How To Find Out If Your Protagonist Is A Welcoming Host

Does your leading character lend inclusive energy to your writing? I am not at all saying that your protagonist needs to be likable, or even kind, but does their energy invite observation?

Just as you welcome valued guests into your living space, and seek to make them as comfortable as possible, so your protagonist, if your fiction is really good, must welcome and invite the reader into the world of your novel.

Common Mistakes, And How To Avoid Them

Something we often do as authors who are writing genre fiction is fall into the trap of the non-hosting, aloof, cool character. Now, don’t get me wrong, aloof characters are the bomb in genre fiction; nothing like a really competent adventurer or fighter quite hums along in science fiction or fantasy. The calm, clear-headed individual who keeps their secrets close to the vest is compelling, interesting, and just plain cool. This brings us to our first common error.

Mistake #1: Outside The House

The first mistake is to keep the reader outside the world of the novel. Authors do this when they are nervous about being taken seriously, or sometimes when they are intimidated by their own material.

Bad Writing (Reader on the outside):

Silas turned to the left, and then the to right. His hand hovered over the night-stick he carried, and then he shook his head and moved back into the shadows. After some time, he found a great hiding spot, and he waited. The sounds of the things he hunted passed silently away, and Silas stood, cautious, like a spider in the corner of a well-swept room. Anytime now, he thought. They’ll make a mistake soon. He returned home, and went to bed.

Good Writing (Reader on the inside):

Silas glanced left and right before darting across the dimly-lit highway. His purple night-stick, with which he had felled many overgrown carnivorous rabbits, bounced noiselessly against his side. He ducked into a shadow that lay behind a broken truck, and waited.

In a moment, the thumping of enormous bodies echoed down the interstate. Silas waited until the massive shadow of two great ears extended beyond the truck, and then he threw himself at the monstrous bunny, his purple night-stick in his fist.

When you are writing your science fiction or fantasy world, go back through the passages and check; does your protagonist invite the reader in, or keep them out? And think: What reader in their right mind would pay to stand outside an interesting fantasy world? Answer: Probably not any readers will pay for this privilege.

Mistake #2: Oversharing, Or Making The Reader Do The Dishes

The second common mistake in this vein is made when a writer shoves the menial work, the basic upkeep of the storytelling, onto the visiting reader. If you invited your most valuable guests into your home, like your boss, or your favorite celebrity, or that really cool kid who might turn out to be your new friend (you hope), would you feed them dinner and then shove a sponge into their laps, and tell them they’re washing up?

No, you would not do this! Why? Because it is completely counter-intuitive, and degrades the guest from a person of honor to an unpaid serf.

Tell me, how many readers do you think will pay for the privilege to co-write the book with you? Because that is essentially what you are doing when you expect your readers to clean up the details of your work.

Bad Writing (Reader does the dishes):

Silas smashed his stick over the skull of the bunny. He hoped he had exerted sufficient force to break through the bone, because he had found in the past that there were weak places in the bunny heads, and if he hit one exactly right, it would fall down, and he could slice it open with his knife. He really thought that if he could get enough rabbit blood on him, and spill it over the ground, the other bunnies would maybe get distracted, and he would be able to kill more now, instead of later.

Good Writing (You keep the dishes in the sink for later):

Silas brought his stick down in the head of the bunny, which shook him violently off. Silas flew through the air, and collided with another giant rabbit. This one was black and white, and had the most evil-looking red eyes he had ever seen.

Silas caught hold of the silky fur of the beast, and flipped himself onto its back. The black and white rabbit screamed an unearthly scream, and Silas smashed his purple stick down in exactly the right place in the back of the rabbit’s head. A crunching sound rewarded his efforts, and the bunny collapsed in a furry heap.

Mistake #3: Enmeshment, Or The Dreaded Absorption Into The Borg

The last mistake we will talk over today occurs when you fail to use normal boundaries. For the sake of brevity, I will show you what I mean, rather than elucidating at length.

Bad Writing (Enmeshment with the reader):

Silas felt at peace with the world as he skinned the enormous rabbit. He wouldn’t have to eat his stores of canned peas any longer. He hated peas, because they did horrible things to his digestion, and he had found a bargain of a stew cookbook in a trash bin yesterday. It smelled kind of like pee, and he suspected the rabbits had been using the dumpster as a waste area, but the last time he had tried to make rabbit stew it came out lumpy, and he had been pulling sinew out of his teeth for days.

Good Writing (Healthy boundaries):

Silas gloried in the silence that reigned in the dawn as he cut the enormous pelt from the dead rabbit. He had been meaning to replace his rabbit-skin boots for some time now, and the variated fur on this beast would make a striking pair.

Silas whistled through his teeth as he laid the skin aside, and began to carve choice cuts of meat from the body of the dead bunny. I’ll make that delicious stew, he thought, as he piled the bloody provisions in the lined bag he had brought for that purpose. And, he told himself, as he hefted the bloody pelt, and slung the meat over his shoulder, I won’t have to eat any more of those blasted canned peas.

And Also

As an extra treat, here is a picture of my cat, Rose, who has spent the last five minutes cautiously hunting a wasp that got into the house. She is a little younger than two years old, and believes she is a wild huntress of the night. I like her very much.

rose

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books, which are hosted by Caleb, Samuel, and Ajalia, are here. It has been statistically proven that Friday is the best day of all to start reading The Slave from the East.

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How To Take The Guesswork Out Of Exploiting Genre Tropes

 

How to avoid generic tropes? It’s much easier than you might think.

