Long-Term Undercurrents in Fictional Character Development

As a preface, there are two general layers of character development when it comes to depth.

Depth.

By that I mean, how sober and weighty a character is in their approach to other people, themselves, and the ramifications of their overall impact on living things and social structures around them.

So with depth, there are two layers.

The first layer is the surface description, and that’s dialogue, actions, and individual interactions with other characters or non-sentient objects in a space.

For example, the way a man handles a frying pan tells you an awful lot about him. One person may lift the frying pan carefully, making no sound against the surface of the stove, and adjusting the handle to be at a visually pleasing angle to the rest of the lines nearby, while another might snatch up and clang the pan down without careless abandon, leaving the frying pan only partially on the heat and paying no mind at all to the placement of the handle.

There are infinite ways to pick up and use a frying pan, but if we were to sit down and watch representative samples of the action from hundreds of persons, we would quickly separate our subjects into types or similar pan-handlers, depending on their speed, their care, and the kinetic quality of their accompanying motion.

I brought up the frying pan example because that is a sampling of a surface level indication of character depth.

Now, the surface is dialogue, actions, and individual interactions with other people or non-sentient objects within the world.

There are two parts to character depth, and the first part is surface description.

The second part is deep meaning. Deep meaning comes from contextual patterns of behavior, the linking together of the surface aspects to the overall picture of the character in the world.

This is where characterization becomes interesting, because only with the addition of deep meaning can we evaluate an individual character and decide if we approve of them or not.

Deep meaning allows us to elucidate moral judgments from the data provided by surface description.

Examples

Ronny picked the kitten up by the scruff of its neck and rapidly scooped the tiny body into the folds of his sweater, keeping the baby cat warm and swaddling its trembling body.

“You should have left it alone,” Yolanda said, her eyebrow arched and her mouth twisting with disapproval.

“The little kitty was scared. Look, its fur is wet. I’m taking it home,” Ronny said, shivering with excitement as he felt the frail body throb in his sweater with a violent purr.

Okay, there we have some surface description. If we left this segment as-is, it would be poor writing, because the reader has no deep meaning with which to evaluate the context of Ronny’s behavior or of Yolanda’s judgement.

Let’s look at some examples of deep meaning that, if woven into the surrounding story, would combine with this surface description to give the reader a very powerful sense of character depth and development.

Some Deep Meaning Samples:

  1. Ronny is a serial killer who experiments on homeless animals and Yolanda is an undercover cop working to pin Ronny for murder. OR …
  2. Yolanda just painstakingly and secretly restored the kitten to its mother and Ronny is an eccentric recluse who collects homeless cats. OR …
  3. Ronny’s beloved cat just died, leaving him disconsolate and on the verge of a breakdown, and Yolanda has been trying to get Ronny to agree to get a dog as their new pet. OR …
  4. Yolanda is mildly allergic to cat hair and Ronny passive-aggressively coats himself in cat smell in order to make her sneeze and choke up. OR …
  5. Ronny is a recovering alcoholic who just rescued the kitten from a potential road accident and Yolanda, who supports them both, lost her job yesterday and hasn’t told Ronny yet.

Deep meaning is established over time and within the overall patterns of behavior shown by surface description. Together the two parts create depth in individual character development.

The pitfall to watch out for here is that it’s possible to create a lack of deep meaning and an overabundance of surface description, and also to write surface description in patterns that creates deep meaning you don’t want your characters to show. It’s very possible and somewhat common to write surface description that, contextually, inadvertently reveals deep meaning that you, the author, didn’t mean to leave in there.

The undercurrent of contextual behavior is the foundation for character depth, and surface description is the landscape and decor on top of that foundation. When you’re aware of the foundation you’re creating, you’re much less likely to end up with a wobbly or accidentally shallow character.

And Now, A Sample

More Diana

Diana hiked swiftly through the dark halls of the junior high, listening to the huff of Stuart’s breath behind her. She wanted to leave him behind, but he was taller than she was, and had been irritatingly athletic for the last several years.

Diana preferred the old Stuart, the chubby, awkward one who wore glasses and made silly grimaces when he was angry. That Stuart had been, to her mind, perfectly manageable. Everything had spiraled out of control with the boy’s embrasure of physical discipline, and his descent into more than competent juvenile hygiene had made him impossible to win against.

