Adding Depth To Characters You Already Own

 

Today I’m thinking about fantasy and depth, as in long-range vision on characters.

Let’s get straight to the chase:

You, presumably, have a bunch of really awesome characters that you’re working with in a story, or in multiple stories (I have about four worlds revolving in my mind now, with four sets of characters).

Let’s take those characters that you already have, and I’ll show you how to get a lot more (and I mean A LOT more) mileage out of them.

This process is easy, fast, and deeply satisfying. (If you follow the rules! If you don’t follow the rules, it’s maddening … so follow the rules, ‘kay?)

Victor Poole’s Magical Recipe For Depth In Already-Established Characters

  1. Start with what you have

Don’t add shit. You start, right now, with what you have. What I mean by adding shit:

Example: In one of my fantasy worlds, I have a mature centaur named Albion. With the scenes he’s in so far, I know Albion:

  • has three sons
  • his wife has been dead for years and years
  • he’s very powerful

I also have a general sense of his body carriage, the shape of his torso, and his habitual facial expression. I know these things by my instinctual writer’s sense. You do this for characters you’ve already created; you have a gut sense of what they sort of feel like, as people.

That’s what I have now for Albion; that’s what I can use in keeping this rule.

So, if I broke the rule, I would pressure myself into making Albion “more interesting.” I would add artificial knobs and doodads to his character, or to his story, in an effort to make him have more “depth,” or to make him more “compelling,” or some shit like that.

So I might start daydreaming and showing off by saying to myself that IN ADDITION:

BAD! DON’T DO THIS!

  • Albion has a cloak-and-dagger past as a military centaur, and no one knows about it!
  • He murdered his wife!
  • He wears a lavender harness! (because centaurs)

All that shit would clutter up the core of the original character and lead to me eventually hitting a dead-end in the plot, where it concerns Albion. I would have choked off his ability to become deep in the writing by adding superficial artifice, and ironically, my attempt to force depth would rob Albion of any depth he might otherwise have had.

I know for an absolute fact that you, in your deep writer’s heart, have a sense of what is really part of the character and what is artificially added on to make the character “more interesting.”

  1. Start with what you have. Don’t show off. Don’t add crap. Don’t TRY. Just start with what you have already.

And Now, Rule Two

2. Start catching snags

Every person who exists (even characters you’ve made up for your book) has hiccups and idiosyncrasies in their dialogue and behavior.

You start with what you have and you start calling attention to snags, and refusing to move on in the story until the snag has been thoroughly addressed.

Here are some examples of snags:

  • Henry the bodyguard refuses to shake hands, and doesn’t want to talk about why.
  • Albion the centaur is cool and disdainful, and puts on a stiff manner with strangers.
  • Lysette the queen is impossibly beautiful, and doesn’t seem to age as much as she ought to.

Here Is How To Call Out A Snag

Let’s start with a new snag, just for our purposes here. I will make a new character named Violet, and write a paragraph containing a snag. Observe:

Violet, a minor witch, carried her straw purse through the door of the Farm n’ Garden store and glanced at the flecks of mulch on the floor. Her lips pursed into a slight curl of disapproval, and she went to the largest piece of mulch and kicked it against the wall. They ought to sweep better in here, Violet told herself, and she hitched her straw purse over her shoulder and walked towards the selection of sentient pansies in the back.

The snag here is the way she notices and reacts to perfectly normal debris in a gardening store. Something is under that reaction, and if we continue the story and allow some other character to confront the snag, a beginning of character depth will result. Observe:

Having chosen out her intelligent potted plants, Violet carried them to the willowy clerk at the register and dug in her straw purse for the appropriate measure of gold.

“Why did you kick aside that piece of mulch?” the clerk asked. Her eyes were clear and blue, and she stared at Violet with an unnerving boldness.

“Um, what?” Violet asked, shifting through gum and sparrow bones in her purse.

“When you came in the store. You went and pushed a piece of mulch over against the wall with your shoe. Why’d you do that?” the girl asked. Violet looked up at the willowy young woman and blinked. Violet elected to ignore the question, and succeeded in withdrawing a lump of coins.

“That should be enough. I have smaller change, if you need a closer amount,” Violet said, rendering up a handful of precious metal.

“No, that’s fine. Are you a clean freak?” the clerk asked, opening the register.

“Um, no,” Violet said, feeling that the young woman was being excessively rude.

At this point, I have two choices:

  1. The clerk pushes the point and starts a fight over getting a better answer about the mulch, and the clerk and the witch begin a relationship, either friendly or antagonistic, depending on the results of the confrontation
  2. Violet walks away with her potted pansies, is mildly bothered, and we chase down further snags throughout her day

The stakes in the relationship determine how far the snag-pushing can go on. I’ll talk over my examples from above:

  • Henry the bodyguard is confronted about the hand-shaking by Vince, and turns out to have been physically tortured by some older men a long time ago
  • Albion the centaur is confronted on his stiff manner by the young lady centaur he is speaking to, and she finds out he is very lonely
  • Lysette the beautiful queen is eventually caught doing some very naughty magic that extends her youth and good looks

And Now, The Final Rule

3. Contextual framing creates depth

A successful character draws the reader in and allows for intimacy between reader and character. You get intimate with a person by understanding how they think and feel. Showing a character’s actions and words is not enough; the character’s internal experience of their outer experience is essential to building empathy for that character within the reader.

Empathy is created by vulnerability and contextual framing.

