Sunday, March 29, 2015

Keeping It Real - How to Write Vivid Characters

Surprise! GOING UNDER has been translated into Italian and is now SEXY GAMES over there. Don't you just love the cover? I want those shoes. Shouldn't I get to have them, as part of my contract?

This week at the Bordello, we're wrestling with a topic every writer fears - Character Cloning: How To Avoid Reusing the Voices, Mannerisms, and Bad Habits of Characters. At least, I hope every writer worries about this because falling into ruts like this can lead to a major decline in quality of the work. As a character-driven writer, I especially focus on making each character as unique as possible.

However, I'm not entirely sure how I do it.

I'm a very organic writer in many ways, and regarding characters most of all. My (perhaps overly simplistic) answer to how to avoid Character Cloning is to write characters as real people. But how do you do that?

Let me tell you a little story. I once took a directing class (as you do) and, for the final project, we staged one-act plays for real audiences over two nights. It was fascinating to listen in on conversations about the play I directed - because I was simply an invisible part of the crowd, people did not censor at all. What I learned was that at any point in the play where I had not been crystal clear on what was going on, what my two characters were thinking and feeling, the audience had been unclear. The actors simply relayed my ideas. The whole play became a kind of physical manifestation of my thoughts - both clear and muddy.

It's a kind of magic that I don't really understand. I just know it's true. And it works for characterization in books, too.

Jeffe's Tips for Keeping It Real

  1. Know Their Offstage Lives - Characters should have lives that have been going on before they walk onto the page and after the walk off again. Even the most minor characters. You don't necessarily need to write this out, but you do need to know it. Some writers find it helpful to write all that out, but for me that's displacement activity and energy I could be using to write the actual book. Your mileage may vary. However you get to it, having this understanding in your head will come through on the page. You don't have to spell it all out on the page (in fact, please don't!) - I promise it will come through. Like Magic.
  2.  Know What They're Not Saying - We all have internal monologues, the thoughts that run through our heads that we don't vocalize. What your characters DON'T say is perhaps more important than what they do say. And no, you don't have to give this insight into their thoughts either. Like with their offstage lives, there's no need to detail this on the page (again, please don't!) - just trust that the magic makes it happen.
  3.  Know Them In All Their Beautiful Complexity - So, this goes against A LOT of writing advice and Common Wisdom. The GMC method (Goal-Motivation-Conflict) can be a useful way of condensing the plot. When we're asked to create loglines for queries or back-cover copy, we have to do this. What do they want and what keeps them from getting it. But remember that this is about plot, about picking out the visible actions of the characters, the salient high points. If you think about a real person - yourself, for example - it's nearly impossible to condense to a single goal, motivation and conflict. If I asked you what you want out of life, it would be a long list. (Or a very short, umbrella one, like "to be happy.") Likewise with whatever is getting in your way. With the exception of people who've done tons of self-examination, few of us know what issues are keeping us from having everything we want. Thus, while you might find it useful to reduce your characters to a single, straight-line GMC, keep in mind the hugeness of who they are beside that. For the third time (do I really have to say it?), don't put it all on the page. But do know it. 
Trust in the magic. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Strong Hero,Strong Heroine, Romance and Adventure Trope

My overarching trope is always the Strong Hero, with an equally Strong Heroine, throw in much adventure and the romance develops as the story unfolds.

Strong Hero: I happen to really like the alpha male Special Forces soldier type, the kind of person you want to have at your side, watching your six in bad situations. In my science fiction romance, the heroes so far have definitely fit this definition. But they're people first, with complicated lives, more than just the well trained "quiet professional". Here's what Tom Deverane says of himself in "Escape From Zulaire":

 “I went into the military because the abuse and slaughter of innocent civilians do bother me. At least in the service, I can do something to prevent atrocities.”

Turns out he’s the orphaned sole survivor of an alien attack on a Sectors colony planet and hence he’s dedicated his life to exacting revenge on the enemy.

My heroes in the ancient Egyptian paranormals are the Special Forces of their time – members of a regiment I invented (but which I bet every Pharaoh had), the toughest, best trained, most loyal men in the Black Lands, who wear the symbol of Horus the Falcon as their badge.

Strong Heroine: As I’ve discussed in this space before, I have no patience for the Too Stupid To Live (TSTL) heroine. The women in my novels are smart, brave, equal partners in a crisis. Whether she’s an intergalactic businesswomen or the chief priestess running an ancient Egyptian temple, she refuses to be coddled and protected while the guy goes out to fight the aliens or the demons (depending on the era LOL). She’s there. She’s resilient. Strong.

