Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html

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Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂

‘The Quiet Man’ and Secondary Characters Revisited

I’ve been struggling with my young adult novel, and whenever I find myself floundering, I turn to writing books to kick-start the brain, and look at things from a different perspective. This time, I picked up The Breakout Novelist:  How to Craft Novels That Stand Out and Sell by Donald Maass.

One thing I was struggling with was my secondary characters. I don’t know why exactly, but in my previous novels, my secondary characters have been great – they come onstage, they fulfill their roles, and sometimes they even take over scenes. They have voices, backgrounds, traits, goals and dreams. They both further and hinder my protagonists. Which is precisely what a good secondary character should do. But in my YA novel – not so much!

Maass emphasizes that your secondary characters need a purpose. Are they there to be sidekicks to your MC, like Ron and Hermione were for Harry Potter? Are they there to be your MC’s antagonists (like Draco Malfoy)? How do they further the plot, and what role do they play in that (Sirius Black, Dumbledore, Mad-Eye Moody)? If your secondary characters don’t do anything other than be a talking head (unless you’re talking about Bob the Skull from Harry Dresden), then there’s room for improvement.

the quiet manAs I mulled this over (and continue to mull this over), I was delighted to find one of my favorite movies on TV yesterday – John Ford’s The Quiet Man. Starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara, it’s about an American boxer who goes back home to Ireland after a tragic incident in the ring, and falls in love with the sister of the town bully. I love this movie – it’s so well-written, so wry and funny. It’s got great tension and conflict. But what struck me as I watched it yesterday is how much the secondary characters play a role!

Sean Thornton (John Wayne) arrives in Ireland to find Michaleen O’Flynn waiting for him at the train station. He’ll be Sean’s sidekick, giving him sage advice, acting as his mediator, and educating him on the social conduct of Ireland (“‘Tis a bold, shameful man you are, Sean Thornton! And who taught you to be playing patty-fingers in the holy water?”) 🙂

Then there’s Will Danahur, the brother of Mary Kate, Sean’s love interest. A typical selfish bully, Danahur has one weakness:  he’s in love with the Widow Tillane. When Sean outbids Danahur on a cottage (owned by the Widow Tillane), he swears vengeance, and when Sean asks for Mary Kate’s hand in marriage, he denies the request.

Enter two more secondary characters, the Reverend Playfair and Father Lonergan. Together with Michaleen, they plot to get Danahur to change his mind by insinuating that if he got Mary Kate out of the house, the Widow Tillane might be willing to marry him. (“Two women in the house. And one of them a redhead.”) That’s not Sean’s doing! He knows nothing of it. These three take it upon themselves to change the fates of all involved. And it works – sort of. Danahur relents, only to screw things up at the wedding and then refuse to give Mary Kate her dowry. Without that, she can’t consider herself truly married.

Notice how little Sean does here? He’s the title character, but it’s this lovely cast that does the major work! Why? Because Sean’s afraid to fight. He killed a man in the ring – he didn’t mean to, but he refuses to risk it again. It’s not until he finally realizes his marriage – and his reputation – are in jeopardy that he stands up to Danahur and they have their major sprawling donnybrook (“Marquis of Queensbury Rules!”). Mary Kate, secure in the knowledge that her husband really does love her, simply saunters off, calling over her shoulder that she’ll “have the supper on when you get home.”

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2THIS IS HOW YOUR SECONDARY CHARACTERS SHOULD BEHAVE. They need to give your protagonist something to react to. If it feels like your story is growing stagnant, don’t look to plot – look to your secondary characters.

 

  • What are they doing?
  • Do they all play a role?
  • If not – cut the ones that aren’t pulling their weight.
  • Is there a way to combine two of them? If so, do it.
  • Can you give them more conflict?
  • Is there a place where one of them might work against the protagonist? Maybe they’re corrupted by the antagonist, or threatened by them, or simply have different beliefs? Highlight that.
  • Is there a place where they can provide aid or information the protagonist needs?
  • And although they won’t have a story arc to match that of your MC – your secondary characters, particularly the most important ones, probably will change over the course of the novel. Make sure we see that. Make sure it’s believable and necessary. How does that change work for or against your protagonist?
  • And . . . remember. At least some of your secondary characters are support for your MC. As you think about how to make his life more difficult, how much support can you remove, and how? Some may die. Some may change their minds, abandon the MC.
  • What about the ones that are against your MC – how can you make them stronger, more of a force that works against your MC? They have story arcs, too!
  • How do they react to your MC’s actions? Just like in real life, there’s going to be backlash for something said or done. How can this add to the tension in your novel?

