Short Story: The Old Lady

The Old Lady

by Victor Poole

Once upon a time there was a lady called Gunhilda. The old lady had warts on her nose, and ugly, misshapen lumps in her temples, and poking up through her hair. She was ashamed of her lumps, and hid in her house from the time she was a child until she was quite an old woman. When she was grown tired of being alone, the old lady went to a doctor, and said, “Mr. Doctor, I want to get rid of these lumps on my face.”

The doctor looked at her, and then he laughed.

“Go and help other people become pure in their hearts. Show them the way to be happy, and then the bumps will shrink.” The lady paid the doctor, and went on her way.

She thought and she thought about how she was going to find a way to show others how to be happy. She first thought of teaching little children to sew, but when she went to watch the little girls at school, she found that she hated their noise. I could teach little boys how to be kind to their mothers, the lady thought, and she went into the first house that she found, and took hold of a little boy by the ear.

“You must treat your mother with kindness!” the lady said sharply to the boy, who shrieked, and kicked her. The lady began to shake the boy, but then his mother came in, and beat the lady with a broom stick.

The lady went to jail, because she had broken into a householder’s place, and hurt a child there. The honorable judge put the lady into prison for three months.

“If you bother anyone after this,” the judge warned her, “you will be banished from our city.”

“You can’t banish me,” the lady said to the judge. “My father was friends with many wealthy people.”

“You are not your father,” the judge told her.

The lady with the lumps on her face sat in the prison cell, and she tried to think of how she would impart happiness to the others in the prison. She looked at the three prisoners with whom she shared a cell; they were sitting as far away from her as they could get, and their faces were turned away.

“I am going to bring all of you into the way of happiness,” the old woman announced.

“She is speaking to you, I think,” one of the prisoners, a fat man, said to his neighbor.

“No, I was speaking to all three of you,” the old woman replied. “I have been instructed by my doctor to make you happy. Now you must listen.”

The fat man pressed against the bars of the prison, and screamed for the guard, who came running.

“Is there a fight?” the guard demanded.

“This woman, she will not stop harassing us!” the fat man said. The other two prisoners joined in, clamoring to be moved.

“Well, you are a frightening thing to see,” the guard told the old woman. “You had better come with me to solitary.”

“Thank you, thank you!” the other three prisoners cried, as the old woman and the guard went away together to an old shack of wood at the back of the prison. The shack was badly guarded, and the old woman noticed that it was outside the prison gates.

“Why will I be kept here?”

“This is where we take people when we hope they will die soon,” the guard told her. “The wolves come here sometimes, in the cold weather, and they have learned to break open the door to the shack.”

“This is not a prison! This is a nightmare!” she cried.

“You will stay here for three months, and if the wolves have not eaten you up by the end, you will be set free.” The guard shut the shack door in her face, and locked it. The old woman sat in the shack for some time, and then she had a new idea. I will bring civilization to the wolves, she thought. I will tame them, and then the people of the city will have to admit that I am a kindly woman. She thought the taming of the wolves would heal the big bumps on her face.

The old lady sat, and ate the gruel, day by day, that the guard brought her. She became filthy very quickly, because she was anxious not to miss the wolves when they came, and she refused to leave the shack when they came to bring her to the main prison to relieve herself. She was soon covered in her own filth, and the guards started to feed her with a very long pole. Soon even this was not enough, and the people of the city demanded that the shack be disposed of.

“How can we get rid of the shack, when there is a prisoner inside who will not come out?” the city fathers demanded.

“Move the whole piece of land, then,” the people cried. “Only get her stench away from us.”

The head guard came to speak to the woman; he used a large horn, so as to stay as far away from the stinking shack as possible.

“You must come out and bathe yourself,” he shouted.

“I am going to be eaten by the wolves,” the old lady cried back. The wolves had come sniffing on the first day, but the old lady smelled so old that they had run away.

The city fathers could not think of what to do with her. They could not convince her to come out of the shack, and no one would go near enough to carry her out.

“We should have gotten her out in the beginning,” the guard told the director of the prison.

“How were we to know she would shit herself like this?” the director snapped.

Finally, the guards, the prisoners, and the townspeople all decided to move. They left in a body, united in their abhorrence for the hideous smell of the old woman. They moved to another valley, far away, and started a new colony.

The old woman, after she had gotten very hungry and thirsty, stood up on shaking legs. She was very weak, because it had been days since the last pole of food had been thrust at her, and her water had run out. She had been sitting in a heap of her own filth, and her skin was coated so that she seemed made of muck.

She was shaking when she came out of the shack. The lady found, when she came into the fresh air, that it was not pleasant to be so dirty, and she began looking for some way to clean her flesh. She stumbled through the town until she came to a pond. She waded into the deep water of the pond, and submerged her whole body.

