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Documenting my odyssey into the wonderful world of fantasy writing and beyond. Can't promise I will always be on topic as the world is vast and full of such wonderous, and sometimes terrible, distractions. Email me: cassandra.jade.author@gmail.com

25 July, 2009

10 Ways to Know You Are Obsessed With Writing

I'm taking a break from the plot series for the weekend. Though I definitely recommend checking out Jane Friedman's blog 'There are no rules' for great post: The Protagonist Must Have A Goal.

Today I would just like to share a list of ten things that indicate you've become obsessed by writing (not saying obsession is a bad thing):

1. You start re-reading every sentence that you write and then start re-writing every sentence, convinced that you are 'improving' them. I know when it's time to stop when I have just written the same sentence ten times and I no longer even believe it to be written in English.

2. Your partner/best friend/child sends you an instant message asking if you will be eating breakfast/lunch/dinner.

3. You start arguing with your characters out loud: "No, you fool. You have to go..."

4. You have any kind of repetitive strain problem (wrist, arm, finger, neck, eyes).

5. You get home from your day job and your computer is turned on before you have put your bag down, taken your shoes off, fed your pets, or spoken to your children.

6. When you have told your friend/partner/child you will be ready to leave just after finishing one more sentence you write another couple of pages and forget you were meant to be finishing until they unplug the computer at the wall.

7. In your bag you have at least three notebooks and five pens, as well as a pencil in case all of you pens cease working on the same day.

8. Every single thing you read or watch is critiqued in terms of character, plot and setting.

9. When you meet someone for the first time you repeat their name, not to help you remember them but so that you can someday use that name in a story.

10. In conversation you directly reference events and characters you have been writing about (even though nobody else has read it yet).

Add your 'you know you are obsessed with writing when...'

23 July, 2009

Plot - The Hook

It makes sense that if you want someone to read your book that it has to have a hook. When they read that first line (paragraph) they should instantly want to read more. Particularly when your book is still unpublished and you are trying to convince an agent or publisher it is worth the effort, you really want to make a great first impression.

I have to confess, this is a skill I have really yet to learn. I understand why a hook is important and I have read countless pages of advice on how to write an interesting beginning to a story, and I still haven't really managed it.

Recently I was looking over my work and I noticed that the large majority of my stories begin with a single character doing something utterly mundane in the morning. I don't know why this is a recurring trend in my writing, but I have at least identified what I am doing and I understand that this does not make for exciting reading.

Advice I have been given:

  • Start with action - everyone loves action and putting your characters in danger can make the reader feel sympathetic for them (personally I really don't like stories that begin in these situations as I prefer to care about the character before they get into danger, but I guess it is a matter of opinion).
  • Start with dialogue - have your character say something interesting to get the reader interested.
  • Start with a mystery - something a bit odd or different that makes the reader want to find out more. I have to put down Orwell's 1984 as a great example of this as in his very first line the clocks struck thirteen.
Despite this advice, found in a myriad of forms, I'm still working on perfecting the hook. What I do know is that the start of the book has to be interesting for people to read it. It doesn't matter if you think you have the 'best' story ever if nobody ever gets beyond the first page. Managing to get people into the story and reading on is definitely a skill I need to develop.

I'd love to know how everyone else deals with this.

22 July, 2009

Writing Links #2

Last week I did a wrap up of all the links I found on Thursday, then decided I'd like to add one every week and that Wednesday was a better day. Until I change my mind again or my computer breaks down.

There are quite a few links this week and I'm going to try to put them into some sort of order but that may not work. As always, feel free to add more links in the comments or to let me know if you've found a good site for writing discussion or advice. I'm always looking for new ones.


Joe Konrath - How Not to Write A Story
Greg - How to Write - Structure
Ajibade Oluwaseun - Writing A Short Story

Inspiration and Motivation

Jodi Cleghorn - Why Write
Jane - Turn Your Dragons Into Princess'
Blair - Sink Your Teeth Into A New Project
Nick Leshi - How to Beat Writer's Block (Response to previous post on Darkened Jade)
Elizabeth Gilber - Nurturing Creativity (Well worth watching)

Writing As Business

John Green - Advance vs Royalties
Hope Clark - Writer = Entrepreneur


K.M.Weiland - Making Cliche's Work For You
Jean Henry Mead - How To Repair a Manuscript
Nathan Bransford - 5 Stages of Querying Grief
Jane - 5 Elements of a Query Letter
Elizabeth Spann Craig - Book Length
Melissa Donovan - Daily Writing Equals Better Writing

Off Topic But Fun

Daybreaker Trailer

This week (an next) I am exploring plot. So far I've talked about structure and complications, tomorrow I'll be looking at hooks (assuming my Internet is still functioning).

You know, I think the best thing about doing this list is I revisit all the great blogs I've found during the week, something I usually don't get around to doing.