On a completely unrelated note, here’s a landscape sketch I’m working on:

landscape1

Contextual framing is created over time by showing the character’s familial situation and relations to people immediately around them. Relationships, shown through writing, make the contextual framing.

To frame our witch, Violet, we would go home with her and see her speaking to her mother and sister, who live with her, and we would watch her interacting with the magical hamster who resides in her garden and keeps back angry pests. The more we illustrated Violet’s relationships with those closest to her, the deeper and more interesting her personal snags would become.

Altogether, The Rules Are Three

  1. Start with what you have. Don’t add shit just to show off or artificially create drama. That doesn’t lead to authentic depth. You know in your gut what really belongs with the character and what is added on top.
  2. Call out snags. Usually the character who is paying attention to snags is the protagonist. Hercule Poirot catches snags; that’s almost his entire character, is finding and following up on snags. Harry Potter actually is also mainly volitional because of the way he notes and investigates snags in the people around him.
  3. Contextual framing brings everything together and cements depth. Excellent characterization creeps in on the reader over time, impressed by the relationships immediately surrounding the character.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Max is reciprocating some of the good work Vince has been doing for him. (Vince the hunter is, in the words of one bodyguard, “a mystic energy dude.”)

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Is Your Writing Good Enough?

Being an actor is really challenging. Not only do you have to figure out how to make everyone like you while pretending to be another person, you also have to master the delicate art of becoming popular, which, if you’re a normal human from an average background, is fraught with complication.

Popularity Is A Deliberate Skill

If you’re from a terrible background, and you have to cope with all the neurosis and maladjustments accordant to that circumstance, things can feel a little sticky and impossible.

I went to acting school, or I have formal training as an actor, in any case. There was a kind of journey that I went on, as an actor, from the beginning to the end of my acting program.

From The Beginning To The End

At the start, I was naive, full of myself, very talented (and I didn’t know it), and supremely confident in my ability to figure things out and become the very best.

Then life happened, and very poor directors happened, and really damaging classwork happened on top of that, and I started to look about myself and think.

I Didn’t Blame My Teachers, At First

Why, I asked myself, was I such a worse actor than I had been when I started out? After all, studying, and being surrounded by like-minded aspirants and supposed professionals in the art should have, I thought, prepared me to be super awesome as an actor.

I’ve read visual artists saying (writing) that their time in art school, receiving training and instruction, was only valuable insofar as the experience hammered into their brains how completely helpless and useless formal instruction is. Their point, as they were writing, was that art school allowed (or forced) them to the realization that they were their only secure and reliable source for inspiration, teaching, and improvement. That the idiotic waste of art school forced them back into their private, personal spring of talent and inspiration.

That They Had To Become Artists On Their Own

I feel a similar way about acting school. I really don’t enjoy speaking negatively about things, and I resisted taking a realistic view of my training until it was almost over, but at last the damage, both to myself and my classmates, was so pervasive, so inhumane, and so unanimously perverse that I faced the music, as it were, and woke up.

I cut off my heart and my mind from my (genuinely terrible) instructors–and I want to say that when I call them terrible, I don’t only mean that they didn’t teach very well, though most of them didn’t teach well at all. I mean that they lied and cheated and set up long-term contextual scenarios that destroyed young actors, and they did it on purpose because they were bitter people with no inner substance.

I Sound So Cynical, I Think, But They Did

I cut off my heart and my mind from my instructors, and I determined to figure things out for myself. I took all the information and impressions and experiences I had personally gathered over the years I had studied theatre, both before school and during it, and I began to experiment.

The first thing I learned was that my teachers sucked a lot more than I’d ever given them credit for. You see, as I began to dabble in learning for myself, I, of course, required bodies with which to experiment, and I found out, in the first two months of doing so, that I had a genius for teaching and changing the bodies around me.

I Can Release A Person’s Natural Self

I could  make people do things on stage that were objectively glorious. I could create visceral emotional interactions on stage, in scene work, that gave anyone–anyone–watching, chills. When my work was going on, the room got very quiet. People turned still inside. They started to think deep things about morality, and God, and shit like that.

I was really, really good.

The second thing I discovered is that all of my instructors but two were actually evil.

No, Really

You see, when I changed actors’ bodies, and taught real, effective acting (and how I know how to do that is a really long story, not having anything to do with today’s subject), all but two of the mature, supposedly professional acting instructors got strangely irritated.

The two okay ones, the two non-evil teachers, were enormously pleased by my work, and wanted more of it. They wanted me, and my genius, and they wanted everything to change so that this kind of authentic work was happening in all the classrooms, for all the students, and in all the theatre productions involved with the school.

They were on the side of learning, and growth, and right.

Tension Between Established Old People Ensued

The rest of the professors didn’t come out and say anything, exactly, but contextually, they all shifted, and started to cooperate in concert. It was a little like a hunting party, or a creepy conspiracy film.

They didn’t want change, and they didn’t want their established power to go away. That’s when I really knew, deep in my heart, how rotten they were, and how bad each of those people were at creating art.

Angry, Empty People Who No Longer Sought To Create With Authenticity

They were exploiters, and predators. Icky people.

Anyway, back on point. What I found out, as I started to mold and open people’s bodies in acting, and through scene work, I discovered that all the dozens of really horrible actors and immature hobbyists around me (the students) were insanely talented, in terms of potential power and native ability.

I Was Startled By The Depth Of Their Talent

They were blocked, and they were ignorant, and had no idea how to access their own powers of creation, but they were legitimately precious resources, and had nearly endless potential for professional-grade, stunning acting work.

