Sunday, 31 January 2016

5 Things I've Learned About Characters

Characters. Where would a story be without them? They're the meat and veg in your stew, the cards and presents on your birthday, the software on your computer. Put simply, a story triumphs or faceplants on the quality of the characters acting it out, so it pays to get them right. In my years as a writer I've written characters for short stories, stage plays, musicals and now for novels, and if there's anything I've learned it's that, however different they may be, there are a lot of principles about writing them that stay the same across the board. This is my attempt to smoosh some key things I've learned all over one virtual page.

Let's do this.

1 - Characters come in three flavours.

Okay there are certainly more once you get into sub-types and stuff, but for the moment we're trying to keep things simple. 

The first, and most obvious, are the Main Characters. These are the folks who drive the plot; whenever they perform an action the plot is moved forward in some way as a result of what they do (or, in some cases, don't do.) The ideal amount is generally between 2 and 5 - that's not to say you can't have more or less than that, but if you do you're making your job a lot harder. Main Characters most obviously include the protagonist, the antagonist and the POV character, but can also include love interests, sidekicks, mentors and shadows.

Next we have the Minor Characters. These are just as important to the plot as Main Characters and can even have their own agenda within the plot, but their role is merely to assist (or hinder) Main Characters in moving the plot forward - they don't have any direct effect on plot events themselves. Gollum in Lord of the Rings is an example of a minor character, because even though he constantly schemes to get the One Ring back (which could otherwise paint him as the Antagonist to Frodo, a Main Character) he's doing it for his own reasons and not as part of the overall plot of defeating Sauron and ridding Middle-Earth of his evil influence. For Minor Characters, between 5 and 10 is usually the most manageable amount. Having more than 10 is... not impossible, but certainly harder to micro-manage, and having less than 5 is fine - as long as it doesn't leave you with more Main Characters than Minor ones. If that's the case it's highly likely some of those Mains aren't really Mains after all, and need demoting for the good of the plot.

And finally we have the Extras, otherwise known as walk-ons or, in Star Trek parlance, Redshirts. These guys are mostly used for the practical stuff of filling space and performing background grunt work while the Main and Minor characters get on with plot stuff. Crowds are extras, along with retail and service staff in places your characters visit, police and emergency service crews and any other random strangers that pop up for one scene and then vanish, never to be seen again. There's no limit to how many of these you can have, so long as you recognise the expendability of their role. Which brings me neatly on to:

2 - The Extras are supposed to be nobodies.

You can make them quirky, you can give them a personality - but don't make them interesting, and definitely don't make them more interesting than a Main or Minor Character. Lots of us do it; make a walk-on we kind of fall a little bit in love with, so that when he finally gets his big moment we give him a killer line of dialogue, or have him do something super-quirky and memorable, because we want our readers to love him as much as we do. And that's the problem. Succeed and what you have is a frustrated reader, getting distracted from the real story and the real characters because they're too busy wondering what happened to that cool walk-on that showed up for five seconds and then disappeared into the ether. 

So curb the love and treat 'em mean. Don't even give them names in most cases; there's no reason for a janitor to become Fred the Janitor if all he'll be doing is scrubbing toilets in the background while the other characters do the cool stuff. Extras should be little more than walking and (occasionally) talking meat-props. That's why in movies and tv shows they only appear in the end credits rather than the opening ones. Showbiz. It's brutal.

3 - Serve up your characters like you'd serve up a good meal.

As in one course at a time, not the entire three courses dumped on one massive plate. In other words, don't introduce too many new characters at once in a single scene. Imagine you're at a party. You know the host, but you don't know any of the other guests invited, so he offers to introduce you to them. "Here they all are," he says, rounding them up into one giant herd. "This is Jim and his wife Sally, and this is Mark, Jim's boss, and that's Mark's flatmate June, and this is Frank who works with Sally and that's his wife Shelley, who's actually Mark's sister-in-law..."