I know it’s emphasized over and over again that your MC drives the novel. But the secondary characters are the foundation on which your MC’s story is built. By ensuring they’re as strong and vibrant as you can, you’ll ensure that your MC’s journey is just as compelling.

Link to Barnes & Nobel, where you can buy Donald Maass’ book:  http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-breakout-novel-donald-maass/1102359686?ean=9781582971827

A Tale of Two Romance Novels

Once again, over the past few weeks, I was reminded that in novels, characters are the most important thing.

I used to read romance novels all the time, especially historical and Scottish romances. Then I got into my paranormal phase – which I’m still not out of yet, so maybe it’s not a phase – and discovered urban fantasy (though paranormal romance just doesn’t do it for me; when a dust jacket makes inane statements like “Just as Laura realizes the only thing she wants is to live with Luke and his pack in the Grand Canyon and have his little fur-covered babies, an old enemy comes to call,” I’m sorry, but I just can’t do that).

But it’s been a while since I’ve read a straight historical romance. So this past month, I downloaded two on my Nook:  The Turncoat by Donna Thorland, and The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan.

The Turncoat is set during the Revolutionary War, and it’s not your typical romance (for starters, it’s way over 80,000 words . . . or at least, it felt like it). For another, this could have been another trope-ridden romance, with a splash of history thrown in. Instead, Thorland makes it more of a trope-ridden history book with a splash of romance thrown in. She’s clearly done the research, though I have to take issue with her insistence that all Redcoats and Hessians were awful, degraded, vicious creatures. Sure, you had the rare one like Banastre Tarleton (“Tarleton’s Quarter” was anything but) – but most of them were decent guys. Just doing a job. In fact, I’ve read reports of Hessian soldiers, forced to quarter with families, who ended up on babysitting duty!

But I digress. This novel focuses on the romance between Kate Grey – patriot and good Quaker lass – and Peter Tremayne – dastardly Redcoat AND nobleman. Double strike! Kate becomes a spy for the colonists, embedded with the British in Philadelphia. Peter must figure out where his loyalties truly lie – with his country and army, or with a girl he’s only met once but can’t get out of his head? When his cousin decided to pursue Kate himself, Peter’s decision is pretty much made for him.

This is the thing I really, truly hate about romance novels. The couple meets once – ONCE – and falls madly in love. Lust. Whatever. Never mind that they’re usually on opposite sides of a war, or they don’t even know each others’ favorite color. No. Forget such banalities as that. SHE’S PRETTY, DAMN IT, I MUST HAVE HER! Can she speak? Who knows? SHE’S PRETTY, I MUST HAVE HER!

The fact is, the lead characters let this novel down. I never liked Kate. I never liked Peter that much, either, and I truly despised him when he decided to abandon his post and go join the freaking colonists against Britain. Sure, he became an emissary to France, but face it:  he became a turncoat. Hence the title. The main characters should change in some way, yes; that’s part of the story, that journey towards change. But once Peter chucked it all in for a girl – particularly Kate – I was done. I had zero sympathy for him at that point. I never felt that Kate and Peter had true lives of their own; they always felt like cardboard cutouts, being marched across the pages by the author.

MUCH better is the second one (to be honest, I’m not quite done with it yet), The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan. I chose this one because the female lead is – guess what? – a suffragette in Britain, which sounded interesting.

And it is.

Milan has also clearly done her homework when it comes to this time period (the late 1800s and the early suffrage movement). Free Marshall, the FMC, runs a paper ‘by women, for women’ in which she’s basically Nellie Bly, having herself put into mental wards and prostitute hospitals, going into mines where women are forced to work fourteen-hour days, and enduring all sorts of horrendous abuse from the men of London – and Greater England – for it. I like Free. She’s smart and tough and takes crap from no one, and she’s funny.

And her life takes a turn for (hopefully) the better when a mysterious man named Edward Clark shows up to ‘protect’ her from her worst enemy, the soon-to-be Viscount Claridge, James Delacey. Clark makes no bones about it; he’s a forger and a thief and a scoundrel, and he’s not to be trusted.  But he’s the only thing standing in the way of James Delacey’s plans to destroy Free. As it turns out, he’s also the only thing standing between James Delacey and the Viscountcy.

