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.

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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 #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.

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 #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!

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:

Monday Motivation


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: Stories Are Read (Clichés Are Too)

First published 14/02/2016

Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought today was as good a day as any to write a post about the tricky business of creating a half-decent love interest for your story. Even if you’re not writing a full-blown ‘romance’, there’s still a good chance you’ll want to include one. Oxford Dictionaries defines love interest this way:

An actor whose main role in a story or film is that of a lover of the central character.
 
1.1 [MASS NOUN] A theme or subsidiary plot in a story or film in which the main element is the affection of lovers.

For the purposes of this post, by ‘love interest’, I am referring mainly to the first definition given above; that is, a character whose main role is to be the lover (or would-be lover) of the protagonist.

The biggest danger in creating your romantic (sub-)plot is clichés . Clichés are something all good writers should strive to avoid (though rules are made to be broken, as one cliché clearly states) and in my opinion, there is no time in the story writing process where you are more in danger of creating a cliché than when you come to create your romantic sub-plot. Naturally, this also means that writing a full blown romance story is a minefield of cliché (you never wondered why rom-coms are so often lame?). Perhaps the most important thing to remember when creating your love interest is this:

YOUR LOVE INTEREST MUST BE A FULLY-FLEDGED CHARACTER IN THEIR OWN RIGHT.

If his or her sole purpose in the story is to be a love interest, then you have just created a shallow and worthless character. Being a love interest should only be a part of their role in your story, but it should not be their whole reason for being.

Have you ever seen the original Spider-Man movies? Mary-Jane served absolutely no purpose in those stories whatsoever except to be someone that would reject Spider-Man’s initial advances then swoon when he rescued her from whatever tall building she was about to be thrown off.

Real life ain’t like that. Real people are individuals; the protagonist of their own story. Simply giving them a back-story isn’t sufficient either, though it is important. They must have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (in this case, directly related to your story) besides being involved with your protagonist. I find the best way to construct a good love interest is to first develop a full cast of characters without creating any kind of romantic sub-plot at all. Make sure all your characters have both substance and independent roles within the story and then, and only then, if you believe your plot would really benefit from a romantic sub-plot, you can start to add this dimension to your characters.

Ask yourself: what is the purpose in creating this love interest? Does it fit with the overall theme or plot of your story, or are you just putting it there as a cheap way to end on a ‘happily ever after’ note? I would be cautious about doing this because it is simply not true to life, even in the most successful of relationships. In The Count of Monte Christo, by contrast, the love interest was essential because it formed the catalyst for the whole story. The protagonist, Dantès, is falsely accused of being a Bonapartist traitor. Why? Because his accuser is also in love with Dantès’ fiancée. There you have it: a plot, a theme and a love interest all working together in perfect harmony to create one of the finest novels I have ever read.

Another thing to avoid is making your love interest the most beautiful of all God’s creatures, not least of all because it’s not terribly realistic. If you’re wanting to write a story with any substance, your narrative really should reflect the fact that beauty is (to use another cliché) in the eye of the beholder. Rightly or wrongly, in every generation there is always a certain ‘type’ of man and a certain ‘type’ of woman which is deemed to be more attractive than others. Certain body shapes, hairstyles, clothing and so on are deemed to be attractive, while others are not. If you make your love interest read like something you saw on the cover of a magazine, it cheapens the whole plot because we all know that real people just aren’t that polished and makes your protagonist’s affections seem a little shallow.

If, however, you do decide to make your love interest fit whatever your society tells you is physical perfection (and even if you don’t!) you absolutely must not break the golden rule of writing: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Words like ‘beautiful’ or ‘attractive’ are all very subjective terms. It’s okay to tell us that John thought Jane was beautiful, but that’s his opinion. Instead, describe all your characters using objective terms: tall, short, fat, skinny, blonde, brunette and so forth. In particular, tell us what is is about the love interest that your protagonist finds attractive. Maybe John is attracted to Jane because, despite of her plain features and dour countenance, she paints every one of her nails a different colour and he finds that indicative of a well concealed vibrant and eccentric personality. Often it is the distinguishing features which make a person stand out so try to focus your protagonist’s affections on these, rather than nice eyes (a subjective term, by the way!) and a dazzling smile.

This is, of course, all just food for thought (with a candle on the table!). It’s a notoriously difficult thing to get right and it depends very much on what you’re writing. I mentioned earlier, for example, that you should be wary of creating a ‘happily ever after’ style of ending, but if you’ve been commissioned to write a film by Disney, you might want to think twice about that. The two main things to remember is that while each character in the story has their own role to play, no character should be fully defined by their relationship to another and that your love interest must exist for a purpose. The best stories all reflect the fact that life is full of millions of different people who are compatible in some ways and who chaff in others. If you can work that into your narrative in a way which compliments the main plot and theme, you probably won’t go too far wrong.