How Do I Avoid Tropes In My Writing?

Shakespeare is the master of exploiting tropes. He is very, very good at this. Every Shakespeare play has the beautiful young woman, the clown, the young hero, the old fool, and so on. Let us turn our attention today to the exquisite trope-twisting in Much Ado About Nothing.

But How Do I Avoid Tropes In My Own Fiction?

I promise, this will be super useful. But, in the meantime, here is a quick summation: To avoid tropes, embrace them and add touches of mundanity and pettiness. Mundane details and petty reality will elevate any trope to an instant and original piece of genius. Now, on to Shakespeare.

John the Bastard: Worst Villain Ever, Or Exploded Trope?

This scene is from Act I of the comedy, Much Ado About Nothing. I’m going to give you a brief run-down to save time. The young heroes have just arrived at Leonato’s estate, and are going to stay and party for some time (they’ve just returned from a successful war). Now, here is the setup:

Don Pedro is the ruling prince; he has a bastard brother, John from whom he has been estranged for many years. During the war, John and Pedro reconciled, and Pedro made a great show of being bosom-buddies with his half-brother. In the opening scene of the play, Pedro and John enter together, stand together, and John is polite and gracious to everyone.

Da Da Dum!

Now, Pedro is also long-time friends with a landed gentleman, Benedick, and they both have just acquired a new best-buddy in Claudio, who distinguished himself in the war. So the structure here goes 1) Pedro is in charge of everyone 2) John is Pedro’s brother, and they made an alliance during the war 3) Benedick has been Pedro’s good friend basically forever, and 4) Claudio is the shiny new friend that both Pedro and Benedick are going gaga over.

There. All clear? Now, these men have come and greeted Leonato, and everyone else has gone ahead into the house. Claudio pulled Benedick back to tell him that *gasp* he, Claudio, is finding himself deeply in love with Leonato’s daughter, Hero. Benedick ribs Claudio mercilessly, and after a few moments, Pedro, BRINGING JOHN WITH HIM, comes back out to the courtyard to see what the holdup is.

Here’s Where The Trope Comes Into Play

I have never, ever seen anyone stage or film this scene correctly. For proof, here is the stage direction when Don Pedro enters. (This is from the First Folio, which is the only authentic Shakespeare text extant.)

BENEDICK. looke, don Pedro is returned to seeke you.
Enter don Pedro, Iohn the bastard.

It is utterly incontrovertible that John enters with Pedro. John comes on stage. Now, here is where it gets reeeeeeeaaally interesting.

One of the most famous scenes from this play unfolds, as Benedick vows to remain a bachelor all his days. Claudio and Pedro tease him mercilessly, and John stands by, saying nothing, for about fifteen minutes. Finally, Benedick has had enough, and leaves the courtyard. Here is the stage direction:

BENEDICK. and so I leaue you.  Exit.

Here is what you need to know about Shakespearean stage direction: Exit always refers to one person leaving. (I get excited about this sort of thing, as you can see.) Exeunt always refers to at least two or more people leaving the stage.

Now we are left with Pedro, Claudio, and John on stage together. Claudio and Pedro start conferring privately, and lay plans to woo and win Hero. Throughout the scene, they deliberately exclude John. Finally, the two leave together, and John trails away after them. Here is the stage direction:

PEDRO. In practise let vs put it presently. Exeunt.

The next time we see John the bastard, he is in an inexplicably foul mood, and hatches a plot to destroy Claudio’s marriage to Hero. “I don’t care what the plan is,” he tells his goons, “so long as these losers suffer miserably.”

How Was That Exploiting A Trope?

Shakespeare takes an established trope, what we might call a tired device, that of the neglected, illegitimate brother, and combines it with another over-used trope, that of the inexplicably-cranky villain who stomps on love wherever he finds it. With these two types combined in John the Bastard, Shakespeare turns the tired trope on its head, and creates a completely fresh scenario: he shows us, on stage, Pedro being a back-stabbing, shallow numbskull, who has only been kind to John for show and when it was convenient. As soon as the war is over, and the public eye has moved on—in fact, the very instant that no one is watching—Pedro treats his brother, literally, like he doesn’t even exist.

You Will Never Find Anyone Who Knows This

This is a complete aside, but Western culture has a deep and long-held investment in believing that Shakespeare is a good poet, but a terrible dramatist. I could go on for a while about that—but back to tired tropes, and exploiting them!

Wait, Victor! That Sounded So Interesting!

Email me, and I’ll answer your questions in another blog post. Today, we will finish exploiting tropes!

Sigh. Fine.

What Shakespeare teaches us in this example is that the key to successfully exploiting a trope is to expose the reason why.

Why is John being so vindictive, so vile, and so utterly remorseless in his attempts to destroy the happiness of Pedro, Claudio, and Hero? Why does he feel such a rooted hatred for his brother and Claudio? Shakespeare shows us, in a brief scene that is so brilliant, and so effective, that John never even needs to speak a line, or be spoken to. I mean, what an incisive example of that over-worn adage, “show, don’t tell.”

Now, How To Use It Ourselves

Let us examine this ingenious ploy using a trope of our own. We shall take for our example the overused trope of the sex-saturated, arrogant space jockey (see Han Solo, Peter Quill, and that new guy (the sensitive version of this trope) in that Rebel One movie they made. Oh, and Captain James T. Kirk, both iterations).

Before we jump into today’s example, let us look a little more closely at what Shakespeare has done with the quintessential villain, John (the Bastard). Shakespeare has not only shown us the “why”; he has also grounded that “why” in a scenario that is so common, so familiar, and so petty, that it is instantly recognizable to any human observing it.