I adore this book, because I adore the characters. Sure, Edward rambles on too much and he’s too willing to just jump into love with Free even though he’s spent his entire adult life avoiding entanglements, but I can live with that. He’s got real issues in his past that affect – that dictate – what he does today. Abandoned by his family, forced to endure the siege of Strasbourg and tortured afterwards, wandering the Continent trying to find himself . . .Unlike Peter, who is driven purely by lust for Kate and some ridiculous thing about he and his cousin really being brothers or something (I admit, I got lost there), Edward is three-dimensional, real, believable. His motives are real. His problems are real. His solutions will also have to be real.

In all honesty, I never felt that Kate and Peter had any issues. Not real ones. They both seemed whiny, self-centered, and one-dimensional to me. (And it’s a romance novel, so let me just say that the sex scenes were not just boring, but weird.) Kate was certainly not a heroine worth throwing away your career – your honor and title – your life – for. I never got a sense of chemistry from them either. But Edward and Free are all that can be right with a good romance novel. (And the sex scenes? Not bad!)

As always, it boils down to the characters.

  • Will your readers care about them? Are their problems real and believable and most of all, can readers relate to them?
  • Have you given them pasts that affect their presents in genuine ways?
  • Have you given them a pathway to change in your book – to change in a meaningful way? Meaning they may have to sacrifice something in order to be with their beloved? (Or, in not-a-romance-novel, change that’s necessary for them to achieve their goal?)
  • Do they take on lives of their own? Do they, at any point, take over the story? Because if they don’t, you’re just pulling strings. You’re not writing real characters. And readers will know it.

All the research in the world can’t make up for lack of good characters. If there’s no chemistry there – and it doesn’t matter if it’s a romance novel or not; imagine Harry Potter without Fred and George! – then you can’t force them together.

Characters are the most important part of your novel. They’re the driving force behind your novel. Make sure they’re characters your readers will like and care about!

Keeping it Real: Magic

Last time, I talked about keeping it real in your fantasy and sci-fi works (and really, anything). But this week, I want to look specifically at magic.

Writers sometimes think that because their book is a fantasy, or it deals with magic, they don’t have to worry about the rules. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers who love those genres WILL know if you break the rules. More importantly, the agents and editors you send your manuscript to will know it – and they won’t think twice about rejecting your work.

So remember the rules from last week (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/keeping-it-real/)?

All these rules apply to magic, too!

According to the presenter at this year’s OWFI conference, here’s the Top Three Things you MUST know about your magical system:

  • How much magic is there? (Is it everywhere, and the only trick is to know how to find and use it, like The Force? Or is it very limited, and impossible to find?)
  • Where did it come from? (Earth magic? The gods? Artifacts/talismans? Magical creatures? A birthright?)
  • Where is it located? How can you access it?

Other questions you will need to answer include:

  • How does this society structure itself around the magic?
  • What changes and adaptations has your society made to it, if it’s widespread?
  • Can everyone use it?
  • If not – how are those with magic treated? Are they in charge? Enslaved? Outcasts? Paid for services? Hated? Treasured? (Or, do they go create a separate little world and leave this one to the Muggles?) 🙂
  • If not – how are those without magic treated? Are they enslaved, or in charge? Peasants, perhaps? How do they manage without magic (what adaptations do they make)?
  • If everyone can access the magic – can some people access it more easily than others? Do certain families have certain powers?
  • What powers can the magic grant, and what are the conditions of its use?

Most important of all:  You must create rules for your magical system, and follow them to the letter. Always. No new loopholes. No new powers.

I know! It’s not fair! It’s MAGIC! You should be able to do whatever you want!

But here’s the thing:  magic is not a – well – a magic pill for your MC. If your magical system can fix everything, with no repercussions, then it’s going to make for a very dull story.  There have to be repercussions. There has to be a price to pay. Does it weaken your MC to use the magic? Is there a finite amount, and with each use, the amount shrinks? Or does it change your MC in other ways – by siphoning off his humanity, driving him insane, etc? (Think about Dean, fighting the Mark of Cain on Supernatural – literally turning him into a demon. Now there’s a price.)