21 July, 2009

Plot - Why So Complicated?

Yesterday I looked at the basic (very basic) plot structure and while I'll be taking a more indepth look at structure and variations on it in later posts, today I just want to focus on complications.

Everyone will tell you a story has to have a problem. Or a complication. Or a conflict. It all amounts to the same thing. There has to be a central issue that is in some way connected to the central characters. Why? Because otherwise, what is your story about.

If someone handed me a book and said 'read it', my first question would be 'what is it about?'. This isn't me wanting the blurb read to me or someone's review. This is me just wanting to know what is the point of the book. Boil all the fancy words down, what is the reason for the story. Read the two answers below and decide which you would read.

1. Luke and Lane are getting married.

2. Luke and Lane are getting married but Lane's mother doesn't approve.

The first tells me what events to expect but it doesn't sound particularly interesting. Unless it is a biography about two people I had heard of and I was wanting to know about their wedding, I'm unlikely to read it. The second tells me there is a problem. They want to get married, but... And that but is enough to keep me interested. How does Lane's mother react? Does she try to interfere? Stop the wedding? Why doesn't she approve? So many questions that I instantly want answered and now I have to read the book to find out.

You have to have a complication.

And before you run off and try to think of something so intensely convoluted that even Nostradamus would have asked for directions the central complication doesn't need to too complex. The important thing is that there is a point to reading and the reader can expect some kind of satisfactory explanation. It is not really important to try to confuse them. If you want to make your story more complex, you can layer other complications and side plots in later, but the basic storyline should be relatively clear.

What kind of problem could there be?

Most people I've spoken to and most of the advice I've read points to four basic types of conflict that appear in books.

1. Man against society - The protagonist (for whatever reason) opposes the world and society in which he lives. The story then usually revolves around the protagonist trying to change things in some way.

2. Man against man - Two characters for whatever reason have opposing view points or goals and the clash of personalities creates the conflict. Frequently one will be villianised while the other will be set up as a hero.

3. Man against himself - Looking at internal conflict of someone trying to change who they are within.

4. Man against nature - Protagonist trying to defeat some kind of monster, natural disaster, climb a mountain, save the world, etc, etc.

While these are the basic types of conflict there are many books that use variations or combinations of these, plus if you include multiple sub-plots it will enable you to explore more than one of these within a single story.

Tomorrow I'm going to put together a list of links found this week and then in the next post I'll be looking at hooks. Let me know if you have any advice or links you would like added or linked to and I would love to know what you think about complications in stories.

20 July, 2009

Plot - Structure of a Story

Welcome to the first post in this series on plot. Over the next two weeks*, I'm going to be looking at all things plot like and hopefully sharing some useful points for writers, as well as hopefully learning something new.
*Wednesday will be a post on writing links and the weekend will be whatever takes my fancy.

This post is looking at the structure of a story. Any story. It does not matter what genre you wish to write or who you think your audience is. The basic story structure remains the same. In its most simplistic form the structure has a beginning, a middle, and an end. That might sound obvious but I've actually read a few books where I get to the end and wonder where I stopped reading the introduction. It feels like the entire story has just been setting something up and we've never really moved on from just getting you used to the characters and the world.

So what should each of these sections include? (At the moment I am only going to look at linear plot structures. I'm going to examine non-linear plots in a separate post)

The Beginning:

This is where you need to establish your main characters and setting as well as your problem (yes there needs to be a problem or a conflict and you need to give the reader some idea of what it is in the beginning so that they know more-or-less where the story is going).

Dangers in the beginning include being overly descriptive. Yes the field may be lovely but if you describe all twenty shades of green for the grass most readers will call it quits. Being overly descriptive can also be likened to doing an info-dump. The reader wants to know about your characters but they don't want to read two pages of description telling you every pertinent detail without moving forward in the story.

Other dangers include not managing to hook your reader. This is why many writers chose to begin with some sort of action sequence or prologue before getting into the introductions though it isn't necessary to jump straight into action in order to get your reader interested. Or at least it shouldn't be.

The Middle:

Despite the story being divided into three basic components they aren't all even lengths. The middle is generally the longest part of the story and unfortunately the one that fewest people seem to value. Everyone will tell you that you need a great start. You have to hook the reader straight away. They'll tell you that you need a great finish. Something people will remember. They seldom tell you that you need a strong and convincing middle that is interesting and logical and well developed. It doesn't matter how great that ending is if the reader gives up in the middle because you've relied on bad cliche's and poor dialogue to move your story forward.

The middle is crucial. You build tension, you lead in additional complications, you give your readers a reason to care what happens to your characters and your settings; the middle will definitely determine whether your book is a thrilling page turner or a yawn that the reader decides to flick through a few pages before going to sleep.

The Ending:

Please end you story. I don't know how many times I have gotten to the end of a book and just wanted to scream because the story doesn't end. I'm not actually talking about series or books that are leading into a sequel. I assume that those will eventually end so while they might be frustrating, I'll get over them.