The streets were empty, and the houses were empty as well. The lady, at first, thought that everyone had gone to some kind of market festival. She went to the mayor’s house, and took up the nicest dresses she could find. She clothed herself in finery, and sat in the mayor’s own chair.

I am the king of this village now, she thought, and the wolves came back. One of the birds had flown over the empty shack, and then the bird had gone and found a squirrel, and the squirrel went and found one of the baby wolves, and told it to tell its mother that the lady who sat in filth no longer smelled like a decaying thing. The cub wolf told this to its mother, and the pack of wolves, which was very hungry, turned around, and ran towards the town.

The wolves came, and they ate the old woman up. The wolves got very sick, because she was so sour, and the whole pack of them died. Shortly thereafter, God looked upon the town, because he had enjoyed the howling of those wolves, and he missed their voices after they never sang to him anymore. When God looked down and saw the eaten corpse, and the dead wolves, he was furious, and he sent a big rock down to decimate the town. The whole continent turned into a desert, and the old lady’s remains were obliterated forever.

God went into hell, and found her soul there.

“You have killed some of my wolves,” God told her. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

“It is not my fault that some wolves ate me up,” the old lady replied, for she had no respect for God, and God looked at her, and then went away and found his chief architect.

“Who has made this woman?” God demanded. “I did not make her. Where did she come from?”

The chief architect blushed, and murmured something incoherent.

“I could not hear you,” God said. “Explain yourself.”

“I said that we do not know where she has come from,” the architect said.

“Who is running demons these days?” God demanded. Again, his chief architect blushed, and murmured a name. “Call him before me,” God commanded, and the architect ran away.

“Explain this monstrosity,” God demanded, pointing down towards hell, when the beast Chaos was before him.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Chaos said. “She isn’t one of mine.”

“My architect says she is,” God said.

“Well, he’s wrong,” Chaos replied stubbornly.

“Go and find out who made her,” God said.

Sometime later, the hosts of hell appeared at the gates of heaven.

“We want to reform our souls!” the hosts of hell called out in one voice. One of Beezlebub’s favorite lieutenants, who had quit his post with the others, was leading the rebellious factions of hell.

“You can’t come up here, you have your own place,” Gabriel shouted down.

“But we want to learn to be like you people,” the lieutenant shouted back. “There’s a monster down there, with lumps on her face. She stinks. We want to repent.”

“I’ll have to talk to God about this,” Gabriel shouted back. The lieutenant nodded agreeably, and the hosts of hell made orderly camps outside the gates of heaven, and began to sing hymns with reasonable reverence.

“They’re out there, singing, and being kind to each other,” Gabriel said to God. “They say they want to repent, and join up.”

“Put them through the trial stages of purgatory, and see how they do,” God suggested. Gabriel nodded, and called together the heavenly host. The hosts of hell passed through the tests in short order, and began to be assimilated into the heavenly order.

“This is going remarkably well,” the chief architect told God, who shrugged.

“You know,” God said, “people do tend to unite against a common enemy.”

“And you don’t know where she came from, or what she is?” the architect asked. God made no answer to this, but when the architect had gone, God went into his wife’s boudoir, and picked up her favorite hairbrush.

“How is my project working out?” God’s wife asked. God put the brush through her long, silvery hair, and sighed.

“The hosts of hell have integrated successfully into heaven,” he admitted.

“Good,” his wife said. “Soon it will be time for us to take that honeymoon you’ve been promising me for the last eight millennia.”

“I wish you would have spoken to me before you made her,” God said, looking solemn. “All my people were quite in a tizzy trying to find out where she came from.”

“Yes, that was the idea,” his wife said. “Now, do you think I ought to bring my blue dress or my green?”

“Both, of course,” God said. “But we are supposed to work together on this kind of large-scale project, don’t you think?”

“Yes, dear,” his wife said soothingly. God laughed, and put the hairbrush down on the dresser.

“My archangels are going to be gossiping about you managing me, when they all find out what she really is,” God said.

“Oh, I think they will be all right,” his wife said. She had a twinkle in her eye. “Has she taken charge of hell yet?”

“No,” God said. “I’ll go and see her tomorrow.”

God went and met the old lady at the great crimson gates of hell.

“Where have all the people gone?” she demanded.

“Well,” God said. The lady’s face was filled with fleshy boils.

“I came here expecting to meet all sorts of people,” the old lady said. “I thought I would finally be able to get a handle on my boils. The doctor in my town, you know, he told me that if I brought other people into the light of happiness and truth, my boils would lessen.”

“Did he, now?” God asked.

“Yes, he did,” she said firmly. “Now, you’re God, aren’t you?”

“Yes, I am,” God said.

“Why can’t you do anything about my skin?” she demanded. “You have got to have some kind of power you can use to make them go away, or make them smaller.”

“I don’t like you,” God explained kindly. “I don’t help people that I don’t like. I hardly help people at all, you see. My job is to create order in the fabric of the universe. I don’t actually work on many of the details.”

“That is wrong,” the old lady said. “I will teach you to be a better God than that. First, you must learn to help people who need it. I help everyone that I meet.” A pair of new lumps sprang up, fully-formed, on her cheeks, and God winced.

“Listen, I am going away with my wife,” God said. “I was wondering, since you’re here, would you mind taking charge of hell for me?”

The lady’s eyes sparkled.

“Do you mean it?” she asked. The two boils that had grown on her cheeks shrank, just a tiny bit.

“Yes,” God said. He noticed, though he did not say anything, that the old lady’s skin brightened a touch.

“Isn’t there a devil for that sort of thing?” she demanded, her eyes sparkling.

“Well, you know,” God said, “there is a little problem here of inefficiency.”

“Say no more,” the lady said, in business-like fashion. “I will take care of everything. You just send any erring souls my way, and I will show them a rough time. I know perfectly well what is best for sinners, you wait and see.”

God smiled, and nodded.

“So kind and obliging of you to help me out,” he murmured. The old lady raised a hand sharply.

“No, don’t thank me,” she said, and another long chain of boils lessened into tiny freckles, and vanished. One stretch of her cheeks was now positively smooth and lump-free. “I understand the need for order in a fallen universe. Mind, if you’d been watching your post properly, there’d be no fallenness to begin with, but it isn’t my place to tell you how to be God. I’ll just be down in hell, sweeping up now,” she added, and God saw that she was positively bristling with eagerness to get down to work.

“Well, I really appreciate your willingness to pitch in,” God said.

“It is no trouble at all,” she said, and she nodded sharply to God. “Nice seeing you, sir,” she said.

God waved, and chuckled as he watched the old woman, whose face was rapidly smoothing, bundle herself down the streets into the depths of hell.

God pushed the crimson gates closed, and locked them fast. He went up to find his wife, who was fussing over the last details of her packing.

“How did it go?” she asked, when God came in.

“Quite well,” he said. “She’s got the idea that she’ll clean hell up once and for all.”

“Excellent,” his wife said. “Go ahead and get the prophets dreaming of her. They’ll spread the news to all the people on Earth, and we will have no more sinners at all.”

“Excellent,” God said, and he went and took hold of his wife’s hand. “It was really brilliant of you, to clothe pure efficiency up as a mortal woman.”

“Oh, you would have thought of it sometime,” God’s wife said. “I’m nearly ready to go on our honeymoon.”

“Yes, dear,” God said, and he went to find his favorite sunglasses.

You’re reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here.


How To Explode Relationships That Will Get You Hungry Readers

Humans Like Stories

Here’s A Story

When I was working in theatre, I met a kid who was very quiet, and had very little hair. He was always on the fringes of the group during rehearsals, and when some of the other actors were getting chummy and making memories together, a couple of young women got worried about him. They tried to talk to him more, to draw him into the group. He stayed aloof, though he was always gracious about saying “No,” with his body or his continued silence.

One of the more proactive social butterflies came and talked to me about this guy.
“I’m worried that he feels left out,” she explained. She wanted to know what I thought we needed to do to make him feel loved and safe. I laughed, and told the young woman that this kid was getting exactly what he wanted out of the experience.

“He isn’t lonely,” I said. She frowned at me, as if I had presented a riddle, and wandered away to socialize with more sympathetic folk.

I didn’t exactly handle this guy with kid gloves, but I never pushed him the way I pushed the others. I peel open actors like Kinder eggs, when I work them on stage, but this guy had “Caution” tape wrapped up all over his energy. I never prodded at him, and when the show closed, he smiled at me, said, “Thank you,” and vanished from the face of the earth. He wasn’t a theatre kid; I think he had never acted before in his life, and was unlikely to act again. No one knew what he did, or where he came from. He was like one of those enigmatic cowboys that comes into a sleepy town for two weeks and then vanishes in the dead of night, never to be seen again.

Well, Who Was He?

Probably a moral drug dealer. Yes, they exist. He had an independent, mature energy, though he couldn’t be older than twenty-four at the time. He clearly had sophisticated social skills, and he operated under a closed, autonomous energy system (those are very interesting, but I’m not going to explain them to you right now). There was no darkness in his system, which, given his age and looks, was remarkable (that would take hours to explain, but suffice it to say that he was a good person, as evidenced by the clear light in his aura).

That Was Fascinating, Now Tell Me About Writing

The burning need to know what happens next, to know who people really are on the inside, and what will happen to them, is the driving factor behind most leisure reading. Here is an easy way to create that need in your readers.