This situation startled me. I’d thought the bad actors were without ability, because their classwork, before I opened them up and made them behave like themselves, was so genuinely awful and insensible. These actors slowly transformed into the kind of exciting talent prospects that would make a film agent salivate, and I started to apply the ramifications of this situation to myself.

I Wanted A Blueprint For Acting Cultivation

I’d started with the idea of learning how to act, and in the process, I learned about creativity in general.

You see, when you set out to create, you are forming a visceral part of your own, true self, your actual energy and spiritual, unseen self, and transforming it into some kind of medium to be seen and consumed by other humans.

You’re harvesting droplets, or buckets, as the case may be, of essence from your deepest unique self, and proffering it to other people, who may or may not choose to take it, taste it, and consume it, if they like it.

Creative Disciplines, And The Emotional Exchange Of Art

This goes across acting, writing, drawing, and singing. And dance, and programming, and math, and every other creative medium. Anything requiring creative energy.

People who last, and who thrive over time in any creative discipline, do so by treating their own lives as a plant, a precious tree. They harvest from themselves, and they feed and tend themselves with an understanding, whether instinctual or deliberate, that they cannot get product without first caring for the productive plant of self.

So, now we come to today’s topic.

Is Your Writing Good Enough?

The real question that you need to be asking yourself is this:

Is my writing clean? Is it mature, fully-developed, and edible?

I’m serious about the edible part, actually. When you consume a piece of artwork, whether through seeing performance, taking in writing, or any other transaction of the senses, your energy structure opens up and you absorb, depending on the quality of the spiritual food, actual aural energy into your innermost being.

You are a living human being. In essence, you are a tree.

And Are Therefore Capable of Producing Leaves, Blossoms, Fruit, Or Seeds

Asking yourself if you can make fruit is not productive, and asking yourself if anyone likes to eat fruit is a similar waste of time.

The real question, and the only productive question, is how well and how deliberately you are caring for your own emotional, physical, and total creative being.

Your writing is good enough, always, impinging on the condition that you are feeding and caring for yourself as an inherently productive tree.

And Now, A Metaphor Or Two

A zebra who has an existential crisis about whether or not he is an elephant is wasting his time.

A heron who sits all day and agonizes over whether or not she was really meant to fly, and if she’s good enough to fly, is similarly going nowhere, as far as getting a satisfactory flight going on.

Action is the answer. You are human, and your soul is designed to create, in whatever medium suits your tastes.

Confused Creatures Who Are Afraid Of Being Something Else

Your writing, by default, is good enough, because you are human, conditional upon you treating yourself as a creative entity and caring for yourself as such.

A heron who agonizes about the value of her flight will never fly, though she can, and should.

A zebra who ponders the moral dilemma of possibly not really being an effective zebra, avoids the natural life and satisfaction zebras presumably get out of being zebras.

My Student Actors

Stop asking yourself if your writing is good enough, and start asking yourself if your writing (which, by default, is good enough by dint of being produced by you, as long as you accept that you are a creative being) is clean enough to be desirable to other humans.

My student actors were all good enough. They all, every single one, it turned out, had enough talent, and enough prospective skill to become legitimately successful, given many years of discipline and targeted self-care and cultivation.

You Are A Fertile Plant, Spiritually

Their acting was good enough. The question for them, and for you, is this: Are you currently engaging in a lifestyle and a method of self-care that will allow you to produce writing (or acting) that is clean enough, mature enough (as in, not plucked off the branch prematurely), and authentic enough (as in, coming from your genuine self, and not a plastic apple) to be edible to and desirable to a hungry person?

That’s the pertinent question, the productive question that leads to better work, stronger writing, and eventual externalized evidence of your creative worth.

As an aside, here is a link to my eerie, romantic book about a mature accountant trapped between death and the afterlife: My Name is Caleb; I am Dead

Caleb new

In Conclusion

Asking yourself if your writing is good enough is the wrong question. The right question is whether or not you’re treating yourself in a way that will reliably lead to an edible creative harvest.

As a side note, fertilizing and clearing up weeds around your roots is a deeply satisfying process, and makes for great story fodder, later on.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my revised book, Claire is contemplating a sudden journey to the dragon-infested continent of Asoan. Mm. This is me making a shiver of anticipation. There are dragons in My Name is Caleb; I am Dead, but they are colorful manifestations of stars, and not traditional lizard-type creatures at all. They have gorgeous wings, though, and they can talk.

I’m Working On One Fantasy Series And Two Science Fiction Series

One time when I was a teenager, I had a job cleaning houses for some new construction. I was working with a couple of other kids, a brother and sister, and the girl attended a rival dance studio to the one I went to.

For context, her studio was run by a chatty and enthusiastic woman who focused on modern and jazz, and had little formal education. Her students didn’t know the names of the steps they performed.

Their Modern Was Pretty Good, Though

The studio I went to was run by a classically trained ballerina who had studied for years with a recognized Russian authority and whose students and dance teams regularly won awards at national conferences.

At my studio, we knew the names of the steps we performed.

Because Russian-Influenced Ballet Is Awesome

Anyway, I was cleaning houses with these other two kids, and the girl, who danced at this other studio, was talking to me about my ballet teacher, this rigorous lady.

“I heard she chooses favorites,” the girl said with a discerning grimace.

“No,” I said, because this was sort of funny to me. “She teaches anyone who is willing to learn and put the work in.”

Now, Writing

When you start working on a series, it feels really good. You feel like an important and serious author. You know, because stretching a satisfying plot over several books is Hard Work, etc.