What bothers me is when in the beginning I'm introduced to some characters who have a problem and during the course of the middle all manner of other complications emerge. By the end one of those additional complications has become amazingly interesting and amazing and the writer ties it up with a big bang and tells me they all lived happily ever after. What happened to the original problem? Usually it is hanging out there un-resolved. It is like the writer decided mid-way along that a side story was more interesting and then hasn't bothered to re-write the opening. Terribly frustrating for the reader. As happy as you are to see the other issue resolved, the voice in the back of your mind just keeps wanting to know what happened to...

Does every problem need to be solved? No. Depending on who your audience is and the purpose of your story. Some things are never solved. Sometimes the solution is that the world ends or that the bad guy wins. That is a solution, though maybe not the one the reader wanted. The story has to end. Whatever you have set up as your main storyline has to have some kind of conclusion. How you do that is up to you.

Tomorrow I am going to look at types of complications and how they work in the story. I'd love to know which part of the story most writers focus on when writing. All three? The beginning? The ending? Let me know.

Some useful links:

Guest blog on Nathan Bransford from Victoria Mixon - Everything you need to know about writing a novel
Greg on Writing - Writing Mistake #7

19 July, 2009

Writer's Block

Starting tomorrow I am beginning a series of posts about plot and I am really looking forward to it. Before I begin that series though I just wanted to take a bit of time out to talk about writer's block.

Ask google to define writer's block and this is what you get: The inability to write.

So it amazes me how every single day twitter is flooded with posts such as:

ear0wax Writers Block!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!1
mynameismickey I have writers Block :(
hollzyy writers block AHH
gigglesmack trying to write a story but has writers block

Not only do they generally not bother with the apostrophe but they become reasonably repetitive. The far more useful post would be when the writer says they are doing such and such to get around their writer's block. That is actually something all writers would have an interest in because we all experience lulls in our writing flow and sometimes those suggestions are just what we need to get going again.

Plus, if they are writing a post on twitter, I'm not sure that writer's block is the problem.

The problem becomes one of focus, or that a particular project is not going well, or (like most of the rest of us on twitter) they have things to do but are just having too much fun distracting themselves elsewhere.

For those genuinely stuck with writer's block there are many suggestions out there to help get you writing again (some good, some bad, some random) but usually writing anything can help get you started. K. M. Weiland gave an interesting guest post in May on how to create inspiration for those feeling uninspired.

So here is a very basic list of ways to get going again:

  • Read through your planning notes and look at where your story is going - it could be you are getting stuck because you aren't sure where it is you want to be
  • If you are stuck on a particular segment but you know what is going to happen, skip over it and write something for another section. Sometimes that can help get you focused on your project again.
  • Take a character or event or place from your story and write a short story around it - separate from your main project.
  • Before you start to write, create a list of what you want to accomplish in the session.
  • Find a writing prompt exercise to begin with before starting work on your project.
  • If you haven't written in days, it may be time to start a new project and come back to the one that has you going around the bend.
As writer's block does afflict many and finding ways to get focused can sometimes be difficult, I would love it if you would share your methods for overcoming it.

18 July, 2009

The Greatest of Characters

Having spent an entire week looking at characters my mind has become very much focused on characters I have enjoyed reading. Almost all of the books I would claim to love have at least one memorable character that I just thoroughly enjoyed reading about. Below are my nominations for greatest characters of all time (in a bunch of made up categories). Be sure to add your own categories and character nominations at the bottom.

Female Protagonist - Tori Alexander (The Ancient Future by Traci Harding)

Tori wins this one handily as I read and re-read the Ancient Future Trilogy about seven times while in school and have continued to revisit it once a year since. She's the character I never get enough of. Even though I didn't particularly like the follow up trilogy, I still gasp every time Tori gets abducted and... well I'm not going to spoil a good story for anyone else.

Why is Tori Alexander such a great character? She's a very contemporary woman, strong and independent, but she isn't obnoxious about pro-feminism or the like. She knows she is capable and she doesn't need to jump to her own defence every five seconds. Being sent back in time doesn't disturb her and unlike most other time travel story she doesn't spend ninety percent of the time moaning about the fact that she is upsetting the timeline. She merrily goes about teaching medieval knights in England martial arts and she doesn't take no for an answer.

Besides, it is hard not to like a character who managed to fight off an evil witch, marry a prince, travel back to Atlantis, and finally, forward to the foretold end of the world. That, and her arrogance and certainty lead to some very interesting conflicts along the way.

Other contenders for the title of greatest female protagonist included Rina Decker (Peter Decker series from Faye Kellerman) and Magiere (Dhampir from Barb and J. C. Hendee). Rina was finally passed over because ultimately she plays a supporting role rather than the lead. Magiere lost because at her core she is a con-artist who resents the role that is being thrust upon her. It makes for a really interesting story but a more flawed character.