Stuart was handsome, he smelled good, adults loved him, and his favorite activity was destroying Diana’s life. Now that he’d had muscles for several years, he was fairly practiced at tormenting her in ways that were wildly effective and functionally impossible to bring to anyone else’s attention. Stuart was a sneaky fellow, and Diana pushed open the heavy doors of the junior high and wondered if he was going to continue to behave well in light of the aliens’ looming and threatening existence.

Diana turned and walked backwards, the weighty metal backpack on her shoulders and her nose frosting already in the chilly air.

“So, Stu,” Diana said, watching Stuart press out of the school doors and immediately begin to shiver. He was wearing gym stuff, shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, and Diana wondered if the aliens had taken him in the midst of some irritatingly effective workout session. Stuart hurried to catch up to her, and Diana frowned and walked backwards faster, angling to stay on the icy sidewalk.

“What?” Stuart asked, breaking into a jog and catching up. Diana concealed her irritation and spun around, almost breaking into a run herself. “Dude, slow down! What is it?” Stuart asked, laughing at her and striding easily along at her faster pace.

Diana had meant to be working Stuart up into a rage; she hadn’t expected to start feeling so angry herself, and she slowed down and then stopped, fixing her eyes on the graceful ice swirls over the sidewalk. Stuart paused beside her and waited, and he had so obviously accepted her as a temporary leader to their small party of two that Diana found herself wanting to punch him.

She hadn’t tried to hit Stuart for years. Diana took several calming breaths and reminded herself that the aliens, hopefully, were going to dissect Stuart or something after they were finished watching them.

Stay calm; he’s afraid of the aliens, Diana told herself, and she looked at Stuart, who was watching her expectantly.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, the hunting party is about to get underway.

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Flavors of Underpinning Tone

Every story has an overarching flavor of tone, of longing for something, even if that something is nothing. There is quite a bit of fiction (and nonfiction) that reaches desperately for annihilation in tone.

But my point is, every story has something reaching through the core, underpinning the words. This tone has a way of expressing itself subtly most of the time; you might be able to find glimpses of it through the types of adjectives selected in a scene, or in the repeated motifs of character interaction.

The salient takeaway, though, is that you’ve really got to be at least moderately aware of what tone you’re shooting for in your work.

The worst thing that can possibly happen in a piece of fiction is an uncontrolled and subconscious shift in tone.

Purposeful shifts in tone make for masterpieces, or for very compelling light fiction.

Accidental shifts in tone destroy story and cause contempt to spring up in the heart of ye olde discerning reader.

Even if a reader couldn’t tell you what a tone was with words, they know why they’re reading, in their hearts, and they get sort of betrayed and vitriolic, even if quietly so, when the author up and changes the goalposts in the middle of a tale.

So, what are some examples?

Loneliness as an overall tone:

I missed the way his fur got all over the couch cushions. My wife kept telling me to go ahead and adopt a kitten, but I didn’t want a kitten. I hadn’t actually enjoyed having an animal in the house, but once Mr. Butter Paws had passed into the great cat castle in the sky, and his earthly marks had finished being worn off through repeated and routine vacuuming, I found myself touching the cushions and trying to find those irritating flicks of brown hair.

Frantic pursuit of hilarity:

Bryan raked through the earth, his fingers scrabbling over the pebbles and loose clods of dirt. His hands caught continually against the delicate tendrils of tree roots, and he let out an impatient noise and tore through them, searching deeper, harder.

Soon his fingers scraped against something that was definitely not dirt or stone. It was soft, and it was foamy. Yes! Bryan thought, and he scrambling to unearth the moldy Nerf football he had buried only fifteen short months before.

Those are only a couple of examples, but the takeaway is that you are always, always writing down an underpinning tone, and if you aren’t aware of the style you’re using, it may work against you, and if you shift tones because of personal mood changes, your story will struggle to maintain any rhetorical coherency or fluidity in overall structure.

Underpinning tone is mainly subconscious in the creation process, but you can learn to subsume and control your inputs, and thereby eventually exert considerable influence over your resultant tone.

And now, some Diana:

The four aliens were horrible to look at. Diana thought, when their four shrunken faces emerged from their deep, shadowy hoods, that they were shaped as if some mildly drugged insane person had shoved dough around with a spoon and then fired the matter and called the end result faces.