What man or woman has not been excluded by persons they thought were friends? What adult or child has not been rejected and crushed by the thoughtlessness and unsteadiness, or outright betrayal, of close allies? All have been used so.

Here Is Our Formula

Trope + Real-Time Motivation (the “why”) + Relatable Pettiness = Ingenious, Fresh Fiction

Let us now apply this formula for adept trope-exploitation to Kip, our 6’2, ginger-haired space pilot who has had too many girlfriends and too few nourishing greens.

First, I will write a horrible, heavy chunk of prose that will be grandiose, painfully generic, and just plain awful. Then I will write the same scenario with a real-time (current) motivation and with petty grounding, and you will be able to observe the difference between the two, and judge for yourself the usefulness of our Shakespearean-sourced trope-exploitation formula.

Bad Writing (Plain Trope):

Kip swung himself down the ladder of his filthy ship, and slipped in a pool of grease that was dripping with increasing violence from his second-generation food transponder.

“Should clean that up,” he muttered, catching himself against the metal wall, and stepping around the puddle. He ducked into the cockpit, and checked his hair in the little reflector he had rigged up over the view screen.

A blip of green light flashed on the control, and he glanced down.

“Miranda,” he muttered, frowning. He ignored the beeping light, and settled himself into the worn seat from which he had flown to so many far-away places. “Where to today?” he asked himself, opening the electronic manifest, and scanning down the tiny destination column. “Bolarkim,” he muttered, and his nose curled. There weren’t many single women in the Bolarkim station, and the gangs were rough. He poked the manifest, and selected another destination, Harva. They had beaches there, even if the tourists were rude. The beeping light grew brighter.

“Message received,” the ship said in a soothing voice.

“I don’t want to hear it, Miranda,” Kip said under his breath, and he rocked the vessel from its berth with a jolt and flash of rumbling heat.

Good Writing (Exploited Trope):

Kip swung down the ladder of his filthy ship, and slipped on a lick of grease that had pooled under the broken food-transponder. Kip writhed to the side, barely catching himself against the wall before his pants touched against the puddle of clammy stuff.

“Ew,” he whispered, grunting as he pulled himself upright, and stretched his steps cautiously around the wet spot. He paused when he was past it, and looked around half-heartedly for a towel. I should buy some rags, he told himself, before turning guiltily away and climbing into his cockpit. The mirror his last girlfriend had fixed to the dash caught his eye, and he grimaced at himself, and pushed his hand through his hair.

“Not that bad,” he told himself, settling into the cracked plastic seat, and buckling himself in.

A green light flashed on the controls, and he looked down at the name that scrolled over the screen.

“Kip,” a woman’s voice said, “you still have my music. I want it back.”

“I gave you all your stuff, Miranda!” Kip said. He frowned at the green light, and pushed firmly at a button. The light flickered, but remained on.

“I hotwired your dash com,” Miranda said in a smug tone. “I knew you wouldn’t take my calls.”

“Miranda, we aren’t together anymore,” Kip said, staring at the view screen with numb dislike. “You can’t call me like this.”

“I want my music back,” Miranda said.

“I gave you all your stuff!” Kip shouted.

“No, you didn’t. I want my music.”

“But it’s mine!” he exclaimed, jabbing at the button to no avail. Unbuckling, he slithered out of the seat, and pushed his face under the dash.

“You bought it while I was with you, and it’s half mine,” Miranda said. “I want at least the four albums with Fizzy Collins.”

“No! They’re mine!” Kip yelled from under the dash. He ripped free a delicate yellow wire, and with a fizzling bloop, the call went dead. Muttering darkly, Kip crawled back into his seat and opened the digital manifest. Bolarkim is far away, and miserably cold, Kip thought, and, his heart beating violently under his ribs, he brought the ship into motion and rocked clumsily up into the sky.

As you can see, in-scene motivation and rooted pettiness can twist a used-up trope into a shining emblem of brilliant storytelling. Try this out yourself, and see what fantastic forms of original fiction result.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can buy my most excellent fiction here. Thursday is definitely the best day of the week to start reading Harder Than Rocks.

How To Write Mini-Climaxes In Your Dialogue

Do you struggle with dialogue? Is your dialogue natural and crisp? Does it build well? A very simple way to write natural, compelling dialogue is to write a series of miniature climaxes, or verbal confrontations, into each scene where dialogue is part of the story.

What Do You Mean, A Miniature Climax?

Here is an example from a Shakespeare play, Othello. In this scene, Iago first begins to plant the story of Desdemona as a busy adulteress. I shall mark each of the sallies, or opening shots, in green, and each of the resulting climaxes in orange.

IAGO. My Noble Lord.

OTHELLO. What dost thou say, Iago?

IAGO. Did Michael Cassio
When he woo’d my Lady, know of your loue?

OTHELLO. He did, from first to last:
Why dost thou aske?

IAGO. But for a satisfaction of my Thought,
No further harme.

OTHELLO. Why of thy thought, Iago?

IAGO. I did not thinke he had bin acquainted with hir.

OTHELLO. O yes, and went betweene vs very oft.

IAGO. Indeed?

OTHELLO. Indeed? I indeed. Discern’st thou ought in that?
Is he not honest?

IAGO. Honest, my Lord?

OTHELLO. Honest? I, Honest.

IAGO. My Lord, for ought I know.

OTHELLO. What do’st thou thinke? 

