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.

But Victor, 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, Victor Poole?

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.

But Victor, 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.

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.

How To Write Traditional Fantasy In A World Of Urban Romance

There are people (you might be one of them) who go back on a regular basis to read Lord of the Rings. It feels lush. It captures, for many of us, what fantasy writing is actually about.

Why Isn’t There More Stuff That Feels Like LOTR?

Morality and gender are the key places where contemporary fantasy falls off the bus. Many of us find ourselves returning to the classic standards of science fiction and fantasy precisely because they fill up that aching need inside of us in a way that most new books fail to do.

Fans Of Mercedes Lackey, Watch Out!

I was probably thirteen when I finally gave up on contemporary fantasy novels. Like most of you reading this, I read a lot as a kid. Fantasy worlds and imaginary places helped me escape from difficult things I didn’t have the power to fix. The moment I gave up on new fantasy was when I was standing next to a little book turnstile that my home-town library kept at the end of the art history shelf. This turnstile was stuffed, alphabetically by author, with historical romance and fantasy novels (I was there for the fantasy books).

Upstairs was a wider selection of the classics, and of middle grade fiction, but down on the main level, and in these plastic turnstiles, was the contemporary sword and sorcery type stuff.

It was the series Lackey wrote about white horses. The covers were lovely; the first two books were pretty good. It was the third book, I think, that stopped me reading.

Where Are You Going With This?

I got tired of the cheap sex. I got tired of the contradictory morals of the characters (fighting evil officially, stabbing their best friends in the back privately). I got tired of believing in work that, eventually, seemingly inevitably, betrayed me as thoroughly as life kept betraying me.

What’s Immoral About Sex?

Let’s talk for a moment about prostitution and procuring. Prostitution, the selling of the temporary use of one’s gender presentation to an uncommitted partner, is, perhaps, the most unromantic and unsavory of subjects in fiction. Pimping, the professional exploitation of the prostitute, is, in fiction, probably the highest and most corrupt depiction of villainy that is possible in the human range of evil.

What About Killing Babies? Isn’t That Worse?

To be perfectly frank, a person who manages prostitutes and drains them of autonomy and resources is both the creator and destroyer of life—of babies, if you will. There is no way to come out clean from this scenario; unless an author is writing this exploiter of vulnerable beings as a literal demon in human form, that author is contributing pain, and not healing. That author is writing lies, and not truth.

The Soul Of Escape Fiction Is True Honor

Protecting the weak; defending the innocent; these are the foundational principles of real fantasy. These are the underpinning truths, the “love conquers all” theme that creates an intoxicating flame of adventure in real fiction of this type. Magic, and the idea of a world where our present evils are externalized, and expressed openly in hideous forms, is the bridge over which the eager reader enters into a new world in their hearts. The reader escapes this present world, and comes into a place where evil can be fought, and where pure honor, and true love of peace, are carried openly as banners, and as bonds between like-minded companions.

What Do Pimps Have To Do With Fantasy?

When an author exploits and exposes the gender of expression of their characters, when they deliberately write salacious passages between their characters, and offer this fabricated sexuality to their readers, they are, in essence, lowering themselves to the status of a common procurer, and attempting to degrade the reader into a purchaser and consumer of what amounts to sexual slavery.

This is ugly.

Contemporary Fantasy (Urban), And Aren’t You Being Dramatic? They’re Only Books

Am I being overdramatic? How many of you read fantasy precisely because you want to get into another, cleaner world, a world where the passion in your heart and the values that burn in you can actually bring change to the landscape of reality? Isn’t the fellowship, the honorable bond between the characters in LOTR, and the message that their core friendship was eventually able to overcome great evil, a huge part of the appeal of the series?

When I was a young person, I wholeheartedly sought to escape into books; I pretended to be the characters I read about. When an author pissed all over my independence, and my feelings of sexual autonomy, by manipulating and exposing a character sexually, I felt manipulated and exposed, too. I felt betrayed. The fantasy book that did this became as dark and unpleasant as my real life was at the time.

I was not reading fantasy books in order to encounter a new form of abuse.

Urban fantasy, as a genre, is a way to combine the awful, stark reality that is sometimes real life with the magic and hope of traditional fantasy.

Well, What Do I Do With This Information?

Revisit your manuscript. Are you, as the author, pushing your characters into sexually exploitative scenes because you have heard, or you think you know, that sex sells books?

Are you distorting the honor and internal integrity of your characters so that you can write “like a grown-up”?

You’re Being Awfully Pushy About This

Let us talk for one moment about romance. Everyone knows, who has studied the market, that romance is the biggest-selling genre for books. But if you dig a little deeper, you will find that the books that sell best, and the stories that dominate the market, are about honorable people fighting towards each other with genuine love in their hearts.

Even if you take a book like Twilight, which is very different from Lord of the Rings, you will find characters who, however misguidedly, act from a place of genuine loyalty, fellowship, and love. I personally believe that Twilight exploded the way that it did because it combined buckets of raw lust with a shyness, and a modesty, that was, to innocent minds, utterly intoxicating. The readers could identify with and escape into the main character because, however much Bella was technically abused, she was never exploited.

