Monday, January 26, 2015

Feelings and the damage done

Here's a simple math for you: If your characters don't matter to you, they aren't going to matter to the readers, either.

But Jim, whatever do you mean?

There's a very real difference between noels and short stories, and it goes well beyond the length of the work. In short stories there's a certain amount of leeway given because, well, the story is short. readers might forgive you if the characters aren't the nicest people in the world because they aren;t investing much time in them. They will even forgive if the characters are too nice, for exactly the same reason.

That trick doesn't hold its own when it comes to novel length works.  If your characters don't interest the reader, you're pretty much doomed. I'll do you one better. If your readers don't care about the characters they re investing time in, there's avery real chance your reader will walk away and never look back.

That means your characters have to be as real as possible. If they aren't, if they don't give a reason for the readers to at the very least empathize with them, they are not long for the world.

My first rule is make the characters believable. That probably sounds absurd coming from me. i mean,. come on, I write a lot of horror, science fiction and fantasy. But I also believe that as a result of the genres, I have to make absolutely certain the characters come across as more than words on the page.

That does;t mean giving them the most vivid descriptions known to man. far from it. I prefer to "paint in broad strokes" and let the readers decide exactly what a character looks like. Instead I focus on the emotions of the characters. I don't think I can emphasize that enough and I don't just mean the BIG emotions. Not everything in a book has to be in violent technicolor and surround sound. I mean all of it and in a dozen little ways.

Here's a little piece I wrote in SERENITY FALLS, a rather enormous book I did a few years back.
it's the introduction to Simon MacGruder, a character who has a very definite purpose in the tale, though he is hardly the central character. When it came to showing Simon to the world I did it while he was alone.  The only tool I could use easily for that as Introspection. It's a messy tool to use, by the way. A lot of times it blows up in your face. It becomes dry easy to fall into purple prose and overindulgence when you are dealing with only one character. Hopefully I dodged that bullet.

Simon MacGruder walked wherever he went, with amazingly few exceptions. He had a car, he just preferred to use his feet. Seventy-three years of walking on planet earth had not changed that. He doubted anything would ever change his mind on the idea of a good, brisk walk.
The winter was over, and spring was stretching into full bloom. What better time to start his project? For years he'd promised himself that he would write a book, and he’d always found a dozen or more reasons not to get around to it, but today just felt right. After all, in good health or not, he wasn't getting any younger and in order to write the particular piece he had in mind, he was going to need to do a little research. Serenity Falls was a small town, but there was still a lot of history in the area and a lot of people he needed to talk to before he actually tried to put that history in a legible order.
Simon loved the town. He had been in love with it for decades, in all honesty. But he wasn't really a part of it as far as a lot of people were concerned. He lived in the woods not far from the town proper and had never seen much of a reason to move closer. He had always been a loner, by choice, thank you very much.  It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, but rather that he seemed only able to tolerate them in very small doses.
Simon MacGruder was fascinated by people, but not to the point where he normally went out of his way to see them.
So instead he had decided to write about them. Though, in all honestly, he never expected anyone to see his history of Serenity Falls, or to even find anyone who would be remotely interested.
The road into Serenity was hardly straight. It took a lot of strange curves as it moved through the foothills on upper state New York. For that reason, Simon walked through the woods around the road, often cutting off a substantial part of his walking time.
And as he walked, he pulled out his tape recorder and spoke to himself reciting a few of the facts that he knew about the townsfolk.
“Well, it’s easy to say there’s a lot of people I don’t know well in Serenity Falls, but it’s also true that I know more of them than most folks do. I’m not talking about the muckety mucks in office or even the constables who try to keep everything properly taken care of, mind you. I’m just talking about people. Those I don’t know well are probably fifty years younger than me, and most of the ones closing in on my own age are either dead or decrepit.
“That’s all right. I probably ain’t long for the world myself. So let’s get her done, as my daddy used to say. There’s a lot of families in Serenity that have been around these parts for damned near forever. Most of them aren’t worth a cup of tobacco juice, but they have a big part of the history around here stuck to their butts so I’ll be visiting with most of them.
“Of course there are a few I can’t visit with any more. Near as I can figure almost every family of the original settles around here died out. But I’ll get to them when the time is right, and not a minute sooner.”
He took his time with the walk, and took advantage of the peace and quiet to cover a lot of the basics for his introductory chapter.

