December 2, 2011 / 5 Comments

Simon Says, One Step Back

            Okay, first off… more shameless pandering.

            My publisher’s doing a big sale for the holidays he’s calling Black December.  The ebook versions of ten best sellers and new releases are marked down to a mere $2.99 for the whole month.  That includes my own Ex-Heroes, available over in the right hand column here.  He’s also got five ebooks for free.  No strings, no tricks, absolutely free.  Five books he’s just giving away.  Go check it out.
            Oh, and The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe isn’t part of the sale, but the ebook version’s still marked down to half the paperback price.  Just saying…
            Now, with that out of the way, I’d like to talk to you about Pitch Black.
            If you haven’t seen the film, I highly recommend it.  Sharp dialogue, good characters, a lot of action, and a damned clever story backing it all up.  It’s the movie that really launched Vin Diesel’s career as “the guy you do not mess with,” and if you watch it with the commentary you’ll learn he also had a fair amount to do with shaping the script.
            There’s a wonderful bit early on when our assembled heroes need to make a break across a stretch of open ground.  As it turns out, Diesel’s character, Riddick, has superhuman vision and can see in the dark.  He peers out, announces it “Looks clear,” and the group of survivors dashes for cover.  But then things come soaring down out of the dark sky and… well, not everyone makes it.  One of the other survivors immediately blames Riddick—“You said it was clear!”
            “I said it lookedclear!” Riddick snaps back.
            This bit usually gets a dark chuckle from the audience.  It also points out something I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before, and I thought it was worth blabbing on about in a bit more detail this week.  As our heroes learned the hard way, “It looks clear” is not the same thing as, “It isclear.”  Riddick knew they’re not synonymous, and that difference is very important.  “It looks clear” implies there’s a bit more to be said.
            This is a construction I see come up a lot, where writers put an additional step between the story and the reader.  Usually they do it by adding an extra layer of verbiage that relates to something internal.  Other times it’s an attempt to do something clever with the description.  It seems to show up a lot in high fantasy writing because people mistakenly use it in the elaborate, purple-prose descriptions that genre tends to attract.  I’ve also seen people follow this route when they’re trying to be mysterious and imply a lot of spookiness that might not actually be there.
            And, to be honest, it’s something I used to do a lot myself.
            Let me give you a few examples…
            He thought about trying to be a writer
            We’ve all seen this one somewhere, right?  Nothing wrong with it on the surface.  But let’s stop and break it down for a moment.
            The act of thinking implies this isn’t happening, it’s just a possibility.  So if my character’s thinking about trying to do something, it means this is a possibility of a possibility of something happening.  Unless he’s specifically thinking about the actual attempt instead of the end product, this is just excess words.
            He thought about being a writer.
            See?  Cleaner, clearer, and two words shorter.  Here’s another one.
            She decided to write her blog post.
            This is fine if she decided to—but that was as far as she got because something kept her from doing it.  But if she decided to do it and then she did it, the writer’s just eating up words again. We all make hundreds of decisions and choices every day, but most readers want to hear about the actions, not the decision to take an action.  I wouldn’t write Peter decided to make a turkey sandwich, made the sandwich, and then chose to sit at the table to eat it. Well, I wouldn’t write stuff like that any more, at least.  Why would I want to waste all those words on mundane stuff?  Peter made a turkey sandwich and sat at the table to eat it.  Likewise, the sheer act of writing tells us our lovely blogger made a decision.
            She wrote her blog post.
            See?  Nothing else needed.  Now check out this one…
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            Appeared to be is one of those phrases I got in my head and used to use all the time.  Sometimes I’d swap in one of its kissing cousins, looked like, seemed to be , and a few wild combinations we shouldn’t discuss in polite company.  Problem was, I didn’t understand these phrases.  Y’see, Timmy, they don’t get used alone.  This sort of phrase is the first part of a construction where the second half is either an actual or implied contradiction.  That sentence up above is really saying something more like this—
            Phoebe appeared to be a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall, but she actually bleached her hair on a regular basis and made a point of always wearing spike heels.
            There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, of course, whether it’s written out or left implied.  None of us will fault Phoebe for thinking that blondes have more fun and wanting to be a few inches taller.  The problem is that a lot of the time I wasn’t trying to establish a contradiction, I just wanted artsy sentence structure.  What I really wanted to say was this–
            Phoebe was a shapely blonde who stood six feet tall.
            So I was subtly pushing the reader back for no reason with extra words, while also showing that I didn’t really know what I was doing.  If a writer isn’t trying to establish that contradiction, using appeared to beand its bastard stepchildren isn’t just wasted words– it’s wrong. 
            Now, there’s nothing wrong with an elaborate sentence now and then.  Most of us love a good turn of phrase—it’s the kind of thing that made us want to be writers.  Just remember that like any other element in your writing, there has to be a point to that long string of words, and they have to be used correctly. Because if they’re not, I’m just eating up words and wasting everyone’s time.
            Speaking of which, next time I was going to rant about something for about a minute.
            Until then, go write.
December 3, 2009