Male Protagonist - Pelman (Pelman the Powershaper by Robert Don Hughes)

This was actually a really hard decision. There are so many really good male protagonists out there (as well as some really annoying ones). I do have to confess that I automatically ruled out any males who solved all of their problems with violence or were condescending to women which kind of ruled out the vast majority from the fantasy genre which I tend to read.

Pelman eventually won because despite being the main character and the one who ultimately solves everything, he spends all three books of the trilogy building up the other characters and driving them forward. I also love the fact that he is a PowerShaper in one of the three lands, an actor in another and a prophet in the third. The idea that a character will change completely )or be changed) by their geographic location, was one that I had not encountered before this trilogy.

It is his ever changing personality and his interactions with the supporting characters in his fantastical world that have managed to make Pelman stand out from other male protagonists.

When thinking of male protagonists my brain automatically bent toward David Eddings and either Sparhawk or Althalus. Both were eventually passed over because despite being really great characters, they both suffer from feeling at times a little too generic (Sparhawk being the classic fantasy knight while Athalus takes the role of rogue).

Anti-Hero - Daemon Sadi (Dark Jewels Trilogy - Anne Bishop)

Possibly people will argue over my definition of an anti-hero and yes it can definitely be argued that Sadi is not a hero in any sense of the word. However I found him heroic. All of his actions early in the trilogy are directed toward protecting Janelle and he ends up losing his mind for his efforts. That simple act of self-sacrifice allows me to classify him as a hero.

Any character whose nickname is the 'sadist' is not going to be a nice character. Sadi is a predator and has been made extremely malicious and very effective at his craft by the world in which he lives. To say that he isn't so bad because he only tortures-dismembers-disappears bad people isn't exactly an amazing defence for his character.

Ultimately I put Daemon Sadi up for greatest anti-hero because unlike most anti-heroic characters who have one dark incident that we see in the beginning, or a dark past that is often referred to but never seen, Anne Bishop puts Sadi's true character up there for all to see. Every horrific action. Yet the reader still feels for Sadi and wants him to succeed. As readers we are sympathetic when he loses his mind and is wandering. We eagerly await the resolution because we hope that Sadi will find peace. That is some incredible character creation when he can do the things he does and yet we still want him to win.

The other character I was contemplating was White Mike from Nick McDonell's 'Twelve' but he falls down because the focus of Twelve shifts between so many characters it is difficult to really grow attached to any one of them and it would be nearly impossible to argue that White Mike had any heroic tendencies. He definitely has survival instincts but they aren't really the same thing.

Villain - Marnie Simpson (Eye of the Daemon by Camille Bacon-Smith)

There are so many fantastic villains out there it was nearly impossible to decide. Once again I had to do a broad sweep elimination of all of the villains who sit in their lair, dressed in black, sending their minions out before them, etc, etc. The nomination for greatest villain had to be someone a little different.

I've settled on Marnie Simpson but there were so many to choose from. Marnie Simpson is a cold hearted individual who manages to play the role of helpless victim, cool business woman, lover, and still plot taking over both this world and the daemon's world. She isn't so much evil as greedy, malicious, and dangerously half-informed about things.

What I do love about Marnie though is that she doesn't let anything stand in her way. When one plan fails another is instantly prepared demonstrating her flexible nature. She plans well in advance. She has unlimited ambition. And, the best quality of all, she doesn't worry about the morality of her actions at any time.

As far as villains go, I contemplated nearly fifty before settling on this one. There were so many close contenders.

Add Yours

This was my list of greatest characters. I would love to hear yours, even if they aren't in one of the categories above.

17 July, 2009

Character - Discussion

We have come to Friday and while I did not begin the series on a Friday or at any particular point in time, it feels appropriate to end at the end of the week and begin a new series next week and so I am wrapping up my posts on character.

I'm really glad I did this series because I have had such an incredible learning experience. While I've been sharing my thoughts I have been receiving comments, I've been asking questions on twitter, I've been exploring other blogs, and the amount that I've learned and gained has been incredible. I can only hope that some of my readers have gained even a little bit from this.

To finish off I would like to recap some of the major points from the series as well as add in some of the points I've gained from discussions (both online and off).

  • Characters are really important to the story - in fact for many readers the characters can make or break the story.
  • Writers get very attached to their characters but they shouldn't let their attachment get in the way of moving the plot forward (sometimes bad things happen to good characters).
  • A good protagonist can hook the reader and really distinguish your story.
  • Antagonists are essential as far as plot development and human drama.
  • Ensemble casts are an interesting case and somewhat more difficult to write well but for a good writer there is a lot of potential.
  • Believable characters take time to develop and it is the small details that make them realistic.
  • As much as the writer loves the character they have created and the back story they have lovingly crafted, almost nobody loves an info-dump at the beginning of a story.
I'd love to hear any final thoughts on character, or even ideas for information you would like on character for another series. Over the weekend I'll be looking at some of my favourite characters and next week I'll be looking at... (once more we pause for a very comical drum roll)... PLOT.