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: What Do Your Characters Think of Each Other?

Originally published 19/02/2017

Think about someone you know well. Anyone. A friend, a relative, a colleague, anyone. I bet if I asked you what that person was like, you would be able to easily give me your opinion on what sort of person they are.

John? Oh, he’s loud-mouthed, arrogant and opinionated. He’s not a bad person but he’s a real pain to be around…

Jeanie? She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever laid eyes on but she’s a liar and a thief. I wouldn’t turn my back on her. 

Willy? Nice guy I suppose, doesn’t say much (but let me tell you, he’s got the sharpest wit you’ve ever come across).

Now ask yourself… would that person’s own mother sum them up the same way you did? What about their spouse? Their boss? Their arch-nemesis? Even though you see John as loud-mouthed, the chances are his mother would focus on some other, more positive qualities, such as how kind-hearted he is. If John has a wife, she would be more likely to emphasis his physical attractiveness than his mother would (or, perhaps, she thinks he’s a lazy good-for-nothing and she can’t believe she married him).

As we all know, characters are the beating heart of any good story. However, no character is an island. How they respond to other characters is often essential in making your plot work (indeed, this arguably is your plot), so don’t be fooled into thinking it’s obvious how your characters will respond to one another. Just because you would respond in a particular way to Character A doesn’t mean that Character B will respond to Character A in the same way you would. Even though you, as the author, know all the facts about all of your characters, you’ll still have your own narrow opinion about what sort of person they are just the same as anyone else. That is why it is vital to know what every character thinks about every other character if you want to create a rich, vibrant and believable story.

Fortunately, it’s easy to do this. Here’s how I like to do it:

Start with a nice blank page. For me, it’s a separate document in my Scrivener project, but whatever floats your boat is fine (if you’re writing on paper, I would strongly recommend having plenty to spare; this could take up a few pages, especially if you’ve got a lot of characters). Now we make a table, as I’ve illustrated below, with as many rows as you have characters and two columns. Only the top row should have a single column, as this will act as a header. In this header, we write the name of the character we are wanting to find out about; Mr. Protagonist, for instance. In the cells below this, we ask every other character in the story for their opinion on Mr Protagonist. I find the easiest way to do this is to write out the answer in their voice, as if they were speaking to me. Even though I’ve only included two other characters to show you how it works, I would recommend you have a much larger table which includes every character in your story so that you get the most out of it.

Mr. Protagonist
Baron Antagonist Mr. Protagonist is a meddler and a constant thorn in my side. We were friends growing up but it is clear now he does not understand the great work I am doing here. His table manners are appalling but he has great taste in single malts.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome. His personality is quite charming, if a little brash and uncouth. He has a fiercely righteous (if misguided) streak which almost makes up for his poor breeding. Unfortunately, he drinks a little too much.

Once you’ve done it, repeat the process for all of your other characters.

Baron Antagonist
Mr. Protagonist Baron Antagonist is a snake-in-the-grass. He acts all sophisticated and like he’s everybody’s friend so that he’s got the whole world wrapped around his finger. How do you expose a guy like that? Even the king’s daughter has agreed to marry him. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he beat her.
Lady Loveinterest Baron Antagonist is a great man; a real visionary and a man who knows how to get things done. He’s got the patience of a saint too. I can see Mr. Protagonist irks him sometimes but he has never lost his temper with him, not once. Mr. Protagonist is fortunate to have a friend like the Baron.

Do you see how this can help you to gain a much deeper and fuller understanding of all your characters and the threads of friendship, enmity, mistrust and devotion which bind them together in an elaborate web which I like to call a “Story”?

If you really want to go the extra mile, why not throw in an extra row on each table telling us what each character thinks about themselves?

Mr. Protagonist
Mr. Protagonist I’m a cook and an employee of my former friend, Baron Antagonist. I have to say, I feel a bit out of place living in such a splendid house. The other servants don’t talk to me ’cause I don’t live in the servants quarters. I think that’s why anyway. But I’m more a man of their stripe than the Baron’s. I wish they could see that.
Lady Loveinterest Mr. Protagonist is ruggedly handsome….

Not only is all of this an effective means of fleshing out your story, it can actually be a pretty darn effective means of coming up with a story idea, similar to (in fact, arguably better than) auditioning characters. The above example, for instance, is only that: an example. I made it up as I was going along purely for your benefit. And yet, without intending it, I actually found myself getting quite involved in the story – a story which did not exist before I started filling in those tables. The embryo of a plot began to form in my mind as I learned more and more about each character from the lips of those people who knew them best. Who are these three people? What is the Baron’s ‘great work’ and why is Mr. Protagonist so distrustful of him? Will Mr. Protagonist ever get together with the slightly snobby Lady Loveinterest?