How much of that did you actually take in? Next to nothing, probably. That's because it's too much information too fast - and, crucially, too early. You don't know any of these people yet, so you have no reason to care about them one way or the other. The host would have done better to let you meet Jim and Sally first, allowing you to speak with them for a while, then bringing in Mark and June a little later, and then waiting for a while after that until Frank and Shelley came over to talk to Sally and then introducing them...

The reader doesn't need to know who everyone is right off the starting blocks, so the best time to introduce any new character is at the first point they do something important in the plot. That usually limits things to, ideally, no more than three per scene. Extras don't count toward that quota, and you can also get away with including characters the reader has already met - but go easy on the number of 'active' characters you have in any one scene at a time. Because then you'll need to...

4 - Beware of Character Jump-Scare Syndrome.

This commonly happens in novels and short stories, when dialogue occurs between two characters while there are other characters in the scene as well (who aren't extras, because again, extras don't count.) These non-participating characters might be avid spectators of the exchange between the two speaking characters, or they might be ignoring them and doing their own thing in the background. Either way, the longer the focus stays on the dialogue between the two speaking characters, the more the non-speakers disappear into the wallpaper as far as the reader is concerned (since they're only 'seeing' what's being described on the page.) This means that when they finally do pipe up and make their presence known again, the effect is similar to them suddenly popping up out of the floorboards like Fenella from Chorlton and the Wheelies - "Whoa! Where did he come from? Was he still there all this time then?" 

There are some little touches you can employ to lessen this effect. One is to have the non-participators join in a bit - even if it's just the odd line here and there to agree or disagree with something one of the speakers has just said. Another is to have the POV character observe and comment on the non-speaking characters' reactions to whatever has just been said (and if that POV character is also one of the speakers, that might in turn influence the way she responds to what's been said.) Alternatively if the non-speaking characters are ignoring the speakers and doing their own thing, the POV character could equally comment on that (might she be annoyed they're not interested when they should be - or alternatively worried that they might hear something she thinks they shouldn't?)

But if none of the above tactics work, or they just aren't plausible for the situation... why are these non-participators there at all then? Their input clearly isn't needed, so get 'em offstage. As a boss, you wouldn't pay an employee to just hang around in the background doing nothing, and there's no reason to let your characters to get away with that either. If they've got nothing to do, find some excuse for them to leave or even don't put them there in the first place. Make them work for their moments in the spotlight. Speaking of which...

5 - Some characters are just third wheels.

Why have just one jokey sidekick when you can have a wisecrackin' double-act for compadres? One jobsworthy minion when you can have a jobsworthy minion and his jobsworthy boss? More character goodness just multiplies the fun, doesn't it?, actually. The only thing that gets multiplied is the wage bill - and as the boss of your story you already know that's not good business sense. There's no point in having two characters on the same side of the battle perform exactly the same function, because no matter how interesting they are to write, they're not interesting to read. It's like being made to eat two Full English Breakfasts when you've only got room for one. It typically happens in the form of comedy/villainous duos and loyal companions - either on the hero's or villain's team - and while they might help to beef up the buddy tally, if they're not bringing anything useful to the plot they're dead weight.

Fortunately there's an easy way to spot those kinds of unnecessary duplicates. Take the dialogue attributed to both of the suspect characters and swap them around, so A is saying all of B's lines and vice versa. It should sound weird and like they're both acting completely out of character, saying and thinking things they would never normally say or think. If it doesn't... they've just secretly cloned themselves, and your story would be made stronger by eliminating one of them.

Another variation of this is the Soundbite Dispenser. They're easy to spot as well - most often minor characters, they hang out in the background until their moment comes to deliver a whip-smart, uber-wise or hil-ariously funny line, before slipping back into the shadows again until their next killer bit of dialogue. They're basically an extra with delusions of grandeur, who contributes absolutely nothing to the plot but somehow got awarded all the perks of being the resident smart-ass/wise person/comedy loser without actually putting in any of the hours. And yeah, I'll admit it here because I can - it hurts taking them out of your story. Been there, done it, worn the *sadface.* But if slicing them out doesn't change a single detail of any plot or sub-plots going on in your story... face it, he's wasted meat-space and he needs to go.

