Throwback Thursday: Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth

First published: 16/09/2019
SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

This review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.

Well last week it was all about children’s books; this week I’m reviewing a book that is definitely not suitable for children. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is a hefty tome about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England. It’s full of lovable and deplorable characters, political intrigue, technical details about medieval construction and just a little bit more sex and sexual violence than was necessary.

One of my favourite things about this story was how well paced it was. Given that this is a story about building a cathedral and is set over a period of several decades, and also bearing in mind that thrillers are Ken Follett’s usual racket, there was a very real danger of this story either being an absolute drag or being inappropriately fast-paced. I needn’t have worried. The blend of fast scenes and slow scenes is beautiful and appropriate, making this lengthy novel a constant page-turner from start to finish.

Now let’s talk characters. I honestly can’t decide if the characters in this story are one of its best qualities or one of its worst. In some ways I liked them. They’re all quite distinctive with clearly defined personality traits and its also pretty clear that each character is driven by firmly established motives and goals. Very good indeed. If we know what drives a character, it’s easy to care about what happens to him, even if the subject matter is foreign or uninteresting to us. This makes The Pillars of the Earth a real page-turner when it could have just as easily been a bore.

When I first began to talk about the idea for Pillars, some people hated the idea. “Nobody cares about building a church in the Middle Ages,” they said. But readers will care about it if the characters care.

Ken Follett, Goodreads Notes and Highlights on The Pillars of the Earth

Having said that, there was also something a little bit tedious about some of the characters (with the major exception of Philip and, to a lesser extent, Jack). The female protagonists are strong and beautiful (oh and Aliena has huge breasts, we’re constantly reminded); the male protagonists are brave and noble and the antagonists are devious and brutal. William Hamleigh, the primary antagonist, is the worst for this. He’s devious, cowardly, violent, greedy and licentious with absolutely no redeeming qualities. But just in case we’re in any doubt that he’s the bad guy, he rapes way more people than is necessary for one story. Seriously, this guy does a lot of raping, pretty much whenever he’s not tormenting the poor or burning villages. The good guys in this story never rape of course, but they do have lots of consensual sex to the point of implausibility. While most of the sex scenes are not explicitly described (though a few are), some of the characters are portrayed as being at it on a several-times-a-day-every-day basis and still find time to build a cathedral, overcome one disaster after another and fight the bad guys. I dunno, maybe they’re just really good at organising their time, but between this and the manifold references to the size of Aliena’s breasts, it sometimes just felt a bit like the authors’ mind was wandering. That’s just my opinion though.

In many respects, this is a story with several different layers to it. There are several protagonists whose stories we follow, each overlapping and interacting with one another while yet remaining distinctive. Tom wants nothing more than to build a cathedral but cares for his family. Jack is a boy who lived in the forest, now growing into a man who is consumed with questions about his deceased father. His very much a coming-of-age type story. Aliena is the daughter of a disgraced earl who has sworn to help her brother reclaim the earldom, and finds herself constantly pulled in all directions by her sense of duty to others. Prior Philip is driven by his zealous faith in God and his sense of righteousness. He tries earnestly to do what is right on earth and to glorify God by the building of the cathedral and yet is in constant conflict with his own sense of pride and self-doubt. These are just a selection of the main players in this story, all of whose individual story-lines overlap and diverge to create an intricate tapestry of skilfully executed fiction. It really is a thing of beauty.

All in all, The Pillars of the Earth is a great story. It’s got plenty of excitement, plenty of sentiment and Aliena has big breasts all of the characters are driven by goals and motives that we really care about. The many threads that comprise the plot are magnificently woven together to form a novel which is well constructed and handles potentially dry subject matter in a way which is enjoyable and entertaining. Worth a look, even if it’s not your usual preferred genre. Just don’t read it to your kids.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Spotlight: Grinders by C.S. Boyack

Jimi Cabot made one mistake as a starving college student. When she went to work for the San Francisco Police Department, it nearly cost her the job. The union stepped in and they had to reinstate her. They did so by assigning her to the duty nobody wants, Grinder Squad.
Grinders are people who use back room surgeries to enhance their bodies with computer chips, and various kinds of hardware. Jimi is sure that if she can just bust one grind shop, it will be her ticket back.
Paired with veteran cop, she soon learns that Grinder Squad is a cash-cow for the department. They are nothing more than glorified patrol cops, and generally get the worst assignments.
Matchless is the most wanted grinder of all time. He disappeared years ago, leaving only the evidence of those he enhanced during his career. With these pieces, Jimi picks up the cold trail to try working her way back to more respectable duty.