People can bitch all day about Stephanie Meyer’s success, but I believe that she succeeded because, on a gut level, she honored the sexual and moral autonomy of her characters.

She never betrayed them in the name of sales.

You can write about sex, friendship, and honor without destroying the integrity and innocence of your characters. If you set to, and figure out how to do it consistently, you will make mountains of money.

And if you write with intact morality and autonomous gender in the tradition of epic fantasy, well, readers may soon be revisiting your books just as often as they revisit Tolkien.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. You can read my own honorable fiction here.

Unfinished Cover Detail

Claire detail

This is Claire, the queen of Caldhart. I’ve been working on her story, which has dragons in it.

I completed a new novella yesterday afternoon, but I’m saving up for Vellum, and I don’t want to publish this new story until I buy the unlimited package.

I’m really happy with how the ending of the Ajalia series is going. Once I have all 9 books out, I’m probably going to put together bundles.

I’m learning a lot more about my Wacom tablet, and how to manipulate the brushes. I used to work with real paint, but the lack of mess and expense with a tablet is mind-blowing. I have a hard time imagining going back to real-life mediums. I love being able to clip pieces of a drawing and move them on the canvas. I would have had to do tracings and layers before, but now I can click, copy, paste and drag. Lovely.

Click here to see the books I have out right now. And click here to read some free stories.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Thanks for visiting!

How To Master Your First Unapologetic Info-Dump

Ah, the infamous info-dump. As writers of science fiction and fantasy, there are times when an info-dump is vital to the comprehension of the reader. But fear not! Info-dumps are an accepted practice in legitimate literature, and as long as you keep a few things in mind, your info-dump will be fresh, entertaining, and not at all overwhelming to the reader.

Tell Me More!

Before we dive into your own info-dump, let’s look at some examples of this winning strategy from the masters. Yes, really successful writers have embraced the info-dump, and they have done so without shame.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet

MARCELLUS. Good now sit downe, & tell me he that knowes
Why this same strict and most obseruant Watch,
So nightly toyles the subiect of the Land. . . [info-dump here]

Who is’t that can informe me?

HORATIO. That can I,
At least the whisper goes so: Our last King,
Whose Image euen but now appear’d to vs,
Was (as you know) . . . [super info-dump here]

Shakespeare uses info-dumps unapologetically throughout his plays. Why can he get away with it? Well, before we answer that question, let’s look at a few more examples.

Cervantes’ Don Quixote

In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind, there lived not long since one of those gentlemen . . . [long info-dump]

Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village. It stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of West Country farmland. Not a remarkable house by any means—[long info-dump about the house and the inhabitant thereof]

William Goldman’s Princess Bride

I’m not going to post an excerpt here, because Goldman does this so often and so well. He is the master of short, quip-like info-dumps. When were jeans invented? What about soup? And what about that lady who was married to the man making eyes at her mother, with the chocolates?

But Wait! Are Those Really Info-Dumps?

An info-dump is any spot in the writing where the author takes the time away from the action to give the reader information—about the characters, the setting, the culture, the props, the etymology of words, the weather, or the significance of symbols and rituals within the world of the book. If the reader is getting information about the world of the story straight from the writer, it is an unapologetic transfer of backstory or context; this is what an info-dump is.

You Can Embrace The Info-Dump

A failed info-dump occurs when the writer stops telling a story, and cheats by pushing bare facts at the reader.

Here is a bad one:

Gerard was forty-two. His mother didn’t like him. He had two gold teeth, and he smiled because he liked feeling the glint of light on his teeth. His favorite color is blue, which is important because later on he chose the blue gun, and that one had a lower charge threshold. And that’s important because he ran out of charge in the middle of the battle for the ship later on. He dated a green lady in cadet school. He doesn’t like the taste of honey.

And here is a good one:

Gerard, forty-two, and the wearer of two gold teeth that shone pleasantly when he bared a smile, was disliked by his mother. He always wore blue, and had a habit of accessorizing in matching hues as often as he could, which proved disastrous when he went so far as to choose laser guns based on their casings, rather than their power.

His chief emotional hang-up from his past, and the reason for his inveterate piracy, was an emerald-skinned Velashan woman he had met in his cadet days; she had told him he didn’t have the guts to make a name for himself as a pilot, and since he had lost his license, his ambition was limited to illegal channels of space flight.

This morning, as he strolled through the cafeteria on the asteroid market, he passed a counter lined with honey-glazed torfe rolls, and the smell made him grimace. Honey! he thought, wrinkling his nose.

You Can Write Info-Dumps With Confidence When You Think Of Yourself As A Storyteller

You are, in essence, writing yarns, or telling fireside tales. As long as you take your readers on a journey, and satisfy their desire for an entertaining ride, you can depart on whimsical or informative derails from the main action as often as you like.

Info-Dumps Are Your Friend

Readers of science fiction and fantasy stories often want to escape, or to journey to strange lands and different places. How will your readers experience these exotic locales if you do not take the time to describe them? Embrace the info-dump, and tell your story with confidence; as long as you keep in mind your role as the storyteller, you can master this time-honored tool of novel-writing and tale-spinning.

You’ve been reading a blog about writing by Victor Poole. Here are my books. Thanks for visiting!