They had eyes, sort of, but they were of various numbers and sizes and seemed to have been shoved in here and there with no regularity or rhythm. They had mouths, but three of the aliens wore their mouths sideways, stretching from one jaw up to an ear. The fourth alien had an unfortunate mouth in the lump that passed for his forehead.

They didn’t have noses.

Diana stared.

One of the aliens, the one with a mouth in his forehead, spoke to her with an awful sound like cat’s claws on a chalk board.

“You are Diana Vassel,” the alien said.

Diana winced so hard that she nearly burst out laughing, just to relieve the stress she felt from how horrible the noise was. Diana had laughed at awful things ever since she’d been a kid; she barely held in a peal of giggles now because she was so taken aback.

“Yeah, that’s me,” Diana said, straightening out her face and trying to look sober. She could feel Stuart glaring at her, and she was completely sure he was thinking hard thoughts at her for wanting to laugh. “Hi. What do you want?” Diana asked the huge alien, which tilted its head to one side and narrowed its four lopsided eyes.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and I just made some noodles and eggs. Also, in my current novel, Barton is streamlining the dynamics in his team. Barton’s the head of security for a gangster.

Me, and Whatnot

So you may have noticed that I haven’t published a book for a while.

Yup.

I made a deal with myself that I would not embarrass myself unduly with performance energy that wasn’t at the reasonable place I could expect from myself. So I’ve been scrubbing up my writing skills gradually.

Also I really don’t want to be in a place where I’m working on books in a series and have only the first few published. I hate that. So I’m finishing some very, very long series all the way before publishing (and occasionally I make character choices partway through a series that require backwards renovations that wouldn’t be possible so much in an already-published book). So there’s that.

Anyway, for my own satisfaction, here are some of the projects I’m working on right now:

The biggest one is the series I keep writing little notes about at the bottom of my posts, about what’s happening in the novel(s) lately. That one is a science fiction bromance flick with a ton of steamy parts. It’s funny because I meant to write an adventure story with a few kisses sprinkled here and there, but after I’d composed the main characters, the, um, overall subterfuge turned hilariously sexy.

The main characters, you see, are in the power of some very cranky old men, and those cranky old men are all sort of obsessed with the one main character procreating so that they can have foster grandbabies to dandle about and coo over.

So there is sexual distraction to foil the deviousness of these old men while the main characters work on escaping their power.

I don’t know if that sounded overly complicated, but that is the very long and delectably steamy series I am building right now.

I have another book that I’m exceptionally fond of about a young man who dies–the book is essentially a zombie novel, but the zombies are shiny, healthy-looking people, and they eat emotions instead of flesh from regular humans, so that’s very interesting to work on.

The first part of that one (technically I would call it a paranormal book, I think) is finished, but I want to spend quite a lot of time fleshing out the narrative tone so that the reader can fully inhabit the main character’s internal journey as the plot unfolds. Right now for most of the book, the voice is focused more on the action and less on the reader’s reception of said action, so I want more padding as far as tone.

Then I’m working on that beast of a partial redraft, the dragon book.

Sigh.

My issue with the book is purely psychological. I’m making slow, steady progress, but it viscerally hurts to work on it because of some structural issues I accidentally put into the damaged areas (the original draft was the second? third? book I ever attempted to write, so there are some genuine weaknesses to be culled out in the second act).

However, the first part of the book is stellar, so I am pushing through. Carefully.

I have a bunch of other things on the back burner, currently. I’m focused on clearing the queue, as it were, and freeing up some space in my mind while building out the eventual bookshelf of finished things.

Slow, slow, slow, but the tortoise perseveres and all that.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Carrie the invalid is heading back into medical supervision for the second time in one afternoon.

The Actress Who Would Make A Good Mouse

I worked with an older man a long time ago on a student project. The entire scenario was a mess; he wanted to produce a classical piece, had neither the chutzpah nor the balls to make the attempt, and reverted to a weird blend of neo-dadaism and theatrical posturing to avoid the question.

In plainer language, he really thought that he ought to play Hamlet, couldn’t talk anyone into using him for a real production, and so wrote a very strange half-experimental mish-mash of soap opera nonsense and called the main character Hamlet.

He played the main character.