Praise for Grinders

The creativity of this world is off the charts. Every page brings some new wonder or futuristic element that is vividly portrayed. Between the story and inventions, I was mesmerized. A highly original work!

Mae Clair, ‘Book Review Tuesday: Grinders by C. S. Boyack’, From the Pen of Mae Clair, 17/03/2020


Have you read Grinders? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Buy Grinders on Amazon


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Book Review: Beyond

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read Beyond by Georgia Springate is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Beyond by Georgia Springate follows the story of Alex Duncan: a fourteen year old boy who finds himself consumed with anxiety about what happens to us after we die when his sister is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Struggling to cope with the impact of his sister’s prognosis and feeling neglected by his family, Alex turns to the pastoral support teacher, Mrs Moss, who encourages him to research what lies beyond this life while he continues to face the added struggles of every day teenage life: bullies, friends, girls and school.

As always, good characters are what make a good story and Beyond is no exception. Most of the main players are teenagers or young adults and Springate captures the strange dynamics of the teenage social structures as well as the individual goals and motives of each character in a way which feels natural and believable.

The protagonist and POV character, Alex, is by far the best example of what I’m talking about. He is anxious about his sister’s eternal destiny and this motive provides him with a clear goal which he pursues diligently throughout the story; however he is also burdened by the things that all teenagers are concerned with. He learns that the rest of life will not stop for him while he deals with his sister’s prognosis, forcing him to juggle school work, budding romance and the treacherous waters of teenage social structures under inordinate pressure with little support from his parents. Springate has manifested this complex web of life in Alex in a way which is absolutely believable and relatable, creating a character we can really care about.

I can only imagine what a challenge this novel was to write thematically, not just because of the emotive subject matter (though that is also undeniable) but because the protagonist’s goal is so heavily focused on finding out, with reasonable certainty, what happens to us when we die. This inevitably puts the author in the position of having to either come up with a single decisive answer (this would create an instant ‘preachy’ novel which would annoy most readers) or else leave the question unanswered but teach the protagonist something even more valuable in the process. The author has, quite rightly, done the latter and has walked the line between a hard preachy epiphany and meaningless fluffy one as well as could be hoped for.

A story like this one runs the risk of having a meandering pace as the protagonist wanders from one inevitable hospital visit (with more bad news!) to another; one inevitable person with an opinion on death to another; one inevitable encounter with the school bully to another until Jenna inevitably dies and Alex has his inevitable epiphany. Beyond doesn’t feel like that. True, the protagonist does spend a lot of time visiting people with opinions on death and avoiding the school bully, but each scene moves the plot forward, creating a definite sense of anticipation which makes this book unputdownable. No small achievement when a discerning audience should realise from the outset that Jenna is almost certainly going to die and Alex is almost certainly not going to find a decisive answer to his question.

While the main plot is expertly paced and drawn to as satisfying a conclusion as is possible for a story of this type, some of the less central elements of the plot seem to fizzle out a little towards the end, particularly the business with the school bully, Duce. This altogether unpleasant little bully torments most of the other characters throughout the novel, culminating in him leaving a threatening note in Alex’s locker only to suddenly change his ways and become a nicer person in the final chapter. Personally, I think a more decisive resolution to the bullying subplot would have really tightened up the ending.

This isn’t really the kind of book I normally like to read. While I generally reject any advice about avoiding certain subjects while writing a novel, a lot of books of this type are either clumsy and insensitive or else are so overloaded with sentiment that it dilutes the substance of the theme. Not so with Beyond. It is sensitively written, drives the protagonist towards a reasonably satisfying resolution and takes the audience on a coming-of-age odyssey of the full tapestry of teenage life. A strong debut from a promising new author.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

Originally published: 04/06/2017

Well you’ll be relieved to hear that this will be the last week of my impromptu series on writing non-human characters. We’ve already covered animals, aliens and robots so this week we’re going to finish up with what I’ve very broadly defined as mythical creatures.

When I Googled ‘mythical creatures’ to help me prepare for this post, I was presented with a very helpful list of about thirty different kinds of mythical creature. Gods-and-Monsters.com managed a much longer list of about 72 distinct creatures from mythology. And so writing a single 1,000  word post on how to write any mythical creature is going to be quite a challenge so I hope you’ll bear with me while I go over a few very general principles.

