Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Guns, Knives, or Magic: Arming Your Characters

Credit: http://j0sh-3000.deviantart.com/art/Ancient-Arsenal-293341868
Weapons. Weapons. Weapons. How do I choose if my characters should bear arms? How do  I choose with what I arm my characters?

Genre and time period act as first-round filters of exclusion. Genre because ray guns aren't plausible in Contemporary Inspirational. Time period because Queen Elizabeth did not have a light saber (Walsingham probably would have peed with glee, but still).

Penchant and personality? The most important parts.

Everything a character wears from Underoos to a Claymore says something about the character. It also says something about their preferred environments and the social situations in which they often find themselves.

  • Someone who wears a garrote disguised as a necklace? Overconfident Assassin. Requires close proximity and shadows. Has exceptional grooming so as not to give themselves away before the kill.
  • Someone who carries a broadsword with a jeweled hilt? Noble Soldier. Requires open space and short timelines of actual conflict (like 5 mins or less). Accustomed to big, bold displays of aggression.
  • Someone who wears a pendant filled with poison? Duplicitous Celebrity. Requires an atmosphere of distractions yet uninterrupted delivery of product. Is often seen yet not noticed.
  • Someone carrying a Thales LithgowF90? Modern Day RAA Soldier on maneuvers. Requires intel, orders, and a war-torn environment. Functions best as one part of a whole. Team player.

Vadrigyn, the protagonist in my high fantasy LARCOUT? Venomous parasites that grow from her palms. Requires foe to be within reach. What does that choice of weapon say about her? That she's unaccustomed to a kind touch, to intimacy.

Her nemesis? Carries a cudgel but uses his magic to move stones to crush her. Requires area where rocks are present and for target to be within line of sight. What does it say about him? The unused cudgel represents the art of distraction and deception. The use of stone slabs to crush people? He has a penchant for excessive force.

With the choice of preferred weapon, you're also introducing weaknesses. 

The solider with a sword? Can't use it in close quarters. Can easily be separated from it. The soldier using the automatic assault rifle? Easily spotted. Dependent on ammunition and proper function of multiple mechanical parts. Venomous parasites? Can't lay a hand on something without burning or killing it. Stone Mover? Loud noise. Big mess. Structure collapse.

Those who are adept at wielding their preferred weapon are also dependent on it, because repeated use--that whole "the weapon is an extension of self" belief--has created a series of habits during defense or aggression. Those habits can (and should) be used against the beloved character(s).

Yeah but MAGIC...

Creating a unique magic system for your world and characters is awesome and fun...and still bound by a logical give and take. It still needs to be a dance of strengths and weaknesses. It still needs to show balance within the character and within the world. "All Magic comes at a cost..." because it needs to to make good storytelling. Otherwise willynilly unbridled unchecked use means there's no character growth. No character growth means it's a boringass story. So, when constructing a new world of magic and assigning who can do what, ask if the magic enhances the character through:

  • Describing the character's station/class
  • Reflecting the character's environment
  • Caging/hampering the character with dependencies
  • Exposing unique habits
  • Succumbing to assorted weaknesses borne of wielding said magic.

So, dear readers, when next you think of putting a flail, a Beretta, or an amulet in your characters' hands, consider what that weapon is really saying about your characters.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Why Carry a Big Sword?

One reason I love the cover of THE TALON OF THE HAWK – and what readers always say, too – is that you can’t go wrong with a big, mother-effing sword. 

I love this character, my warrior-princess and heir to the high throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, because she does carry a big sword. Goes without saying that she knows how to use it. It was super fun for me to get to write a warrior heroine who’s really good at what she does. Maybe it’s what I write, but it seems like I don’t get that many opportunities to write a woman who is a dazzlingly skilled fighter.

In fact, when I got this cover from my publisher, I gasped aloud. I loved loved loved how Ursula’s sword shines, her heir’s circlet and her thousand-yard stare. In a state of thrilled excitement, I showed it to my husband. Know what he said?

“That sword is too big for her—she could never swing it.”

More than a little tartly, I replied, “Does it help to know she’s not entirely human?”