Anyway, I dropped out of the project partway through for fairly obvious reasons (namely that he was a mess, the project was a mess, and it was a big visual accident waiting to happen), but the guy had the very rare ability to talk coherently about script construction, so I worked with him for a while on doctoring his (very strange) script.

I should explain, I was in the project at first as an actor. This guy was weird.

The reason I’m writing this now is that I’m thinking about something that happened in auditions and then callbacks for the project.

This guy wanted to use a redhead I knew as the Ophelia character. His reason for choosing her?

“You look like a little mouse, cowering into the corner.”

When being yelled at, she cowered in a way he liked, and he felt this was an appropriate flavor for Ophelia.

Yeah, he was an awful man, and I stopped talking to him after a little while, but the actress was flummoxed by his attitude.

This guy, like a lot of male and female directors I worked with over the years, observed female-presenting actors as mere props to be used in shows for the reactive emotions they could display.

Like being a mouse cowering, or having a good and dignified ‘classical’ face.

I pondered this phenomenon for some time, being in the very odd position of a bio-girl taught to act like a boy and present as a trans-male. My life was complicated. Anyway. I thought about this a lot, and I had grown adept, over the years, at mimicking and creating convincing reproductions of a variety of gendered behaviors.

Because of my background, I approached theatre production with an idea that I could use the leftover actors, the actors that no one else knew how to use or was willing to use.

I picked up the scraps and started to teach them things that I knew how to do.

Off-topic: Here’s a practice sketch for motion.

dressage

The reason I’m thinking about this today is that I’ve come, more and more over the years, to see writing as belonging to two general camps: 1. Writing produced by abusers and 2. Writing produced by good people.

Note: Many people who have been abused (and that’s everyone) reproduce abusive attitudes in their writing without at all meaning to; these people are not abusers, and the abuse floats within the writing and is easily fixed.

There are tells everywhere in a genuinely abusive person’s work. The way they strip volition or dignity from some characters while building up the import or abilities of others; the tone they take in describing locales or emotional events; and last but certainly not least, the attitude conveyed by the narrative tone when it comes to disaster.

I’m not going to talk about any of those things right now because reasons, but what I am going to talk about for two more seconds is how to discern whether you are, unwittingly or not, writing abuse into your novel.

Big question, right? Seems like a sweeping overgeneralization, yes? Probably bit off more than I can chew with the proposition, hm?

Well, here’s how to tell, and it’s super easy, and it takes about four seconds.

One.

Two.

Three.

Four.

See, that’s how long it would take to know if you’re writing abusive prose or not.

Curious?

Here you go, and once you know the procedure, it’s simple and straightforward.

First, you fix your mind on the main character. If you write omni-POV or something, focus your thoughts on the central crew whose thoughts the reader inhabits, or whose actions form the primary connection to the reader’s experience.

Once you have a good emotional hold on the feel of the character or characters, close your eyes and thrust the heat of your heart forward in time, towards the end goal.

Every story has an end goal. Every single one has a purpose, an emotional state that is the finishing picture of the words. Even something vague and fantastical, experimental and seemingly structurally formless, has a distinct and meditative emotional state as the clear end goal.

There is an emotional goal of communication you are attempting to achieve in the reader by writing down words.

If you learn to do this for yourself, you can also apply the trick to any story you pick up or absorb through any means; look for the ending, the panache of “I am complete!” within the progression of the words and doings of the main character or group of characters.

Once you have focused your mind on the main movers, and cast your heart-energy forward into the future, towards the ending and coalescence of the emotion conveyed within the work, ask yourself:

“Up or down?”

Is that eventual, tentative emotional conveyance moving your internal energy up and out, or is your energy moving down and in?

If your internal substructures of energy and soul move in and down, your body and mind are telling you to retreat, to hunker in and protect yourself from harm. If your energy moves out and up, expanding towards the verge of your skin and possibly even extending towards the outer world, beyond the boundary of your physical being, then your body and mind are saying, “Yes, I can grow, I can relax; I am safe.”

Now, that is the four-second test, and here is how you evaluate your results.

If you are looking into your own writing, at a particular story, and your energy moves down and inwards, you are flinching in preparation for kickback from potential readers because you know in your heart that you are deliberately hurting people, and you’re preparing for a fight.

If, when you look into your main characters and cast your heart forward to the emotional end, your energy moves up and outwards, you are sharing your true inner self with genuine, human desire for connection and communication.