You all know how this works by now. The secret to creating a good non-human character of any kind is to remember that your audience is made up entirely of humans. Therefore, if you want to make your character relatable to humans, you need to endow your character with the right amount and kind of human qualities. You won’t be surprised to learn that the same is true of mythical creatures. I don’t want to harp on too much about that in this post, since most of what I covered in the first and second posts especially applies here too. Protagonists and other relatable characters need more human qualities (while not compromising on the mythical qualities that make them recognisable; don’t have your vampire going outside in the daylight, for example) while there may be some benefit to deliberately dehumanising characters who you want to serve as terrifying monsters rather than relatable characters.

This is where it is vital to know a thing or two about the kind of creature you’re using. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of mythical creatures you might use: “real” mythical creatures (that is, creatures from actual myths and legends, such as dragons, minotaurs and or fairies) and ones you made up for the sake of your story. In both cases, research is vital. You need to familiarise yourself with all the variations that exist on your creature in different myths, legends and even modern fantasies around the world (because believe me, there are often significant variations) and pick out all the differences and similarities you can find. In the case of creatures you’ve made up from scratch, or if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy, this involves researching their place in the history/mythology of your fictional world (click here for more on world-building and research).

For instance, suppose you wanted to create a dragon. You might already have an idea in your head as to what that means. But it only takes a quick peruse of internet to find that dragons come in many shapes and sizes both in terms of their physical appearance and their personalities. Dragons are often portrayed both as ferocious beasts, more animal than person but perhaps more often they are portrayed as being intelligent, rational and even quite wise or calculating creatures. Sometimes they can speak, sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have a lizard-like appearance, sometimes they have feathers. In most cases, there will be myths about their origins you can explore and what function they serve.

Of course, in your own story you can have a little bit of flexibility. I personally have no qualms about making a small number of minor changes to the appearance or behaviour of mythical creatures for my stories, but on the whole you want to be aware of the common defining characteristics of your chosen creature. What makes a centaur a centaur? Is it simply having four legs? Or is there something more that a centaur is simply not a centaur without? Remember, if you’re using a creature that already exists in folklore then you’re not only borrowing someone else’s work; you’re actually building upon centuries of tradition, so don’t go mad when you come to put your own stamp on it.

If you feel more creative (especially if you’re writing a piece of high fantasy), you might want to try and invent your own creature. This certainly gives you more freedom to do whatever you please, but you need to be aware that your audience will have no prior knowledge of your creature and will need to have it spoon-fed to them in a way they wouldn’t with a dragon or mermaid. Try to keep it simple. Combining body parts from unrelated animals is often a good approach and is easy to describe (the body of a lion with the wings of a bee for instance). Also you might find it helpful to weave them in with mythology surrounding big questions such as the origins of the world, birth, death, and so forth.

Once you have established these things, you will find it much easier to anthropomorphise your creature in a way which is appropriate. Remember, the goal in anthropomorphising your non-human characters is not to turn them into humans (noun) but to make them human (adjective) enough so that the audience will be able to relate to them and care about what happens to them. Exactly which human qualities you choose to add will depend entirely on which kind of creature you’re creating, so I’m afraid I can’t give you any specific advice on that. You’ll need to do your research. The important thing is that you correctly balance making your creature human enough to be related to by your human audience but still have enough of those key defining characteristics that make your mythical creature recognisable as what it is supposed to be.

And that’s it for the non-human characters series! Phew! Next week I’ll be getting back into writing my usual sort of weekly individual posts (unless of course I’m inundated with complaints that I forgot a particular type of non-human creature, but I don’t think I did and frankly, I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me banging on about them).

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

Originally published: 28/05/2017

Well, it’s week three on my impromptu series of posts on creating non-human characters for your stories. We’ve already done animals and aliens, so this week, I want to focus on creating robots. Now I don’t want to waste too much time getting bogged down on the technical differences between robots, androids, cyborgs and so on, so for the sake of this post, I’m using the word ‘robot’ simply as an umbrella term for any kind of mechanical or artificial person. Suffice it to say there are important differences between robots, androids and cyborgs and you would be well advised to understand them before attempting to create one for your story.