In the MG novel All The Money in the World by Bill Brittain, the young protagonist captures a leprechaun and wishes for all the money in the world – and gets it. The novel deals with the fallout of that. He can’t spend the money – it returns right back to him. He can’t give the money away – it returns to him. When cities and countries attempt to install new currency systems, guess what? He gets all that money, too! Having all the money in the world was supposed to solve all his problems – but it just creates more than he can deal with. It comes with a price.

Or maybe your magic is an end-all-be-all. Maybe it can solve all the problems, and using it causes your MC no problems. Then what’s the plot? How are you driving your story forward? Remember the number one rule:  Start with the story. What if using the magic is illegal, punishable by death, but your MC is forced to use it? There’s your conflict!

So you have to spend some time thinking about your magical system. Look at how intricate a world J.K. Rowling created for her characters. A magical world, accessible only to those born wizards or witches, and accessible only by a few points, like Platform 9 3/4. The Ministry of Magic creates the laws and enforce them. While smaller spells have little repercussion for the person using them, larger ones – like Apparating – are dangerous if you don’t have enough talent or training. And most spells are almost impossible without a wand – and as we all now know, the wand chooses the wizard or witch, not the other way around. 🙂 But within that world, she has created myriad chances for conflict. Her characters have ambition, greed, envy. They are selfish. They are deluded. They are bullies, and they are heroes. They stand up for the rights of others, and they treat others like dirt. Magic doesn’t make them any less human.

Setting your novel in a world with magic is the same as setting it in the world of corporate America, or the halls of Oxford, or 14th century China. You need to do your homework, and build a world that the readers can trust. And the most important part of that is creating the rules by which your magic is governed and used.

And then, as stated before, you have to follow the rules. If you say that only children under the age of 13 can use magic, and your MC turns 13 during the final battle withe the antagonist – that’s it! No more magic! You can’t break the rule. But what you have done is set the stage for a final battle to end all final battles – your MC is without their greatest advantage. Now what? Figure it out! I read a book once in which it was stated, over and over, that humans could not become angels – end of story. The human MC died at the end, and was brought back to life by her angel lover, as – you guessed it – an angel. If that hadn’t been on my Nook, I would have thrown that book as hard as I could against the wall! I felt cheated. I felt lied to. The author had broken her own rules, and I will never read another book by her again. Follow your own rules, even if characters die as a result, damn it!

Just like when I said history is an infinite sandbox to play in, so is magic and fantasy. The more you dig and research and create and write, there more there is to research and create and write. Have fun – but remember the rules. 🙂

 

Character Descriptions

Last week, I discussed setting descriptions (sort of; there’s an entire book there!). This week, I want to look a bit more at character descriptions.

Most writers have drafts sitting on their hard drive or in their desk drawers in which they describe characters by having them stand in front of a mirror and contemplating the way they look.Something like this:  “Petra stood in front of the mirror, contemplating her long blond locks. Her blue eyes stared back at her; she could count the five freckles dotted across her nose.  The high aristocratic cheekbones were a gift from her mother, while her heart-shaped mouth was from her father’s side. When she wore white, as she was doing now, it made her look even paler.”

WRONG. In most cases, WRONG. WRONG, WRONG, WRONG.

But why? you ask? Veronica Roth did it in Divergent. Yes, she absolutely did. And she got away with it – but just barely. The reason Roth gets away with it is that she’s using Tris’ mirror-gazing as a microcosm of the larger whole, as a way to introduce us to the dystopian world we’re about to enter.

There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. . . . I look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention – not for the sake of vanity, but out of curiosity. A lot can happen to a person’s appearance in three months. In my reflection I see a narrow face, wide, round eyes, and a long, thin nose – I still look like a little girl, though sometime in the last few months I turned sixteen.

In reality, .Roth’s goal here isn’t so much to describe Tris – we don’t even know what color her hair is, or her eyes – but to describe Tris’ world. Factions? A mirror hidden behind a panel? She doesn’t know when she had her birthday? This evokes questions in the reader. And remember, the goal of your first sentence, first paragraph, and first page is evoke questions that the reader MUST have answered.

So why is it so bad to sit your characters in front of a mirror and describe them? Because every single word counts. And you need to do a lot more with your descriptions than convey what someone looks like. If all they’re doing is sitting and staring, that’s boring. And when readers are bored, readers stop reading. Your descriptions need to evoke emotion, feeling, atmosphere, what era your character is in, what their social status is, and who they are.

Last week, I said the best way to describe your setting is to have your character interact with it. And this extends to character description as well.

