interrelated nature of plot, character, conflict, and background.    

The most important thing Bova explains is how character and plot interact with each other, and how character creates plot.  (Plot as a characterization device.)  He believes that the writer must examine her character and find his one glaring weakness and attack it through plot.  

The protagonist should have a complex set of emotional problems where two opposing feelings are struggling with each other--Emotion A vs. Emotion B.  (guilt vs. duty, pride vs. obedience, fear vs. responsibility, etc.)  

This conflict should exist on many levels.  In other words, the character’s emotional struggle should be mirrored in the action of the novel.  

In the first STAR WARS, for example, Han Solo’s cynical selfishness wars with his unselfish love for idealistic Luke.  Han’s ready to leave with his loot when the Alliance attacks the Death Star, but he risks everything to save Luke.  That emotional conflict is mirrored in the struggle between the two political factions as well as in the thematic two sides of the movie--the good and dark sides of the Force.

Bova's ideas have proven useful to me, not only in creating my novels, but also as an aid when I'm stuck during a novel.  When I can't decide where I'm going or have terminal writer's block, I reexamine my main characters’ Emotion A vs. B and realize where I've made a plot error so I'm able to start again in the right direction.  

I hope these ideas can help you focus your book.

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Monday, December 7, 2020

Goal, Motivation, and Cost

Have you ever started a novel where the main character decides to face an impossible task and an implacable enemy with the odds so far in favor of the bad guys that success, let alone survival, is minimal at best?

Sounds like a great novel, doesn't it?

I've just finished two novels where the main character is in that impossible situation.  In one novel, the hero must face these impossible odds to save his young daughter from a very ugly death.  In the second, the heroine must find out the truth about the death of a young woman she's never met, and the outcome appears to have no real value to her.  She's not even working for money.

I zipped through the first novel like a speed-reading lunatic to find out how the hero managed to save his little girl.  I cared about the results from page one to “The End.” 

The second novel I very nearly tossed away after the first few chapters because I hate stupid and suicidal main characters who have no real reason to go forward in an impossible situation, but I persevered out of curiosity and a fondness for dissecting author mistakes.  

After over half the novel, the author of the second novel finally lets the reader know why the heroine has continued forward in the investigation, but by then, the damage has been done to the novel and the reader's reactions to the heroine.  The reader also realizes that the author has cheated by withholding vital information which a fair author would not.  At this point, the odds of the reader picking up the next book by this author are slimmer than the original chance of the hero's survival.

As an author, you must balance the main character’s goal, its cost to him, and his motivation.  If the goal and the probable cost for the main character is great, the character must have motivation that equals both.  

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