If you’ve been keeping up to date on the last few posts, you will have noticed a common theme running through them: the idea of anthropomorphising (that is, giving human traits to) your non-human characters to to make them more relatable to your audience. However, as we have also seen, the extent to which you anthropomorphise your character and how you go about anthropomorphising your character will vary greatly depending on the kind of character you’re trying to create and what their purpose is in your story.

One of the first things to consider in creating your robotic character is a bit of the history of the character and the history of robotics for your fictional world in general. Of course, backstory is important in all character building, but for robots there are a few other important questions you will need to answer first. For example (and this is by no means an exhaustive list):

  • Are robots commonplace in this society or are they a new invention?
  • What is the function of robots in this society (e.g., slaves, free and equal citizens, problem-solving machines, childrens’ toys, etc)?
  • Are robots in general/your robot in particular built with fail-safes, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? If not, how are they kept from running amok? Indeed, are they under control? Many stories about robots revolve around this very theme.

Depending on your answer to these and similar questions, you may want to make your robot characters seem very human or very mechanical. However, if you’ve got any intention of making your robot a main character in your story, you will probably want to give them at least some human traits to make them relatable to your entirely human audience. This is a fairly absolute rule for all non-human characters (as we’ve seen in previous weeks), so you should consider giving your robot some or all of the following:

  • The ability to think, learn and reason independently. You’ll have a hard time creating a full-blown independent character without this.
  • Self-awareness and consciousness of its surroundings. Again, I think it would be exceptionally difficult (though not impossible) to create a proper robotic character without this human quality.
  • Emotions, dreams, empathy, and other such non-logical thoughts to motivate their actions etc. This of course, is certainly optional; many robots in science fiction tend to be very logical and emotionless but why not break with tradition?
  • Recognisable physical body parts. Of course, ‘recognisable’ does not necessarily mean that they have to be human-shaped. K-9 from the Doctor Who franchise is shaped like a dog and one episode of Star Trek: Voyager even featured a sentient WMD. K-9 is the more relatable of the two, of course, because we humans are used to relating to dogs. Dogs that we can talk to and play chess with, therefore, are highly relatable. On the other hand, when was the last time you tried to interact with a WMD? (Don’t answer that).

The difference with robots is that your audience will already have quite particular ideas about how a robot “should” behave. This is, in part, due to the influence of sci-fi authors like Asimov, but is also due to the fact that robots and computers do exist in real life (though in a more limited fashion than you would expect in a sci-fi novel)We know, for example, that computers are logical to a fault and it’s important that your character reflects that peculiarly robotic quality if you want your audience to accept them. Abstract thinking, imagination and personal ambition is something beyond the grasp of most computers and robots. The trouble is, if you want your audience to care about your character, they’ll probably need to be capable of at least some of the above.

How you balance this contradiction will depend largely on the story you’re writing and the kind of character you’re trying to create but one of the best ways around this problem is how you use voice. Often you can create the illusion of a highly logical, robotic mind simply by the way your character speaks. Let’s consider two androids from the Star Trek: The Next Generation franchise: Lore and Data.

Both androids are physically identical and were built by the same person. Only Lore, however, was capable of emotion and with this came a whole host of other human traits such as ambition, passion, deceitfulness and even megalomania. Lore’s human qualities were what made him such a great villain and were central to his role as a bad guy in Star Trek. Therefore, it is perfectly appropriate that he also talks like a human.

Haven’t you noticed how easily I handle human speech? I use their contractions. For example, I say can’t or isn’t, and you say cannot or is not.

Lore in Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘Datalore’, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/NextGen/114.htm

Data, on the other hand, lacks emotion and the other human qualities which turned Lore into a bad guy. In spite of this, he remains one of Star Trek‘s most beloved characters. How is it that such an emotionless, logical, robotic character became so relatable (and far more likeable than his more human brother)?

Simple.

He’s not nearly as logical and robotic as he appears. It’s a trick, based largely on dialogue (and the occasional scene where he casually removes a body part) to make the audience believe that he is emotionless and logical because — after all — all robots are. He speaks in a “robotic” manner, such as calculating time intervals to the nearest second and not using verbal contractions, and so the audience believes that he is a machine and yet his goals and motivations are often very human indeed. For example, in ‘Pen Pals’, what motivated him to disobey Starfleet regulations and his captain’s orders if not compassion for the frightened child he had met? So, the writers have given Data a human quality (e.g., compassion) but have essentially tricked the audience into believing that they did not, because he appears robotic and makes the occasional claim that he is incapable of such traits. So, while is very important to strike the correct balance of human/robotic traits, the real trick with robots is how you portray them and thus convince your audience that the relatable and sympathetic character they are witnessing is, in fact, a machine.