Now, the really interesting thing that is happening here is 1) the length of each exchange, and 2) the way in which Iago gradually primes Othello, until, midway through the exchange, Othello is beginning new climactic beats.

Let’s Look A Little Closer Now

I promise, this will pay off hugely in your own writing of dialogue. If we break this down further, we see, essentially, this exchange:

  1. Iago makes a benign conversation-starter. Translation: “Gosh, I was thinking just now . . . ” Othello, quite naturally, says, “What about, chum?” Iago leads gently to the big bombshell: “Oh, I thought so. Never mind.
  2. We see a minor transition, as Othello attempts to continue the first train of conversation, but Iago begins a new topic, further priming the pump of speculation, when he says, “Oh, I thought they hadn’t met . . .” in a doleful tone. This leads to the next climax, where Othello demands, “Hey, dude, tell me what the matter is!
  3. And, the corner has now been turned; Iago has succeeded, in the first two minor climaxes, in eliciting from Othello the desired question: “Well, what’s wrong with Cassio?!” The climax for this beat is swift, and only feeds the feeling of unrest, as Iago exclaims: “Wrong with him? Um . . .” and Othello replies, explosively, “Yeah! What’s wrong with Cassio?!
  4. Now Iago sinks into the passive party, and draws Othello imperceptibly along in the shortest beat of all. He says, “Oh, I don’t know that anything’s wrong with him,” and Othello immediately comes back with the climax: “Dude, come on. Tell me exactly what you’re thinking.

Four Beats, And Each Shorter Than The Last

The miniature climaxes here are of regular and shortening length; the first is the longest, and the pace between opening salvo and climax quickens repeatedly until the final exchange takes place in only two lines.

IAGO. My Lord, for ought I know.

OTHELLO. What do’st thou thinke?

These two lines form a masterful pivot in the dialogue; both characters are now tuned, as it were, into each others’ thought, and their communication is devastatingly brief and clear. Economy adds tension to the scene, and Othello trembles on the precipice from which he is about, disastrously, to tumble.

What Does This Mean For My Dialogue?

Shakespeare is endlessly instructive, but from today’s example, we shall take two lessons.

  1. A speaking character drives the conversation towards a desired end. The character who is driving can alternate, and sometimes both speaking characters are driving towards different ends simultaneously.
  2. Each attempt to gain the desired end tapers into a shorter exchange, and builds emotional tension. The climaxes get closer together as the dialogue continues.

I’m Still Not Sure How To Use This In My Own Work

Let’s look at a contemporary example. Let us take Greg, a space pirate, and Fran, a cyborg nanny who has been captured by said pirate along with her charge, a child who is heir to a planet.

Greg wants Fran to keep the kid quiet and cooperative, and Fran wants safe passage to her homeworld so she can quit her job, which she hates. (The kid is locked up with some friendly hypoallergenic cats Greg stole from an onboard transport to a moon colony.)

First, I will write a truly awful example of how bad unbuilding dialogue can be, and then I will follow with a good example of how small, gradually-shortening climaxes make for great dialogue.

Bad Dialogue (No Climax Structure):

“You’ve just got to keep that darn kid quiet!” Greg opined. “I’m having a hard enough time piloting this ship without his constant clambering over things, and his noise is utterly unbearable. You can give him a puzzle, or some sort of coloring book. Surely you have such items as that in your nanny supplies?”

“I understand your frustration,” Fran said calmly. “It sounds to me as though my charge is making your life a little difficult since you took us on board.”

“Yes,” Greg agreed, smiling with relief, “you could certainly say that. In fact, when I first got you two as captives, I was thinking to myself that there was going to be a little bit of trouble, as regards the age of the child, but I was just kind of hard up for cash. Little heirlings to great fortunes don’t just walk around any old day, you know.”

“I suppose they don’t,” Fran agreed.

“Well, that is what I have to say about the matter,” Greg said. He folded his arms, and stared piercingly at Fran. “Haven’t you got anything to say for yourself?”

“I am a captive,” Fran said agreeably. “I don’t know how I would possibly convince you to let me go, let alone to take me to some faraway place where I would rather be right now.”

“You could at least try asking,” Greg reproved.

Good Dialogue (Climax Structure):

“You’ve got to put a lid on that awful kid!” Greg cried.

“I didn’t ask you to go and kidnap either of us,” Fran replied calmly.

“I didn’t kidnap you, Fran. You’re the one who insisted on coming along with the kid.”

“Take us home, and I’ll see if I can get you life imprisonment instead of death,” she said.

“Why are you so calm! Stop being so calm!” Greg shouted. The childish shrieks and laughter emanating from the hold seemed to drive Greg wild. His eyes popped, and his hair stood on end. He clenched his teeth, and shook his fists in the air.

“You really should get control of yourself,” Fran observed. “You look positively ill.”

“Look, I don’t want to harm either of you, but I will use this blaster on you if you can’t keep him quiet.”

Fran stepped near to the slats that separated her from Greg, who quailed.

“Would you like to say that again?” she asked.

“No,” Greg mumbled.

“Because the noises he is making right now are quite pleasant,” she continued. “I would hate to see the way his genuine distress would echo in this little ship of yours.”

“Fine,” Greg snapped. “Just keep it down in there, all right?” He slammed the dividing partition between them, and Fran raised her heavy fist, and pounded on the metal. “What now?” Greg wailed.

“I will give you five minutes to let me out and change course,” she said. “If you do not, I will encourage the boy into a screaming fit.”

Greg was silent for a moment.

“I have earplugs somewhere,” he muttered, but his face was full of fear.