The entire purpose of that introduction is sum up what Simon is about. If I've done my john right, you can get a basic notion of what Simon is. He's an elderly man who is a wee bit lonely and extremely proud of the place where he grew up. I could say that in one sentence (I just did, in fact) but I don't think you can get much of a feel for the man behind the words unless you add a few more facts and details. He's rather down to earth as the saying goes. He is no longer a young man. He walks because he likes to and he also prefers to take short cuts because, like all of us, sometimes he'd rather get where he's going despite the walking choice. 
If you like him I've done my job. If you hate him, I've done my job. If you find him uninteresting in the extreme, I'm in trouble. 

The first thing I've done here is allow for a little introspection on the part of the character. Now and then, no matter what you're doing, a person has to stop and think. In Simon's case, it's basically all that's left for him on a regular day and so he's decided it's time to work on a project he's been thinking about for years.

And next, Jonathan Crowley: Crowley IS one of the main characters. he's also about a different from Simon MacGruder as can be. For showing more about Crowley I chose to go with Reaction as the paint on the old palette. Everything we learn here is either a thought or a comments in reaction to the call he receives. Crowley is not a nice person, but he has his reasons. The catch is to, hopefully, make him likable enough despite that fact. 


The phone’s bell cut through the darkness of the very early morning for exactly three rings. Before the fourth could shrill its way through his skull, he'd answered the damned contraption.
“Hi. If you’re trying to sell me something this early in the morning, be prepared to run and hide because I will kill you.”
“Mister Crowley?” The voice on the other end sounded puzzled.
“Right the first time, cupcake. Who’s this?” The voice was familiar, but then most of the ones who called him were. Almost no one called Jonathan Crowley without knowing exactly who they were reaching.
“It’s Kristen Rainer. I don’t know if you remember me…”
“Of course I do, Kristen. I never forget a good student. They’re hard to come by.”
He could practically hear her blush through the phone, though they had not run across each other in over twenty years. “I was just thinking about you the other day and talking to Dan, my husband. I just got stuck on the idea of saying hello.”
Crowley put on his glasses and looked around his darkened bedroom, ignoring the idle chatter but paying just enough attention to make sure he could answer any comments that needed a response. She wasn't just thinking about him. That wasn’t the way it worked.  She was responding to the simple enchantment he'd used on her two decades earlier, when her sorority sister at the university had tried to sell her soul for better grades. Lois Parker had a great body and a good brain and just enough stupidity in her to think she could sell her soul and somehow get it back later, after she’d gotten a perfect score on all of her tests for four years.
It never worked out that way. Not for the amateurs. He caught wind of the problem when her grades wound up being perfect, even on the tests she didn’t show up for. Happily for the damned fool, he'd managed to remove the source of her perfect scores before it tore her soul into little shreds. Kristen Rainer had been one of the witnesses to his actions. He’d made her forget, but had given her a way to contact him if she ever ran across another problem.
And that was the only reason he could imagine that she would have for calling him. “So what’s been happening lately in your neck of the woods, Kristen?”
“Oh not much that isn’t the usual. You know, a body here, a body there.” She laughed, trying to make light of the deaths. If he remembered correctly, Kristen was majoring in criminology back in the day. Gallows humor wasn't really all that unusual in that field.  “But there’s one case that’s really got me a little freaked out, you know? There’s someone going around killing girls and from what the police are saying, which isn’t much, it looks like it’s ritualistic.”
“Really? Well, you know me, the parapsychologist. What’s been going on?”
Crowley walked around the room in the darkness, listening to every word the girl spoke. She was a good student back then and that much hadn't changed. She had all the details that had been given to the public down pat. He grabbed his bags as he listened, making all the right noises to get her to say as much as she knew.
And when she was done, and he was finished gathering his supplies for the trip, he asked her a simple question.
“Are you asking for my help, Kristen?”
“Well, yes, Mister Crowley. I guess I am.”
“That’s all I needed to hear, Kristen. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
She hung up her phone and if he’d set it up the right way, she went back to her bed and her husband Dan and went immediately back to sleep. She wouldn’t remember the call. They never did.
That was for the best, really. Few people like to remember the bad things in their world.

Crowley is all business. He has no time for people.  He is also, frankly, a bit of a bastard. Eidetic memory, hunts monsters, has absolutely no reason to deal with people other than in a perfunctory way. But he knows how to deal with them to get what he needs. I tried, again, to convey that in a quick fashion and to make sure that I portray him properly.

One more choice then, pure and simple action. They say that actions speak louder than words, and when you are using words to portray that action, it can get interesting. 

In this case no introductions, just a bit more of Crowley. In this situation I wanted to show that Crowley is almost always in a slow burn of anger. Actions seemed the best way to handle that. 

The drive helped. It always did. Hitting the open road and travelling from location to location was one of the few pleasures he allowed himself in the world. That, and killing the stupid idiots who richly deserved to die.
And speaking of idiots, there were a few in front of him on the lonesome stretch of highway he traveled toward the east. He still had to get to New York, and find out about who or what was killing people off in ritualistic fashion.
His cell phone rang twice and he answered it as the SUV in front of him slowed and sped up almost randomly. “Crowley.”
“Mister Crowley? Hi, It’s Kristen again.” She sounded out of breath.
“What’s new, Kristen? Did you find out anything else I should know about?” Hearing his voice, she’d have never expected to see the expression on his face. It was rare that anyone called him back after they’d made their invitations to him. The last thing he ever needed was to hear from someone a second time, unless they had new information.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know there was another death. I know you’re coming here as fast as you can, but I thought you might like to hear about it.”
“Who died, Kristen?”
The woman’s voice cracked when she spoke. “I-I have a friend in New York, from back in college. You might remember her, Denise Winters?” He stayed quiet. Denise Winters had been a vivacious little girl with reputation for being easy. Last he'd heard she'd left the school not long after getting hooked on the heavy stuff.
“Yeah. I remember Denise. Did something happen to her?”
“No…not to her. To her daughter, Brianna. Oh, Mister Crowley, Denise is just a wreck…”
“Well, I had some unfinished business to take care of, Kristen. I’m very sorry for Denise. Listen, why don’t you give me her address? I’ll pay her a visit and we can talk about what happened.”
She told him the street name in a little town he'd been to a long time ago. A place called Beldam Woods, New York. “Kristen, if you talk to Denise, you let her know I’m coming, all right? Let her know I’m going to ask her some questions that she might not like, but that I’m going to fix this once and for all.”
She promised she would and he let it go and wished her well. After he hung up he drove most of the way through Pennsylvania, stopping in Allentown to rest. The Econolodge was pleasant and inexpensive, but there was a group down the hall that he would have gleefully dismembered. Judging by the number of motorcycles—Harleys and big ones at that—parked in the lot near where he settled his car, the fight wouldn’t be worth it. 
He changed his mind a little over two hours later, when the noise from the idiot squad hadn't toned down in the least. He had three options. He could interfere himself, call the manager, or call the police. He tried option two first, and was promptly rewarded by apologetic laughter. “There’s no way, dude. I’m just a weekend manager here and I want to keep my legs. I am NOT interrupting those guys.”
“Then why don’t you call the damned police, precious.”
“Hey, listen, I’m not paid to risk life and limb. There's no way in hell I’m calling the cops on those guys. You want to do it, you go right ahead.”
“I’m coming to your office in about ten minutes. I’m gonna kick your ass myself.”
“You don’t bug me, mister. Those guys? They bug me. I’ll take my chances.”
“Bad mistake.” Crowley slammed the receiver back into its cradle and pulled back on a pair of jeans.
He noticed the massive bruises on his shoulder from his earlier work as a battering ram and decided he’d try his luck any way.  He also decided he’d try the polite approach first. He knocked and he waited patiently. Well, as patiently as he ever did for anything. When the sound of hard bass from a screaming heavy metal band drowned out his knocking, he tried a second time with a much harder rap of his knuckles on the door. On the third attempt, he hauled off and kicked the door hard enough to make it rattle in the frame.
That one got somebody’s attention. The music died down to a mere whisper of its former self and the door opened to reveal the grizzled face of either a biker or a Viking peering through the vast cloud of smoke and the heady perfume of spilled beer and various liquors.  He was guessing biker, as the Vikings as a whole were long gone and most of them probably hadn’t worn leather jackets heavily adorned with patches and spikes.
“What ya need, bro?” The man was not smiling. He looked a tad annoyed.
Crowley smiled for him and crossed his arms. “I need sleep. That’s why I came here. I want to sleep.”
“Yeah? Have a good time with it.”  The man started to close the door, already bored with the conversation and Crowley blocked the path of the closing barrier with his foot.
“I will, just as soon as you turn off that fucking music and ease up on the Screamfest, Scooter.”
“Say what?” Biker boy sucked in a massive breath and squared his shoulders.
“I said turn the fucking music down, you buffoon.” He put on his best smile to ease the growing tension. It didn’t work. He also tried to dodge the ham hock sized fist that came for his face and failed miserably in that attempt too.  His nose tried to turn itself inside out as the biker from hell connected. Crowley staggered back and hit the wall on the opposite side of the hallway.
He felt warm blood trickle into his sinuses and grinned properly. “Now that was rude…”
The biker didn’t agree. He came into the hall and stomped his way over to where Crowley was lying on the ground. Seen in the light of a room not filled to overflowing with marijuana and tobacco smoke, he was even uglier and gray haired to boot. His size twelve book came up fast, aimed squarely at Crowley’s chin.
Jonathan Crowley had the dubious honor of being the cause of many a person’s nightmares and that was for good reason. In addition to going out of his way to hunt down and kill supernatural creatures, he was also adept at most forms of armed and unarmed combat.
Biker boy was just good at kicking the shit out of things. Jonathan Crowley tended to think of hand-to-hand fighting as a source of stress relief.
The biker’s foot stopped three inches from Crowley’s face, held in place by the two surprisingly strong hands that caught it. He used his own shoe and the foot inside it to punt the man's testicles into the next week. The burly man standing over him let out a deep groan and fell backwards, clutching at his privates even as his eyes went wide and his face went dark red.
“You sonuvabitch…I’ll kill you.”
Crowley stood up, his lips peeled back from large teeth and his eyes glittering behind his rimless glasses. “Shouldn’t make threats you can’t keep, Scooter.”
“What the hell?” The sound came from higher up than it should have as far as Crowley was concerned. He looked over at the doorway and saw a giant of a man standing in the entrance to the room Scooter had just left. Said giant was every bit the Viking. Crowley could damn near see him with a horned helmet, or maybe a big battle axe in his hands.
“He got bitchy.” Crowley wiped the blood from his nose with the back of his hand. Scooter groaned on the ground, trying without success to stand up and hold his balls at the same time.
The giant—complete with a massive mane of dark red hair and a beard that was just starting to show a few gray hairs to counter the flaming red, looked at his companion on the ground and then back at Crowley.  Crowley imagined several scenarios in which the Viking came through the door and tore him into little pieces.  He was, without a doubt, one of the biggest human beings Crowley had ever seen. He had to turn sideways to get out of the door and into the hallway.
The man loomed over Crowley and he wasn't even trying to loom. It just happened. “Yeah, well, we’ve been drinking a bit…” His eyes narrowed slightly and he looked at Crowley, assessing whether or not he felt the man in front of him was a serious threat. Crowley didn’t like that the giant wasn't looking very impressed.
“I noticed. I came over to ask as nicely as I could if you guys could keep it down. I’ve been trying to sleep.”
“Come on, Burt. Let’s get you back in the room.” The Norse god lifted his companion from his prone position with ease and half carried him through the doorway. When he was done depositing the aching biker on the floor he turned around. “We’ll try to keep it quiet, mister. Sorry about that.”
Crowley nodded his thanks and watched until the door was closed. Then and only then he sighed and sagged a bit. The noise levels stayed down. After five minutes, he went back to his room. There was a brief pause to go to the office and verbally rip into the weekend night manager.
Sleep came quickly and brought with it the usual insanity.