I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got time for this week! But be sure to come back next when I’ll be continuing the series on non-human characters, this time focusing on mythical creatures.

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

Originally published: 21/05/2017

Last week, I had planned to write a single post talking about how to write non-human characters, such as animals, aliens, mythical creatures and so forth. Unfortunately, it turned into such a long post that I decided to chop it up into a series of posts instead. This week’s post is the second instalment on writing non-human characters and today I’m going to focus on how to write aliens from other other worlds. If it’s animal characters you’re interested in, that was covered in last week’s post, which you can see by clicking here. If, on the other hand, it’s robots or mythical creatures you’re after… well, you’ll just have to wait.

Before we begin, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves of the golden rule for writing non-human characters:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, if you want your audience to sympathise with your character, you need to give them certain human qualities. In doing this, you anthropomorphise your character; that is, you humanise them in the minds of your audience. The more human they are, the more easily they can be related to. So, with that in mind, let’s have a think about aliens.

Unlike animals which are very common and familiar things in real life that science has taught us a great deal about, we know nothing about real sentient alien life. We can’t even be certain that it exists at all. However, if it ever turned out that sentient alien life actually did exist, it would almost certainly have very little in common with us Earthlings. There’s absolutely no reason to believe that they would share human values and culture (or even understand concepts such as ‘values’ and ‘culture’), walk on two legs, communicate with spoken language, listen to music or do any of the other things humans do. Culturally, socially, philosophically, anatomically and in every other way, they would almost certainly seem bizarre to us in the extreme. After all, we humans often find it hard enough to relate to other human cultures, never mind alien ones!

It is, of course, certainly possible to create “realistic” aliens like this for your story. Unlike with animal characters (who you probably will want your audience to relate to), it can sometimes be beneficial to have aliens who are bizarre and impossible to relate to, depending on the kind of story you’re writing. Many have done it already to great effect. However, it is worth remembering that there is a reason these “realistic” aliens are very seldom portrayed as good guys. They’re not even usually portrayed in the same way as traditional bad guys, who will usually still have goals and motives that we can relate to and sympathise with (even if we don’t approve). Instead, such aliens are usually portrayed as destructive (or at the very least, strange and frightening) forces of nature. The aliens in War of the Worlds or Alien are good examples. These characters, while believably alien, are more of a danger to be overcome or escaped than a character to be related to. Because your audience cannot sympathise with them as people, it makes it an almost(!) impossible task to create aliens of this type who fit into any traditional role for a character to play. Remember, the weirder your alien is, the less your audience will sympathise with or even understand them. This can be a great boon to authors who want to create terrifying monsters, but not to authors who are trying to create relatable people.

Contrast this with the types of aliens you are perhaps more used to seeing in popular science fiction such as Star Trek or Doctor Who. They sit somewhere in the middle of the alien-human spectrum. They might have one or two physical features that make them look alien, such as blue skin, pointy ears or strangely shaped foreheads, but they still basically look human-ish with mostly recognisable human body parts in roughly the correct place. They will usually have one or two cultural or social quirks to keep them from seeming too human (for instance, the Vulcans in Star Trek are famous for their logical and stoic minds) but nothing so bizarre that it defies understanding. After all, humans often do appreciate logic; the only difference is that Vulcans have founded their entire culture upon it whereas we have not. This makes them seem exotic, but relatable. Such aliens are not terribly realistic when you analyse them closely, but they’re sufficiently different from humans that the average audience will accept them as aliens while still being able to sympathise with them as people, rather than monsters.

Beware, however, that you do not go too far in trying to make your aliens relatable. Aliens are, by their very nature, foreign in the extreme. Your audience, then, will expect your alien characters to be at least a little bit unusual. If they seem too human, you will have utterly failed in your goal to create an alien character. For example, one of the biggest things that irks me about Supergirl (the TV series) is the character of Mon-El who, having only just arrived on Earth from the planet Daxam, is utterly indistinguishable from the average American millennial in the way he talks, behaves and relates to other characters. This level of anthropomorphising goes too far and robs the audience of their ability to believe that the character they’re witnessing is really from another world at all. Sure, he’s a relatable character but remember, it’s important when writing sci-fi to suspend your audiences’ disbelief. Your audience will not be able to believe in an alien who seems more human than their own family do.