“Pirate,” Fran said through the metal shell.

“I heard you, lady! I’m thinking!” Greg shouted.

Well, There You Go!

If you struggle with dialogue, or you feel you can squeeze more tension and build from your character’s speech, give mini-climaxes a try. Remember, either one or both characters drive towards an end goal, and the space between opener and climax should gradually decrease throughout the exchange.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books, which are full of dialogue (except this one), are here. Wednesday is a perfect day to pick up a new fantasy series!

How To Make The Move From Simple Storyteller To Complex Literature-Maker Today

Use metaphors and symbols to deepen your writing today

Literature is heightened storytelling; established writing of this kind utilizes sophisticated rhetorical devices to create a tapestry of words that not only conveys story, but also reinforces the meaning of life, and imparts a coherent philosophy.

When you change from a teller of tales to a maker of literature, your work and your readers dive to a deeper level. You become an artist, and your words take on significant weight. You start to edge into the big leagues.

Moving from storytelling to literature-making is surprisingly simple, once you begin to think in terms of symbol and extended metaphor. To begin with, let’s define our terms.

Symbol And Metaphor

A metaphor is an item or a description that creates an echo, or a comparison, for a scenario unfolding in the wider story. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the repressed priest is in his secret alchemy-studying office, and a spider on the window sucks the life out of an innocent fly. The scene functions as foreshadowing for how the priest is about to descend upon the gypsy, Esmerelda. The spider, its web, and the fly form an extended metaphor for the priest and the situation that follows.

A symbol is an item that represents something more than itself. In Cyrano de Bergerac, the white plume of de Guiche becomes a symbol of Cyrano’s integrity and his unstained honor. The plume functions most powerfully when de Guiche abandons it in the battlefield in order to escape death or capture, and Cyrano goes back over the open ground and picks up the officer’s scarf, bearing it back to the fortifications unscathed.

A symbol is fixed, and a metaphor is often momentary.

But That’s Classical Literature, Not Science Fiction Or Fantasy

Great fiction, especially great science fiction and fantasy, borrows functional devices from established literature. The stronger the use of metaphor and symbol, the more lasting an impression your genre writing leaves behind.

If you ever took a course where you deconstructed an array of literary devices, you may have gotten the impression that writing serious fiction is fraught with complication, and likely involves a copious amount of note-taking, meditation, and studious straining for super-impressive exhibitionism with words.

Well, It Is, Isn’t It?

Not according to me, it isn’t.

What Do You Know About Writing Serious Literature?

Here, I’ll prove it to you. Let’s look at an example. I’ll write a simple story, and then I’ll write it again and insert an easy metaphor. You will be able to see for yourself how the writing takes on an insta-glow of importance and weight.

Today’s Example

Simple Story:

Sorsha had never been impregnated before, but the procedure was painless, and her body, for a long time afterwards, felt just the same as it ever had. She was not due for relocation until the sixth month of gestation, and she went about her days in a fog. That she was about to be sold and processed as a surrogate, a contractual item owned by a wealthy Drivage family, and that her sole purpose in the future would be to bear and nurse children for the alien beings, made no deep impression on her mind. It did not feel real to Sorsha, and she continued to scrub floors and read the evening news with a quiet focus that impressed her neighbors deeply.

“Sorsha is so brave,” the next-door wife murmured to her husband on the day after the midpoint procedure was completed. Sorsha’s fate was an open secret in the metropolis; she had come up in the national poll, and each family in her building enjoyed a glow of instant fame and glory, because of their near association with the chosen one.

And Now, With A Metaphor:

Sorsha kept a potted plant in her bedroom window, and the morning sun made the broad leaves translucent. An echo of the leaves, a shining green shadow, shone over her dresser on the morning she went into the government lab.

Sorsha had never been impregnated before, but the procedure was painless, and her body, for a long time afterwards, felt just the same as it ever had. She was not due for relocation until the sixth month of gestation, and she went about her days in a fog. That she was about to be sold and processed as a surrogate, a contractual item owned by a wealthy Drivage family, and that her sole purpose in the future would be to bear and nurse children for the alien beings, made no deep impression on her mind. It did not feel real to Sorsha, and she continued to scrub floors and read the evening news beside her potted plant with a quiet focus that impressed her neighbors deeply.

“Sorsha is so brave,” the next-door wife murmured to her husband on the day after the midpoint procedure was completed. Sorsha’s fate was an open secret in the metropolis; she had come up in the national poll, and each family in her building enjoyed a glow of instant fame and glory, because of their near association with the chosen one.

As the reptilian infant swelled slowly within Sorsha’s body, her potted plant began, despite her scrupulous care, to wither. The leaves, once green and firm, shrank into curls of brown, and on the morning the aliens were due to arrive for collection, the last leaf broke away from the stem, and drifted noiselessly to the floor. Sorsha watched the dead thing, and she pressed her palm to the plump rise of her abdomen.

Using Literary Tools Is Easy

In the above example, we have a climbing plant as a metaphor for Sorsha’s free life. As her independent “I can do what I like” status visibly diminishes with the growth of her implanted child, the formerly-healthy plant dies.

Any object can become a metaphor. As we continue Sorsha’s story, we can easily extend the metaphor by establishing a new, alien potted piece of fauna in her new home, and if, in the course of the story, she begins to regain her freedom and powers of volition, the alien plant will begin to thrive and flower.

What About Symbols?