Looking forward to it.

16 July, 2009

Writing Links

This is a minor deviation from the current theme. I've found so many great posts about writing lately and I wanted to share them here.

Not a post on writing, but a very amusing book trailer all the same.

Below are the current posts on the theme of characters. This series is nearly done for the time being and I'll be moving on to a new theme next week.

If you have a great link or a comment on any of these, let me know. I'd love to hear your view.

15 July, 2009

Character - Eenie, Meenie, Mini, Mo, Which Character Should I Kill?

Maybe it is a little cold hearted but I was talking with a few people about this over the last couple of days and we all came to the same conclusion - most writers are too resistant to the idea of killing off their characters.

This is something that most fantasy readers are familiar with. Group of adventurer's, lead by plucky protagonist, go off an absolutely impossible quest and, with the exception of one character (usually the sweetest and most helpful of the group - or the one who was secretly a traitor), all of the adventurer's survive despite the apparent high degree of danger. Either the quest isn't that impossible or the writer just couldn't bring themselves to knock over any of the other characters.

I've been working on a few outlines recently while I finish off other projects and I have to admit, even though I haven't actually written any of the characters yet I am already very attached to them. However, knowing that it bothers me when characters seem to dance blithely into danger and survive unscathed I started actively plotting the several of the character's demises. Usually I just work on raining pain and misery down upon my characters so that they can overcome it but I am now working to actually kill them.

Even knowing that my goal was to eliminate several characters, I found myself seeking excuses to spare them this fate. "But this one could..." "But the reader will be too attached..." "But if I do that this other character will be..."

These are characters. Not real people. In point of fact, most of them aren't even characters yet. They are dot points and sketchy outlines scribbled in the back of notebooks. I haven't even named some of them and I'm worried about their death.

Those who follow me on twitter will know that I recently resolved one of these problems with a coin toss. A particular character that I had decided to kill off was actively protesting his selection. A hundred good reasons to keep him around flooded my head. Having had enough of the indecision, and knowing I had chosen this particular character because he served no significant role in the climax and had in fact already served his purpose within the story (and in his death could also be a catalyst for another significant event) I decided to leave the decision in fate's hands. I think we all know that fate is cruel.

The Twitter post went as follows:

Decision made, character definitely dead, just have to figure out how and when. Slightly morbid plotting the death of a beloved character.

The character in question is still trying to claw his way back to life and justify his existence but I think I'm going to remain strong on this particular point.

Do I like gory stories where everybody dies? No. I don't see the point in bloodshed for the sake of bloodshed. And I'm not particularly concerned with overt realism in story telling. The fact that nobody would survive a particular situation in reality doesn't mean you can't have some of your characters come through it alright. However, I think it is easier to accept those that survive if you allow characters to die. Not just the nameless nobodies in the background, but the characters people have invested time and energy in. Make them feel something. Make them shocked or sad or angry but don't just have everyone survive and join hands and sing.

I also noticed this in an MS draft I wrote last Christmas and have been working on off and on inbetween other projects. I have an army invade a city and every person in the city has either fled or is fighting off the army and only two named characters manage to get themselves killed (and neither were particularly well liked to begin with). It doesn't make sense and it seems way too trite. Though which characters will live and die is still a matter of debate.

14 July, 2009

Character - 5 Essentials for Genuine Characters

Keeping it simple today. This is quick checklist for creating genuine characters:

  • Don't shun stereotypes - While the overuse of stereotypes is definitely a no-no, but to utterly ignore every existing paradigm for character creation isn't such a great idea either. Despite what people say, they actually do like the familiar and dragging them by the hair into totally new territory probably isn't the best way to connect to your readers.
  • Appearance matters - You have to give your reader some idea of what your character looks like. This doesn't mean giving the reader an info dump two pages long that ends up describing every single mole. Give them enough to form an image and then move on (and if you revisit physical appearance again be sure you are consistent).
  • Dialogue rocks - Dialogue is where the reader has the chance to hear the character speak in the words that they have chosen. Unless the book is narrated by the character the reader does not get the chance any other way. That means the dialogue should be authentic to the character and it has to be distinguished from other characters.
  • Everybody has a past - unless you sprung from the ground about a sentence before the beginning of the plot. How much of the character's past you choose to explain or explicitly detail is up to the individual writer and plot but every character has a past, has opinions and viewpoints and ways of doing things. Characters that seem to exist only for the sake of the current plot never really feel genuine.
  • Relationships are necessary - You character is going to be interacting with others and it is important that you understand the relationship that they have with each of the other players. Is there a history? Is it a newly established connection? Are there other connections between the characters? If the relationships don't work then the characters won't feel right.
Did I forget any? Probably. Let me know what you think. Here are some links about characters and dialogue that I've found - please let me know if you have others.

Thy Dialogue Does Sound Strange - Nathan Bransford
Writing Tips - Lyrical Press - Mary Murray
Reader Turnoffs - Elizabeth Spann Craig (some very good advice on other topics here as well)

13 July, 2009

Character - The Ensemble Cast

So far in this series on character I've looked at the leading character and the antagonist (or antagonists, depending). Today I'd like to take a look at ensemble casts.

Now the first thing you may note about a book that has a true ensemble cast, is that there isn't really a clear protagonist. Having an ensemble cast is different from simply having a large number of supporting characters. In a true ensemble each character has to able to be seen individually and to have a clear purpose and goal within the story. While a reader maybe drawn to one character more than another, all of the characters should be essential in their own way.

Benefits of the Ensemble Cast

Why have an ensemble cast? Other than the fun and exciting challenge of creating indepth and interesting characters there are many good reasons. Some of these include:

  • Less pressure to create a protagonist that all of your readers will love and adore. By having the ensemble cast each character is able to express individual flaws and trouble spots as well as their own strengths. Even if your reader doesn't like one of the cast, the others will probably more than make up for it.
  • Each character adds their strengths and abilities to the story so you aren't having to create some wonderfully amazing character that is too good for words. A problem that is completely overwhelming for one of your characters can be tackled by the group and each character can still feel realistic.
  • The group dynamics add a very real and human element to the story and allow for back and forth dialogue and character development.
  • Because each character has their own motive and background it gives a lot of room for exploration and side plots. This can add a great deal of depth and interest for your story (or detract from the main plot and bore your reader to death if done poorly, but the same could be said of any writing really).
Disadvantages of the Ensemble Cast

For every advantage there is usually a disadvantage and the same is true of ensemble casts. Some of the disadvantages can include:

  • The writer beginning with a strong group dynamic and by mid-way through the plot have focused down to one or two characters leaving the rest just kind of drifting. If the reader connected with one of the characters that gets sidelined they may very well not want to finish the story.
  • The group dynamic may make no sense. If the reader can't visualise this group of individuals ever getting together for any reason, and can't accept that this group would work together, they aren't going to accept the story. Clumsy dialogue and chance encounters won't hold the story together if the characters just aren't connecting.
  • The writer's need to include enough background details about each character may begin to overwhelm (or bore) the reader. This particularly becomes problematic when the writer feels the need to reintroduce the character every time they enter a scene.
  • Trying to find some sort of meaningful role for each of the characters in the final conflict is sometimes troublesome and some writers go to great length to come up with distractions for their characters to deal with and it all becomes very messy.

I do feel I need to admit that I've never been a huge fan of the ensemble cast. I like a protagonist that I can latch onto as a reader. The closest I've come to enjoying ensembles are through David Eddings (and yes, he does have a character that is distinguished from the others in almost all of his stories - however, each of the ensemble cast are essential to the plot and are given full motivation and background so you could argue that it is an ensemble).

I'd love to know your opinion on the ensemble cast and if you've read a book that has used it well. Share your view point.

12 July, 2009

Character - Antagonist Part 2

So, the antagonist kind of spilled over two parts because I got caught up with villains and motivation in part 1 and never actually got around to the part about why we need antagonists in a story.

Why do we need antagonists?

In real life, we really don't need or want antagonists in our life. These people have a tendency to make life that little bit more frustrating and difficult than it needs to be. Ultimately we avoid these people or find ways to minimise our involvement with them. If writing were actually like real life our protagonist would find a way to avoid antagonistic characters fairly early on and then we would have one incredibly boring story.

This gives us our first answer as to why we need antagonists in our writing. Without conflict or tension there really isn't a lot to keep the reader interested. People don't want to read the book about the girl who goes to live with her aunt and they get along just fine and she goes to a new school where she makes friends and lives happily ever-after. They want to know about the tension between the characters and the set backs, which will hopefully be ultimately overcome but will be interesting in the meantime. By having antagonistic characters (whether they are villains or not) you can generate a lot more tension.

However, antagonists can serve other purposes as well.

Sometimes they allow you to offer up alternative suggestions or solutions to a problem that your protagonist would never consider. They allow the writer to explore the morality of an action from a point of view that might not be available if all of their characters are sugar and spice and all things nice. If a problem is completely blocking your protagonist, sometimes it takes an antagonistic character to find a way through.

They can help your protagonist to grow. By putting your protagonist through minor conflicts with the antagonist, you have the opportunity to help your protagonist grow and change. The antagonist acts as a catalyst for a development in the character that you have wanted to include but haven't really found a reason for them to grow in that direction.

As with villains, antagonists can be highly entertaining. These characters are generally not bound by the need to act in a likeable manner and can get away with saying and doing things that might not go down so well if your protagonist (or other heroic characters) did them.

