Obnoxious characters

Creating villains is much like creating protagonists. They are people with depth and a history. A villain follows discernible motives just like the hero does. Only at some point in their life, villains take an ethical shortcut to get ahead. They sell out and they use their skills selfishly despite the harm that it causes to others. Rather than repent of this, as a hero would do, the villain justifies cruel actions.  However, many novels have characters in between heroes and villains. They range anywhere from annoying to obnoxious, from irritating to infuriating, from reckless to dangerous. These characters are challenges that the main character has to face, but they are not villains.

Jane Eyre is such a novel in which I could not pinpoint who the villain was. The unfortunate orphan Jane is treated poorly by her aunt and cousins as a child. But, rather than defeating the family that behaves so badly. She goes away to a boarding school, which is a worse situation. The director doesn’t provide adequately for students, so they get sick and start dying, including Jane’s best friend. However, this tragedy is not followed by any seeking of vengeance. The director stays in charge of the boarding school, but now he is under scrutiny and conditions improve.

Then, there is Mr. Rochester, who deceives everyone. This womanizer keeps his insane wife stashed away in his attic. In fact Jean Rhys wrote a celebrated prequel novel chronicling  the marriage and the painful spousal relationship that caused Bertha Antoinetta Rochester to breakdown called The Wide Sargasso Sea. However, in the novel entitled Jane Eyre, this unprincipled Mr. Rochester is the leading man.

It seems like everyone that had hurt Jane gets a second chance—her cruel aunt and her cousins, the unprincipled director of Lowood School and especially Mr. Rochester (but not his unfortunate first wife). However, this man that loves Jane, but he does end up suffering a lot and acknowledging his crimes before the happy ending.

Jane Eyre doesn’t have to face villains as much as characters that cause her problems. However, they are not static characters either. There is a balancing act between showing their annoying actions and their actual intentions. I have examined how to create this kind of ambiguous character, basing some of them on real people that have thrown roadblocks in my life. That makes it seem authentic when my protagonist is hurt by their behavior. These are the kind of people that I study and wonder if they are causing so many problems because of lack of intelligence or viciousness. Actually, what they lack is being held accountable for their actions. When their behavior comes back to bite them, they learn not to be controlling, greedy or deceitful.

The key to this trouble-making character’s arc is how much they have to suffer.

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Writing by numbers

Shoving creativity into neat little boxes of specific sizes is difficult. Still, I tend to quantify my writing. It provides the sense that I am actually accomplishing something and adds to the vague hope that someday the rest of the world will get to see the accomplishments that have consumed my hours.

How much can I write in a day? During writing sprints with friends, I produce anywhere from 100 to a smidgen over 300 words in 60 minutes. That makes participating in NaNoWriMo (National November Writing Month) impractical for me. At my slowest speed I would spend over 16 hours a day writing, and at my fastest, about 5 ½ hours. That amount of time might not kill me if I didn’t have 40 hours of work every week. I plan to keep my paying job. I like eating food and living somewhere other than a homeless shelter.

I have discovered that attempts to keep up my average pace of writing for eight hours on a weekend day also flounders. After years of deducing a reasonable amount of time to spend writing another problem raises its head like a pesky snake. How long can I sit still and write before I start producing drivel? I’ve set a more practical goal of one thousand words a week, or fifty thousand in a year. I do know math—I plan to take two weeks of vacation from my work in progress every year. However, I have yet to keep that promise to myself of only taking off those two weeks.

Despite the fact that I outline anything longer than poetry I run into a limit for the number of words based on coming up with new ideas and new ways to express old ideas. Over the years I’ve learned to spend time living through the story in my head. I get my physical exercise by strolling down the block while reciting conversations between my characters. I suppose my neighbors think I am a bit crazy (or maybe they just assume I’m wearing a Bluetooth headset). If I don’t allow characters the luxury of time to live they start repeating what they said yesterday. The fictional problems that crop up in their lives never do get solved.

Even when I allow characters time to unfold in my mind, roadblocks still pop up. I have never cried “writer’s block” in despair. Instead I pull out another story from my file of ideas. When I had young children, all I had time to create was sketches of stories. That brings up the next question in my tangled tale. How many different books can I work on at one time? I struggle to keep that number under five. The newest one always promises to be the best until the day I get stuck and shove it aside for an undetermined amount of time.