Adventure/Romance: yup, there will be a lot of both. I throw my characters into a bad situation getting worse, like being on a wrecked spaceliner counting down to destruction, or exiled to a realm where the demons roam, and they fight together to survive and solve the problems. But if there’s no romance I’m not interested in telling the story!

My favorite movies are usually science fiction – “Aliens”, “Terminator” – and sometimes you have
to be a shipper to actually detect the romance (Ripley and Hicks have chemistry but run out of time in my opinion LOL). You can see my tropes shining through there, yes?

A non- scifi movie I love is “Speed”, with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock.  I think it’s a good example of my tropes at work, although I take issue with the oft-repeated argument that romances begun in extreme situations don’t last. In MY books they do!

What’s your favorite trope?

(Here's the trailer for "Speed". They don't give Sandra Bullock's character enough credit IMHO...)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Bring on the Tropes

Trope - Something recurring across genre or type of literature. I know plenty of people who give tropes the side-eye, as if they're something faintly stale and stinky. Yet, tropes work because unlike clichés, they resonate. Clichés may once have been tropes, but they've hung around too long and gone a bit rancid. They don't ring any bells of recognition in readers any longer - they just taste off. Tropes, on the other hand, are still sweet.

I know we're supposed to write about our favorite tropes and heaven knows I likes my tropes. But seriously, you know my favorites already. You've read 'em in my books! I'm far and away more interested in YOUR favorite tropes.

We know Sullivan McPig's fav tropes. Zombies and pigs. Fine, fun tropes they are, too.

What about you?
What lights you up?

Doomed, obsessive, forbidden love?
Mad scientists and unintended consequences?
Farmboy saves the galaxy? Yeah. Okay. That's totally Star Wars. You caught me. Simple trope, right? Well. Thanks to my 7th grade AP English teacher, chew on this: sub the Imperials with Nazis and you have something more than a western in space. And a whole new trope.

Is there a trope you NEVER see but would cry with joy if someone wrote it?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Three Tropes I'm Currently Using

I like to say that there really aren't bad cliches in writing, there are simply tropes that are easy to do badly.  It would actually be very hard for me to pick just three as favorites.  However, here's three that have been on my mind lately:
"One's an X.  One's a Y. Together, They Fight Crime!"
Action Mom
Great Detective
Why these three?  Because they're put into play in a book coming out on July 7th: A Murder of Mages.
Satrine Rainey—former street rat, ex-spy, mother of two, and wife to a Constabulary Inspector who lies on the edge of death, injured in the line of duty—has been forced to fake her way into the post of Constabulary Inspector to support her family.
Minox Welling is a brilliant, unorthodox Inspector and an Uncircled mage—almost a crime in itself. Nicknamed “the jinx” because of the misfortunes that seem to befall anyone around him, Minox has been partnered with Satrine because no one else will work with either of them.
Their first case together—the ritual murder of a Circled mage—sends Satrine back to the streets she grew up on and brings Minox face-to-face with mage politics he’s desperate to avoid. As the body count rises, Satrine and Minox must race to catch the killer before their own secrets are exposed and they, too, become targets.

Now, A Murder of Mages is not a sequel to The Thorn of Dentonhill, but it is also set in the city of Maradaine, and astute readers will see the threads of connection.  But it is its own story, that can be read independently of Thorn.  Of course, my utterly objective, unbiased opinion is that you should read them both. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Three Genre Tropes I Enjoy

Three genre tropes I enjoy:

1.) Good vs. Evil. I know, I know, this can be applied to nearly every story one way or another. I generally enjoy clearly marked good and bad guys, so I know who to root for...but a story that comes to mind --and if I recall it all these years later it made an impression-- is called To Reign In Hell by Steven Brust. Basically the fall of Lucifer, but he was innocent, and set up by others.

2.) The Quest.  There is always a bit of mystery in the quest. What does the protagonist learn along the way that was unexpected, and how does that change or affect him in small subtle ways that I as a reader did not see coming...that is something I find quite satisfying because thought I kind of assume the hero will win the day, the fun of finding out how and watching him succeed is enhanced by the fact that the success meant that something more. Examples: Lord of the Rings, Da Vinci Code

3.) The Chosen One.  I mean, duh, it's kind of right there at the head of the Heroes Journey thing and I can be a sucker for this kind of story...IF that chosen one is someone who resonates with me. My series is basically this at its core and because I hate it when this trope moves too quickly I am making sure that Seph has to grow and earn her success. Just because a character is 'the chosen one' does not, to me, mean he/she will win, it means that he/she has --more than others-- the potential to win if they prove they have the character and heart to see it through on every level: emotional, spiritual, mental, physical, etc.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

3 Beloved Fantasy Tropes

Long-time readers of this blog know I am a vocal proponent of the Contract of Expectations between author and reader. Tropes are part of what define genre expectations. How an author frames those tropes and leverages them into something interesting and compelling is a big chunk of what makes a book...good.

There are many slivers within the definitions of "trope" that bunch some boxers. Jeffe & James have already reviewed them. On the positive side, I am particularly fond of how WriteWorld carves up the differences among stereotype, archetype, and trope. Their definition of trope is: 
Tropes: Culturally-specific norms in storytelling. Tropes are cultural classifications of archetypes. There can be many tropes found under the umbrella of one archetype.

"Culturally-specific norms in storytelling." I love that. It makes me want to know more about tropes from around the world, particularly non-Western tropes.  I also wonder if there is a hashtag or a thread out there in the Diversity in Fiction discussions focusing on culturally-unique tropes.

So, all that preamble aside, my 3 Favorite Fantasy Tropes are:

1) Whelp-to-Wizard
I do have a soft spot for the nothing-special kid who becomes a kickass wielder of magics. I like to read about the trials of their education, their screw-ups and the plot-changing repercussions of said screw-ups. Pug from Feist's Magician/Riftwar series and Hyacinthe from Carey's Kushiel series are examples. Yes, even Harry Potter, but Harry was a a bit too Chosen One for me. Imagine the story from Neville Longbottom's POV, eh?

2) The Artful Conjurer of Vengeance
Probably due to my deep, deep love for the classic The Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas (père), any story that holds my hand through the crafting of the perfect revenge--all meticulous detail of setting up the villains and watching them fall due to their own flaws--I wish I could find more of these. 

3) The Human God
The protagonist begins the book as an every-man and ends the story on the threshold of becoming the deity known throughout history. The prequels of the Divine, if you will. What is not to love about the well-written seemingly plausible prequel?  Epona, The Horse Goddess by Morgan Llywelyn and Red Branch (the stories of Cuchaulainn) also by Morgan Llywelyn.

There you have them, dear reader, my favorite fantasy tropes. If you have any recommendations, let me know!

Monday, March 23, 2015

To Trope, Or Not To Trope


Tropes is another word for cliches. Know why cliches exist? Because they have an element of truth to them. Lots of stories involve the Nerd: male or female, very studious, often shy, almost guaranteed to be skinny and bespectacled or pudgy and wearing braces. Know why? Because every person who has gone to school in any area that is even moderately civilized has run across a nerd. (Moderate civility could be considered an important aspect here, because without that civilization and a touch of technology, we are left without the glasses or the braces, and because nerds are, by the nature the Outsider and Outsiders often die quickly or are crushed beneath the heels of the strong in areas without civility.)

You know why so many writers include a nerd? because they can relate. We are, by and large, book nerds. if we were not, we would n to be writing and reading as voraciously as we do.

Now that we know what tropes are (by my personal definition), let's move on, shall we?

Sword and Sorcery Tropes:

Swords--Weird, huh? Swords show up in most Sword and Sorcery and do so prevalently. The type of sword often varies, and in a few cases there ARE no swords. Instead we get axes, spears and the occasional mace. But the idea is the same. There are large bladed weapons, normally wielded by the sort of guy you never, ever want to meet in a dark alley and most often would cross the street to get away from.

Sorcery--Well, come on now! If you're gonna have a mean fighter, now and then there has to be a challenge. The average dude with an axe has no chance, so now we need a sorcerer or two. They are, as a rule. dark and sinister and full of hatred and greed. If not, what good are they?

Damsels--of COURSE there are damsels. Depending on who you talk to the Sword & Sorcery genre is loaded with the most stereotypes. Every cover has a scantily clad woman cringing at the edge of the cover and the Big Dude With The Sword standing between her and the monster/demon/dark knight summoned by the Sorcerous Bad Guy.

There. three tropes.

Except, like most every other genre, those three still exist but have changed over the years.