Kind of like my ballet teacher, though, a series is a demanding and stern thing. Because you can’t give up in the middle.

Even When Your Body Feels Awful

The thing the girl didn’t get, having never had a really good ballet teacher, is that the key to successfully dancing is discipline and study, and that the people who look like they’re the teacher’s pet, when it comes to dancing, are actually the people who are working hard enough to soften and prepare their bodies to the instruction.

Series are the same way. It’s not rocket science, exactly, so much as it is really hard work. There’s an end point, but it’s far away, and all the problems and potential snarls that show up in a regular, standalone book are magnified almost endlessly in a series.

I Have Three Series In Progress Right Now

You have the characters, and their development and arcs, but you also have each book as an episode within a greater whole, and every relationship has to pace with the others, and with the plot as a whole.

The development of the overall theme has to engage the reader throughout several books, and each problem has to be addressed all the way back to the beginning. Continuity is a thing.

I Think Series Are Fun

I don’t know very much about writing series, but I’m teaching myself how to figure it out, and it’s a lot of fun. I find that the ability to get to know characters over a chain of books is much more satisfying than picking them up for one story and then letting them go.

Turns out, I get kind of attached to my characters. So, what is it like to write a series? Terrifying, and sometimes drudgery, and deeply satisfying in the end. Just like classical dance. The discipline, in many ways, is its own reward.

Examples

Meh Writing:

Suko lay on the midnight-colored sand and waited for  her sponsor to show up. Each surviving human had been given a guardian alien, an overseer of sorts, to work out the advancement of homo sapiens to an appropriate level of consciousness.

Now that Earth had been destroyed, Suko found herself missing the mundanity of her life before. Her family was all dead, but Suko’s sponsor, Bob, had shown her how to communicate with auras beyond the physical plane, so it wasn’t as if they were gone.

A ding sounded through the air, and Bob materialized and sat down next to Suko.

“You’re old this time. Why do you keep choosing gross bodies?” Suko demanded.

Bob was mostly naked, though he wore an animal skin loincloth, and had manifested himself in the aged body of a ninety-year-old scrawny fellow with wispy, uneven gray hair.

“I took whatever was in the queue. How are your studies coming along?” Bob asked. Suko groaned and rolled over to push her face into the dark sand.

More Engaging Writing:

Hi, my name’s Suko, and I am single-handedly responsible for the destruction of the human race. Sorry, guys. This is off the record, of course, and don’t hate me too much, but I’m the one who set the whole disaster off. It’s my fault.

Bob, that’s my sponsor from the Wyndhel guys, he told me I’d better keep a record of the whole transaction, since it’s a significant part of my life story, and because I killed all of you, so I’m writing this down. He told me, Bob did, that he would distribute copies of this to the dead, so that you’d have closure, I guess. Sorry again. I didn’t mean to kill you all.

Bob is an alien. You guys won’t know anything about what really happened, so I’ll start there. Um, there are aliens, lots of them, and different kinds, and I pissed off a bad kind, and they, um, gave me a button, and told me not to push it, and I did, and now you’re all dead. And it’s my fault. Yes, I’m an idiot, and yes, I shouldn’t push buttons that big glowing alien guys warn me will end the world, but I really thought they were kidding, in my defense, and there was a lot of taunting going back and forth, so, yeah.

And, um, Bob, he’s an alien too, but a good kind, Bob told me that I’m not trustworthy, so I’m using this, um, alien transcription software? And I can’t erase anything. So . . . yeah. Sorry for if this sounds like I’m talking, because I am. Ha. Um. No editing for me! Ha!

Okay, so here’s how the end of the world all came about.

You’re reading Victor Poole. I’m working on the lady in my novel right now, the secondary female character. She’s a human, and her personality is full of quirks. This makes her love life complicated.

What Does Sexual Tension Really Mean?

Romance begins as a seed planted by competition and herd behavior.

Horses And Power

When horses are standing out in a field together, they generally fan out and face different directions. Horses can see most of the area around their bodies, and they watch for sudden movements or predator-like approaches.

A group of horses watch out for each other, and if one sees something threatening, they do that adorable lifted-head snort dealio, and all the other horses do the same thing. If there’s real danger, the horses all run away together.

People Are Similar

It’s cute. People are not horses, but we are built to live in groups, and the principles, in a broad sense, are similar. If there’s a group of people, all of them can see different parts of a scenario, and if there’s trouble, one or two of the people notice first and metaphorically throw up their heads and give a human version of a snort of alarm.

Now, romance. When a juvenile horse becomes of relatively marriageable age, the equine is thrust out, as it were, from the family group to go and find some appropriate sexual setting in which to procreate. The males band together in little bachelor groups, and the females, depending on the situation, wander about and find some new family situation to attach to.

Horses Do This In The Wild To Prevent Inbreeding

Before the little horses are kicked out permanently, they go through adolescence, and become really annoying. When the young horse of either gender behaves badly, one of the adult horses kicks them temporarily out of the herd group, and puts them in what amounts to a time out.

The young horse has to go out and be miserable some distance from the safety of the general grazing formation. Horses don’t like being kicked out, and it’s a great place from which to be eaten by predators. The position is tense for the young horse, because they’re all by themselves and can only see as much as they can see alone. They hate it.

Because The Mountain Lions Will Come Eat Them

Human beings also hate being alone, in general. It’s not safe, or comfortable, or enjoyable. Being completely isolated runs against our wiring.