Like I already said, showbiz is brutal, baby. But on the bright side, at least you can divvy up his cool lines amongst the remaining cast members.


As a writer, your job is to be the most horrible boss in the world to your characters - and that's a hard thing to do when you also love them all to bits. No wonder we're all a little bit bonkers. But if the end result is a stronger story, your little pretend people will forgive you. So be hard, be ruthless and be cruel. Like the evil little story-maker you were born to be, bwa ha haaaa......

*vanishes in a puff of purple smoke. To cackle and eat chocolate.*

Saturday, 16 January 2016

Writing and Videogaming: A Marriage Made in Heaven or Hell?

We all know the media has something of a love-hate relationship with gaming and gamers - as in, they love how much they can get away with hating them. Whether that's on the PC, the PlayStation, XBox, Wii or any of the other game-playing doodahs, in the eyes of the chattering media classes gaming and gamers are responsible for all of society's problems and disasters.

Global Recession? That'll be all those bloody World of Warcraft players, buying their +5 Swords of Awesome with fake money in a fake world instead of their real money in a real world. Terrorism? That'll be the GTA players, racking up driving offences and bonking pseudo-human hookers in a fake Los Angeles. Polar ice-caps melting? Well.... that's probably gamers' fault as well, spending too long playing games and -  and overheating their plasma screens or something...

But the media aren't fools. They know they can't go ranting about a large section of society without presenting some sort of 'evidence' that what they're saying has some very specific scientific types nodding their heads and looking slightly perturbed. That's why they point to various 'studies' that have been done, suggesting that playing computer and console games will, in the long term, almost maybe lead to entire generations being incapable of communicating with other humans except in monosyllabic grunts, or bashing them in the face with a baseball bat and then running off with their wallet.

These 'studies' have been performed on children, so that tabloids like the Daily Mail in the UK can print articles with headlines like 'Computer Games Turn Children into Drooling Vegetables.' They've been done on adult males in the 16-25 age bracket, so those same tabloids can say things like 'Violent Computer Games Turn Sweet Innocent Young Men into Savage, Gun-Toting Criminals.' Whenever a violent crime takes place - particularly one where innocent people die - the first thing certain sections of the media leap on is the perpetrators' collection of video games. "Look, he played Call of Duty and Halo! That's how he learned to be a psychopath! "Ah, so the fact that he managed to get hold of an actual shotgun had nothing to do with it then...?

 (It always amazes me how many of the people that want violent videogames banned are the same people who will defend to the death their 'constitutional right' to keep a firearm in their house. You can't shoot real people with the guns in a videogame, guys... just sayin'...)

Yes, this type of nonsense does irk me because, as well as being a writer, I'm also a gamer. And so is my husband, my son and most of our friends. My son loves Minecraft, Dragon City and Plants vs. Zombies, and is doing very well at school in spite of The Studies' dire hypothesis that he should be semi-literate and have the attention span of a wasp. My husband plays Call of Duty and all the GTA series, and has managed to remain a mild-mannered Chartered Surveyor instead of morphing into Mr. T from The A-Team.

And me? Well, Gems of War is my main squeeze at the moment, but I like me a bit of  RPG-ing action as well, along with very occasional dips into online MMOs like The Elder Scrolls Online and DCUniverse Online (I am the very definition of 'casual gamer' in that sense; not so much 'love 'em and leave 'em' as 'likely to stand them up if they try and hold me to an actual, proper date.' I've heard of this concept that you can have 'maximum-level characters' in these games, but it's not something I'm ever likely to achieve.)

Buuuuuuut.... (you knew that was coming, didn't you?)