The Return of The 3-D Man!!

I’d love to say there’s more to this pop-culture reference than just the number three, but I’d be lying.


So, it struck me a while back that I haven’t really prattled on about characters in quite a while. I’ve brought them up as kind of a sideline thing while talking about other story elements, but I haven’t focused on characters specifically. So I started thinking about them and why some come across so well on the page while others leave a reader cringing.

That got me thinking about Bob. To be honest, first it got me thinking about Yakko Warner, my usual example, but Yakko’s a pretty well-established character already. So I ended up with Bob, and wondering what could make him a good leading man for my action-adventure story about cyber-ninjas from the future.

If we want to make Bob the best character he can be, I think there are three key traits he needs to have.

First and foremost, a good character has to be believable. It doesn’t matter if said character is man, woman, child, cocker spaniel, Thark warrior, or protocol droid. If the reader or audience can’t believe in them within the established setting, the story’s facing an almost impossible challenge right from page one.

Bob has to have natural dialogue. It can’t be stilted or forced, and it can’t feel like he’s just the author’s mouthpiece, spouting out opinions or political views or whatever. The words have to flow naturally and they have to be the kind of words this person would use. I saw a story once where one high school jock said in amazement to another “You broke up with her via text?” Via? Is that even remotely the type of word or phrasing that would come out of a teenage football player’s mouth?

On a similar note, the same goes for Bob’s motives and actions. There has to be a believable reason he does the things he does. A real reason, one that makes sense with everything we know (or will come to know) about him. It’s immediately apparent, just like with dialogue, when a character’s motivations are really just a veiled version of the writer’s.

Also, please note that just because a character is based on a real person who went through true events does not automatically make said character believable. I’ve tossed out a few thoughts here about the difference between real-real and fiction-real, and it’s where many would-be writers stumble. They think because the amazing story they’re telling about Bob is true, it’s somehow valid. He really did this, therefore the reader must accept it. Alas, it just doesn’t work that way. Remember, there is no such thing as an “unbelievable true story,” only an unbelievable story.

Second, tied very closely to the first, is that a good character needs to be relatable. As readers, we get absorbed in a character’s life when we can tie it to elements of our own lives. We like to see similarities between them and us, so we can make extended parallels with what happens in their lives and what we’d like to happen in our lives. Luke Skywalker is a boy from a small town with big dreams (just like me) who goes off to join a sacred order of super powered knights (still waiting for that–but it might happen). There’s a reason so many novels and movies revolve around the idea of ordinary people caught up in amazing situations. Heck, Stephen King has made a pretty sizeable fortune off that basic premise.

Some of this goes back to the idea of being on the same terms as your audience and also of having a general idea of that audience’s common knowledge. There needs to be something they can connect with. Many of us have been the victims of a bad break up or two. Very, very few of us (hopefully) have hunted down said ex for a prolonged revenge-torture sequence in a backwoods cabin. The less common a character element is, the less likely it is your readers will be able to identify with it. If your character has nothing but uncommon or rare traits, they’re unrelatable. If Bob is a billionaire alien with cosmic-level consciousness who sees all of time and space at once and only speaks backwards in metaphor… how the heck does anyone identify with that?

Oh, but wait! I see a hand shooting up in the back. Watchmen has the all-powerful Doctor Manhattan, doesn’t it? Ahhhh, but y’see Timmy, one of the primary character traits we remember about him isn’t his omnipotence. It’s his awkward fumbling when he tries to interact with the people in his life. He’s the ultimate social outcast–trying to fit into a clique (humanity) he’s grown out of, and aware that every day he’s a little less a part of that group. He even acknowledges that losing his girlfriend–his last real connection with the clique–means he probably won’t even try to fit in anymore. If that’s not universally relatable, what is?