A symbol, essentially, is a fixed metaphor. If Sorsha picked up her dead potted plant, and brought it on board the alien ship with her (they would confiscate it, and in the struggle, she would grab hold of a shard of the broken pot, and a smidgen of dead leaf), the pot piece would become, to Sorsha, an emblem of her previous life, and a symbol of Earth. She could carry the shard with her, and when/if she gains a happy ending, she could incorporate the shard into her costume or living space. The potted plant would, in this case, upgrade from a metaphor to an established symbol.

That’s All For Today!

If there are things in your story, as in, props, plants, pets, or weather, you can use them as metaphors. Establishing symbols and metaphors can be easy and fun, and you can deepen the impact of your writing with them.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Tuesday is a great day to start a new book!

How To Get More Bang From Your Interim Life

Here is too much info for you:

The Family

My kids have bubbles, because I found some in the summer section of the store last night. We went to the nicest Italian restaurant yesterday, and I’ve been playing Lego Harry Potter (the second one).

Argh, Directing!

I don’t feel exactly like not writing, but I am feeling left out of the theatre scene. Where we live is super inconvenient for directing, and I don’t have a great rooted system. Cut off, as it were, from resources. I keep thinking about posting an ad for the park, but the lure of the future is too strong for me. If I wait, I can get a car. I could save up for quality weapons. I could pay my actors. Hmmanannun, paying actors. That’s like, the holy grail of theatre production. Paying actors well. Like, no one pays.

Really? Yes, Really

Somebody (very small time) produced a so-so homemade morality play in my old town, and the director and producer stiffed the actors a full third or more of the promised pay. Even the professors wanted to do the work, because holy party store balloons, Batman! I could get paid to act!

Which, I think, is sad. If you’ve spent your entire life getting a BFA, and then an MFA, and you still don’t have the balls to be doing legit work, and you’re willing to sell your soul for $80 in a pro-insular three-hour monstrosity of didacticism? That’s just sad.

Silly professors.

You’re Just Jealous That You Don’t Have An MFA!

My boss (back in the day) thought I should go and get an MFA. And I was like, not today. Nope. I looked twelve back then. I’m in my late twenties, and I’m starting to look more like an eighteen-year-old now. I figure I’ll look twenty-five when I’m thirty-five, and by then my life will have mellowed.

I have at least that much vocal work to sift through, anyway.

The Moral

I just feel so redundant, you know? [More writing redacted for adult content. Read chapters 21-22 in Kingdom in the Sky when it comes out in a couple of weeks to find out what I shouldn’t put on my blog. My father is actually like that. In real life. And he works with little kids. Which is disturbing.] Anyway.

It’s like a waiting game. I feel like I’m waiting for things to happen, and it isn’t the kind of waiting where you’re like, “Things will get better someday, if I just close my eyes!” but the kind of waiting where you plant an acorn, and you fertilize it and water it and then sit down in a nice lawn chair with your handy laptop and write a few novels while you’re waiting for the sapling to get taller. It’s like that.

And Bugs

Apparently the bugs here are in mating season. There are clouds of butt-joined insects drifting busily through the air. Eh.

Back to writing, I guess.

In Progress

Dead Falcon cover

This is Ajalia’s black horse. She finds him in the market in The Slave from the East, and buys him. He’s in an awful state then, sunburnt, and his withers and spine are messed up from a badly-fitted harness and hard labor.

Ajalia keeps him on stall rest, and then she acquires a horse trader, and the trader works over the black horse thoroughly, trimming him and recuperating his mangled mane.

This picture is from The Thief Lord’s Son, in the very beginning of the book. Ajalia rigs up a bridle of fabric and vines to present Delmar to some guards who come to make trouble.

One of the guards, Hal, is one of my all-time favorite characters. I’m thinking of drawing him for the someday-cover of The Fall of Slavithe. I think Hal is endearing.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Good afternoon!

Should You Control Your Characters Or Follow Their Lead?

You may have experienced the startling phenomenon of your characters taking over the story, and saying or doing things that you had not planned on. When characters show initiative like this, is it better to let them do as they like? Or will your book be stronger if you keep your characters in line and obedient to the story you originally planned?

Characters Are Folds Of Your Subconscious

When you write what you really think and feel, your characters become peels, or isolated fragments of your inner self. Sometimes characters are created from repressed aspects of your personality. They are often, in fact, parts of yourself that your conscious mind feels the need to explore.

I Don’t Know, Victor; I Really Just Make Up My Characters

Everyone says that. Pardon my cynicism. I shall now explain my attitude. I have a degree in acting. (Economically useless, I know, but I like to think of it as a degree in human communication and behavioral pattern recognition.) It might not look great on paper, but I have people skills.

Victor, That Is A Lie! You Admitted On Yesterday’s Blog Post That You Needed Better People Skills!

Well, I did say something like that. Originally in that post, I had a snide little paragraph that, on reflection, I decided was rude. So I replaced it with, “Maybe I need better people skills.” But let’s be real here, I have phenomenal people skills. Anyway, let’s get back to your characters, and whether stronger fiction will result from your following their lead or manhandling them like a disciplinarian with a sturdy whip.

Now, where were we? Oh, yes. Acting school. In some ways, my program sucked (because many of the professors were failures as professional actors), but in other ways it was an invaluable resource, because I could study what NOT to do, and I could watch dozens of actors progress with varying degrees of success through a wide variety of material over the course of several consecutive years. The methodology of my program was very sound, though its application was often remarkably lacking, and I had access to good material and venues.