When people say they’re introverts, they usually have a complex internal setup, an imaginary herd and a real support system of people, ideas, and trade-offs that allow them to stay functionally alone while feeling surrounded, if sort of trapped.

Now, Romance

Human predators, people who follow weaker people and take emotions or relational goods from them, are usually really good at exploiting biologically-imperative herd behaviors in their victims. They get the potential victim to identify with and bond to them, and then work at isolating them from their previous herd and form up a new family unit where the abuser has all the power.

Romance, as a dynamic, occurs when there is no exploitative power imbalance, and when both parties are freely choosing to form a new family bond. That’s where powerful love happens.

Horses And People

Now, what does this have to do with horses, and the way they watch out for each other? Well, every group of horses has a structured hierarchy. There’s a bottom horse, and a horse in charge, and every horse in the group has an individual place where they’re a little in charge of some of the others, or not at all in charge of some.

You can see this very clearly when the horses find a treat they really like, or when food is scarce. The most-head-honcho horses get the nice food to themselves, and the middle horses pick up the scraps, and the lowest horse wanders around like a scapegoat and chews on weeds and tree bark.

No, Really, They Do

Humans, in general, structure themselves along similar lines. Someone’s in charge, and everyone else is a little more or less in charge of each other, and someone, inevitably, is at the very bottom of the heap.

The ideal situation, and the scenario with the most powerful potential for good storytelling, is when the person in charge is adept at spreading power and protecting the weak. A good leader allocates power throughout the herd structure, and makes things seem very fair, and very safe.

Both People And Horses Will Voluntarily Align Themselves Behind A Good Herd Leader

A bad leader creates a lot of functional scapegoats who eventually get fed up with the situation and band together to overthrow the extreme imbalance.

Because of this naturally-occurring herd structure among people, there is an element of competition in everything humans do. Whether or not they admit it to themselves, or realize that it’s happening, people compete with each other to rise up the hierarchy. Because everyone is, on some level, competing to climb up in power, competition becomes a huge part of romance and mate selection.

Status Is A Real Thing

There’s the element of choosing the most desirable mate, but there’s also the matter of the relative power between both parties. For example, a person higher up on the totem pole who chooses a lower-placed person becomes the lesser-power-holding person’s guardian and guide, as far as wider herd dynamics go.

Two scapegoats will rarely mate up together, because they can’t protect each other, or themselves, and they become a kind of dumping ground for all human society. This sort of double-bottom-scapegoat relationship is very rare in real life, and manifests more in the way of a fling, or a very short-lived and intense romance. Lots of partnered people will say that they’re both scapegoats, but there’s always hidden power and strength going on under the surface in those cases.

Power And Deliberate Love

Romance cannot survive without power driving it, and protecting it from outside encroachment. Here’s an example of how the very beginning of romance incorporates both competition and herd-behavior to create sexual tension.

Examples

Bad Writing (Non-romance)

Carlos and Margaret were not friends at all, because they didn’t have anything in common. That all changed on the day they were assigned to sit next to each other on the prison bus.

The aliens had come down last month, and everyone was in prison camps, except for the lucky few who got to be pet-ambassadors to the alien home world. Carlos thought he had almost been chosen, because the huge lizard-man who had screened him in the first days of the invasion had asked him a lot of questions, and kept him back three days longer than anyone else.

Now Carlos was in prison, and next to Margaret every afternoon. He thought she was annoying. She talked too much, and always tried to make friends with the alien guards. They got to be closer over time, because of being next to each other, and one day Carlos found he was growing attached to the consistent drone of her cheery voice.

Oh, well, he thought. My life is already mostly over, and he proposed. They couldn’t get married, of course, because of being alien slaves, but they shook hands over it and decided to be pretend spouses. Margaret was killed a week later, and Carlos escaped and destroyed the local alien chief.

Good Writing (Romance soon)

Carlos waited at the gate of the alien compound, rattling his heavy metal gloves against his thighs. The bus was late again, but the other prisoners were, too. Carlos didn’t know why he’d been set apart from the other humans, but he suspected it had something to do with the pet ambassador program he’d heard was rolling out soon. Carlos hoped he would be chosen to visit the alien home world. He wanted to get out of the prison camp.

The doors of the compound opened, and a stream of very dirty humans poured out.

“Filthy idiots,” Carlos muttered. There were showers in the compound, and strange alien toilet holes in every cell, but the toilets smelled of powerful chemicals, and the showers blew a fine, translucent dust instead of water. Carlos used the shower facilities, but most of the other humans didn’t.

A tall woman with brown hair struggled through the crowd of bodies and ran to come first to the gate.

“Are you Carlos?” she asked. He nodded. “I’m Margaret. We’re sitting together now on the bus.”

Margaret was not exactly dirty, but it was clear, from the state of her hair, that she had not been using the alien showers. A faint sheen of grease showed on her skin.

One of the lizard-like alien guards walked with a heavy, jolting stride along the outside of the fence.

“Oh, good. I’ve spoken to that one before. His name is B’ethcukgiafrl,” Margaret said, her eyes gleaming.

“Say that again,” Carlos said.

“His name is B’ethcukgiafrl,” Margaret said promptly. Carlos eyed her.

“You’re sticking with me, Margaret.”

“I just told you we’ve been assigned to sit together on the bus,” Margaret pointed out.

“No, honey, you and me. We’re sticking together. And when we get back today, you’re going to take a shower,” Carlos said. Margaret lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t tell anyone that we’re together now. I’m getting out, and I’ll bring you with me. Shush,” Carlos added.