I’ll give you half a guess which response indicates abusive writing, and the half-guess doesn’t count.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and today in my current novel, a former prostitute is facing demons with a murderer. There is chocolate involved, as well as doctored identification documents.

Why Breathing Is A Better Strategy Than Panicking

mountains

Here is a sketch from me looking at landscapes.

I’m working on expanding my word choice for the current series I’m developing. I’m okay with my general word palette being pretty consistent over the course of one series. My touchstone metaphors and described behaviors are fairly consistent within the universe of each individual series, but I am feeling gun-shy about repeating particular verbs too often.

How Many Times Should A Character [verb], For Example?

On the other hand, I really don’t like it when writers stretch so far beyond the point of casual readability that you feel as if they’re sitting with a thesaurus and making esoteric word choices just to keep from repeating any one word more than twice. I don’t like that either. So there’s a balance I want to achieve.

I’ve been thinking about the time when I, a dancer, was going to my local studio all the time. It was frustrating because one of my important classes got canceled right through the summer that I had the most time to practice, so I got behind on classical training catch-up, and had to practice on my own, which is still good, but not nearly so useful as having a teacher on hand to correct arm placement and all that.

I’m Also Agonizing Over Comma Styles Lately

I was reading a story today where the author made a premise and then jolted into a flashback as a casual way to sneak out of any action happening in the present moment.

I didn’t like that. I thought that author was behaving like a dastardly and sleazy skunk. I’d rather the author gave the premise and then followed through on it, and didn’t squeeze two or three stories into the umbrella of a lie (the lie being, in this case, that all the narrative fits under the original premise). (Because it didn’t! No action happened at all under the original premise! Booooo!)

I think, based on my own experiences, that authors often avoid making action and significant change, and often backtrack and dither. Here’s an example of that:

BAD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

(Here’s where that sneaky, avoidant backtracking normally comes into play.)

Silas remembered the first time he’d seen old floppy-ears. He closed his eyes as he was lost in the mists of long ago within the confines of his sappy mind.

(Sudden flashback to years earlier!)

He pulled up his jacket and shifted his rifle against his arm as he strode through the empty cars and the discarded clothes and possessions on the freeway. The giant, man-eating rabbits didn’t come out this way often, but it was better to be prepared.

Suddenly! A black do with floppy ears! Her eyes were so red! And her large front teeth sharp, violent! He could imagine those teeth stained with his own blood! Probably the blood from his neck where he thought she would sink her horrible bunny teeth in and chew him limb from limb, or head from torso, really, since it was his neck he was thinking of.

Silas brought his gun up and sighted along the barrel, fully prepared to brutally destroy this fine creature of predatory dominance over the fallen, extinguished-almost race of man! The rabbit looked up! She dashed away!

(Return to present moment.)

That darned rabbit always got away, Silas thinks to himself sadly. He was so depressed about how he’d never caught her before that he gave up on the hunt and went back to bed.

GOOD Writing

Silas pulled out the can of shotgun shells and sorted through for the one he wanted. Today was the day he was going to hunt after that big doe, the floppy black one with big haunches and vicious red eyes.

He felt the shiver of the morning air over his bare arms; the rabbits always went for his biceps, because they wanted to taste skin right away under their awful, slathering jowls, and Silas wore a mask and full-body suit to draw the rabbits onto his arms.

He’d rigged a sort of invisible armor, a kind of electrical system that ran from his wrist cufflets to his shoulder gear, and the rabbit who bit down on his arm was a rabbit that got its brain shocked, hard. Silas had thought when he’d first invented the arm-guards that he would be able to stroll among the bunnies and let them bite his arms and kill themselves, but he had found that his arm system was more of a last-defense, as it ended up stunning a rabbit for three seconds and then turned the animal crazy and rabid. He took the massive rabbits out from afar as often as he could.

Silas stood for a long moment at the mouth of his hideout, looking along the destroyed highway and the many piles of scrap metal, where the bunny families had chewed abandoned cars to pieces. He hoisted his ram-fire weapon over his shoulder, patted the useful shotgun buckled to his body, and strolled out into the early morning air to find the black doe.

She’d left her spoor near the left-hand exit again, and it was fresh. Silas licked his lips as he imagined roasting fresh rabbit over a bonfire tonight. He hadn’t eaten a doe for a long time now, almost two weeks, and he hoped to be able to strip her body and store up rabbit jerky for the winter.