One of least productive time periods in my life for writing - heck, for pretty much anything, if I'm gonna be brutally honest here - was the four years I spent playing a certain game called World of Warcraft.

Looking back, I can see now that I was pretty cheesed off with my life. I was in a job I hated; a dull, dull office job where you could barely blow your nose without having to fill in a form, doing those menial hamster-jobs that never have an actual end to them but the world will still apparently fall down if they're not done, day after day until the end of time. I worked full-time Monday to Friday, while my husband's full-time job meant he had to work weekends - so we next to never had any free time together. We'd only recently moved to the area we were living in, and most of my work colleagues were a lot older than me and had families, so I spent most weekends on my own, catching up on chores and then... well, bumming around trying to find something to do until my husband came home. Now of course I wish I'd used that time to write - and sometimes I did, when the mood struck me. But most times it was easier to log on to World of Warcraft and lose myself in that for a few hours.

Because here's the thing; unlike real life, World of Warcraft - and indeed all other massively-multiplayer online games - reward you every step of the way for taking part. Sure, grinding to get those xp points can be dull as hell - but once you earned those points they're yours, and they are your guaranteed ticket to levelling up. And levelling up, in turn, is your guaranteed ticket to getting better gear, becoming faster, stronger and better and gaining access to a ton of other privileges not offered to the lower-level players. You put in the effort, you get the rewards; no debate, no procrastination. It's a fair, unprejudiced system for success.

Real life doesn't have a system like that. In real life, you can slog your arse off day after day for years, accumulating experience points by the trolley-load, and still never seem to level up. No wonder they're addictive for people who feel like they're treading water, just going through the motions of living. If I actually counted up the hours I spent pretending to be a cartoon hero in a make-believe computer world the total would probably horrify me. I could have spent them learning to become a better writer instead. But hindsight is like a plaster cast; only useful when you've already broken your leg.

I gave  up playing World of Warcraft when I finally quit that soul-sucking job. I haven't played it since, and haven't missed doing so. Didn't need it any more once the root cause of my misery was gone. And while I have discovered The Elder Scrolls and DCUniverse Online since, my writing is now my focus in life so I make sure that I do things in the right order; writing first, gaming when everything else is done. In fact, after a good session of writing the thought of playing an MMO feels more like a chore than a reward and I often don't bother.

I've seen certain writing and time management books that advocate shunning gaming completely, proclaiming it a deadly time-sink that will suck you in and lure you away from your writing or whatever projects are dear to you. Having experienced that siren call for myself, I get what they're saying but at the same time I believe they're thinking too simplistically. If you're reasonably okay with your life - and by that I mean you're not so drained of spirit that you go to bed most nights thinking about the next morning with a sinking heart - you can be a dedicated writer, artist or whatever and still play computer games in your leisure time. Even the most workaholic of writers need regular doses of non-writing fun.

If you are finding computer games addictive, I'd argue there are things missing from your real life that need fixing before you can even start to break any addiction to gaming, and working on those issues first will probably solve the gaming addiction as a natural by-product. If you have good intentions to write but somehow always end up gaming instead, change your schedule; be firm with yourself and make a plan to do x amount of writing before you're 'allowed' to play your game. And then stick to that plan.

But don't feel you have to give up gaming completely to have any hope of being a 'proper' writer, artist or whatever. Gaming is not evil like the media would have you believe, and it doesn't mean you're a hopeless loser who'll never amount to anything. Just ask Chuck Wendig, Rhianna Pratchett, Charlie Brooker, Jakub Szamalek, Dara o' Briain...

Friday, 1 January 2016

My Top 10 Writing Books in 2015

Since the New Year is upon us, I decided to take a look back at some of the books I've read over 2015 and loved -  specifically the ones about writing.