Make A Promise

Open your first paragraph with a hook. Here are some samples:

Jethro was the last alien Deidre could ever imagine losing her virginity to, let alone seducing over the course of months.

Kate was a murderer, but she had only ever killed once, and that had been a long time ago on a different world.

Gorm was only a janitor, but he was destined to destroy the order of Caruvian space pirates single-handedly.

Well, I Can’t Use Any Of Those Examples

My one-time actor was a mystery character; he had a lot of secrets. They were the kind of secrets that never get told at all; those are the best kind. Your characters have secrets; those secrets drive the plot, and the development of those characters. You need to know those secrets, and you need to strategically exploit them in a way that whets the reader’s interest. So, go to your work in progress, and select a character. Write down their secret. Now, go to the very beginning of your work, and on the first page, layer a hint of that secret, a promise, a sniff, an allusion, into the first part of the writing.

Explode The Relationship

Now that you have placed a hint into your opening, take a second character from your work. Find their secret; write it down for yourself. Go to your opening page, and contrast this second character’s secret with the first secret you put in. It should look something a little like this:

Jethro was the last alien Deidre could ever imagine losing her virginity to, let alone seducing over the course of months. Just before the two met, Jethro took a vow to eat the next sexual partner he took on, and, unluckily for Deidre, he didn’t meet any luscious partners in the months between his vow and her moment of disrobing.

Won’t That Change My Whole Story?

Maybe. It doesn’t need to. Once you have planted your hook, the reader will be desperate to know what happens. Will she be eaten? Will Jethro break his vow? What will happen to him if he does? What happens next?

Successfully Antagonistic Relationships Create The Strongest Hooks

When you plant a story in your plot, and let the reader know the boundaries of the story (Diedre is going to seduce Jethro; he has sworn to eat his next partner), the reader will read on, desperate to find out the fulfillment of that setup. Take two pre-existing characters in your work, find mysterious folds in their lives, and pit them against each other in your opening. Your readers will love it.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. To find out if Ajalia’s master turns out to be like her father, start with book one, The Slave from the East. Thanks for visiting!

How To Make Melodic Chaos Without Falling Into Bad Writing

We expect unpredictable things to happen in fiction; I know when I pick up a new book I am longing for a really wild adventure. I want things to happen to the characters that are both plausible and out of the ordinary; I want to feel safe and exhilarated at the same time.

Reading, ideally, is like a perfect rollercoaster. Now, I hate rollercoasters; they make me feel like I’m being torn inside out, and I want to die before they even start moving, BUT the idea of a rollercoaster is very appealing—you know, if my body was on board with the twists and turns and very high speeds.

Chaotic Fiction

Surprises and Twists

Really great fiction surprises and delights us; Tom Jones has been called one of the most perfectly-plotted novels ever written. Fielding will have a woman speak to the hero in an inn, and fifteen chapters later, she is seamlessly woven into the plot, and an intriguing backstory is revealed. The woman’s husband will become vital, and we discover that the travelers in the next room over were important, too. By the end of the plot, every character in the book is gloriously connected in an absurd but satisfyingly logical way.

Predictable Action

Human nature is a treasure trove of unpredictability, not because people are illogical, but because, in general, they are excellent liars. Here, let us take an example of how you can take your current plot and add a little delicious chaos.

Before Chaos:

Samantha and Jim came through the portal intact; their suits were scorched, and as Samantha desperately keyed in the self-destruct code for the arch, they heard the ominous sucking of the pre-transit energy.

“They’re coming through, hurry!” Jim gasped. He wrenched himself to his feet, and gathered a pair of plasma rifles from the wall. Samantha pressed the last key, and Jim tossed her a rifle.

“Maybe they’ll be torn up when they come through,” Samantha said, moving back from the portal and raising her weapon.

“It’s too late. We’ll have to hope it explodes before too many of them make it in,” Jim replied.

Well, That Was Exciting; I Don’t See Anything Wrong With It!

You aren’t reading a blog about writing because you can’t write well; you’re here because you have learned through hard experience that good writing is never enough. You know that there is something more, something alchemical that no one seems able to explain to you, some spark that makes you irresistible to the reader. Now, we’re not going to talk about that spark just now (but we can on another day), but we are going to take the above excerpt and apply some carefully-controlled chaos to it. See how the prose improves when deliberate entropy is introduced.

Judicious Chaos:

Samantha’s arm came into the room; the portal expanded, and then contracted with a hideous crackle. She screamed as she pressed her body though the crackling substance; her voice made no sound in the ether of transit, but a dry rattle echoed around the room as soon as her face emerged from the portal. She gripped at the floor; a pair of table legs were near the base of the portal. She grabbed these, her knuckles white, and wrenched her body free of the sputtering layer of light.

Oh, no! Jim. She had meant to fall down to the floor, and to draw sweet air into her lungs, but now she moaned as she twisted towards the portal, and thrust her right fist back into the shivering layer.

A hiss of excruciating agony tore from her lips; she groped in the nothingness, and willed some scrap of Jim to brush her desperate fingers.

Well, That Isn’t Fair! You Just Wrote A Different Story

Actually, I took one half-sentence of calm prose, ” Samantha and Jim came through the portal intact;” and I inserted melodic entropy.

Wait, Now There’s Melody? Argh!

Just for kicks, let see one sentence fragment of ugly entropy, so that you know what I mean by “melodic.”

Samantha’s wrist and fingers scrabbled like ravenous claws through the sparkling buzz of yellow and orange energy that formed the substance on the surface of the crackling—

Yeah, let’s just stop, because it hurts the eyes. Melodic entropy is chaos in the form of deliberate art; ugly chaos is word-vomit.

Well, How Do I Do It For Myself?

For about fifty percent of you, the answer is going to be: Write down detailed transitions for every significant action. (Because you are writing too quickly to allow for true internal chaos.) For the other fifty percent, the answer is: Let yourself write down what you are really thinking of writing down. Give yourself permission to use the words you like.

That Was Vague, Gosh

You can write chaos on purpose, and you can make it beautiful. I also think that you have an intuitive sense of how to do this; all you have to do is give yourself permission to use the skills that you already have.

Beautiful Chaos Sets You Apart

Anyone can write a story, if they sit down and do it. You are the only one who can take the time to push yourself to the edge of what you can write, and how disintegratingly beautiful your prose will be depends entirely on your willingness to risk. Risk looking like a brave writer; risk your story getting longer, or more direct. Risk failure, and you are more than likely to improve at a blistering pace. Controlled, musical entropy will set your fiction apart, and make your voice individual, striking, and immersive.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole; to learn more about my books, click here. Thanks for visiting!

How To Create Permanent Clarity In Your Character Writing

Your characters are the most important, compelling element of your writing. They are the feature attraction to your readers, who are social animals. In order for the characters you write to be as realistic and attractive as possible, you need a method to organize and solidify their energy, their personality—well, their character, for yourself as the writer. When you have a sure sense of who the character really is, you can write them coherently, and in a manner that the reader can get right into.

Characters Are People, Too

Energy Formation

When you write down a character, your subconscious immediately begins to form emotional energy into a facsimile of a body, like a paper doll in your mind. You, as the author, can tinker with this doll, taking pieces out and putting new pieces in, until you are satisfied with the result. What you, as the writer, need to be doing is making sure that your energy repository for each character is solid and unchanging, and that the core of the character is stable and consistent.

But What About Dynamic Characters?

That rare gem, the dynamic character, results when you write authentic, stable energy down in the form of a character, and then input changes to the organic flow of that energy. For example:

Luther put his hand on the top of the gun, and paused. He did not want to make up his mind too quickly; once you joined up with the Ta’r Kor, you were in for life. At least, that’s what the adverts said. But the money, which he imagined lying in a case, and shining like emeralds, made his mouth water. I can think about the aftermath later, he told himself, and after all, there were always the outer colonies. He had thought of emigrating when he had been a young man, and if things didn’t go the way he wanted today, well—

Here we have Luther, who is thinking, rather short-sightedly, about joining an intergalactic crime ring as an in-house mercenary. Luther’s energy is slapdash and rather like the sound of light rain dancing on metal. His aura is not sunk in through the ground.

Let us revisit Luther after a full course of dynamic change stretching over the length of eight books; we will say that he has killed his own mother, overthrown the order of the Ta’r Kor, and become a minor drug lord in his own right.

Luther’s hands were still; his eyes moved slowly along with the pair of nervous guards who carried the lady forward into the pool of light where he sat. He thought of asking them why they were so frightened; he knew why, but he liked to see the widening of their eyes when he spoke. The lady caught his attention now; she was thoroughly quiet, and her head was bowed very low. Her dark hair fell over her face, and her shoulders were unnaturally still.

“Leave us,” Luther said. The guards dropped the woman as if she had burned them; they practically ran from the room. The door made an echoing slam behind them. “Are you planning to kill me?” Luther asked. The lady looked up sharply; he laughed at the vivid rage that was in her eyes.

In this scene, we see that Luther has grown comfortable with himself. He has put roots of energy down through the ground, and his mind has become submerged in the grit of life-or-death realism.

You Just Wrote Different Characters! That Isn’t Dynamism!

Well, I did some complex energy development and growth forecasting, but let’s not get sidetracked from what I said we would talk about today. (I can address this concern another time if you like.) Today we are talking about how you can ensure permanent clarity in your own characters’ energy.

Okay, How Do I Do It For My Characters?

Your brain automatically comes up with an energy-shape for each character you create. This is that buzzing, warm sensation you get in your heart when you really know your characters deeply; when they do something you didn’t anticipate, or when you get that rush of euphoria at seeing them do something that is so very like them. You can make your energy-shapes permanent and consistent very, very easily.

Yes, Tell Me How To Do That!

Take one of your characters; now imagine their energy, the essence of what makes them feel like them. Focus your mind on their lower body, and feel, for a moment, what they feel. Are their legs connected strongly to the earth? Do they float or bounce when they walk? How grounded are they?

Once you’ve made a clear sensation of the character’s legs and lower body in your own form, move your mind up into the character’s torso and arms. Again, what is the energy sensation? Allow your own body to experience the sensations of your character’s energy carriage. What does it feel like to be them?

Now, finally, move your attention into your character’s mind; into their very brain. What does it feel like to think and process reality as your character? Let your mind sink into the shape of this character’s mind. When you have a clear picture, a strong feeling of how it would be, let go of the impression.

Ta Da!

Once you have allowed your physical body, and your mental capacity, to fully empathize with the energy structure you have already created for each of your characters, you will write each of them with perfect consistency. What you will have done in this exercise is completed what amounts to an internal download of the whole system of each character; the characters will be stored in your body, and your mind will automatically write each particular energy every single time you write a character that you have downloaded in this way.

That’s All!

It may sound too easy, but you need to remember that you are a better writer than you think you are; your skills are more advanced than you realize. When you create a character, your mind and body assemble a free-standing, independent energy structure that you can then consciously access and download. Once you consciously get into the information that you have already subconsciously assembled, your characters will become so real to your mind that writing consistent, naturally-dynamic characters will come very easily to you. And once your characters are permanently themselves, and growing organically, they will become nearly irresistible to your readers.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can find some of my super-cool books here. Thanks for visiting!

How To Discover Secrets Your Characters Keep From You

Your characters have secrets. The secrets your characters keep are often (almost always) hidden even from you, the author. This happens because you write more than you realize; your characterizations conceal hidden folds. Today we’re going to talk about how you can break open these secrets, and suck out the hidden parts of your characters that drive them through the story. (As insight into your characters is one of the hallmarks of lasting fiction, this will make you a better writer.)

They’re Keeping Secrets, Huh?

Character Secrets

Character secrets develop from your energy; you write down, often unconsciously, genuine patterns of energy that you have experienced in your own life. You might include touches of conversation you’ve had with people, or elements of emotion that you have experienced, either in your own body, or when reading or watching someone else’s work. When you write down these patterns you’ve absorbed, it is as if you are writing down markers, or outlines, of human types. Inside the heart of each human type is a deep, dark, closely-held secret. Great fiction drags the aftermath of these secrets out into the light, and showcases their results for the readers’ enjoyment. So part of your job, as an author, is not only to write down these markers of deeper meaning, but then to find out their underlying causes.

I Still Don’t Know What You Mean, Victor Poole. Can You Give Me An Example?

I have written before about Ocher, a character from my fantasy series. When I wrote him, I based his physical body on a military relative I have. Now, here is where the hidden secret comes into play. My relative, who is a large and violent person, is terrified of sleeping. I mean, on a pathological level, but you would never, ever know this. I think possibly his wife knows, but he hides this secret very well. (I know things like this because sniffing out secrets is my specialty; I have an imaginary PhD in Reading Human Beings.) How this secret translates into fiction is that Ocher, or the physical body component of Ocher, desperately avoids rest and peacefulness at all costs. Why? Because to him, sleep is like death; he is terrified of the oblivion of slumber.

How Do I Use This Kind of Secret in My Writing, Victor?

A secret like this, a true, deep secret, is something that you, as the author, don’t actually reveal. It is like the inside of a shiny product that is not meant to be opened—like a blender. You buy the blender so that you can blend things. You don’t pry open the casing and prod about at the wiring inside; unless you are a mechanical hobbyist, such an act would defeat the purpose of buying a blender.

So it is with fiction; there are dynamics within the work that need to remain hidden; to reveal them openly to the reader would negate the functionality of the work as a whole. So Ocher’s terror of sleeping is never, ever brought up, even glancingly, in any of the books in which he is featured (he’s in books 3-5, and 7-9). But Ocher’s pathological fright at the idea of sleeping shapes his whole character, and drives his arc.

Well, Cool. Show Me How To Find Out Secrets In My Own Characters, Victor Poole!

Let’s get started. The first thing you need to understand is that your body and your mind are a highly-tuned machine; this means that you know things right now that you are not aware of knowing. For example, you may write something like this:

Mabel drew a brush through her hair, and studied the texture of her skin. I’m not getting any younger. Her eyes lingered over the crow’s feet that were gradually appearing at the corners of her eyes, and her tongue glided along the rim of her lips. He said it was cheap; said it was mostly painless. Mabel breathed out sharply, and slammed the hairbrush down on the bathroom counter.

Here we have Mabel, who is thinking of purchasing an experimental skin-grafting treatment that will, reputedly, restore her skin to a younger glory.

Let’s dig down a layer deeper; we will sit down with Mabel, and ask her a series of questions; as she is our character, she will have no choice but to give us some manner of answer.

Us: Mabel, why do you want younger skin?

Mabel: I don’t want to answer this kind of question.

Us: I’ll make you fifty years older if you don’t answer me.

There is a short silence.

Mabel: I don’t like the way I look.

Us: Why don’t you?

Mabel: Because I look horrible.

Us: Now you have pitted acne scars. I just decided that would be part of your character.

Mabel slaps her hands to her cheeks, and cries out.

Mabel: No, no! Stop, take them back! I’ll tell you anything!

We wait patiently.

Mabel: I think I look like a chicken.

Us: A chicken?

Mabel (growing quite angry): Yes, I look like the chickens that my grandfather plucked. I was a little girl, and he would pluck the chickens after he chopped their heads, and the skin was all bumpy and pink where the feathers came out. I want skin like smooth ivory. I don’t want to look like a chicken.

Us: Thank you, Mabel. I took away the acne scars.

Mabel runs away crying.

Gosh, You’re Mean, Victor! But What Now?

Now that we know Mabel’s secret, we can write any scene at all for her, and her motivation will be thoroughly grounded. We know now that she will buy the skin graft, and we know that if anything goes wrong at all, she will descend slowly into bitterness, self-hatred, and eventual villainy (driven by the unfairness of life). If she does become a villain, she will target the young and beautiful, and surround herself with men and women who have the coarsest, bumpiest skin possible. We now have Mabel’s deepest, darkest secret. When you own the character, the character will perform well for you.

Well, There You Are

Digging into your characters’ deepest, most closely-held secrets will give you the power to write them in any situation, and under any emotional duress, with sureness, power, and grounded insight. Mabel’s fear of looking like a chicken, in our example, will never, ever be mentioned at all in the book about her. Chickens will never be written about; there will be no feather metaphors, or mentions of skin texture. Mabel’s secret will form the engine of her motivation; it will be hidden from the reader, but you will know it, and your knowledge of Mabel will lead to insightful and powerful writing. Sit your characters down, one by one, and interrogate them until you find what you are looking for. Keep their secrets for them, but know what the secrets are.

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How To Get Your Best Readers

Readers are attracted to like-minded writers. People generally read to relax, and to have their current world-view affirmed and reinforced by cool, exciting folk that live a special, exciting life. This is part of the illusion of escape; readers, many of them, if not all, want to believe in a fairy-like land where a noble author sits at a roaring fireside (or, you know, a minimalist office all in white, depending), and pens exquisite morsels of perfect prose on the first try. Readers want to believe in a heightened extension of whatever kind of world they believe in in the first place. To gain your ideal reader, you must express, coherently, the strongest version of your true self.

Wait, A True Self?!

Your Soul

Every human body is made of energy and matter; your emotions, whatever they may regularly be, are an alchemical product of your individual thoughts, your mental framework, and the physical health of your body and spirit. When I say spirit, I am speaking of the flow of energy that passes daily through your body. All human beings have a unique combination of energy, of emotional cocktails, and of detailed beliefs about “the way the world works,” and “reality.”

What does this have to do with writing?

Writing fiction is the process of performing, with your emotions and spirit, in the vehicle of the written word. Creating fantasy and science fiction worlds relies on a particular, somewhat reliable set of assumptions about morality, reality, and human relationships (and we can talk about that on another day). In order to write your best and strongest work, you need to accentuate what you already are; you need to understand your personal brand.

But How Does One Understand That?

Within yourself, right now, is a surge of potential energy; it is lurking somewhere near the lower half of your spine. If you focus your mind, and imagine this surge of energy, you will get a gradual sense of emotion; that is your branding. When you learn to write down a coherent and consistent trail of that potent sense of self, your readers, like woodland birds, will begin to follow the trail, and to peck at your soul, much as a bird would consume crumbs along a forest path. The goal, in your pursuit of the Ultimate Body of Dedicated Fans, is to so alter your energy management that you can present, openly, a great feast of your soul to all comers. Readers who share, or who are complemented by, your particular emotions and spiritual branding, will flock to this feast, and consume your work.

That Sounds Pretty Macabre

Human relationships are composed of taking, giving, and sharing energy. Predators steal; friends give freely; families, ideally, nurture with strategic gifts of energy. You are ultimately the only one who can cultivate from yourself edible work, in the sense of writing words and stories that other humans can safely and enjoyably read. Think of yourself, and of your body and mind, as a garden that has the potential to bear expensive and rare fruits (for authentic stories told straight from the human spirit are both valuable and rare). Cultivate yourself with the same care and attention that you would give a valuable plot of garden, and when you have isolated within yourself the taste of you, of your unique combination of lived experience and inherent spiritual composition, you will be ready and able to offer your soul in the form of fiction, and that is when you will begin to gain dedicated and loyal readers.

That Sounds Long, Hard, and Complicated. What Can I Do Right Now?

You are already writing the stories that you need to tell; what you need to ask yourself, right this second, is who you are currently allowing to influence (to add to, or to take away from) the true story you form from yourself. Weed out these outside influences, and your abilities will grow faster than you can imagine.

That’s All For Now

You can earn the readers that you dream of when you see yourself as the tree from which your fiction-fruit grows. Nurture your true self; weed out influences from the outside; trust your deep sense of self. When readers find, in your writing, an echo of themselves, they will follow you, and buy your books.

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How To Establish Mood With A Metered Voice

Shakespeare was the best at this (is). You can induce emotions in the reader with the arrangement of the sounds that you use in your word choices. If you need the reader to feel excited, you can build a quick pitter-patter into your rhythm; if you need the reader to feel slow and melancholy, you can stretch out the words and sounds to create a funeral pace.

Let’s Get Started!

Meter and Rhythm

Every word that you choose is a small piece of music; the vowels and consonants combine to create a beat. Look at these different words, and at the way they break into patterns of emphasis: shivering, molten, reams, chest, steadily. Both the length of individual words, and the softness or hardness of each consonant at the beginnings and ends of the words determine the overall effect of the language on the mood.

Here are some examples of rhythmically-arranged prose. Read each excerpt, and see what emotional effect the language creates in you.

Reams of strange, watery blood from the sky land, and shivering chunks of molten gold light under the floating earth flew up at the approach of the two furious kings.


Four pigeons quarreled over the corner of a turkey sandwich.


I first decided to kill my father when the snow was falling outside my window. I was watching the flakes fly hither and yon, and a vivid picture of my mother’s shears, sticking straight out of my father’s chest, filled my vision. I could see the blood pumping steadily, surely out of the place where the scissors pierced, and I wanted, I longed to hold the handles of the shears, and to wrench them out of the hole.

The Context of Individual Words

One of the reasons writers are constantly advised to read so much is that individual words have very specific social connotations; each word is like a collage of emotions, pre-established stories, and unique flavors. For example, if I choose to use the word “quixotic” in my fiction, I need to be familiar with Cervantes’ work, with the popular musical adaptation of the novel, Don Quixote, and with three or four of the most notable depictions of the main character by actors.

If I choose to ignore the long and storied history that has become attached to any word containing the construction, “quixo,” I risk looking like a fool, and introducing elements of nuance and emotional tone into my fiction that destroy the effect I was going for. (For example, if in my heroic saga I mention that my dashing protagonist has a quixotic bent in his personality, he may begin to seem ridiculous to my readers.)

Instead of telling writers to read widely, it would, perhaps, be more to the point to tell them to read a great deal of what we may term source material; the farther back to the original branding and emotional connotation of a word you can go, the more power you gain, and the more range you will have in your use of words.

Combining Strong Words for a Harmonic Effect

If we know that words have many specific emotions and flavors pre-attached, and if we become aware of the effect of consonant and vowel sounds on the mood of the writing as a whole, we can begin to make powerful word-music.

Let us look at the master of this music, Shakespeare. I want you to take note of the repeated ‘n’ sounds, the constant soft vibration of the voiced consonants, and the occasional, very spiky use of the ‘t’ and ‘k’ plosives.

‘Tis not alone my Inky Cloake (good Mother)
Nor Customary suites of solemne Blacke,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitfull Riuer in the Eye,
Nor the deiected hauiour of the Visage,
Together with all Formes, Moods, shewes of Griefe,
That can denote me truly.

Bear in mind that this speech is one sentence; it is a very drawn-out, complex thought, but it is one thought, and each addition to the described behaviors adds urgency, speed, and emphasis to the whole. The contrast of the hard ‘c’ and ‘k’, in combination with the dense use of ‘s’ contributes to a simultaneously biting and hissing effect.

Tying it all together

When you use rhythm and meter in your work, it is important to be aware of the overall tone and effect of the story as a whole. Each story will function best when it maintains a musical consistency from beginning to finish; when a piece of fiction changes the rhythmical palette partway through, the reader becomes jarred and annoyed. You can avoid this kind of harmonic upset by establishing for yourself the total emotional range of the story, and making rules of creation for yourself that pertain to the specific work in hand.

And now, to finish

Deliberately arranging words to create mood and emotional resonance in the reader is an excellent way to add sophistication, depth, and lasting impact to your work.

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