There are endless tools for showing emotion. All three used here are from the same book within the first fifty or so pages and were chosen for that reason. Emotion is a must for me. If I do not feel for the characters, they do not matter to me as a reader. if I do not feel for them as a writer I have no reason to use those characters to tell my stories. Good guy, bad guy, none of it matters if the characters don't live and breathe for me. No good guy is all saint. No bad guy is all sinner. There are exceptions. They are very, very rare and they should be. 

In SEVEN FORGES I created a race that effectively lives for war. The gods they worship are gods of combat. Still, I didn't want cookie cutter soldiers. I wanted people. So as examples. we have Drask Silverhand, who is doing his best to keep peace in his own way. We have Swech. who is a very capable killer (in fact I think she kills more characters "on-screen" than any other character in the entire series) who is extremely devout and often looks at the world with a unique naiveté. We have Tusk, King Tuskandru. who, if he accepts a person as a friend is giving and warm and until that point is a cold and heartless bastard. All three are, hopefully, well rounded characters. All three would kill anyone at all in the names of their gods, because for them faith is everything, but all three would feel differently about the end result of their actions. 

Each character should have emotions. Each character should react as differently as the people you now in your life. Does your best friend like the same things that your mother likes? Do they agree on politics? Religion? Crime and punishment? Stephen King's latest novel? The reasons for the differences between them are what make them unique. Their emotional responses are all you have to show us what makes each of them special. That. and their actions and reactions to the events in their lives.

What a wondrous canvas to play with. Just make sure you blend the colors well and differentiate the lines clearly enough to avoid a mess. 

James A. Moore

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