At which point he backed off, really fast. No doubt due to that honed spouse’s sense of when they’ve put their foot in it and domestic discord is barreling down the track at them like a drunk driver on the wrong side of the highway. To be fair, he and I studied Chinese martial arts together for many years, and our teacher very much emphasized what female fighters could do versus male fighters—particularly as regards upper body strength. And he doesn’t read my books.
But man, way to harsh my buzz!

Especially because I don’t think—maybe I’m wrong and, boys, correct me if I am—that men ever look at a cover with a male hero carrying some improbably large and heavy sword and say, “No way he could swing that thing.” Instead we know it’s fantasy. That’s why we want that story—for the fantasy of the badass hero or heroine who *can* do this thing that would never occur in our reality.
It does, however, point up that these considerations must be weighed. Thus this week’s topic: Choose Your Weapon: Arming Your Characters—how do you choose, from what do you choose, and why?

For me, arming Ursula with a sword wasn’t a decision. When she first walked onto the page as a character, she had her sword in her hand. It becomes an integral part of her character—including the jokes that she sleeps with it. She also uses a variety of knives, but the sword is her primary defense. It’s also a character metaphor, as she holds everyone not just at arm’s length, but at sword length. The jewel in the pommel of her sword holds great significance in the overall story arc, too.

On the other hand, Dafne, the heroine of book 4, THE PAGESOF THE MIND, is a librarian. She’s never going to swing a sword. I did, however, get to write a terrific scene (to my mind!) of Ursula teaching Dafne basic self-defense—with short daggers much more suited to Dafne’s size and strength.

But, you’ll notice, Dafne IS carrying her mother-effing weapon on the cover also. 

We all have our strengths!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A Monster Character Who Took An Even Larger Role

As I understand it, this week’s topic is about characters getting away from us when we’re writing. Um, mine don’t do that. Sometimes a secondary character may become more important than I had originally expected, or readers will ask for one to be the subject of their own sequel.

I did have a monster who became even more of a monster. In Mission to Mahjundar, the characters end up as prisoners of a bloodthirsty civilization who worship a terrifying god known as Tlazomiccuhtli. No spoilers but in the original draft, there were some mild unpleasantries between a couple of the main characters and this god inside the temple, but he/it never actually materialized to threaten them. He allowed his priest/warriors to do all the evil deeds. Ah, but in the final version, as it turns out, there’s a very tense standoff between him and Shalira, the heroine:

Shalira felt a cold breeze on the back of her neck. Next moment she had the sensation someone whispered her name. She glanced at Mike, but he remained unconscious. Half turning, she scanned the cave stretching behind her, wondering if there was an exit. Not that they could leave, with the drone on its way to them, but neither did she want to be surprised by an attack from the rear.
Blinking, she realized her eyes weren’t playing tricks on her - there was a glow in the gloomy recesses of the cave. Rising to her feet, she crept cautiously toward the light. Behind her she heard Johnny say something but her ears were full of the whispering she’d heard before, in the chamber with the giant statue of  Tlazomiccuhtli. Goosebumps made her skin crawl as she came around the last rocky outcrop and confronted another effigy of the Nathlemeru deity. The voice in her head grew louder, and there was harsh, triumphant laughter.
Closing her eyes, the only defense she knew, she tried to back away but felt as if she was standing in glue. She caught her balance with an effort as she tripped over loose stones.
You are mine, little oracle. And I will have the heart of your warrior, as I was promised by Ishtananga before he died. And I’ll loose the cherindors in your family’s precious scepter on all who oppose me.
“No!” She screamed her protest out loud. Blinking, she stared at the statue, which was about eight feet tall, semidetached from the cave wall. The sculptor had made this representation of Tlazomiccuhtli somewhat less graphic than the one in the main temple in the plateau above but the effect remained horrific. She saw bleached human bones lying on the ground around the statue. Apparently the Nathlemeru conducted sacrifices here on occasion as well. Bad luck had drawn them into another place of its influence over humans. Voice trembling, she tried to deny the reality.  “You have no power over us.”
But I do. Your goddess owes me. And through his fears, one of your companions has given me mastery over him. Watch.
She heard Everett yelling and next moment Johnny came walking past her, blaster in his hand but aimed at the cave floor. His face was slack, as if he was asleep. He stumbled over the cave floor, dropping the outworld weapon. As he headed toward the statue, one hand fumbled with his belt knife. Horrified, unsure if Tlazomiccuhtli was going to try to make the soldier kill himself or her, or even Mike, helplessly comatose in the cave entry, Shalira grabbed the sergeant’s arm as he shuffled past.
“Johnny, you have to fight this off,” she hissed.
He stopped walking but the moment she moved her hand away, he lifted one foot to take the next step. Wondering where Everett was and why he didn’t come to investigate, she snagged the back of Johnny’s shirt and he paused again.
Red snakes of light had materialized from thin air and were writhing around the statue of  Tlazomiccuhtli, becoming more and more solid, developing eyes and mouths. She wished she could close her eyes again rather than look at them but was afraid of what might happen if she cowered like a child.
“My goddess owes you nothing, and neither do I,” she said. “You have no power over me.”
Wait until you’re in the grip of my servants, wait until I touch you myself and then tell me I have no power. Perhaps I’ll make you sacrifice your warrior to me yourself. How much you humans have forgotten in the millennia since the world began.