Silas tracked the doe to a cluster of trees and spotted her nibbling at a lower branch. She was fully fifteen feet, from nose to fluffy tail, and her hide was slick, ebony, and looked very soft. I will make her into a bed, Silas thought, and he cautiously unfastened his shotgun and put down his larger ram-fire cannon in the same motion. Die, bunny, Silas thought, as he lifted his gun and aligned the sights with her violent crimson eye.

And So

Following through on a premise is a good way to gain trust and confidence in the reader’s mind. Abandoning a premise mid-story (or anywhere within the story, really), is a rude thing to do.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current novel, Dave Tinnels is about to have a very interesting conversation with a dead gangster’s bodyguard.

Emotional Texture

Last night I was thinking about emotional texture underlying words. This is so easy to put in, and is analogous to emotional history work and secrets for an actor.

Richness And  Complexity

When you play a character on stage, the first thing you do to develop the role is say the lines out loud, and feel how they sound in your mouth.

As an author, the first draft is a similar experience, as you feel out how the actions go and see how they lay visually on the page when conveyed in words.

More Practice

(Here is a texture study of an octopus that I am working on. Source photos is here.)

octo

Once you’ve felt out the sounds of the action, or the lines of dialogue, you start to play pretend, and that’s where emotional texture comes in.

I was watching a film the other day and was noticing how the emotional texturing had been completely left out of the dialogue. The characters were speaking first-draft words, and the storied history of the implied exchange was missing, though the actors were doing a bang-up job of pushing a lot of emotional history work in despite the undeveloped writing.

Emotional Texture

Emotional texture is created by regular injections of

  1. Personalized, internally-processed sensory input. One particular character sees, hears, smells, feels, or touches something targeted and specific.
  2. That same character has a past-reflective reaction to the sensory experience.

Basically you’re creating an anchor in the deep past within the character and coating that anchor with present sensations. This makes layers within the emotional feel of the character and gives you texture, history, and depth.

Super easy.

Here’s what it looks like when you leave emotional texture out and then what it looks like if you put the texture in afterwards:

BAD Writing:

Damien shut down the simulator and went down the hallway to the murder room.

“How was it that time?” he asked through the speaker grid.

“Pretty good, I think. Let’s run it one more time with, um, the butane levels up another two percent. I feel like we can get a stronger burn effect over the clothes,” a woman’s voice replied.

“Sure thing. Tell me when you’re set in there,” Damien said. A moment passed.

“Go for it,” the woman said. Damien nodded and strolled back to the master desk to activate the fire jets once more.

GOOD Writing:

Damien shut down the simulator; the black grip of the handle made a soft impress against his palm, and the familiar shoot of excitement traveled down his spine as he thought of what the body would look like this time. He’d felt this way ever since his first experiments on the manikins, and the anticipation never dulled. Damien licked his lower lip and went down the hallway to the locked murder room.

“How’s it looking? Did we get the scorch marks?” Damien asked through the speaker grid. A faint crackle came from the other side where one of the women, Avery this time, was overseeing the facsimile corpse while wearing a protective suit.

“This is pretty good, I think,” Avery said through the speaker. “Before you come in I want to see how we do with a little more heat on the inside of the flame and less burn on the shell. Let’s run it one more time with, um, the butane levels up another two percent. I feel like we can get a stronger burn effect over the clothes with the charring we’re looking for.” Avery’s voice came through with a tinny vibration from the combination of the speaker on her suit and the grid in the wall.

“Sure thing. Tell me when you’re set in there,” Damien said. A moment passed. Damien felt the rush of air conditioning tickle against his face and imagined the sear and stink of burning plastic and formative synthetic flesh that would be filling the murder room right now. Avery would be turning the body, arranging the un-singed half of the corpse against the metallic torch the department was developing.

Another light crackle came at the mesh speaker.

“Go for it,” Avery said. Damien tapped his knuckles against the speaker grid and strolled back to the control desk to adjust the fuel settings and activate the fire jet once more.

And So

When writing, consider emotional texture, and see if you’re putting in the kind of emotionally-satisfying ribbing underneath the character interactions and dialogue that lends richness, clear history, and depth to your words.