The other, much smellier humans came up to them, and the lizard-like guard unlocked the gate. A heavy bus, in the shape of a caterpillar pod, roared along the transport road, and Carlos went through the gate first.

“Hello again, B’ethcukgiafrl!” Margaret said cheerfully.

This girl is going to save my hide, Carlos thought, and he determined, as he mounted the steps of the bus, to get lessons from her on the impossible alien language as they rode to the mines.

In Conclusion

Sexual tension comes from competition and an understanding of power dynamics in a social group. Dynamic storytelling happens when a person gains power and moves up in the power structure in order to protect the one they love (or will love soon).

You’re reading Victor Poole. In my book, Pops has found out about the ugly secret hiding under uncle Gilbert’s desk. Pops was very angry, when he found out what Gilbert did.

Dysfunctional Families Are Wonderful Fodder For Fantasy

Today I’m thinking about Delmar’s uncles in Talbos.

Uncle Thorn, Uncle Elan, and Uncle Fallor

I’ve been spending a lot of time writing about uncles lately, without at all meaning to. Apparently that’s a theme in my current work. Delmar’s got, um, three . . . four uncles. One of them is a leechy hanger-on married to his aunt, so hardly counts as far listing out a family tree.

Delmar’s youngest uncle is the worst, but the two in the middle are quite nice. One of them, the man in the middle, is in charge of the city guards, and the older one is in the awkward position of handling power without having any right to it.

The Fourth Uncle Is The Kind Of Guy Everyone Ignores

The thing I love about dysfunctional families is how quickly everything changes when one person lays hold of a new romantic partner.

Fresh blood, emotionally speaking, disturbs the dynamic between all the older predators, and the younger, weaker people jostle to see how many scraps they can collect for themselves.

Power, Control, and Status

Have you ever watched a herd of horses assimilate a new member? There’s a lot of biting, and squealing, and chasing of the new horse into corners to be beat up and cowed. Ha ha! Horses being cowed. That’s funny.

The same kind of procedure happens in an unhealthy family (and let’s face it, a lot of families are run on poor authority and corruption). A new body shows up, connected to an existing member, and the head honchoes start to sniff around and pick fights, testing the waters to see how much they can get away with.

Delmar goes to see his uncles in Talbos, and he brings Ajalia with him. Chaos ensues.

Examples

Clumsy Construction (Bad Writing):

“Do you think your grandfather will come to see you?” Ajalia asked.

“No,” Delmar said. “He will send my uncle.”

“Who is your uncle?” she asked. “The one who manages the guard?”

“Yes,” Delmar said. He gestured with his chin to the entrance that lay ahead of them. “That is him now. His name is Elan. He is my father’s youngest brother. I do not think he will like you.” Delmar clammed up now, because Elan was drawing near.

Ajalia saw that Delmar’s uncle was near him in age; Elan wore a trimmed brown beard, and had eyes that were reminiscent of Simon’s hard dark eyes. Delmar’s blue eyes, Ajalia thought, had come from somewhere else in the family, since he resembled neither his father nor his mother. Coren, Ajalia thought, had looked rather like Simon, like Elan did.

Elan strode through the courtyard towards Delmar. He spared a glance for Ajalia, who was partially out of view behind the horse, and then turned his full attention to Delmar.

“What do you want, Delmar?” Elan asked sharply. Ajalia saw that Delmar’s uncle put little store in Delmar’s new position; she looked at Delmar out of the corner of her eye, and saw that Delmar was not embarrassed by his uncle’s rudeness.

“I’ve come to negotiate a renewed succession with the king,” Delmar said. Ajalia was quite impressed; she had thought, ever since Delmar had frozen up during the confrontation with the guards, that Delmar would be a mute accompaniment to her negotiation, but she saw now that Delmar was going to take the lead on the matter. She hoped that he was prepared for how ugly things would turn, if Elan did not like what was said. She began, very quietly, to gather up long veins of magic in her hands.

Elegant Construction (Good Writing):

“Will king Fernos agree to see you right away?” Ajalia asked. She was standing just to the right of the black horse, her hands folded and her best slave-face in her eyes. She looked exotic, expensive, and very discreet, even with her clothes wet through from the rain.

Delmar, astride the horse, glanced down at her with a smile, his hair and fine clothes still damp from the recently-ended downpour.

“No, my grandfather doesn’t see me officially. Now that I’ve come for an actual audience like this, he’ll put me off as much as he can. I imagine he’ll send one of my uncles, to see how much of a mess I am.”

“Your poor uncles,” Ajalia said softly. Delmar laughed and shifted in the saddle. Ajalia’s black horse made a heaving sigh that jostled Delmar. “You’re sitting well,” Ajalia murmured in the old Slavithe tongue.

“Thank you, darling,” Delmar replied in the ancient tongue, his mouth twisting in a grin and his reddish-gold stubble making an alluring shadow over his jaw. “Oh, here he comes,” Delmar said, switching back to regular Slavithe and nodding towards a young man stalking with clear impatience through the farther arch of the courtyard. “That is Elan, third son of the king, and master of the guard. He’s probably going to hate you,” Delmar whispered.

“Thank you,” Ajalia said, and she sank into foreign-slave mode entirely, her expression smoothing into a pleasant, docile kind of readiness. She saw Elan glance irritably at her as he drew near the enormous black horse and exquisitely attired rider.

In Conclusion

Embrace dysfunction in the families of fantasy environs. Humor and drama lie therein, and however awful bad families are in reality, they make wonderful fodder for fiction. Exploit them. (Bwa ha ha, etc.)