However, the most difficult part of mapping out writing by the numbers is the task I find when I’ve finished a piece. I discover after completing what I had to say that it required too many words, too many details, and too much that the reader could simply not care less about. How many words can I edit out of a 100,000 word manuscript in an hour? I don’t have statistics on that, but I am sure it is a lot less than I can write.

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Serial Worries

When Orson Scott Card wrote Ender’s Game it was a novelette complete in itself. First, he expanded it into a novel, introducing new characters. Then, he started a series based on the characters in this science fiction Hugo Award winner. The next in the series, Speaker for the Dead takes place in the future, 3000 years later. Ender’s Shadow, a parallel novel, retells Ender’s story from the viewpoint of his very different friend, Bean. The Shadow series continued with the story of Bean’s children. There are now sixteen novels to tell the saga of Ender, his siblings and his friends. 

Series do not have to be started with the intention of creating one. A complete first novel, which would seem to be a stand-alone work, can be expanded. There are numerous ways to continue a series. Minor details of plots are often not completely wrapped up in the first book and can serve as a basis for the next.  The books that follow can explore the life and times of lesser characters as these move into the limelight of being the protagonist. In addition, the author can move back in time to prior adventures of the origin story, or forward to show character’s influence on the future of their “world.” 

It is not easy to create a fresh new story. Books in the series should grow the sphere of the original characters. So, you may want to secretly come up with a series of problems that make up one overarching challenge for the main character in case he or she becomes unexpectedly popular. This challenge that the protagonist faces must be difficult enough that it takes a few books to reach the solution. However, the key is creating enough new characters with a life and set of problems of their own in each new novel in the series.

During a lull at a holiday party for writers, three of us discussed our works in progress. One had finished the first book. He announced was planning a long series–over ninety more books. My gasp was obvious. I would be terrified of letting the world know that was my scheme. I have completed only a few books with no intention of creating sequels. When my labor is done, and my fiction is finished, I am usually finished with the main character. This is not due to boredom or lack of ideas for a sequel. Rather, I sense that I cannot write another book that will do them justice. 

I am tentative about announcing a series because I recall the thrill of reading Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson when I was much younger. In this historical fiction a teenager escape imprisonment on a ship and flees through the wild highlands of Scotland with the assistance of an actual historical accused murdered, Alan Breck Stewart. Stevenson wrote a sequel to this book named after the main character, David Balfour. The beginning section, in which David encounters Stewart again piqued my interest. (It was even included in the movie). However, the rest of this novel was pale in comparison to the first book. This is a fate I do not want for my characters.

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Want a good tip?

Have you ever chatted with a person and mentioned publishing some work only to be barraged with requests for writing tips? Although we would long to be full of wisdom, providing that kind of information is not easy. Sometimes it seems easier to provide investment tips during an unstable stock market.

If you want to help people improve their writing skills, you actually have to read their work. Their enthusiastic description of the characters and explanation of the plot will not really help you to determine what they need to do. Unless the character and plot are all still in the person’s head, in which case the best tip to improve writing is to actually write. 

When I write about a threat to my family, my writing shines. So, I might say “Reveal your greatest fears to be a good writer.”  However, I doubt that is true of everyone. The road to writing excellence depends on the kind of writing a person wants to do, their innate ability, their past experience with writing, and their personality. For some people listening to the advice of professional writers is a good tip. If a prospective writer wants to produce new works that subvert rules and alter expectations, “how to” books on writing may be crushing.

If you want to write complex characters and interesting plots–no books exist that must be read, and no books exist that are guaranteed to teach these skills. I recommend reading books with these kinds of characters and plots and then examining the techniques the authors used. I find that reading great novels is more helpful to me than “how to write” tutorials.  However, some writers become overwhelmed with this kind of analysis and want the steps broken down so they are more accessible. 

The most superior avenue to become a good writer is to write and do this almost daily. The second avenue is to receive feedback on writing from knowledgeable people. A writer needs to find other writers, amateurs and professionals, to critique their work. They should not expect much praise at first. After doing a stint in a critique group, they can start entering into competitions that provide feedback. But, most of the judges in these contests will not be the same kind of people as those seeking new writers to publish. Those people are already busy dealing with agents or the backlog of selected manuscripts from slush piles.

The only tip that I see that works for almost all writers is to be disciplined enough to spend many hours writing and critical enough of their own work to review and revise it until it is ready for the rest of the world to see. However, don’t keep revising work until it is perfect. Then, the rest of the world will never have a chance to see it.

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A new definition of literacy

A child of mine made a joking statement that if we wanted to raise the level of writing we needed to lower the number of people who are literate. The supposed logic behind this suspect claim is that the books from the past, when literacy was lower, are held in higher esteem as classics. Therefore, if fewer people read as in the past centuries, they would be educated and more discriminating readers who would demand better books.

 Visits to the library funding raising book sales may provide a bit more insight into this strange assertion that my child made. At these huge sales books are reduced to a dollar, then  to fifty cents apiece, and finally to five dollars for an entire bag at the end. The typical fare is often a series written around a sixth grade level with happy endings (or at least a destruction of the great villain). They often contain unrealistic plot twists and constant excitement to keep adrenaline flowing. Even if the protagonist has an arc in the initial novel of the series, they remain much the same kind of predictable character throughout the remainder. Some readers enjoy this kind of predictability. But, after people have read their fill they are simply not checking them out any longer, so the library sells them very cheaply.

 I rummage through these sales, searching for a dollar copy of a treasured classic, but rarely find them. There are some reasons for this. One definition of a classic is a book that deals with universal human themes. Therefore, it remains relevant over time. The quick easy quasi-exciting books of the past were sold for pennies (in fact, they were called penny dreadfuls). Then, they disappeared into dusty old junk stores and mostly disappeared from the memory of the reading public.

 The most formulaic genres, such as murder mysteries, suspense, horror and romance, are the ones that people read in larger quantities. Authors can still write literary works that might resemble some of the themes in these genres. But, the publishers assume the public wants simplistic formulaic novels made exciting by explicit descriptions rather than depth of thought. It is much easier for authors to crank out more books to sell if they are producing  something easier to read than the literary level.

Sometimes there is a dichotomy set up between genre fiction and literary fiction. Genre fiction is an easier to read, entertaining, action-driven type of writing. When consuming literary fiction, the reader has to take part in interpreting the novel and be patient with the slower pace of a character-driven story. However, the difference is not a clear cut one. It’s probably more accurate to think of these types of writing as two ends of a spectrum, which can blend together.

However, it does make sense that the quality of writing expected depends on the general public’s level of literacy. This does not mean the number of people that are literate, but the comprehension and analysis level of the people who do read. Maybe that joking statement is not such a joke after all.

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A more likeable villain than hero?

One of the more popular trends in entertainment for young adults are superhero movies. The audience for these films is often people who are no longer young adults. In fact, some have not been in that category for decades. They go to watch the super good guy defeat the super bad guy for pure entertainment (as opposed to the dark and disturbing entertainment often aimed at adults). 

These formulaic films often suffer from having more interesting villains than heroes. For example, Clark Kent in the 1980’s Superman movies was fearless except in matters concerning Lois Lane. But that seemed like an unnecessary worry. She never failed to be impressed by his ability to fly through the clouds and take bullets for her without getting injured. However, many members of the audience preferred the antics of Lex Luthor, a man not as handsome as Superman. His intelligence and penchant for scheming often failed him. But, he was more a complex and more relatable character.

The next generation showed the same kind of preferences in the competition between Thor and his adopted brother. Loki originated from another place and another race and could not fit in. Thor had the greater strength, and a greater tendency to behave like a spoiled brat. However, when Thor matured, he became less interesting, while Loki still intrigued audiences. It seems hard to design superheroes without making them boringly perfect.

The mark of an excellent writer is being able to produce villains who see themselves as right, and yet the audience sees through this façade, realizing their evil intentions. Sometimes this is accomplished by having the villain be insane. But, these authors often misunderstand mental illness. The relatable villain is more likely to be a normal person who has decided on a course of action that is cruel to others for an ultimate cause that he rationalizes as good. It helps to avoid creating a totally vicious villain. If the author expects a reader to be engrossed by impending danger and wondering who will survive, both sides need some redeeming qualities.

In real life, people are frequently eager to point out their own faults when they see them in others. They view their own determination as persistence while the other person’s similar attitude is just plain stubbornness. In well written fiction, the reader can also detect the similarity between a person’s accusation against others and their own actions. A wise person once pointed out that real people, who refuse to acknowledge their own shortcomings often, become the cruelest towards people with these same faults. This wisdom can be used in real life, but can also help when creating an engrossing hero and villain.

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The fantasy fad

When I attended a seminar for writers of young adult (YA) books, the speakers were all writing fantasy works. Nobody seemed to be creating realistic young adult novels. There should be room for mine, right? Maybe not.

When I coached teams of graded school-aged children for Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination, I learned about imagination in the psyche of the preadolescent child. Some children wanted to be conformists and preferred not to suggest ideas that were not familiar. It was more important that their idea was acceptable to the majority of their peers. Other children would come up with “crazy” ideas. They would have to sort through all the bizarre, unworkable variations to find some that would work. 

Writing with a dose of fantasy and science fiction woven into a familiar plot is closer to the tastes of the first group. It fits into their view of what a story should be. Students who are very conscious of what their peers think, prefer what their peers prefer. In movies this is currently superheroes, and in books this is fantasy, tales of the wizard or magical creature. They have a feel of familiarity, the echo of  frequently repeated fairy tales. The villain is not even human most of the time. So, there is no need to fear that this story will reflect some tragedy that may occur to them in real life.

The magic school setting is an example of a YA fantasy theme that keeps appearing. It does not require a terribly sophisticated audience and uses the real world situation of a group of students that attend a boarding school together (at least the real world situation for upper class youth). Insert a bit of magic into this real world setting and voila, the author has eliminated the need for most of the boring world building. The storytelling can begin almost instantly. If the plot begins to drag, just inject a new magical peril, like a troll or a dragon from a fairytale.

This kind of writing still takes some creativity, but it is kept in check because young readers may shy away from excessive creativity. That may be why fantasy is often looked down on by adults as something below them when it comes to choosing novels. Perhaps it is time for both YA and fantasy authors to come up with “crazy” ideas, and struggle to sort through all the bizarre, unworkable variations until they find some that will work.

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What were you thinking?

The precise rules for dealing with thoughts are not recorded in standard grammar and usage books. There are opinions on how to do this based on current trends, which may become dated in a few years. One of these is to use italics without quotes to distinguish internal thoughts. If the writing is from the third person point of view, there should be no need to use “he thought” or “she thought.”  For example: 

Frowning, his mother motioned for him to come. So, Garth trotted up the tenement stairs. She just wants me to stop talking to those guys because they’re not “our people.”

In this case, there is no need to insert “he thought” before the italicized words as this phrase is obviously going through Garth’s mind. The quotes are not spoken but used to emphasize words his mother would have said.  But, I could have easily written “So, Garth trotted up the tenement stairs thinking…” It would not have made any difference. It is something that I normally do not do. But, I’ve had beta readers ask, “Who is saying this?” when I didn’t.

There are different ways to deal with protagonist’s thoughts written in first person. One is to not differentiate thoughts from the rest of the text. This view is defended by the view that the entire story comes from the thoughts of the narrator. The difficulty is that not all conversations are vocalized. What if a voice speaks inaudibly to the main character? The text should indicate the distinctiveness of this kind of thought. Usually, italics without quotes are used for the actual words.

I slipped into the worn red rock crevice to check out the size of the cave. Do not go any farther. I twisted around with an involuntary shiver at the words.

What if a protagonist thinks in words but does not actually utter them during a conversation? This thought may be in the present tense while the story is related in the past tense. Again, I use italics to distinguish this thought. 

“Hello Patricia!” I called from the open door, but she turned her head and said nothing. Okay, don’t talk to me if you don’t want to.

What if the protagonist recalls words that other people said while he is thinking? The memorable phrase was spoken aloud in the past. But, at this point in the story, the point-of-view character is remembering them. I use italics and quotes to separate these words, just as I used for the words that Garth would remember in the first example.  

In places other than the United States, single quotes may be used for thoughts. Within the U.S., they are used for emphasis within a spoken conversation, or when a character quotes someone else when speaking. Some authors use italics for emphasis when speaking when they should be reserved for use of foreign words in conversation. However, there is no requirement to put foreign words in italics. This way of distinguishing foreign words does not work well if you use a lot of them. Your major concern is to be consistent in the way you use italics and quotes. 

Finally, do not be afraid to let the readers know whose head they are in. The reader should not have to struggle to tell who is thinking and who is speaking aloud.

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Language fashion trends

Speaking a language is a skill that we continue to do all our lives. If a child hears the language spoken properly, they will learn to speak it correctly without thinking about it. At least they will be speaking it correctly according to those that decide what is proper speech. 

How we speak has been determined by history, especially the history of empires. When the Anglo-Saxons came to the British Isles their brand of English was considered the right language and the Celtic language of the Britons was considered the language of the less educated. When the Norman Conquest occurred, old French became the correct way to speak and write, while the Anglo-Saxon version of English, which had changed quite a bit since they arrived, became a  lower class language. However, when the Norman nobility fell out of favor people stopped speaking old French even though a lot of this vocabulary remained in the English language, and we even use it today.

One of the artifacts of these changes is the number of irregular conjugations in English. For example, the past tense of verbs are formed in numerous different ways without much logic. “I see” becomes “I saw” and “I sing” becomes “I sang.” Some people have failed to learn standard verb tenses because they heard English spoken incorrectly and therefore, they say, “I seen” and “I been.” You notice those last two verbs should rhyme but don’t. French people who learn English struggle with our inconsistent pronunciations. Theirs are much more consistent based on how words are spelled. But, the French did not get a huge influx of English vocabulary into their language, at least until recently.

How we learn to speak cannot be separated from the way that we write. Authors often compose their sentences similar to the manner that people speak. But, language is always changing. People now may think that ordinary ways of speaking from as little as fifty years ago is pretentious. The difference is even greater for language used more than a century ago. Each author needs to develop their own style, while still using enough current language for their writing to be intelligible to readers. 

When I write dialog, my characters do not speak the same. Some don’t use proper English and say “I seen.”  One character frequently used filler language such as “actually” or “on the other hand” to create emphasis. An editor marked these out as unnecessary phrases, but I protested. If all people in fiction spoke the same way as prescribed by some famous writer, dialog would be boring.

Unfortunately, we pay too much attention to the advice of a few best-selling authors. I find some current writers using phrases that are not sentences, or including slang understood only by a small percentage of the population. Someone from one hundred years ago would consider that poor writing. So, we should not judge the writing style of past authors so harshly. Like the switch in Britain centuries ago from Anglo-Saxon to Old French which was reversed later, the preferred style of writing may swing back to what it used to be.

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The need for criticism

W. Somerset Maugham said, “People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise.” These were the words of his character, an artist in the novel Of Human Bondage, so it may not be Maugham’s real view. Or, was it? Honestly, we don’t know, but enough other authors have repeated a similar idea to make me wonder about it.

As a teenager and young adult studying art and creative writing, I grew up with the idea that a critique was useful to provide other’s opinions about my work so that I could improve it. I found some of the comments made during class critique sessions pretty useless. But, feedback was necessary, so I listened to both that which was helpful and that which should be ignored. I noted some people did not make any response to negative criticism because they believed that was not allowed.

When reviewing others’ writing, if I point out what works first, and then what doesn’t work and why, this should increase the number of people that will receive criticism without defensiveness, but it does not do it by much. Over time I have concluded that many people make decisions based on feelings. Using logic to deliver the good and bad news doesn’t make it any easier for them to receive, and I have yet to figure out an emotional way to provide feedback.

For me it was hard to understand why a certain percentage of people tended to reject all criticism until I realized that this was a developed attitude. These people had put in their time and had survived the onslaught of those above them. In their hierarchical view they had risen to above criticism. Anything other than praise was no longer acceptable (unless it was offered by someone far more famous than they were). However, I moved around frequently and was not always aware when I encountered a person who had risen to that status.

The cost of this is unavoidable payback. But that kind of criticism is not all bad. For creative people it results in a desire to be even better. While interviewing college art and education majors about factors leading to creativity for my own research, both groups placed willingness to take risks high on their lists. The art majors said being around creative people was the most important factor. The education majors gave high self-esteem first place, but this did not match the results of students in creative fields. Self-esteem wasn’t even mentioned by the art majors. They preferred honest critiques of their work. Evidently, building self-esteem does not build creative thinking. Those people who have reached the point of only receiving praise may no longer be interested in improving.

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