They add human drama. This one isn't as important when the entire story is about interaction between characters, but if your ultimate complication is an asteroid colliding with the earth or some other natural disaster, you need antagonistic characters in order to create the human element. Imagine a story plot where scientists discover an asteroid coming toward the earth and they tell the government who tell the world and everybody listens gravely and nod their heads. No panic. No idiocy or looting. The governments then all join forces, organise a crack team of astronauts to fly up and blow the asteroid up. No arguments about costs or wanting more of this nations people involved or anything like that. Just, this is the team and off they go. The space ship goes up the astronauts land, they plant their bomb and they fly away. They all get along the entire time and the only dialogue are the congratulations they offer each other along the way. Not particularly entertaining.

I would love to know what role the antagonist plays in your writing and your views on great antagonists in writing.

10 July, 2009

Character - Antagonist - Part 1

When you first study writing and learn about protagonists and antagonists it is all quite simple. Protagonists are the heroes and antagonists are the villains. Those definitions work to a point. Yesterday I looked at protagonists and was given some good comments so I may revisit protagonists later and look at some of the variations, but today is about the antagonist.

Simply put the antagonist is one who is opposed to or striving against another in a contest. They are an opponent or adversary. In your basic story, if your protagonist is the hero, the antagonist will be the villain. The one who blocks their every move and seeks to makes their life as painful as possible. However, as the protagonist doesn't necessarily have to the good guy, the antagonist doesn't necessarily have to be evil or villainous. If your protagonist is an environmentalist who has chained themselves to a tree even there best friend who is trying to drag them away could be perceived as an antagonist in the story because they are opposed to the protagonists actions.

That said, I want to talk about villains because, let's face it, villains are always the most enjoyable characters (personally I think that is why we are seeing so many anti-hero types lately, people want to have the loose morality and freedom that a villain gives and still be the hero).

Being character driven in my writing means that I am really concerned with motivation. I don't like to read stories where the hero is a hero because it is the good thing to do. It makes more sense if they are trying to save their own life, the life of someone they love, or they are after glory or money or some kind of extrinsic motivational force. As it makes more logical sense, it also makes the character more believable. I apply the same logic to my villains. They have to have some sort of logical motivation and goal.

Hence, the 'I want to destroy the world' type villain doesn't work so well for me. Even when the writer adds a quasi revenge theme over the top of that. How is it gaining revenge to destroy everything including yourself? Unless they have established that their villain is clearly insane I really don't buy into it.

I think Joss Whedon got it right in the second season of Buffy when Angel was trying to suck the entire world into hell. Spike, who up until this point had been a villain, joins forces with Buffy to stop him. She asks, logically, why would he want to help her. Spike's answer is perfect. He tells her that thought he likes to talk bad - "I'm going to destroy the world" - in point of fact, he likes the world. Spike talks about television and cars and how there are people wandering around like portable snacks (he is a vampire) and he really doesn't want to see the Earth destroyed. So one has to wonder what Angel thought he was going to get out of the entire end of the world deal.

Motivation is incredibly important but fortunately it is easy enough to find.

Revenge is a fine form of motivation, and one that makes sense, as long as the actions are logical. People like to get something back. They like to hurt those who have hurt them, or even those who they perceive have hurt them. Sometimes they do this in petty ways and are minor annoyances within the story, other times they go all out and decide to ruin someone's life, kill them, destroy a particular thing which is dear to the person, so on and so on, and are the cause of the main conflict in the story.

Money is another easy form of motivation that is easy to justify. People do incredibly silly things in real life for money and that just makes it easier to explain why characters would do horrible things for money.

Love is a classic motivational force and can quite easily have catastrophic results, particularly if the love is not returned.

Power, keeping it or the search for more power, whether it be political, economical, mystical or so on, is a very powerful motivation for most villains.

Prejudice is one that comes up a lot. Whether it is racially, religiously, or nationally based, irrational prejudice (or even 'justified' prejudice) can create some very ugly moments and can definitely give your villain a reason for acting. (Note 'justified' prejudice means that the villain is justifying to themselves a reason for an irrational dislike of an individual or group of people.)

I'm certain you could come up with a hundred more examples of sensible motivation for villains, which is why it always puzzles me when no motivation is ever clearly explained. I would love to hear your views on motivation for villains and some examples of villains that have worked well (or not so well).

Next post I am going to look at the role the antagonist plays within the plot and some specific examples of antagonists. Below are some links to other blog posts that discuss characters.

Bringing your characters to life - Matt Hayward
Vile Villains - Eric
What do your characters want - Nathan Bransford

09 July, 2009

Character - The Protagonist

When we are young and are first encountering the idea of a protagonist we are frequently told that the protagonist is the 'hero' of the story. Fair enough as usually they are, but this is not always the case and can lead to a little confusion about what role the protagonist actually plays. Essentially the protagonist is any leading character - though traditionally there should only be one.