Damsels-Mark Two: A handful of names come to mind for most people and chief among them is Red Sonya. Despite her tendency to run around in a metal bikini, she's tough as nails and a superior warrior. Note please, that I did not say Robert E. Howard's Red Sonja, because the man who created Conan did not, in fact, create that most popular of female sword-wielding bad asses. In fact, comic book writer Roy Thomas created her. But because she was created as a part of the Conan Comics and those comics are owned by the licensors, she was swallowed into the Howard Estate. Howard himself created Red Sonya )Note the difference in spelling) and Valeria and the pirate Belit, three tough customers, but did not create the red-maned menace of a thousand men.

Fun article on the notion of S &S Damsels can be found here.

A few you should look up if you want to see well-done female leads in Sword & Sorcery include C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry. Very likely the first ever main female character in a S & S setting, which is fitting as C.L. Moore was a female writer who wanted a strong female lead.

Marsheila Rockwell's Shaala. Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Tomoe Gozen (A samurai), Andrew J. Offutt and Richard K. Lyon's Captain Tiana of Reme (another redhead, this time a pirate but decidedly a tough one) from the War of the Wizards series. Joe Abercrombie's Monza Murcatto is one of the darkest heroines I've ever read and the story is not cheerful, but, damn, that is a fabulous character. There are plenty more and I can even throw myself a bone because several readers have told me how much they like Swech of the Sa'ba Taalor from my Seven forgers series. There is nothing of distress when it comes to that particular damsel. There are plenty more, of course. That is quite literally just the tip of the iceberg and I can safely say a few of my floor attendees at the here brothel could chime in with a character or two (and are encouraged to do so!).

Sorcery-Mark One: Sorcery is, by the standard tradition of the books, evil in nature. Remarkably few wizards in most Sword & Sorcery books are on the side of good. Why? because they must make sacrifices to the dark powers in order to gain  their power, and that means they are, by their nature, rather on they selfish side and a bit greedy with whatever power they can achieve. There are exceptions, of course, but not all that many.

But, Jim, what about Gandalf? What of Merlin?

I said Sword & Sorcery, that's slightly different from most fantasy (excluding only Grimdark, which is like S & S on crack and with a very negative attitude.). We're talking the sort of bad guys that Conan ran across, and Solomon Kane, and Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Those guys NEVER ran across happy,c cheerful magic wielders. They ran across megalomaniacs bent on revenge, power and ending entire nations in a seething tide of blood, fire and disease.

Swords-Mark Two: There are swords and then there are SWORDS. One of the tropes played with most often involves WEAPONS OF POWER. Anyone can wield a sword. Some better than others. And then, we have weapons of power. Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone was a powerful sorcerer in his own right, but he was also a man born with a few health issues. His albinism was one sign of the troubles he suffered and in order to win back his empire from his cousin, he sought and found a powerful weapon, a short sword called Stormbringer, which quite literally ripped the souls out of the people it killed and fed part of the power it stole into its weirder. Suddenly, Elric the meek became Elric the feared. His sorcery and his skill with a sword were impressive before but after claiming the sword he became a true terror. Not at all surprisingly, his story ends unhappily. Great fun for the readers, not so much for Elric.

The One Ring: Like I said, the Lord of the Rings is not Sword & Sorcery, per se. It does NOT follow all of the tropes, and in fact the most powerful weapon in the whole of Middle Earth is a ring meant to bind all under the servitude of the Dark Lord Sauron. If you don't know that story by now, you should just go to the store right now and either rent the movies or better still read the amazing books by J. R.R. Tolkien. from this wellspring most of the waters fantastic do flow.

David Gemmell's seminal character Druss does not weird a sword. he swings an axe called Snaga the Sender, and wields it very well indeed. One of the fun parts of the tales is the question of exactly whether or not Snaga is truly a mystical weapon or Druss is really that fierce in combat.

Three tropes, all with different takes. My favorite thing about chinches are as follow: 1) They are shorthand for elemental truths. 2) The truth, however solid it might seem, is more than mere fact. By that I mean a nerd in a story is a nerd, but that doesn't mean said character cannot be strong, brave and heroic. A sword officially only exists to kill (or possibly coronate) but the reason that sword is wielded and how well it is handled can make or break a story and a world. Damsels might be female, but that does not mean they are delicate.

Ultimately tropes are starting points, short cuts, if you will, to help the writer shape a tale and to help a reader identify with the same. Take away each and every trope and what you get for your trouble is a longer story that likely will not meet expectations.

James A. Moore

And here we have three tropes for the price of one: Sword, Sorcery (I feel safe in assuming that background implies same) and Damsel.