I have to go back to Diana Gabaldon here – she’s the queen of this. And she does it mostly by weaving the descriptions seamlessly into the conversations. Like this example from Outlander:

“You’ve the loveliest hair,” Jamie said, watching me.

“What:? This?” I raised a hand self-consciously to my locks, which as usual, could be politely described as higgledy-piggledy. . . . “But it’s so . . . curly.”

“Aye, of course.” He looked surprised. “I heard one of Dougal’s girls say to a friend at the castle that it would take three hours with the hot tongs to make hers look like that . . .”

Of course, if your main character is as vain as the day is long, maybe they do spend countless hours in front of a mirror, contemplating their own beauty, counting the pores on their faces, making sure they don’t have any new blemishes threatening to erupt. If they’re that vain, though, they better have some really good redemptive qualities, because no one is going to care about them. You could, perhaps, pull a Sunset Boulevard kind of thing if your MC is older, looking back on her life, and wondering where she got all those wrinkles and age spots. But I would find a different way to do it.

You can always have other characters describe each other, and in romance novels, this is usually how it goes. We see the heroine’s POV in which she sees the dashing hero for the first time (usually shirtless), and then we switch POV so we can get the hero’s reaction to the ravishing beauty he’s just been introduced to. Readers have come to expect this, in fact, so if there’s a way you can mix it up, do so.

Here’s an example from my own work in progress, from the point of view of Kai, who died more than 250 years before Erin shows up at his door. So I wanted to be sure to spin his reaction in that direction.

But then the car door slammed, and if he’d had any breath in him, the sight of the girl standing in the drive would have taken it away. She was tall. Nearly his own height, in fact. Her long blond hair was pulled away from her face, and she wore clothes that left little to the imagination. . . He watched as she struggled to pull a large bag out of the car, displaying attributes no single woman ought to display so well.

Later, he – not in a creepy way! – sneaks up to study her:

She rolled over in her sleep, one long leg slipping off the edge of the sofa. He stared at her toenails, fascinated. Since when had women bared their toes long enough to need them painted?

I wanted my descriptions to highlight the differences between them, to show as much about Kai as they do about Erin. Your character descriptions should not focus solely on the physical; they need to also show the things that cannot be seen easily.

Some authors – especially in literary fiction – seem to have no character descriptions at all. I hate this, personally. For one, I really want to know what the characters look like. For another, one or two GREAT choices can always remind the reader exactly who this person is and what they look like. I know this is weird, but think for a second about Adolf Hitler. Think of how he’s portrayed in movies. Let’s face it, all you need is an actor who is kind of short and has beady little eyes. Give him that mustache and the Nazi uniform, and everyone knows immediately who this is supposed to be. Same thing with your characters. Jamie Fraser’s slanted, blue cat-eyes and knife-edge nose – not to mention his red hair – are forces to be reckoned with. Claire’s riotous hair and gold eyes (YES, in the books she has gold eyes, Jamie says they’re whiskey-colored) set her apart instantly.

In Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell novels, Russell has very long, straight hair, even though she’s a modern girl – she’s reading theology at Oxford and owns a Morris – and it’s 1915 when we first meet her, just on the cusp of the women’s lib movement. King has an unusual task in her novels, though:  not only does she have to create Russell, but she also has to remain faithful to one of the most iconic fictional characters ever, Sherlock Holmes. And she does, magnificently. Russell’s long hair is at first a source of confusion for Holmes. Later, when Holmes has been taken prisoner by a maharajah in India:

And then the maharajah said to me, ‘Do remove your topee, Captain Russell; you’ll be able to see better.’ Holmes tensed, his hand making a fist, his eyes darting to the guards as he prepared to fling himself to my protection.

But a topee is not a turban, and I had been my teacher’s pupil before I became my husband’s wife, learning to my bones that half a disguise is none at all. I lifted my topee, smoothed my regulation officer’s haircut with my other hand, and bent forward obediently to witness the lack of tricks up the magician’s sleeve.

The moment my short-cropped, pomade-sleek, unquestionably masculine hair passed beneath his nose was the closest I’ve ever seen Holmes to fainting dead away.

Character descriptions are just as important as any other descriptions, and just as tricky to get right. They need to convey more than the physical; they need to convey emotions, time period, changes in your character .  .  . It’s a tall order! But with practice – and lots of reading! – you’ll get there.