Creating alien characters, then, is all about balance and purpose. Before you begin, ask yourself: what is the purpose of this alien to be in my story? Are they a protagonist, antagonist, love-interest, etc.? Why exactly are there aliens in this story? This will determine to what extent your audience (and indeed, your other characters) will need to be able to understand and relate to them, and consequently, will help you to determine how alien or human they should appear. However, let’s be clear on one thing: this is not the same as creating a balance between how good and how evil your character is. Rather, it’s a balance between the familiar and the strange. Very human characters can still be bad guys. Very alien characters might even be good guys, although it’s unlikely that the audience will relate to them and so I would be very careful about how you go about doing this.

That’s all I’ve got time for this week I’m afraid, but be sure to come back next week when I’ll be continuing the series on creating non-human characters, this time focusing on robots and cyborgs. 

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

Originally published: 14/05/2017

If you’re serious about writing stories, you need to be serious about writing characters. No story is complete without them. This we know. We also know that your characters can make or break your story depending on how well they’ve been constructed. Apart from that, of course, your characters can be anybody you want them to be (in fact, the more variety the better, I find). You can make them male or female; black or white; rich or poor; gay or straight; nasty or nice or even human or non-human. It’s the non-human characters (particularly animals – I’ll come to the others next week) I want to talk about today.

Non-human characters are nothing new. They’re everywhere. We’ve all seen more dog or cat movies than we can care to remember, right? Meanwhile fans of shows like Doctor Who will be all too familiar with the concept of an alien protagonist. C.S. Lewis loved writing stories which featured talking animals, while his friend J.R.R. Tolkien is perhaps best known for Lord of the Rings, which follows the adventures, not of a human, but of a Hobbit. And in short fiction? Why, only last week, my regular readers were subjected to a story with a certain rodent protagonist.

I’ll be spending most of this week dealing with how to write animals in particular (because it’s ever so slightly more complicated), however, no matter what non-human species your protagonist may be, there is one golden rule you absolutely must keep in mind at all times. Ready? This is it:

Your audience is made up entirely of human beings; therefore, your audience must be able to sympathise with your characters as human beings.

In other words, you need to anthropomorphise your character to one extent or another. Perhaps only a little, perhaps a lot, but to some extent, you need to give your non-human character certain human traits to make them relatable. At the very least, they will probably need to be able to think like humans in order to work through their goals, conflicts, epiphanies, etc. and possibly will need to speak like humans too (though there are numerous examples of strong animal characters who do not speak).

Of all the non-human characters you might create, animals are arguably the hardest. Unlike aliens or mythical creatures, animals are something we all see every day and science has studied them all from almost every angle, in terms of how they think, how they’re physically built and how they relate to others. While this might seem like a boon for us authors (after all, it should make research easier… right?) it can also be a bit of a pain if you’re remotely concerned about realism.

For example, in The Church Mouse, my protagonist was (you’ve guessed it) a mouse. In real life, mice have incredibly poor eyesight and find their way using their whiskers. Unfortunately, my story would not have actually worked quite as well if the mouse had been blind (for instance, he is seen examining a mouse trap in the second chapter to make sure it’s not potentially lethal). The easiest way around this is to do what I did — give him the five basic senses of a human. We can easily write that off as artistic licence. Apart from that, I left him physically as a normal mouse; walking on four legs, leaving his mess just lying around about him and having a strong sense of smell.

The larger problem, of course, was in the mind. Mice do not think the way humans do. I don’t for one second claim to be an expert on the psychology of rodents, but I’m pretty confident they don’t have goals, plans and motives like Mr. Mouse did – and even if they do, they certainly don’t think about them conceptualise them in rational terms like Mr. Mouse does. However, in order for your audience to relate to your animal character, you need to give them a mind which is close enough to being human for a human audience to relate to them. In the case of Mr. Mouse, the only truly rodentian quality I preserved was the way the smell of chocolate worked him up into a frenzy of instinctive, primal desire. This provided him with a motive. Beyond that, his thinking (his goals and epiphany; his opinions of the ‘idiot’ Landlord and even his concept of God) was quite human. It needed to be so for the audience to care about him.