I thought it was going to be an easy choice. In fact, I thought maybe I might have to cut the list to seven, or even just five, because I don't read that many of those books... do I? Well, a quick look at my Amazon 'Your Orders' page for 2015 soon put that notion to bed. As it turned out, picking just ten from the stack I've read this year was the hard part. I've read loads of 'em - usually a chapter or two over breakfast, as a motivational bum-kick before starting a day's writing session. It's surprising how many you can get through in a year when you do it like that.

They haven't all been hits with me, of course. Some just left me feeling depressed and useless - not because they were inherently 'bad,' but because they just weren't suited to me or the way I naturally roll when it comes to writing. Which is why I wanted to give a massive shout-out to the ones that did rock my world, since I'm reasonably sure I'm not the only writer out there who loves to make characters that build plots for you, falls at the more organised end of the Pantser Scale and prefers to encourage other writers whatever their level of experience or skill. So let's dispense with the ado-ing and get started - in no particular order...

1 - Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott.)

This is one of those books that regularly appears on the lists of other authors' must-read books for authors, and I having finally read it myself I can see why. Her philosophy that life is writing and writing is life is similar to Nathalie Goldberg's, but without the heavy overtones of Zen Buddhism that permeate the latter's books (I'm a huge fan of Nathalie myself and don't find it hard to mentally distance her advice from her religious enthusiasm, but I know many others who are turned off by it.) Smart, funny and with a more earthy tone to the self-deprecating honesty, this book is full of practical advice and encouraging without sugar-coating. Yes, writing is bloody hard work and often for very little reward, but that's okay - and it needs to be okay if it's what you truly want to do.

2 - 5 Editors Tackle the 12 Fatal Flaws of Fiction Writing (C.s Lakin, Linda S. Clare, Christy Distler, Robin Patchen, Rachel Starr Thompson.)

If you have dreams of being published, no matter how good a writer you think you are you need this book. I challenge any writer of any level to read this and not find at least one of the chapters highlighting one of their own guilty weaknesses. The good news is, the examples of each flaw, the reasons why they are flaws and the fixes for them are all clearly explained, in depth and in a way that's easy to understand. I learned a lot from this book, and would recommend it as a go-to for when you hit the Draft-Two-and-beyond stage of any fiction project.

3 - The Story Book (The Story Series 1) (David Baboulene)

This is one of those books where, the further you read, the stronger you get the feeling of a light bulb switching on in your mind. To mangle a well-known LOTR quote: 'One does not simply walk into reading The Story Book.' David Baboulene is an author and scriptwriter, and he goes deep into the history, psychology and mechanics of storytelling, incorporating strategies used by the most successful screen and stage writers and showing how they are useful for the novelists' toobox too. And it's all written in an easy, conversational way that entertains rather than lectures - I had an absolute blast reading this book. This is much more than just a book of writing advice; it will change the way you look at stories when writing and reading them.

4 - Into The Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (John Yorke)

Another book that delves into the history and psychology of storytelling, but this time from the angle of the unifying themes that define the best stories. Many of us writers have heard about that thing called 'The Hero's Journey' and the variations on the premise that there are only [insert random number here] stories in existence and every story ever written is just a variation of one of them. John Yorke may start from those ideas, but his exploration of them is more compelling and offers much deeper insights - like The Story Book above, this will change the way you look at the magical process of storytelling. And the fact that he explores the theories of telling stories by telling it like a story makes it all the more fun to read.

5 - How to Be an Imperfectionist: The New Way to Self-Acceptance, Fearless Living, and Freedom from Perfectionism (Stephen Guise)

I know I know - that title just screams 'happy-clappy self-help let's all go hug a tree,' doesn't it? Don't let it put you off though - it's about as far from crystal-clutching and mantra-chanting as you can possibly get. Stephen Guise is a writer himself and the advice he gives, while applicable to any area of life, is particularly useful to other writers. If you're a procrastinator, a harsh self-editor, or you've ever beaten yourself up about your puny daily word count/lack of motivation/inability to focus, this book might just hold the cure. If you've read other books about letting go of perfectionism and found they did zero to help you I especially recommend this book, because his tips and suggestions really are different from anything offered before, showing ways to work with and 'trick' your inbuilt perfectionism into playing ball rather than striving to eliminate it from your psyche altogether. And best of all, he sounds like a friend who's been there and done it, rather than some therapist with psychology degrees and wind chimes hanging in his window.