Anyway, the point is that I studied people as they created characters (do you get a sense of where I’m going with this now?) for years and years. I created characters myself, and I eventually began to teach others how to create characters. I have been writing creatively (as many of us have) since I was a small child, and my work with writing ran along concurrently with my acting work. Many, if not all, of the performance and creation skills I was mining from theatre had immediate and practical application to creative writing.

All of the problems typically encountered by an actor in the field are almost identical to problems faced by any fiction writer who is working with character-formation, and unless you are writing an autobiographical memoir, you are working in character-formation. (And even then, but hey, let’s keep going forward.)

Okay, So You Think I’m An Actor. I’m Not. Now Tell Me About Following My Characters’ Lead Already

The characters you create are inevitably formed from parts of your own organic energy. Unless you are God or an elevated and fully-enlightened being, there are things about you that you do not know.

There Are Things I Don’t Know About Myself? Like What?

Every time one of your characters unexpectedly says or does something (or clearly wants to) in your writing, your inner self is being revealed. Whatever aspect of your personhood that is enveloped in that particular character is attempting to extricate itself from obscurity and become a conscious aspect of your true self.

That Sounds Kind Of Deep

Gee, thanks! I try to be deep. Ha! Anyway, let’s look at an example of what I mean. I’m going to take a soldier from a fantasy example I wrote some weeks ago, and continue his adventure. I will give you one excerpt where I exert control over his actions, and one where I allow him to lead me. You can judge for yourself which piece of writing is stronger (my mind is made up, and my bias, I presume, is fairly obvious).

Here Are The Examples

Bad Writing (Controlled Characters):

Hornby was torn between a desire to help his fellow soldiers, and a terror of the ball of evil-looking magic that the old wizard carried. It was not supposed to be like this, Hornby thought, and the “it” in question was his assignment. He had been ordered to guard the old wizard two days ago, and he had been ill-prepared for the brazen manner in which the old man, Moriven, flaunted his authority over the people of Balinor.

Stupid old cuss, Hornby thought, but he held his breath as Moriven raised the pulsating orb, and flung it with a cry at the mangling bodies below.

A shimmer, like the reflection of sunlight on the surface of the sea, buzzed over the cliff-face. Hornby saw, too late, that the pair of slave-women had covered their eyes with their thick purple sleeves. He raised his own arm, but the blistering light reached his face, and his eyes burned in their sockets.

Hornby fell to his knees; a crackle of iridescent fire passed over his face, and he felt a pair of claw-like hands grasping him on either side of his head.

“Let go of me!” Hornby bellowed, struggling. A pair of powerful knees pinned him down to the ground; magical restraints closed, snapping and dancing with forceful sparks, over his arms, and Hornby found himself clasped hard against the stony breast of the mountain.

Hornby’s breath left him in a harsh rattle; he drew in new air, and the sound of his inhale crossed sharply over the silence that now blanketed the area. They’re all dead, he realized, and a shaft of horror blasted through his heart.

“My brother Gimrol was down there!” Hornby screamed. A pulse of orange light filled up his mind; he knew no more.

***

“Hand me the red stuff,” Moriven’s voice said over him. Hornby only gradually became aware of his surroundings; it was night, and the soft glow of a fire danced over the face of the hideous old wizard.

“You killed Gimrol,” Hornby rasped, and he lifted his arms, meaning to grasp the old man around the throat. Moriven chuckled, and daubed cool mud over Hornby’s eyes. Horby gasped, and jolted his head away from the thick, crusted fingers. “Stop touching me,” Hornby said hoarsely.

“He can see again; it worked,” Moriven said in a business-like tone. Hornby blinked away the stars that flecked his vision, and shook his head hard.

“What filth is this?” he demanded, meaning to reach up with his hand to wipe away the wet muck.

“You are bound, for your own safety,” the old wizard said. Moriven stood, and gestured to someone that Hornby could not see. “Tend to him, and tell him what he wants to know,” Moriven said, sounding positively jovial, and the old wizard hobbled out of Hornby’s line of sight.

“Where are you going? Where is he going?” Hornby demanded of the purple-robed slave that came near to his side.

“You have been touched by the orb of instant death,” the woman told him in a soft and measured tone. “You are very lucky to be here at all.”

“Where is my brother? Did you save my brother as well?” Hornby demanded. The woman met his eyes for a moment, and then looked into the darkness, as if waiting for some answer or direction.

“They are all dead, who were below the cliff,” the lady said.

Hornby’s breath left him in a rush. He had known, on the cliff, that there was no hope, but somehow, still, he had dreamed of it all being an awful nightmare.

“He can’t kill our own,” Hornby said. He looked to the side, but Moriven was out of sight. I will kill him, when I can stand, Hornby thought. The woman seemed to read his thought, because she laughed.

“Many men, mightier than you, have sought to destroy the great wizard,” she said. Her eyes were dancing with a clear light.

“My brother is dead because of him,” Hornby spat.

“Show him,” Morivan called from the darkness. Hornby twisted his head, and glared through the night, but he could see nothing.

“Show me what? What does he mean?” Hornby demanded. The slave woman nodded into the darkness, and raised up her palms.

“Close your eyes, and I will help you to see,” the lady said. Hornby stared at the dimly-lit slave with deep dislike.

“I do not want you to touch me,” he replied slowly.

“Show him,” Moriven commanded, in a high, cold voice. Hornby hissed, and glared at the lady.

“Is it safe?” he asked. What he meant was, will I be able to see, after? She nodded, and Hornby, stuffing away a large measure of suspicion, closed his eyes.