Take a moth for instance, instinctively flying towards a flame. In all probability, moths cannot explain to themselves or anyone else why they are drawn to something as deadly as fire (do they even have a concept of what mortality is?). It’s pure instinct. But give a moth the rational mind of a human and suddenly you have a story about forbidden desires; about lust, danger, temptation and death. They know it’s not allowed. They know it’s bad for them but they just can’t resist. Suddenly we’re in Moth-Eden and the Moth-Devil is whispering in Moth-Eve’s ear,

‘You shall not surely die, for God knows if you go near the flame, you will be like God understanding good and evil… ‘ 

A word of warning, however. There is a danger in going too far with all of this. Too much anthropomorphism can lead to your character becoming a bit ridiculous, which will be disastrous for your story unless you happen to be writing a comic, cartoon or lighthearted family movie. Mr. Mouse, for example, never actually spoke. could have given him the ability to speak, but it was unnecessary. He never once interacted with another character (whether human or mouse) so it made more sense to simply write what he was thinking from one moment to the next. If I had him sitting on a little sofa in his mouse hole, reading the Sunday paper and sipping a cup of tea, it would have all got a little bit too Tom and Jerry... which is fine if that’s what you’re wanting to create but the more serious your story, the more understated I recommend you keep this. Remember, you only want to anthropomorphise them enough for the audience to understand and care about what happens to them. Think carefully, therefore, about how far along the anthropomorphic spectrum you place your character to avoid any unfortunate comic side-effects (or, if you are trying to write a cartoon, make sure you don’t underdo it and potentially create a boring character).

Phew!

Well, it had been my plan to write about other non-human characters such as aliens, robots and mythical creatures as well but I’m afraid that’s perhaps going to need another post! Be sure to swing back next week for that! In the meantime, why not get your notepad out and try your hand at knocking together an animal character or share your own insights in the comments section below.

Until next time!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Spotlight: Becoming Human by Eliza Green

An alien race with powers. We’ll destroy them before they take what’s ours. Investigator Bill Taggart is a troubled man with a missing wife. Ahead of a population transfer from Earth, he is sent to monitor the species known as the Indigenes. Prior attempts to catch them have been futile. The Indigenes are strong, fast, and appear able to “detect” human trackers. But Bill must succeed because he believes they know where his wife is.His lone crusade for answers leads him to a woman with top secret information on the Indigenes. When Laura also reveals an illegal conspiracy threatening to destroy the transfer programme, Bill realises everything he’s been told is a lie.Now they must join forces to discover who is behind the plot before Bill loses his wife and Laura’s betrayal is discovered. And it starts with learning who the Indigenes really are.

Praise for Becoming Human

I had a great time reading Becoming Human. I am hooked, definitely needing to read the rest of the Exilon 5 trilogy.

Karen, ‘Becoming Human (Exilon 5, #1) by Eliza Green’, My Train of Thoughts On…, 18/05/2016

I really enjoyed this novel…. If you love sci-fi, dystopia, especially aliens and other planets, I think you will really enjoy this novel.

Laura, ‘BOOK REVIEW|| BECOMING HUMAN BY ELIZA GREEN’, Bibliofagista, 04/06/2017

Have you read Becoming Human? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Buy Becoming Human on Amazon


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Author Interview: Georgia Springate

Spoiler Alert

Anyone who has not read Beyond by Georgia Springate is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Writer and trainee teacher, Georgia Springate, is the exciting and promising new author behind the touching coming-of-age novel, Beyond.

I had the pleasure of chatting with Georgia about her favourite films, her writing and her debut novel, Beyond, which is available to buy now from Amazon.

Oh! And don’t forget to come back next week to catch my review of Beyond (spoiler: it’s favourable).


How did you get into writing?

I’ve always loved writing and found a passion for prose in school. When I started my Open University degree in English and creative writing, this reestablished my love and it was then I started writing properly.

What’s the best thing about being an author?

The best thing about being a writer is the impact my writing has had on others. Hearing the feedback of how my book has helped readers and inspired new writers has been amazing.

Let’s talk about Beyond (a great book, by the way). What was the initial inspiration behind Beyond?

Aw thank you! A lot of people are surprised when I say I’ve been lucky enough not to have to experience a family member or friend going through a cancer diagnosis. This idea came to me more through my own insecurities and worries about death and what happens after life. Exploring this through writing has really helped me come to terms with the realisation that there is no solid answer and that’s the beauty of it – very much like Alex.

The protagonist in Beyond is obviously very concerned to find out what happens to us after we die. Can I ask if you believe in life after death?