Emotional texture requires present sensation combined with past-anchored reactions to the sensation. Easy peasy, and enjoyable to write, too.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and Ashley Kelly’s relatives are turning out to be epic heels and destroyers of happiness and childhood. Also, Catero has adopted another son, and the young man’s name is Esteban.

When To Start Fleshing In World-Building

This is what a first draft looks like:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known. Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective, the lottery for human tokens, and was taken into the mother ship on a Tuesday.

His alien turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron, though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard or the colorful, feminine robes.

The first thing that happened to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside, and the second was a partial body-replacement to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy. After those two things were finished, he got fitted with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,” the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes. He was not at all used to his girlish body yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones.

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

Tiny Break For Drawings!

Here are some more practice sketches:

torso

This is when world-building comes into play:

Jeff didn’t mean to kill his sister. It (this word is too vague: what started, exactly? Clues can be added here of when/where this is happening, as well as details that can show who Jeff is [age, situation, general physical appearance]) all started the afternoon the alien overlords made themselves known (this could easily be replaced with a couple of details to give more grounded information about how and why they revealed themselves). Jeff won, or lost, depending on your perspective (the word ‘your’ should be replace with an internally-consistent address, and also, info on who would be pleased to be chosen would be wise to insert here), the lottery for human tokens (what human tokens are needs to be at least hinted at hear, to avoid excess reader frustration), and was taken (by whom was he taken? This is a crazy-good opportunity for powerful world-building, especially as it pertains to the aliens) into the mother ship on a Tuesday (what day it was only matters if it adds tone or give more information on Jeff or the aliens, so this phrasing might need to change, depending on how the world-building in the rest of the sentence goes).

His alien (are they assigned to only one? More detail about how the token human process works is needed) turned out to be a fat corpuscular vein-ridden white blob (this must be cleaned up, and also, commas added in when needed) who had the vague appearance of a Biblical matron (promising phrase, but not clear enough, as we don’t know how big he/she/it is), though Jeff couldn’t tell if this was a result of the big gray beard (what?!) or the colorful, feminine robes (how feminine? Are there curves? Again, what?!).

The first thing that happened (this is an extremely passive phrase; who did it to him? This is essential world-building info.) to Jeff was a cosmetic surgery to make him appear female on the outside (details are needed on this, because it could mean several different things. Also, who is performing the surgery, and is it with alien tech? How long does it take, etc.?), and the second was a partial body-replacement (also intriguing, but what?!) to make him fertile and capable of carrying a pregnancy (why? And an alien kid, or a human one?). After those two things were finished (again, by whom? The timeline is too vague), he got fitted (by whom? There’s a pattern of passive actions that is driving me nuts.) with what felt like a pair of blue dentures and a pair of spongey earphones. Jeff was ushered back into the room where the corpuscular bearded (prev) alien resided.

“Take off your clothes or I’ll kill you,(are human tokens that disposable? Does Jeff know if the alien really will kill him?) the white blob-face said. The alien’s voice came vibrating through the spongey earphones and made Jeff’s teeth ache. He took off his clothes (what was he wearing? More potential world texture, for how the aliens have dressed him). He was not at all used to his girlish body (what does it look like?!) yet, having inhabited it for less than two days. (Okay, here’s some timeline, but too little and too late in the action. This should be earlier.) “Speak,” the alien commanded.

“Hi, I’m Jeff,” he said. The blue dentures clamped down on his teeth and gums, and a different sound came out. He could just hear the echo of his own words through the earphones. (Can he hear his English words, or only the alien translation?)

“Jeff. I wanted a girl,” the alien said, in a tone that, to Jeff, spelled clear displeasure.

“I have a sister,” Jeff said. He was appalled, as soon as he’d said this. He had not at all meant to draw attention to the existence of Valerie. Jeff was nervous, and wanted to make a good impression. (Why does he want to make a good impression? What are the relations between humans and aliens at this time? Is he some kind of ambassador?) He’d only tried to make small talk.

As he watched the white blobbish alien open a dark cavity and slaver a pale blue tongue over what appeared to be mushy lips, (I still want more of an initial description of the alien earlier on, so I can imagine the mouth and tongue better, if it looks like a mouth.) Jeff shivered. I could say that she’s dead, Jeff thought, but this was a lie that would so easily be found out that he didn’t dare. He held his breath and waited for the alien to speak.

“How old?” it asked.