If readers can’t identify with Bob, they can’t be affected by what happens to him. Which brings us to our final point…

Third, a good character needs to be likeable. As readers and/or audience members, we have to want to follow this character through the story. Just as there needs to be some elements to Bob we can relate to, there also have to be elements we admire and maybe even envy a bit. If he’s morally reprehensible, a drunken jackass, or just plain uninteresting, no one’s going to want to go through a few hundred pages of his exploits… or lack thereof.

Keep in mind, this doesn’t mean a good character has to be a saint, or even a good person. The lead character of The Count of Monte Cristo is an escaped prisoner driven all-but-mad with thoughts of revenge who spends most of the book destroying the lives of several men and their loved ones. In Pitch Black, Riddick is a convicted mass-murderer who likes mocking all the people around him. Hannibal Lecter is a compelling, fascinating character on page and on the screen, but no one would ever mistake him for a role model. Yet in all these cases, we’re still interested in them as characters and are willing to follow them through the story.

A good character should be someone we’d like to be, at least for a little while. That’s what great fiction is, after all. It’s when we let ourselves get immersed in someone else’s life. So it has to be a person–and a life– we want to sink into.

Now, I’m sure anyone reading this can list off a few dozen examples from books and movies of characters that only have one or two of these traits. It’d be silly for me to deny this. I think you’ll find, however, the people that don’t have all three of these traits are usually secondary characters. Often they’re also stereotypes, too. The creepy neighbor, the gruff boss, the funny best friend, the scheming villain. They don’t need all three traits– three dimensions, if you will–because they aren’t the focus of our attention. They’re the bit players, so to speak, and a good writer isn’t going to waste his or her time pouring tons of energy into a minor character who has no real bearing on the story.

Yeah, up top when I said I was lying about the 3-D thing, I was lying. I do that.

So there you have it. Three steps to stronger, three-dimensional characters.

Next time… well, I’m running short of ideas again, so unless someone suggests a good topic, next week might be a bit of a cop-out.

Before I forget, a quick shout out to Brave Blue Mice, a fun little fiction ‘zine which asked to publish the RSS feed for the ranty blog on their site. For the record, no, I didn’t know what that meant when they asked, but Greg explained it to me in simple terms even a caveman could understand. Go visit, read some stories, and send him a few of your own.

And go write.

October 22, 2009 / 3 Comments

Nudity in Casablanca

Right off, before I forget, check out Live to Write Another Day over there in the right-hand column. It’s the blog of a friend of mine where she offers tips, suggestions, and recipes for folks trying to survive the life of a starving writer. I only make such a blatant plug because she asked me to contribute a recipe and let me put up some photos from my trip to Egypt. So go learn how to make koshari, save yourselves a few bucks, and look cultured doing it.