If you’d like to know what happens next, or what leads up to this moment, the SFR Galaxy Award Winning novel is available here:

The audiobook was just released this past week and here’s an audioclip, narrated by the wonderful Michael Riffle, although the scene is from earlier in the book, not from the Tlazomiccuhtli encounter:

Friday, October 9, 2015

Taken Over: When Your Characters Grab the Wheel

How do I feel when characters take a left when I very distinctly remember instructing them to go right?

I live for it. It's the reason I write. It means the characters and their story have escaped the confines of my tiny mind. Whether taken over by gods or demons or the spirits of the abyss, I neither know nor care. Except for the fact that it does happen. If my characters don't dig their heels in, glare at me and tell me I'm wrong, then the story has no life. It doesn't breathe on its own. And I shove it into the book graveyard - the box under the bed. Really. This is why there are monsters and a birthday Grumpy cat in my office. They remind me to leave room for the weird and unexpected.

This means I can't outline. Not the way our resident plotters do. I find I have to hold plot very loosely, ready to let it go at any second, otherwise, I strangle it. It's the strangest thing. I'd so LOVE to be able to outline a story and write it beginning to end without wondering where the hell I'm going and why. (and why are we in this hand basket?)

After some trial and error, I've come to find that I can't write from WHAT (what happens). I have to write from WHY. Why these characters? Why are they here? Why are they the way they are? There are a few whats in that, too. What do they want and why do they want it. What are their fears? Their beliefs? You've heard me talk about it before, but I'm gonna say it again. Break Into Fiction. This is a character motivation driven method of plotting. No claim that it's better than any other - only that it's the way that makes the most sense to me. It's detailed and drills down into stuff that would make just about anyone else other than me cry. (Go to the live workshops for Break Into Fiction and I guarantee you'll see someone cry before the weekend is up, though usually happy tears...mostly.)

I end up with thorough understanding of my characters -- where they start and where I need them to end up. I know where the book starts. I know the inciting incident (in fact, I generally know these prior to sitting down to work through the character templates).  After working through the templates, I usually know where the book ends and in general  what has to happen to make these people earn their HEA. If they get one.

But just for example, my first book, Enemy Within. I had that book plotted. 100%. I knew EXACTLY what was going to happen. I started NaNoWriMo that year full of great hope and grand ambition. I blew through 25k words in no time.

And then everything stopped.

November ended and I was still staring at my blinking cursor. Finally, after a week and a half of me twisting and turning and trying to make deals with an uncaring devil, one of the characters took pity upon me and whispered inside my head one night that the thing I thought was the ending wasn't the ending. It was the end of the first act. Oh! Well okay! Let's move that right on up here and look! I'm writing! Wait! That was my carefully laid plot...and it's gone. I didn't drift in the void for more than a day, however. That was the point at which the characters stepped forward and took the reins of their story.