“I’m twenty-six,” Jeff said.

“Not you. The female,” the alien said. Jeff started to tremble.

And now, with world-building:

Jeff didn’t want to kill his sister. The whole ugly mess, and Jeff’s descent into murder, began one quiet, snow-carpeted Tuesday when Jeff was preparing for his dissertation defense in the university library.

If he hadn’t been fixated on his graduate work, he probably would have heard a lot sooner about the fact that aliens had revealed themselves to the human race, and announced that they were prepared to become benign overlords and advanced mentors to the people of Earth.

Unfortunately for Jeff, he had arrived at the library at five in the morning, his dark blond hair shoved under a cap and his ears muffled already in noise-cancelling headphones, and he remained in a secluded study nook until well past midnight. He missed the entire day’s events, and walked home through the fresh-falling snow without once looking up from the slushy sidewalk.

Jeff only realized something was different when he climbed the concrete steps to his apartment building. His eyes were on the ground, and he saw a thick cluster of boots and shoes lining the higher steps.

Jeff looked up. It appeared to him that most of the residents of the building had attempted to squeeze onto the tiny staircase. More people were crowded in the entryway beyond the open double doors. His first thought was that it was too cold to leave the front doors open. He recognized Mrs. Henaly, and her expression was so tight and pinched that he glanced around at the other faces. They looked excited and afraid. Jeff blinked and looked down the darkened street.

A second crowd of people were jammed into the next door building’s front stoop, and Jeff turned and saw a third collection of gawkers at the steps of the building on the other side.

They were all staring at him. Jeff looked back at them, and no one said a word. Jeff suppressed a shiver and continued up the stairs. He had expected the crowd to part. My grandmother is dead, probably, Jeff told himself, though he knew this was a very unlikely excuse for the kind of attention so many strangers were lavishing upon him. None of the residents of the building moved at all; they formed an impenetrable barrier of bodies.

“Can I get through, please?” Jeff asked. He reached up and pulled his noise-cancelling earphones down to hang around his neck.

As soon as they headphones shifted from over his hears, Jeff heard a load, raging echo, like the thunder of stampeding beasts. The sound filled the air, and seemed to throttle right into his heart, and shake him. He couldn’t imagine how he hadn’t heard it at first, for the noise made his body tremble. He realized, after a moment, that it was not the volume of the sound, but a sibilant quality of portentous rumble that made him vibrate.

I’m afraid; it isn’t loud, Jeff told himself, and he looked around to find a causation for the sound. He could see nothing but the dim shadows of the crowded people at either neighboring building, and when he turned to look at the street, several pairs of hands reached out and pushed him hard from behind.

Jeff stumbled down the concrete steps and fell down in the slush and fresh-fallen snow.

“Hey!” he said, twisting to see who had pushed him.

A personage that Jeff could only describe to himself as an alien stood between him and the stairs.

“Your people have cooperated. They keep the curfew. We will not enter on their steps,” the alien said. The creature was fully seven feet tall, dark blue, apparently naked, and very gracefully-thin. Jeff couldn’t see the eyes at all, but the face looked vaguely humanoid.

“What’s going on? What’s–what is this?” Jeff asked.

“Will you come in good peace, or shall I take you by force?” the alien asked.

“Where am I going?” Jeff asked. He tried to see the faces of the people on the stairs of the building, but many of them had retreated into the apartment complex. Mrs. Henaly was still by the open door, staring at him with an inscrutable expression in her eyes.

“Up,” the alien said, pointing to the sky with one long blue finger.

“Do I have a choice?” Jeff asked.

“It would seem you are of low intelligence. Unfortunate,” the alien said, and it crouched and laid hold of Jeff’s shoulder.

“Well, wait!” Jeff shouted, but his body was disintegrating, and the street pulled away from his view.

And then the story keeps going towards the information already established in the first draft

When writing fiction about strange worlds or creatures, I find it best to start with an encapsulating action through-line, and then to go through the draft again and add the padding necessary to create a lush and desirable world.

World-building, to me, doesn’t work very well when you begin with charts and details about cultures. Characters reveal culture, and when you start with strong characters, the culture becomes resonant and living, as you world-build around an established core thread of action and character relationship.

You’re reading Victor Poole, and in my current book, one of Crikey’s employees is having an awkward conversation with his wife right now.