introducing a group, part ii

After my last post, about how to introduce several characters, and the distinctions between character and setting, I thought that I’d go visit Gav Thorp’s blog ‘Mechanical Hamster‘ and ask him if he would be willing to say a few words on the subject. I really love Gav’s advice– he writes some really excellent articles on writing tips and craft. Anyone interested in advanced creative writing should stop by and browse through the archives.

Much to my delight, Gav obliged me and wrote a long, detailed post on how to handle secondary characters that really addressed some of the problems I was having. You can find it here, and I think it’s well worth a read.

Thanks, Gav!

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writing names and groups

It’s been a heck of a week! Trying to get the hang of teaching has drained me pretty dry for the last two weeks. I’m glad to report that we’re now working with code (which to me is easier to teach than history), my students look to be a fun group, with the exception of one or two of the guys who seem to be far too ‘cool’ to be taught by a hyper nerd-ette.

Which means that after two weeks of delays, it’s back to my novel, and back to thoughts on writing craft.

I remember watching old bugs bunny cartoons, and knowing what’s going to happen next, because one plank of a fence board will be a slightly different color than the others. It always annoyed me, letting one prop stand out from the others. Lately, I’ve been having the same problem in writing.

If you have a group of characters show up, how do you handle them? Do you go through the entire process of developing them? Do you name one or two, and leave the rest as blank faces? Leave them all blank, and hope that they’re still important?

Option 1– develop them all. It’s realistic. It brings a lot of focus on the parts of the new force, maybe even too much, detracting from the main characters and whatever else would be going on. Name them, and the reader will feel obligated to remember their names. Another advantage is that if one is utterly unimportant and another will make a huge difference later on, the device isn’t just inobvious– it doesn’t exist at all. I think this can be a good choice if introduced early into the book, or if they’re a constant presence.

Option 2– name the important ones. … I feel awkward about this method. It always seems painfully obvious who the returning characters are. Like the joke from Order of the Stick, “They won’t survive! They don’t even have names!” (link). It’s less weird if the main character has a reason to note one out of the group, say they’re looking at a girl he likes, or if something they do stands out. But that’s interaction as an individual, not as a part of the group.

Option 3– name no one. Make them all faceless. Last summer, I attended a fantasy-sci-fi conference in Spokane. One of the panels I attended included Timothy Zahn, of Star Wars fame, discussing villains in stories, and we made a comment that a lack of familiarity with the villain, not understanding who he is or his motivation makes said character less of a villain and more of a force of nature. Of course, this might be easier when you’re working with stormtroopers.

These are the techniques that come immediately to mind… but here’s what I want.

I want an immediate impression of a group as a whole. I want to be aware of the characters in a vague light, as tertiary characters ought to be seen, but ready to pop out, without being obvious which one will be used for plot, yet supported and foreshadowed.

Any thoughts on this?

(intelligent) magic

I’ve been reading through one of the Forgotten Realms series– not a particular favorite, but since D&D is a hobby of mine, and because some of the aspects of the books are interesting, I’ve been slogging through them.

One of the things that annoys me is just a little detail. Anyone familiar with the D&D magic system knows that the spells are geared to be balanced game mechanics, and doesn’t really hold a lot of internal consistency, or even any economic sense. I can accept fireballs, I can accept bolts of lightening flying from wands, teleportation, shadow-stepping, slow-falls, ect.

But I can’t accept an enchanted whip.

Not just any whip, either. This whip is fashioned to have snake-creatures instead of lashes, which will occasionally speak to their wielder, warning of poison, eavesdropping, ect. And when she uses this whip, the snake heads will sink their fangs into the victim, poisoning them.

I’ve seen this whip in action for three books now. And every time the snake heads bite down, they inject poison. So you have long, extended battles with this weapon in use, and all I can think of is ‘where do they get all that poison from?’.

Since the snakes never eat, never drink, never diminish, I can only assume that they somehow repeatedly conjure poison up from nothing, expending no energy or resources to do so: a never-ending supply of venom, by nature of the design. Nothing else in the book does this. I don’t see good, cheap poison readily available. It’s a ridiculous mental image, but I keep picturing the characters getting into financial straights and trying to figure out how to milk this amazing whip.

CHARACTER: “Here, you guys each grab a head. Now, whip, when I say ‘go’, start squirting poison.”
WHIP: “F*** you.”
CHARACTER: “Hey, you always contributed this stuff before…!”
WHIP: “I demand death first. It turns me on.”
CHARACTER: “Hmm. So you’d say that you’re rather ‘limp’ right now?”
WHIP: *attempts to murder the character*
CHARACTER: *holds up the vial, tries to hide behind it* “The tube, not me, the glass tube!”

Please, fellow fantasy writers. Do not do this. Please think carefully about your magic/magical items/magical effects.

writing craft: the art of repetition

Since I’m taking a break from my book, I’ve decided to write a bit about craft and technique.

Repetition is a subject that I don’t see nearly enough coverage in craft essays. True, it is not a necessary element to a book, of less importance than characterization or plot. A writer does not need to know this to make a good story. Still, it is a tool that a writer may use to strengthen the elements in their story, and well worth thinking about.

When a reader sees a character behave in a certain way, they make judgments about that character. They will expect this character to do something similar when placed in another situation like the first. The reader judges the character by his actions and his insinuations. This is characterization.

When the character repeats himself as expected, this is called consistency.

And if three characters do similar things for similar reasons at different times, though their situations and their personalities differ, this is a repeating motive, one of the elements of repetition. It enhances a theme in your work, it sets the tone of your story. It plays with the prejudices the reader has toward your world, your events, and your characters.