6 - Voice: The Secret Power of Great Writing (James Scott Bell.)

I'll admit, if I see a book written by James Scott Bell I'm gonna be interested; I've read quite a few of his books in the past and he never lets me down. This is another cracker, tackling that elusive quality that's often lauded as the X-factor of great writing but rarely analysed and picked apart to find out what it actually is - until now. What I love about this book - and indeed all James' books - is that they fill you with a sense of "Yeah - I can do this!" as you're reading them, and this one delivers in spades. Thanks James, for making one of fiction writing's most mealy-mouthed must-have virtues into a set of goalposts we can actually see.

7 - Fire Up Your Fiction: An Editor's Guide To Writing Compelling Stories (Jodie Renner.)

Another great resource for when you hit the second-draft-and-beyond stage of a novel, laid out in a way that's easy to understand. Covers all the classic no-nos we all know and 'love' plus several that might not seem obvious until they're picked apart (which Jodie does in a clear and entertaining way.) I've read a couple of her other books too, and, like James Scott Bell, she's becoming another of those authors that I trust to deliver.

8 - Master Lists For Writers: Thesauruses, Plots, Character Traits, Names, and More (Bryn Donovan)

A last-minute entry to this list, since I only bought it yesterday, but as soon as I looked through it I knew it had to appear here - even if it meant ousting one of my original Top 10. This book is an awesome idea, finally - finally! - executed properly, in a way that makes it fit for the purpose it's designed for. I already own a few of these 'data-list' type books, where the principle behind them is that you can use them as a kind of Rosetta Stone for emotions, body language, gestures etc. For the most part they've been... not that useful, full of lazy repetitions and cross-references and notoriously badly laid-out so that you have to hunt through half the book just to find what you're after. This book gets it right, with well-defined categories and a wide variety of suggestions for each of them. It even covers areas many of the other list books don't, like suggestions for settings and popular historical time period references.

9 - Nine Day Novel-Authorphobia: Laugh at Your Fear of Writing: Suck Less for Author Success (Writing Fiction Basics Book 0) (Steve Windsor)

Normally, if a book has any kind of numerical target in its title ('Write a bestseller in 30 days!' 'How to earn a million dollars writing Kindle books!') I avoid it like the Ebola virus it all-too-often is. But I did the 'Look inside!' thing on Amazon with this one and it was immediately obvious this one was different from the usual snake-oil out there. Put simply, it's bloody hilarious, and, in spite of its audacious title, offers practical and down-to-earth advice about getting in the right mindset for writing a novel instead of actually trying to complete and publish one in the titular nine days. Rather than using soothing words and empowering mantras to help you over your fear that you suck at writing, Steve uses straight-up humour and self-deprecation to get you laughing at your insecurities instead. Read this book for the sheer fun of it; if it doesn't get you giggling you are officially dead inside.

10 - The Audacity to be a Writer: 50 Inspiring Articles on Writing that Could Change Your Life (The Best of Positive Writer)

This book is actually a collection of the most popular posts to the Positive Writers website, from various regular contributors. It packs a lot in, and is nicely laid out so that you can dip in and out, reading small chunks at a time without losing the overall thread. If you already know the Positive Writers website (I didn't but I've certainly bookmarked it after reading this book) you'll know what sort of thing to expect, and it's great to have all the best golden nuggets all gathered together in this little treasure chest. This is the book to pick up and dive into whenever you're swirling in the cesspit of writer insecurities.

So, what books would you recommend? If there's any you think I should add to my must-read list, please let me know in the comments (my Breakfast Reads need their fuel, don'tcha know...) And I hope 2016 is a marvellous year for you.

Happy writing!