Is it an efficient way to right? Ye gods and little fishes, no. But it is the way this whole process works for me. I hope it's tidier for you. But if it isn't, all I can suggest is that you breathe and leave some space in your plans for everything to go wonderfully sideways.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Perils of the Writer: Characters Out Of Control

When other writers talk about characters "getting away from them" or "out of their control", I have to confess, I'm at a bit of a loss to understand that.  I'm not saying that in a "I'm right, they're wrong" sort of way-- it's just a difference in process.
For example, I write with a well-established outline, so my major character's goals, intentions and actions are largely worked out in the outline phase.  In the drafting phase, none of them are going to "surprise" me, nor do I have a conflict between What The Plot Needs and What The Character Needs, because I've already taken that into account.   If one is more of a pantser, I can see how the process of pantsing a first draft can create these Plot vs. Character conflicts, where what a character needs to do is at odds with what you, the writer, need them to do for the plot.
However, notice I say "major characters".   This is a crucial distinction, because it's the minor characters where those surprises and discoveries can come into play, mostly because they aren't even taken into account when the outline is written.
Take, for an example from Thorn of Dentonhill, the character of Hetzer.  Hetzer initially existed solely because Colin needed someone to talk to in a scene.  I establish that Colin is a street captain in the Rose Street Princes, so I need someone for Colin to be a captain of.  Hetzer was never in the outline.  Nor were Jutie or Tooser, the other Princes in Colin's crew.  So, when I reached the point in the story where Colin makes a crucial decision and acts upon it... Hetzer is by his side.  Hetzer got elevated to being a crucial part of the story-- even being the POV character for a couple scenes-- because it made perfect sense in the moment.  He stepped up in the story because that was exactly what Hetzer would do.
Now, I'm not going to act like this was some sort of out-of-my-hands divined-from-above thing.  This was a realization I made when writing the scene, and that realization made it clear how the details of the rest of the story played out.  I could have ignored that realization, made a different choice.  I know my first choices aren't always the best.*  Heck, a major thing that became a crucial character element for Minox in A Murder of Mages wasn't even in the rough draft.
My point is this: you know who your characters are.  You know what they need and want, and what choices they'll make because of that.  How that manifests in your skull during the process.... that's not for me to say.
What IS for me to say is that I'll be signing at the Penguin booth at New York ComicCon at 4pm on Sunday.  That is LITERALLY the final hour of the con, so if you're there and you still have strength to shuffle on over to the booth, come say hi.  ALSO, as I said before, there's a multi-author Post-NYCC Event in the Penguin Random House offices on Monday at 11am, and if you can come, you totally should, because they're giving away free books, and there are many authors there who are much cooler than me.
*- Back in my theatre days, my usual costume/set/art director had a mantra: "Your first three ideas are wrong."  A bit pessimistic, but it highlights a key point of it being okay to work through bad ideas to get to the good ones.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

While Linda's Away...

Linda's off waging war against...things I can't mention or she'll have to kill me.

In the absence of her sagacity, we present a video lecture on character introduction, development, and believable change by Hollywood greats.

Writing Characters For Film & Television from the Film Courage Screenwriting Series

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Oh The Aggro: When Characters Go Off Script

How do I feel when my characters go off script?

I'm pretty sure it's every Pantser's neener-neener on Plotters. I can hear their sniggering as the scene ends. The outline has us storming the castle, yet the characters decided to stowaway on an alien ship. They've jumped timelines, quadrants, and genres.

And yes, sometimes it really is that drastic a change. When a character fully comes alive on the page, the story I thought I was writing can turn out to be a wholly different beast.

Let me tell you, dear readers, I am one of those folks who believes spontaneity is fine...

...as long as it's planned.

For the most part, however, I roll with it. Whatever the characters are up to, I indulge.  For a time. As long as they still have the same GMC and can get themselves to the pre-arranged Grand Climax, I will revise the outline and keep going in the direction the characters have determined.

On the other hand, if those naughty little boys and girls are on a tangent, then I am ever the cruel mistress who will drag their asses back to the scene prior to their unfortunate display of free will and force them down the path I had originally plotted.

Mother knows best, after all.

What about personalities that develop contrary to how I envisioned them? This, this happens all the time. They adopt traits and make decisions that completely change their arc. Hell, they occasionally have the gall to inform me that two or three distinct characters I'd originally planned are actually facets of one character. Protagonist down to tertiary character, their growth from concept into multi-faceted person is what keeps the magic of story-writing intact for this Plotter. I typically have three to five Big Moments that I need the characters to hit over the course of the story. As long as they get there, I delight in the surprise of how they get to the moments and how they are changed by the moments.

So, all in all, when characters develop minds of their own, the Control Freak in me is initially annoyed, but the Creative in me is utterly delighted. And when it comes to writing a novel, creative satisfaction is paramount.