But back to the business at hand…
While I’m sure several of you saw this title and immediately started scrolling for the Ingrid Bergman pictures, I’m afraid this week’s topic is a bit more subtle than that. Plus, I’m still figuring out how to post pictures.
So, what better way to discuss subtlety than to once again fall back on the world of Star Trek for an example.
The original series and Next Generation each had similar first season episodes that were linked between the two shows. You may not know them by title, but even a casual viewer would remember the stories. The Enterprise crew(s) is infected with a virus that loosens inhibitions leading to constant displays of laziness, lust, and even savagery. You may recall a shirtless Sulu with a fencing foil, or perhaps Tasha Yar in some bizarre casual wear trying to seduce Data. The original series did the story about two months in. Next Generation did their version the second week they were on the air. These episodes were “The Naked Time” and “The Naked Now.”
All well and good, you’re saying, but this is not the nudity I tuned in to see.
Y’see, Timmy, in both of these cases, the point of the story was to give us a better glimpse at who all these characters were beneath our first impressions. What were they really like at the core. Were they lonely? Repressed? Hiding awful secrets? Those first impressions are very important, don’t get me wrong, but we all know what catches our attention is the stuff underneath. A quick glimpse of bare skin is always far more fascinating than the most elaborate and inspiring outerwear.
So, since I’ve already established the nudity I’m speaking of is metaphorical, not literal (and actually watched the hit counter go down now that I’ve clarified it), what does this have to do with Casablanca? Well, Casablanca is a very famous film which is not chronological. On the off chance you haven’t seen it (in which case you should have another window open to your Netflix queue right now) there’s a very large flashback smack in the middle. The story rolls back the clock several years to Paris, just as the Germans were invading, and it’s immediately striking to the audience what a different character Rick is at this point. He’s laughing, charismatic, generous–the complete opposite of the man we’ve come to know in the first hour of the movie. We get to find out what happened between him and Elsa to make him become that man, and we realize the kind of person he could’ve been if things had gone a different way. It’s probably one of the most memorable flashbacks in cinematic history.
The only reason this sequence has that kind of dramatic weight, however, is because it’s not at the beginning of the story. There’s a reason it’s in the middle. It’s so we can meet Rick the bitter, sullen drunk and so he and Elsa can have all those subtle looks and sharp words. If we already knew why he was like that, about the relationship between them, or how she had crushed his heart, it would’ve changed everything.
One mistake I see quite often, in books and scripts, though, is that aspiring writers try to front-load their characters. I learn everything there is to learn about Wakko in the first seven paragraphs after he’s been introduced, or his first five minutes on screen, so there’s nothing to learn later. Which means Wakko is only going to have a surface-interest for most people for the rest of the story. To fall back on the nudity metaphor, it’s hard to be titillated an hour in when we got to see everything right up front. What excites us and gets us anxious is waiting for it. To put it even crasser, sometimes putting out on the first date leads to something, but more often than not it doesn’t.
Part of the reason this approach fails is it goes against our instincts as people. Throughout our lives we’ve all met people, but we rarely learn everything about them all at once. I’m sure most of us have had one or two of those “and we talked for six or seven hours” conversations, but even those are stretched out across time and they also don’t cover everything. More to the point, we’ve also had that uncomfortable situation where someone we’ve just met starts telling us way too much information about themselves. In real life and in fiction, getting all sorts of information right at the start just feels unnatural.
Here’s another great example. One or two of you may have seen a little movie called Pitch Black. There’s an early scene when the mass- murderer named Riddick is handcuffed to a pole in the crashed ship and escapes in a… well, it’s a very memorable way. Especially because of the sounds. I won’t ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but needless to say it establishes–without a single line of dialogue–how very determined Riddick can be once he sets his mind to something. His character is solidly defined in that one scene. Everyone who’s seen it knows exactly which moment I’m talking about, it’s that perfect.
However, it isn’t his only defining scene. There’s one much later on, a quieter moment when he explains his religious views to another survivor of the crash. This time around, there are hints that Riddick wasn’t always so kick-ass and vicious, and that as low as he may seem now, he’s actually dragged himself up in the world. If this tiny bit of backstory had come out when Riddick was introduced, it would’ve been melodramatic at best, and at worst would’ve gotten the script tossed in that big pile on the left. It’s more powerful later because we’ve come to known the character one way and are now being shown there’s even more to him. The first bit makes us like the character (for one reason or another) but it’s the second bit that helps make him memorable.
I’m going to end this with two observations made by friends of mine about other forms of art. First is Dave, who was an incredibly skilled painter I knew in high school. This guy could’ve been doing book covers at age seventeen, and as it turns out he was a big fan of doing the Boris Vallejo-type paintings, the ones with bronzed women in chainmail bikinis that make Xena’s outfits look like a parka. When I asked him why he didn’t just do nudes, he smirked and said “Nudity isn’t sexy. It’s what you don’t see that gets you turned on.”
The second observation was from Brad, who was my boss on a long-ago martial arts show called Vanishing Son, the first television series I ever worked on. We were on set one day talking about a recent X-Files episode and a beautiful lighting-camera trick they’d pulled to get around standards and practices, allowing them to show a brutal murder on screen. I lamented the fact that we never did anything as clever, even though our show was loaded with such potential moments.
“It’s because all we do here is porn,” sighed Brad. “Doesn’t matter what kind of show it is. Porn is when you show everything. That’s all anyone here knows how to do.”
So, mull on that until next week.
Speaking of which, next week is Halloween! Or close enough, yes? A good time to talk about some scary stuff.
Until then, go write.