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m in the midst of stylistic rewrites. Come back soon for more novels. Like, a lot of them. Cough, cough.

The Fool As A Touchstone In Plot

A nonsensical, foolish character is a valuable tool to illuminate and frame morality and provide context and perspective to a novel’s plot.

What is a Fool?

Stupid characters are delightful, even more so when they are able to be laughed at without emotional pain.

I knew a kid a long time ago. He was blind, because of an accident with a gun. He was a very nice kid, but very stupid. I never made fun of him, and I never saw anyone else make fun of him, either.

On the other hand, I knew another boy who was not blind and who made a game of trying to give himself homemade piercings with safety pins.

Lots of people made fun of that kid (I don’t generally make fun of people, so I didn’t, but other people did). No one, including the piercings kid, got particularly ruffled over the process, because he knew he was being stupid and didn’t care.

Shakespeare’s Fools

Bill of the pirate-style earring had a knack for using smart, morally sound people as fools, which does a couple of things to his plots:

  1. Using a morally clear character allows the fool to act as a frame of reference for the plot as a whole
  2. Everyone in the whole story says whatever they are really thinking to the intelligent fool, because there’s no social pressure when you’re talking to a walking dumpster fire

Fools in Contemporary Fiction

How can you make your very own walking dumpster fire? There are a few key elements here.

  • Your fool should be more damaged, in terms of past abuse, than any other character
  • Drinking helps
  • The fool must have processed, in a healthy manner, nearly all of his own emotional pain
  • Some reference to sexuality is usually wise

Examples

Terrible Fool

Rodgen drew the covers of his bed over his face most comfortably and sighed as he slept heavily through the alien alarm.

His roommate, Baris, had already gotten up and was almost ready to put on his shoes. Baris had no idea how Rodgen could sleep through noise like this. I wish I could, Baris though, and he pulled on his sock. The alien slave ship made an uncomfortable rock to the side, and a wave of alien water leaked through the door and crashed over the whole room, spilling into Baris’s open shoes.

Rodgen, not waking up much, spat some drips of slippery alien water out of his mouth and turned over to go back to sleep.

“Rodgen, my shoes got wet!” Boris said irritably, looking down at his soaking shoes.

Rodgen, being asleep and very wet, did not reply.

Baris was tempted to throw a soaking shoe at Rodgen’s head, but he put the wet shoe on instead, and felt angry at himself for not leaving his shoes in the cubby where they would have been dry.

Excellent Fool

Rodgen pulled the covers of his bed over his face and pretended not to be hearing the blasting alarm. He knew the aliens would dump something wet on him if he didn’t get up this time. They’d warned him, and he didn’t care.

Damn, how I hate Monday mornings on the alien slave ship, Rodgen thought, as he braced himself against the inevitable bucket of amniotic fluid that crashed over his head when he didn’t get up in the first minute.

Rodgen spat some drips of burning alien fluid out of his mouth and tried to go back to sleep.

“Rodgen!” his cell-mate roared.

“I’m tired,” Rodgen said from under his blanket.

“You got my fucking shoes wet, Rodgen! Seriously, get out of bed and take a nap on the floor next time! Shit!” Baris threw a soaking shoe at Rodgen’s head, and the impact was, at last, enough to motivate Rodgen to remove himself from his soaking bed.

“I don’t like living here,” Rodgen said with dignity.

“Gosh, and here I thought you were on vacation in the fucking Ritz. Jesus, Rodge. Give me your shoes. Are they dry at all? I’m taking yours.”

General Qualities of a Fool

  • A quality fool has foundational morals and an unerring grasp of sexuality and interpersonal ethics
  • The fool has extensive personal history of abandonment, addiction, or abuse
  • The fool is absurd and/or funny
  • The fool is emotionally detached enough to make commentary on other characters
  • The fool becomes the touchstone of the plot when they encapsulate the essence of the theme in a living body and become, for all intents and purposes, a mouthpiece for the novel’s intent

In Conclusion

If you haven’t got a fool in your current work, think about utilizing one in your next piece. Fools are charming, pleasant things, and if you make your fool the central character, you might accidentally end up writing Hamlet.

You’re reading Victor Poole. Your pediatrician probably hasn’t read this book, but you could read it this weekend.

The Natural Way To Build Character Context

How to use what you already know about people to naturally add intriguing, original context to your characters.

Organic Character Context

When you meet a new person in real life, at first you only know what they look like, how they move or dress, the tone of their voice, and the actual words they say to you. You don’t generally meet someone and instantly know their precise eye color, their favorite memory of a birthday, or the name of the dog they owned when they were seven years old.

Those are facts you might learn later on, if you and the person develop some sort of relationship, whether as friends, colleagues, or romantic partners, but they aren’t things you know right away.

When you build a character with great context, the process, to be organic, begins the same way. You start with a basic introduction, either of the character’s looks or of their words.

Let’s Build A Character Right Now

As an example, I will begin with a gender, let’s go with male this time, and say that his name is, um, Levi.

Now, I’m not going to jump into character charts, or secret planning over here. I’m actually going to treat Levi as if he were a stranger that I was encountering for the very first time right now.

Hello, Levi!

Levi, wearing a denim jacket and a pair of bright pink cowboy boots, along with a very dirty pair of brown leather pants, sauntered into the laundromat looking very much like a gunslinger of old. Instead of a pistol, he was packing two wrapped stacks of quarters in his pockets, and instead of a saddle he had an enormous, noisy black garbage bag of filthy sheets and clothing slung over his back.