Good Writing (Characters Lead the Action):

Hornby watched in horror as the old magician laboriously raised his hands, and threw the pulsating black ball down on the fighting forms below the cliff. For a moment, nothing happened, but then a muffled bang, and the splatter of several hundred bodies bursting open filled the clear evening air with a sickening pitter-patter of blood and internal organs hitting the rocks.

Hornby’s brother, Jash, who had been a sentry of the Balinor outpost, was among the first to fall. His bright blue eyes turned momentarily up to the top of the cliff, and as his blond hair and shapely form exploded, Hornby screamed out, and flung himself down from the cliff.

One of the slaves who had supported the old wizard darted at Hornby, and wrapped her arms around his torso. The woman was stronger than she appeared; Horby wrestled her violently, and the white-bearded wizard glanced at their struggling bodies, and uttered a sharp curse.

Streams of white and gold light flung themselves against Hornby’s body, and he fell headlong to the ground atop the cliff. His arms and legs were bound tightly against his body, and a smooth wrap of magic filled up his mouth. Hornby struggled and spat against the magic, but it yielded easily to his mouth without causing him pain. The magic was like smooth butter, or creamy cheese. He could not make a sound, but he could breathe easily.

Hornby glared furiously at the woman who stood over him, watching him dispassionately.

“He appears to be upset,” the slave informed her master, who snorted.

“Carry him with us, Isbel,” the wizard told the purple-robed slave, and she bent at her waist, and hoisted Hornby easily over her shoulder. He attempted to fight against her hold, but his muscles grew quickly numb, and he felt his mind drifting wearily away from the darkening cliff top. I was not tired; I am not sleepy, he told himself furiously, but the darkness clung persistently to his mind, and he felt his eyes rolling up, and his jaw slackening.

***

Hornby woke in the deepest night. His limbs buzzed with a disquieting ache, but he no longer felt the width of stifling magic between his lips.

“You hurt me,” he said. He could see no one.

“I saved your life, you foolish man,” Isbel, the female slave, said. Hornby turned his head, and saw her sitting on a fire-colored boulder. He blinked, and lifted one hand to rub his eyes. His arm came partway up, and then stopped. Isbel saw his movement, and he thought he saw her smile. “You are bound, man-slave,” she said in her quaint accent.

“I am no slave,” Hornby spat. Isbel laughed in a low, throaty voice, and Hornby felt an automatic quiver of attraction in his gut. He felt a simultaneous disgust and desire for the exotic slave, whose hair was tied up in loops of gold, and whose fine brows arched disdainfully over her very keen eyes.

“You are war-chattel of my master, the great wizard Moriven,” she replied. She stood up and passed out of his line of vision. To his surprise, the boulder upon which she had sat, which had burned with a strangely orange-and-red glow, flashed out at once, and became an ordinary lump of granite.

“I belong to no one, slave,” Hornby called after her. He heard no answer, and, after craning his neck to see what he could from his present position, he began to struggle to rise.

He found that he was bound with short tethers of magic to a length of the stone ground. From what he could see, he was no longer anywhere near the cliffs where the battle had occurred, and where his little brother—ye gods, what was he going to relay to mother? Sorry mother, Hornby imagined himself saying, but I was assigned to guard a warlock, and I watched while he did a spell that exploded Jash into pieces of blood and softened intestine. Hornby grimaced bitterly, and examined his tethers. He could only see part of the magic. Where the tethers sank into the stone, it burned with the same strange glow that had illuminated Isbel’s boulder.

Hornby rotated his body, and began to test the strength of the tethers.

“You will yank out your arms before you release yourself from my bonds,” Moriven said. Hornby glared up through the darkness, but he could not see the white-bearded wizard.

“You killed my little brother,” Hornby spat. He could not contain the venom in his voice.

“Yes, it is most regrettable,” Moriven agreed. “I myself have had relatives in such battles. It is unfortunate. I am guessing you did not expect me to kill everyone.”

“I didn’t think you’d do magic that killed our side, too,” Hornby said. He felt hatred seething in the skin of his face; he wanted to stride to the old man, and hit him.

“Well,” Moriven said, clapping his hands together sharply. “To business. I need an apprentice, and I think you will serve well enough.”

Hornby blinked, and shook his head.

“I won’t be your apprentice, old man,” he said, with what he hoped was withering scorn.

What we find when we follow the characters’ lead is that we naturally steer clear of artificial situations, and a remarkable freshness enters the dynamic of the scenes and dialogues. Our characters become independent and volitional. A happy side effect is that the act of writing becomes a movement of discovery.

But I Like Writing To An Outline, Victor. If I Follow The Characters, I’ll Lose My Structure

A surprising thing happens when you use both an outline and volitional characters; magic storytelling happens. You see, in order for you to force a volitional character towards a predetermined outline, you have to motivate the character. For example, in My Name Is Caleb; I Am Dead, Caleb is instructed to do something that he really, really doesn’t want to do. My outline showed that he would eventually do it. So my challenge, as a writer, was to create a scenario around and inside of Caleb that would bring him, emotionally, to the point where he would be both capable and willing of the action that ultimately occurred in the outline.

You’re Being Too Vague; This Is Not Helpful

You’ll just have to read the book. It’s a very good book. I’m not going to spoil it for you. Back to our point, when you follow the volitional urges of your characters, you are, in essence, externalizing and incorporating repressed aspects of yourself into your core personhood, which is good for your branding, good for your readers (because the characters are naturally fresh and dynamic in this methodology), and good for your daily writing experience. Embrace the unfolding of your hidden self, and reap the rewards of dynamic, moving fiction in the process.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. My books are here. Have a great afternoon.