Repeating elements can be used for foreshadowing. Say that four characters have a gun in a story. The reader will anticipate a time when someone draws it, will assume a need for weaponry (either in the situation, or because of characterization), and adjust their attitudes accordingly. It will be off-putting if no one makes use of said guns in some manner. Even if they’re not drawn, reliance on a weapon when fighting something like hunger can be a potent mental image.

Repeating elements are a base. They make the reader familiar with the setting. Let a church be a setting for a particularly happy scene. Take that same church, put some different characters in, and have something terrible happen. Put the church in again a third time, and the reader will have some very strong emotional connotations with that location.

invitation to world building month

This is the official invitation!

August is going to be dedicated to world-building, here, and on any other blog or site that wishes to participate. We’re going to be exploring everything; history, art, politics, geography, map-making, town-building, magic, science, rumor mills, everything that provides a setting for writing. Any medium of exploring these topic is welcome, from essays to writing samples to artwork. This is an open project. As with Villain Month, I’ll be showcasing people’s work every week.

Interested in participating? Just leave a comment, and be sure to include the URL where you’ll be posting your own projects.

June’s Villain Month was a great success; here’s hoping that World Building Month can do the same!

trudge trudge (logistics and fantasy)

When asked to describe ‘Lord of the Rings’, my mother replies with a series of sound effects: cling clang!, trudge tromp trudge, clang! cling, cling!. As she is a landscape and still life painter and not enamored of fiction (much less fantasy– she prefers very historical fiction, biographies, theology), I will forgive her for that.

One thing I remember from reading the Hobbit is that the trial through Murkwood forest took absolutely forever. For Bilbo, for the dwarves, especially the poor saps that had to carry Bombur, and for me. The chapter and descriptions were so long that one really did start to despair and get hungry before they finally are attacked by spiders. Like the company’s view, no end seemed to be in sight.

My real dad (biological father, lives across the state) once commented that Tolkien could take three pages just to describe the wind. When mentioned to a Tolkien fan, she immediately shot back ‘Yes, but he does a damned good job of it.’ Which makes me wonder. How does Tolkien do that?

Logistics and travel has always been a weakness in my work. I can’t stand traveling. My philosophy tends to be ‘If nothing is going to happen, then fast forward and get to the interesting bits,’. This can be good and can be bad, depending on how it’s used. I know that in my 0-draft for NaNoWriMo I skimped on descriptions and most of the scenery. It bored me, and I knew what things looked like, so like exposition, I’d write it when it was needed. This was something that my test reader commented on, along with, ‘it feels like it should be twice as long’ and ‘some parts are awesome, some parts need work’.

The reason my meter’s slowed down is because I’m working on a Wyrren chapter. The end is particularly climactic, but to get there… well, there are logistics. I have a character walking around in a series of dark tunnels with a company, and since she has a speech disability she’s not inclined to conversation. It’s gotten me thinking about how to detail this without just going to a summery or an internal dialog. So far I’ve mostly struggled through, sentence by agonizing sentence, partly with what descriptions available– the way an armed company makes people scatter like frightened birds, the sound of a waterfall in the distance, and the request to change paths so that she can see the water.

Are there any tricks to this? Does the richness of the prose make travel interesting? The characteristics of the places passed by? The thoughts and emotions these details evoke? What would Tolkien do? Is anyone any good at making these transitions interesting?

the battle of show or tell

I had an email after my last post, inquiring after the specifics of the ‘show, don’t tell’ rule. After reading it, I felt that I should clarify the difference between the two methods.

(Warning: Bad examples follow.)

The letter lay on the coffee table beside a crumb-laden placemat and a newspaper and a glossy orange piece of paper advertising oil changes partway across town. The address had been handwritten in pink ink, the smooth glossy swirl of gel-pens. He made himself a drink. He listened to music, Bach first, then Handel. Partway through the winding, disjointed verses of ‘We Like Sheep’ he stood up, picked up his keys, and slipped his wallet in his pocket. He moved partway to the door, stopped, turned, and returned to the table. His hand shook with fear as he opened the letter, the key chain still dangling on his little finger giving a metallic rattle as he tore the paper.

Showing only: this example uses nothing but visual clues as to what’s going on. There’s no blatant emotion given to the audience, it’s all imagery. It gives no explanations, no internal dialog.

He found the letter after he had arrived home, and the sight of it instilled a deep fear. Unopened responses could mean anything, the possibilities turning a once rational head to something panicked and imaginative, circumstances winding into other hypothetical circumstances born of the haunting words ‘what if’. The confidence in his first query crumbled and died, turned to salt as it looked back to the destroyed city where his hopes had once lain. Stalling didn’t help, nor did his evening drink, and he listened to classical music until finally he could take no more of the anticipation. He must face it, or he must leave, and for a moment leaving sounded like a better alternative before he forced himself back, gathered his courage, and approached the paper once more.

Telling only: This is telling. I described nothing, and gave only the barest hints of the elements in the scene, instead focusing on the cause of the shaking hands from the last paragraph. It includes details and feelings that were left out of the first one. But it also doesn’t set the scene.

Neither of these are right or wrong. They just focus on completely different ways of storytelling. One might be right and one very wrong for a particular project. But to dismiss the latter as ‘bad practice’? You can show this badly by losing the point in boring details. You can tell this badly by not explaining the fear, and subsequent courage, well enough to follow believably.

Add or remove detail as is needed.