This leaves us with a few questions. What makes one character a leading character? How do you make your protagonist interesting? And, how important is a well developed protagonist to the story?

1. What makes one character a leading character?

Before I say anything on this, I would like to point out that every book is different and every story is different. There are always exceptions. That said, something I read when looking at how to write query letters stuck with me. I was told that if I couldn't explain what my book was about in 100 words, then I probably didn't know what the point of the story was. And they were right. Boil an entire novel down to 100 words and you get to what is actually important, what you want the reader to get out of the story.

We can transfer this same idea to characters. Yes, you have a wonderfully diverse cast of interesting characters, all do amazing and inventive things to keep your plot rolling along. Someone asks you who your main character is and you say... Um...

I may start to infringe on the answer to question three but most readers like to know who they are reading about. They like a single character to stand out that they can follow, or relate to, or get inside the head of, or experience things with, or whatever.

So, what makes one character a leading character? Some simple questions to help you narrow it down.

  • Which character do your readers learn the most about? (Incidentally, if you are giving them the entire background of every character, you may want to rethink.)
  • Which character could you absolutely not eliminate and still have a plot?
  • Which character is most central to your climax?
You could also ask which character undergoes some sort of change or revelation (though that works mostly in coming of age stories).

A few more points. The protagonist does not need to be the first character the reader encounters. They may not appear until midway through the story, though you are going to have some work getting the reader to care about them if you leave it that late to introduce them. The protagonist is not the narrator, though they can be. The protagonist does not have to solve the problem or overcome anything in order to be a protagonist, though, again, you risk annoying your reader. The protagonist can be the villain of the piece.

2. How do you make your protagonist interesting?

Again, this is going to vary wildly depending on who you want to read your story. The best advice I ever received about making my characters interesting was to ensure I knew who they were and what I wanted the reader to know about them. And while you might get away with sketchy outlines for some of your other characters, and be able to use standards and archetypes with minor variations, you can't do that for your protagonist.

As the writer, you need to know everything about them. Everything. As the reader, you only need to know the relevant and interesting information. As a writer, I may decide my character finished university and has a business degree. If they are currently involved in fighting off an alien invasion, that probably isn't relevant for my reader to know. Why do I need to know it? Because my character is going to talk very different, reference different material, react to situations differently and have a different set knowledge set to someone who left school and became a brick layer.

Knowing everything about your character helps you to create an individualised character that feels fresh and new, even if they are similar to existing protagonists.

3. How important is it to have a well developed protagonist?

There are a few people that would say a well developed protagonist is not that important. There are a few books where it actually isn't. It is the plot that drives it and the characters are simply there to add to the drama of the situation, but any character would do.

I don't write those kinds of books, and I don't read them very often. For me, stories are all about character. It is what makes one fantasy tale about a quest up the mountain interesting and engrossing, a story I will read and reread (Rowen of Rin), and can make another story, with the same essential plot tedious and dull (and I cannot recall the names of any o f these, though I have read many).

Readers will forgive a lot if the characters are interesting enough and if they have invested enough emotion in the characters to care whether or not they succeed, survive, change, resolve whatever.

The protagonist, being the leading character, has to work. It doesn't mater how amazing the support cast is if everytime you lead character shows up the reader rolls their eyes. They are going to finish the story, put it down, and never return to it.

Final Thoughts

I would love to hear your views on the protagonist and how you develop yours, or even who your favourite protagonist is. Please comment or email.

Below are a few links to some posts on characters that are relevant. If you have a blog post on protagonists and you would like it added to the list, please email me.

When characters behave out of character - Elizabeth Spann Craig
Crafting a good protagonist - Elizabeth Spann Craig
Sympathetic Vs Unsympathetic characters - Nathan Bradsford

08 July, 2009

Back from holidays

Very simple note to say I have returned and will be back into blogging from tomorrow (I would write an actual post now except I drove for nearly seven hours today and have since read about three hundred emails and am very much finished for today).

I did have some time to consider the direction of the blog while I was on holidays and I think what I was missing before - among other things - was some sort of cohesive order to the posts. In order to remedy this - slightly - I am going to start writing around a themes for a couple of posts in a row.

So, and I know you are all tensed with excitement - the first theme I am going to be writing on is... (this is where the imaginary drum roll goes)... CHARACTERS!

Now wasn't that worth the wait? (I know tone does not translate well on the internet, so this was me being sarcastic, a by-product of being tired).

Seriously though, it should be a good series of posts and I look forward to reading everybody's comments. Basic idea of the series, I'll begin by looking at protagonists, move to villains and then various other archetypes.

Finally, before I sign off and go to catch up on sleep, if you want to see a handful of pictures of my holiday to central Queensland, please visit my facebook profile (badge is down and to the right). I hope everybody has had a good week and a bit.