I’d like to think there’s something in some capacity wherein we can be with our loved ones after we die. But what will be will be – we should make the most of the time we do have on this earth every day!

As well as death and afterlife, you also touch upon some other pretty heavy themes in this book such as bullying, terminal illness, abusive relationships. What’s your approach to handling emotive or controversial themes?

If people didn’t write about these issues, awareness and support wouldn’t be half as strong. On the one hand, when writing, I was mindful that themes like that might be triggering or upset certain readers. On the other, I knew that they were integral parts to the story and needed to be explored sufficiently, not only for the narrative, but to show them for what they really are. Someone once called my book ‘trash’ because a character calls another character fat. Unfortunately, kids use these terms and speak this way. The book needed to feel real, whether it was controversial or not.

What’s your writing routine like?

Ooh okay, so when I was writing Beyond I was studying with the Open University full time, working in HR full time and, at certain points, working a part time job too. My life was hectic, no doubt, but I always found time to write. This would often be late evenings, early mornings and weekends. I live at home with four sisters and my parents so we had no room for a desk or study room. I wrote in bed, laptop on my lap, noise cascading in from every other room! In an ideal world I would love to have a little writing room with a desk, a few nice plants, a little radio. But the truth is life is messy, and situations aren’t always how we envision them. If you’re thinking about logistics that are blocking you from writing, just know that you can write anywhere at any time. All you need is an idea and pen and paper! I’m a strong believer that if you believe in yourself and your idea, that’s all the ‘luck’ you need.

Tea or coffee?

Coffee in the morning, tea in the afternoon. I’m also a sucker for a full fat Coke.

Plotter or pantser?

Panster. This then comes back to bite me with plot holes later in the day! But I’m just not much of a planner. Hopefully teacher training will help me with that!

Do you have any other passions besides writing?

I’m a huge film buff! Pretty gutted the cinemas are closed now. Looks like I’ll be blitzing through Netflix!

What’s your favourite film?

Can I give you top 3?! Stand By Me, The Breakfast Club, Jojo Rabbit.

What’s next for you? Can we look forward to anymore books in the near future?

I’m currently working on a screenplay (editing for the hundredth time!) so that’s my main focus right now. After that, who knows? With all this extra time at home I think another book will be on the cards!


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Spotlight: The Gilded King by Josie Jaffrey

In the Blue, the world’s last city, all is not well.
Julia is stuck within its walls. She serves the nobility from a distance until she meets Lucas, who believes in fairytales that her world can’t accommodate. The Blue is her prison, not her castle, and she’d escape into the trees if she didn’t know that contamination and death awaited humanity outside.
But not everyone in the Blue is human, and not everyone can be contained.
Beyond the city’s boundaries, in the wild forests of the Red, Cameron has precious little humanity left to lose. As he searches for a lost queen, he finds an enemy rising that he thought long dead. An enemy that the humans have forgotten how to fight.
One way or another, the walls of the Blue are going to come down. The only question is what side you’ll be on when they do.

Praise for The Gilded King

I thoroughly enjoyed everything about this book, and once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down.


Jordann, ‘THE GILDED KING | 5 STAR REVIEW’, The Book Blog Life, 11/06/2018

This book was definitely not what I was expecting, and I was really pleasantly surprised by it!


Connie, ‘Book Review: The Gilded King’, Connie Reads, 10/10/2019


Have you read The Gilded King? Why not leave a wee comment below and let us know what you thought of it.

Buy The Gilded King on Amazon


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. If you enjoyed it, don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and also follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on TwitterPinterest and like Penstricken on Facebook.

Want a blog of your own? Start writing today with WordPress.com!

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

Every Tuesday, I post a new edition of Spotlight: a short post which shines a proverbial spotlight on a published novel or collection of short fiction. If you would like to have your book considered for a future edition of Spotlightdrop us an e-mail including a short synopsis of your book and a link to where we can buy it. Better yet, send me a copy of your book and I can include a mini-review.

I’m still looking to interview fiction authors here on Penstricken, especially new or indie authors. Whether it’s books, plays, comics or any other kind of fiction, if you’ve got something written, I want to hear about it. If you’re interested in having your work featured on Penstricken, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter/Pinterest.

Please be advised that due to a recent surge in interest, I am presently committed to a significant number of reviews/interviews over the next couple of months. If you would like an interview or review, I would still love to hear from you, though it is unlikely that I will be able to begin work immediately.

You can check out our previous interviews here: