May the Best Man Win!?

The story I just wrote was interesting.  Usually, the characters behave themselves and do what they are supposed to do.  In this case, the protagonist’s sidekick kept hogging the limelight.  To a certain extent, he was meant to, but he…got carried away.  I got carried away with him.  I liked the character and he was fun to write, but he was overshadowing the protagonist to the point that I knew readers would question why the love interest didn’t go for the sidekick instead of the protagonist.

Fortunately, I recognized that fairly early in the story and was able to dampen his role and bump up the protagonist so that he “made sense” as the lead.  The sidekick didn’t disappear entirely, but he became less present on the page and the protagonist was able to step forward and take his rightful place.

It is easy to fall in love with a character so much that we get carried away in making use of them, but if it isn’t their story, it won’t work.  Be sure people are doing what they need to do in order for the story to make sense.  If they aren’t, then maybe you aren’t telling the right story.

If X is the hero, let him, even make him, be the hero.  It may mean rewriting a lot of what you already have written down, but it is the only way for the story to work.  And, if you discover a more interesting story surfaces among the characters, then make the entire story shape around that.  Trying to force disparate elements together (character vs. story) just never works.  It confuses the reader and doesn’t accomplish your purpose.

Whatever you write, let the best man (or woman, or child, or creature) win.

Who is Your Character?

I mostly write fan fiction, and therefore have read quite a bit of it.

In the Harry Potter universe, Draco Malfoy is well-known as Harry’s nemesis through most of his school years.  Only much later in the books does he really reveal any redeeming qualities at all.  The problem, though, is that he was represented in film by Tom Felton.  Many girls developed a crush on the actor, and so when they turned to writing fan fiction in the HP world, they wanted to include Draco and they wanted him to be “good”.  Now, I can deal with someone writing a storyline that drifts from what the author originally wrote, but if they are going to change the nature of the characters to any appreciable extent, they need to provide a valid reason for the change.  We have seen Draco be nothing but arrogant, snotty, rude and even downright mean, particularly toward Harry and his friends.  If you want me to believe that they are all now “best buds”, then you need to show me a compelling reason for that change.  Why did Draco turn away from all that bad behavior and become someone who could be friends with the Trio?  Or did the Trio have a compelling reason to give up being good and go join Draco in being bad?

Why does this matter?  It’s part of staying true to the character.  It isn’t a bad thing for a character to change over the course of time and events, but show that change happening, show what is causing it to happen.  Few people make a drastic personality change on a whim for no discernible reason.  J.K. Rowling understood that, and changes in Draco were incremental through the course of the book, so that toward the end, you understood a little of how and why he regained respectability.  These fan fiction authors don’t ‘get it’, and they make a complete turnaround in behavior happen in the blink of an eye for no reason at all.

What about your characters?  Do they stay true to how you wrote them?  Do they make logical changes over time, based on things that happen to or around them?  Spoiled and petulant teenage girls don’t become the Duchess of Cambridge without a lot of work happening in between the two.  Muscle-bound bullies don’t become champions of the weak without a compelling reason.  Gangbangers don’t suddenly beome priests without some defining event altering their perception.

When you write each character, you must first begin with knowing who they are.  Then as you go along, ask yourself how they would react in each new situation they face.  Yes, sometimes they can do something surprising – perhaps even to themselves – but there still should be a reason.  Maybe they rose to the occasion and finally stopped whining, complaining and avoiding doing what was right.  Maybe something happened earlier that affected them more than they realized or acknowledged, and not until this moment does it strike a chord in them.  An example would be the Black Panther in the Avengers: Civil War movie.  [spoilers]

His father is killed, sending him off on a vendetta to kill the person responsible.  For a long time, he is pursuing the wrong person (who has been framed for the crime).  Then when he finally comes face to face with the true culprit and sees how this man was so broken by his own loss of family that HE went on a revenge vendetta, he realizes that killing him won’t bring back Black Panther’s father or make him feel any better.  He sees himself in his enemy and changes his actions.  But we have seen him come to this point, and we aren’t particularly surprised by his choice.

So look at your characters closely.  Know them.  Know how they think and act and react.  Keep them true to that, no matter what.  And, if you want them to change, introduce catalysts for that change – some spark.  Would Black Widow be seen crying?  Would Steve Rogers disembowel someone just because he could and didn’t happen to like the person?  I’m sure you can think of many other characters in books or on tv and movies, and you know how you expect them to act based on the character you have been shown.  You know what you would find very odd about their behavior or language.  We see it all the time, whether voiced by others or ourselves.  A movie is made of a book we’ve read and loved.  Immediately a howl goes up:  That’s not who that person is!  That’s not how they would act!  You got them completely wrong!

Many Lord of the Rings book fan were outraged by Faramir’s treatment in the Peter Jackson’s movies.  In the books, he was completely honorable and never once came close to succumbing to the Ring’s power.  He gave the Hobbits aid and sent them on their way.  Instead, in the movie, we see him dragging them with him to Minas Tirith, with dreams of glory put in his thoughts by the Ring.  Only much later does he come to his senses (and not for an entirely clear reason) and let them go.  Suddenly it looks like mental illness runs rampant in the entire line of Stewards: father, older son and younger son, with each succumbing all or in part to Sauron’s evil.  Lost are the important differences in motivation and reason for their actions, and completely lost is Faramir’s utter integrity and strength of will that he didn’t succumb.

Peter Jackson’s problem was in changing the nature of someone’s character, a person known and beloved from the books.  Had his movie been an original story, that person acting in that way would not have elicited such a strong response.  But Lord of the Rings (book) fans knew who that character was, and it wasn’t the man they saw portrayed on the screen.  That disconnect affected their enjoyment of the movie.  That detail jarred the viewer out of the story.  And the last thing you want to do is lose your reader/viewer because you derailed them.

Know your characters.  Keep them true.

An Infestation of Weasel (Words)

And here I thought I was better than this!

I noticed in my most recent work that two ‘weasel words’ had snuck in (a word that steals its way into your writing repeatedly), and carefully combed through the story to ferret them out.  (Sorry, bad pun.)  Fan fiction posts online by chapter, so fortunately I am only 3 chapters in, since I just noticed 4 more weasel words that need ruthless culling.

Weasels are sneaky creatures.  In and of themselves, the word is good, and probably you even used it correctly.  The problem arises when you use it (or some variation of it) over and over and over.  This is another reason for reading your finished story straight through from beginning to end – you are more apt to see such things so they can be fixed.  Well, most of the time.

If you notice you’ve used the same word three times, it might be a good idea to do a search for it.  And not just the exact word (unless it is very specific).  In my case, I have been using words that have ‘variations’ – for example:  consider/consideration, express/expression, press/impress/impression.  You get the idea.  In those cases, I can either search each variation separately, or  search a portion of the word that will pick up most of the different forms (such as ‘consider’, ‘impress’ or even just ‘press’ to pick up many more).

Time to get the pest control in order.  Weed out those rascally weasels.  Don’t let them infest your stories.

Move!

Because they are visual mediums, tv and movies of necessity have ‘action’ taking place.  Would you enjoy a movie where two people simply sat or stood and talked excessively about the details of the story?  No, of course not.  You want to see it ‘acted out’.  People tend to do things while they are talking.  In the movie Field of Dreams the lead character, Ray, is talking with his wife, Annie, in their kitchen.  The scene would have been rather dull if they simply stood or sat holding the conversation, but instead, Ray is getting himself a glass of water, and Annie is getting things out of the refrigerator, preparing food and putting things in the oven as they talk.  The scene moves, and it feels completely natural because that is how people behave in ‘real life’.

Similarly, we need movement in our stories.  Don’t simply have two people talking at one another (at least not all the time).  Depending on the setting, maybe one of them is grooming a horse while the other hangs over the stall door, occasionally handing them grooming tools.  A woman could be knitting while she is talking with a friend.  In more modern settings, in a group of people sitting around, there is usually at least one of them playing with their cell phone or checking emails.  Have the characters move and ‘act naturally’ in whatever setting they exist.  That will bring them to life more, and help the reader envision the scene.  If they just talk, I can’t ‘see’ what they are doing or what is happening around them (others moving in the background or crossing the sidewalk in front of them).

Bring your story alive with movement.

Wow! A Milestone for My Writing

Last night I topped 100,000 words on the story I’m currently writing.  Usually I am more of a short form writer.  In fact, of all the fan fiction I’ve posted, only 4 stories have topped 50,000 words.

Not that it makes a great deal of difference for me, since I only publish in an online forum (though people do love a longer story to read).  For me, the word count is determined by whatever it takes to tell the story.  If it takes 6 words, then that’s it.  And if it takes 500,000, then I will do that.

But for those who read my stuff, they probably shouldn’t expect many longer forms from me.  It just isn’t my style, and I can say a lot in a few words.

A Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words

Why?  Because the wrong words can paint the wrong image.  The image itself, however, shows what ‘is’.  If I want to describe a dragon in a story, I need to choose the words that will lead the reader to see in their mind the same (or at least very similar) image that I see in mine.

If I could draw, I could sketch out what I see in my head, but for me that isn’t an option.  That is one of the benefits of the internet to writers today.  If Tolkien wanted a visual reference of a dragon, he had to go to a library and dig through endless books searching for whatever had been drawn and published.  Writers now can simply do a search for images and be handed a tremendous variety to choose from.  It can be far easier to describe a dragon in great detail if you aren’t simply trying mentally imagine those characteristics, but can actually see what you want.

That is not to say that you should take someone else’s picture and simply use the dragon you see in it.  Your dragon can be a composite of many dragon pictures.  Some dragons are given wings, others are not.  Some have a smooth snake-like skin while others have scales.  A picture can give you an idea of how light might strike a dragon’s scales and be reflected (or absorbed).  A picture can help you decide if you want small, vestigial wings that are essentially useless, or wings that spread so wide to each side that a half dozen houses would be covered by them.

Just as writers are encouraged to look around themselves for inspiration in people, situations, locations and so forth, they should also make use of the vast library that is the internet, brought to your doorstep to peruse at your leisure.  Maybe you have a vague idea of your dragon being green in color, but then after seeing numerous pictures, you are inspired to change that to a reddish color and do so for a specific reason.  Maybe you thought to make its skin smooth, but after seeing many dragons with scales you might decide you like that better.  Dragons can lose/shed scales.  Those scales might have properties that are beneficial or harmful in some way.  Suddenly you have a whole new aspect to your dragon that you didn’t have when he vaguely had smooth skin.

This is just one example, of course.  There could be many other applications.  If you’re feeling daring, you could set up Pinterest pages to use in collecting images for reference.  (Beware, though, as Pinterest can be addicting and cause you to lose vast amounts of time ‘playing’.)  Or you could download images to your computer, or paste them into a word-processing document.  And you may prefer to do a search whenever you want a visual reference, but not save that image after you have finished extracting the needed details from it.

We live in a very visual world – make that work for you in your writing.

I Want Proof!

In fan fiction, you often see new writers posting things they’ve written without anyone else looking at it.  And, often, they themselves have weak writing skills.  No money is lost by posting such things online, but you do lose readership if people can’t get past the first page for all the mistakes.

Proofreading (or copy editing) is all the more critical if you intend to publish something professionally.  If you send a mistake-riddled manuscript to a publisher, I very much suspect they won’t bother reading it to completion either.  Your story may be great, it may be the next bestseller, but the reader won’t be able to find the story for all the errors.

Part of the problem is that writers often write in a vacuum.  They write it, they edit it, they proof it and then they’re “done”.  It gets sent to a publisher or self-published online and they wait for the readers and money to flow in.  I can’t even count the number of times I’ve read Amazon reviews that remark on how poorly written stories are – structure, editing, spelling, grammar.  Usually the reviewer couldn’t bring themself to even finish the book.  And those are NOT the kinds of reviews you want.  They certainly won’t encourage new readers to give your book a chance.

So, what do you do to hopefully clean up most, if not all, of the mistakes?  Read it, read it again, and again and again.  Then have at least one other person (that you know has strong English language skills) to read it over also.  No matter how good we are, we will always miss some of our own mistakes.

One of the things I do when proofreading for a friend is to do the first reading ‘straight through’.  Why?  Because I want to see the big picture, and I want to check for continuity and story progression.  I usually prefer to read a print copy and so I might circle in red any errors I spot along the way, but I keep reading.  I don’t stop and give lengthy notes about the problem then and there.  That disrupts the flow.  This can also be done on a computer screen – I simply highlight something and move on.  When I’m done, I can note general, overall impressions of the story, and then I can go back and give specifics for cleaning up any issues I spotted.

I recently proofed a book for a friend who self-publishes.  There were instances of repetitious use of a phrase (without a specific reason to do so).  They weren’t close to one another so they weren’t readily seen unless you read straight through.  There were also a couple of places where she seemed to change her mind on a certain element of the story (a door being opened), but in three separate places, the action varies:  it is opening, it isn’t opening.  All of those needed to be reconciled with each other.

What about dropped plot points?  I wrote a story once and was cranking right along, but this story tied to other stories I had written.  I had failed to check the timeline.  So I have a story going that is totally ignoring a significant event (a wedding) that would be taking place when and where the new story is occurring.  Luckily, I noticed before I finished the story, but it meant going back and rewriting a lot of pages to work that detail in.  As it happens, I am very good at proofing my own stories (I once worked as a proofreader so I tend to see mistakes before I see the whole picture, but I don’t publish professionally).  That being the case, I rarely have anyone else read my stories before I post them.  That slip-up of omitting a plot point would have shown up in the “finished” product, and I’m very sure one of my astute readers would have called me on it.  Embarrassing, yes, but it would also mean pulling the story down for a rewrite – not ideal.

You’ve been staring at your story for a long time.  The ideas and words have been written and rewritten several times (presumably).  Maybe you’re really tired of looking at it and just want to be done.  If so, set it aside for a while (a week, a month or whatever suits you) and then read it from scratch and see how it strikes you.  And, if at all possible, get a trusted friend to read it and give you feedback.

Your work will be the better for those final efforts at tidying it up.

If You MUST Write About Horses (or Monarchies, For That Matter)

PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE learn the difference between ‘rein’ and ‘reign’!

I know, everyone has mistakes that really get under their skin, and this one is probably mine.  I can’t even count the number of stories I’ve read where riders pull on the ‘reigns’ of their horses, while Kings ‘rein’ over their people.  (I suppose it is something that those writers at least seem to realize neither one is spelled ‘rain’…)

If these words, or any others, give you problems, LOOK THEM UP.  Make lists of words you commonly misspell or confuse, and REFER to the list whenever you use those words.  I do that for further/farther and lay/lie.  You can do it too.  Don’t slap someone out of the story you are weaving by allowing junk mistakes to creep in.  You want the reader totally immersed in your tale, from beginning to end.

Spellcheck is nice, but using the wrong word though spelled correctly won’t cause it to alert you.  Grammar check probably won’t catch it either if you use the wrong word.  You are on your own for your word choice.

Details like that can make a difference.  Besides, you want to end my misery, don’t you?

Addendum:  If you want to see the parts of a horse labeled with their correct name, here is a place you can start:  https://www.merriam-webster.com/art/med/horse.htm

Or you can Google for more.

Creative Writing

I don’t know if they still do it, or even if anyone did it beyond one class I had when I was young (grade school?), but in that class, they had us envision “My Life as a Pencil” or some such thing and then write about it.

On the surface, it’s a rather silly notion, and maybe best aimed at children, but it isn’t without merit as a writing exercise.  Aren’t we all trying to gain a new perspective?  Present ideas in new ways?  See the world from another person(thing)’s point of view?  Starting with an inanimate object or an animal forces us to veer greatly from the common views.  Does a dog worry about politics and wars across the globe?  Does a pencil care anything about world hunger?  And if they don’t worry or care about those things, what DO they think about?  Okay, so maybe pencils don’t “think”, but if they could what would be their concerns?  “If I have to write one more sentence without being sharpened, I swear I’m just going to break!”

Perhaps if you practice writing about those kinds of things, it may spark new ideas about what your characters might say or do or think.  It may push you to take a closer look at the world they live in and how that might affect them.  I knew a girl once who told of her life before she came to America.  She had lived in a Communist country (I forget which one – at the time there were more of them than there are now).  Her reality was that you eagerly sought to be a better “junior Communist”, sort of like being a good Scout and advancing in the program, earning badges and recognition.  She had no reason to question the “rightness” of that because it was all around her and everyone believed similarly.

Many of the characteristics of an individual are born of the life they have led, the environment in which they have grown up, their experiences and what they have been taught.  One child grows up racist while another does not.  They learned that in “their world”.  Similarly your characters draw from the world around them.  Someone saying mean or cruel things might never have been taught anything else.  What would it take for them to change their thinking and behave differently?  Another person telling them “Stop that!  It isn’t nice.  You shouldn’t do that anymore.” isn’t likely to work.  “Oh, okay, sorry.  I’ll stop right now.”  Uh, no.  People aren’t like that.  Your characters aren’t like that.

By the same token, few people are identical in spite of similarities.  Even “identical” twins tend to have something that differentiates them, even if it is just their color preference or favorite food.  Not all black men are the same, not all professional women are the same, not all stock brokers are the same.  Having race or gender or occupation in common isn’t the sum total of who they are.  Those differences are what make life, and people, interesting.  If all of us were carbon copies, life would be very dull.  No surprises, nothing new, every single day just like the last.

So, what is your cat thinking about as he gazes out the window?  How does your house like the way you decorate it for Christmas?  Are the stars laughing at us for wishing on them?

Find out!