Levi swung the garbage bag onto the moderately filthy linoleum, dug a purple bottle of Suds’ Soft detergent out of the mass of dirty clothes, and began to sort through his clothes and sheets. His jaws were busy over a wad of pink bubble gum, which he occasionally snapped and blew into a translucent bubble before bursting and chewing the pink gum back into his mouth.

And Now, Organic Context

When you introduce yourself to a character without predetermined ideas of his past, his predilections, or his particular manner of brushing his teeth, your subconscious goes into overdrive to explain and justify every detail supplied by your working imagination.

For example, Levi chews bubble gum and wears a very ugly and dirty ensemble of clothing. Why? I don’t know why yet, and I also have no specific idea how old he is, aside from realizing he is probably an adult, and might be over thirty.

If we continue to explore Levi, our minds will naturally and organically supply character context that supports our pre-existing details about him.

Adding Context Organically

Why is organic context valuable? Can’t we just slap some authorial homework over Levi that fits our chosen narrative? Well, yes, we could, but that would probably not result in a satisfying story arc or a rhetorically pleasant character in the end.

Your mind is already used to sorting through tremendous amounts of information about people and the patterns their behaviors and habits imply about their lives. Tap into your brain, and save yourself a lot of time constructing painstaking, artificial character context.

If you allow your mind to meet a character from the ground up, just like you meet a new person in real life, your creative vehicle will begin to supply organic context automatically, because your brain wants to understand and label the character, and your subconscious will do that by digging down the roots that you don’t necessarily realize consciously are there.

Artificial Character Context

I had a client several years ago, an author who was working on a project about packs of wild, knife-fighting crime groups in Anywhere, USA. She wanted help to make her project better, and I worked over the draft with her a few times.

She had taken one character in particular, a main female romantic interest, and drawn up a contradictory and artificial context to make the character as pitiable and conflicting as possible.

The Character Forced To Serve Drama

The female character, in the actual work, read like a schizophrenic person, because there was no organic explanation at all for why she behaved or spoke as she did. The author had a predetermined function for the character and set up rigid and artificial constraints around her backstory to force her to create conflict in the plot.

The result was awful, because underneath this artificial context, the natural, organic context of the original character idea was clearly struggling to come through (and was being choked to death by the author’s artifice).

Levi With Artificial Context (Very Bad Writing!)

Levi started his laundry and went to sit down in a plastic chair with a deep sigh, remembering the time on his fourteenth birthday when his beloved dog Rex had perished in a tragic road accident. Levi Nelson, forty-two, was a complex person, and he hated to sit alone.

He stared around the room, which was empty, and then stood up and went to peer into the office door. He thought perhaps he would meet some sympathetic person who would commiserate with his dour mood on this, the anniversary of his father’s abandonment of their family.

A woman was sitting at a desk, combing over a crossword puzzle and looking shallow and unsympathetic. Levi sighed meaningfully, but she didn’t look up with her crystal blue eyes and ask him to explain his obvious sorrow.

Levi, being a tragic and a blasted character, owing to the transient manner of life he led, leaned into the office and knocked at the door.

“Is something broken?” the woman asked, without looking up.

“Hey, you’re so beautiful, and you must have a kindly soul. Do you want to get lunch and fall in love with me?” Levi asked.

“No,” the woman said.

“Do you want to stare soulfully into my eyes?” Levi asked, leaning a little into the door to examine her blonde hair. She made no reply, and he sighed meaningfully and went back to his chair to wait for his wash cycle to finish.

Levi With Organic Context (Good Writing!)

A woman with sparkly silver heels came out of the laundromat office and leaned against a washer. Levi ignored her until he had loaded two machines and started them. He spat his bubble gum into the ratty laundromat garbage can and slid conveniently near to the woman, who was in her early thirties and had a messy bob of blonde hair tied up in a knot.

“Hey,” Levi said.

“You didn’t come in yesterday,” the woman said. Levi’s hand inched sorta kinda near to the woman’s hand. She ignored him, and he grew bold and stroked a finger along a silver bangle she wore around her wrist. The woman stifled a sigh.

“I had to play a private gig until super late,” Levi explained. The woman adjusted her hand so that her skin came under his stroking finger. “Did you miss me?” Levi asked, a hopeful glint in his eye.

“You never missed a Tuesday before,” the woman explained, tilting her head as if she were making up her mind.

“Yeah, but I never got called in to work all night on a Monday before. We didn’t even get back until late yesterday afternoon,” Levi replied, sliding a bit closer. She slid away.

“You could have called,” she said in a reproving sort of way.

“But you won’t give me your number, Val, and you said I shouldn’t call the laundromat,” Levi hedged. She inched a bit closer herself.

“Well,” she said.

“Hey,” he murmured. She made a shuddering sigh and glared at the big windows at the front of the laundromat.

“Well,” she said again. He slipped a bit closer and kissed her mouth. His hand tangled into her hand, and she sighed and snuggled a little against his denim jacket. He pulled his mouth away, but stayed right close to her. “Do you want my number, then?” she asked.

“Mm-hm,” he agreed, and kissed her again.

In Conclusion

Let your brain do what it already does; as soon as you meet a character (by writing them down, and observing as much about them as you would see in a stranger you met for the first time), your subconscious goes to work to explain everything about them, and if you will release into your existing social skill set, an organic and satisfying character context will easily emerge.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I’m sort of sick today. I have now successfully disposed of my Christmas tree, and it is Thursday today.