Give it a bash. I think you’ll find it helpful.


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: D. Wallace Peach Interview Omnibus

Originally published 16/06/2019 and 23/06/2019 under the title ‘Author Interview: D. Wallace Peach’

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read Soul Swallowers or Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Diana Wallace Peach is an accomplished author of quality fantasy with seventeen books to her name. Her most recent offering, the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology consisting of The Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls, is another masterpiece filled with rich characters, political intrigue, and top notch world building.

I had the pleasure of chatting with D. Wallace Peach, whose books, including the ‘Shattered Sea’ duology, are available to buy now on Amazon.


What made you decide to become an author?

I never really planned on being an author, though I always enjoyed writing. A decade ago, my husband and I made a temporary move for his job. Our planned stay was too short a time frame for me to find work. He suggested that I write a book, and I said, ‘Okay.’

Well, that was that. I was hooked and I’m still writing.

I’ve been reading The Shattered Sea duology, Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls; two thoroughly enjoyable books. There’s plenty going on in them both; family conflicts, slave trading, imperial politics and, of course, a fantasy world where people consume the souls of the dead. I wonder, how did this story first come about? What was your original inspiration for writing?

I’m curious about the invisible world and the nature of the soul. I think there is a lot more to this world than we can possibly imagine. Just think of the inventions in the last one hundred years that would have seemed impossible or magical. Do souls exist beyond death? Is reincarnation possible? Is possession a real thing? I simply took those questions and applied a ‘what if’ question. Then I added the rules that would bind this practice – physically, mentally, and through social norms. The rest simply fell into place as a rough outline that took further shape as I wrote.

Is that your preferred way of writing, planning while you write (‘plantsing’)? Or are you normally more of a planner or a ‘pantser’?

I always have a rough outline. Otherwise, I’m filled with writer-anxiety. That and I have no problem wandering off on tangents for hundreds of pages, which then need to be edited! Outlines keep me on track, but they’re loose enough that my characters can be themselves, and I will readily change a plan if my characters can convince me that it makes good sense.

I’m glad you mentioned your characters because the meaty characters you’ve created were one one of my favourite things about this series. The protagonist, Raze, for instance. I really liked the way this chap developed as an individual over the two books. How did you go about developing him?

I love reading books with strong characters, and so I strive to write the same. My background is in mental health, and I’m fascinated by the incredible depth behind every human face. Prior to writing, I pen each character’s biography in quite a bit of detail. I understand how their lives were shaped, their fears, weaknesses, and strengths, how they compensate, what they hide even from themselves, what they need to learn about themselves to grow. A significant part of my plotting a story takes into account the characters’ arcs.

I suppose that must be doubly important when you come to write a character who is a practised liar, like Benjmur? He weaves such an intricate web of deceit around all the other characters– how do you keep track of it all?

I wanted to write a different kind of character than I have in the past– one who is extremely duplicitous and able to keep the other characters off kilter. The biggest challenge was to make his lies believable without the other characters coming off as naive (except perhaps for his daughter who simply doesn’t want to think ill of her father). I don’t like books where the characters are ridiculously stupid simply to serve the plot. I kept track of it by writing twenty drafts. Ha ha.

I was quite struck by some of the big themes this story explored. The distinction between slavery and bonded labour (if there is one) seems to crop up time and again in this story. Was that a theme you were keen to explore?

I’m a political monster, and like exploring these issues. To support the book, I did a bit of research on the ‘justifications for slavery’ that were shared around the time of the American Civil War. I incorporated those into the characters’ arguments about slavery as well as Raze’s arguments for freedom.

Obviously in a high fantasy series like this, building a world like the Shattered Sea is no mean feat. Any world-building tips for prospective fantasy writers?

Just like I write bios for the characters before I start a book, I write a complete “bio” for the world, including maps. I go back about 300 years into the world’s history. I write about gender roles, politics, religion, societal norms, geography, world view, relationships with other nations/provinces, technology or the lack thereof, clothing, even the shape of their roofs! I try to take a couple real-life norms and turn them on their heads if I can. Some things develop as I write and some change, but I usually start with a good sense of the world and how the character meshes or rebels against it. In a way, the world is another character in the book.

Looking through your blog I noticed you’ve done a bit of flash fiction. How do you find writing shorter fiction compares with novel writing?

I rarely write short stories, but I enjoy flash fiction. The big difference for me is that I don’t need to think about what came before or what comes after. It’s a slice of time, a glimpse, versus a novel that has a history and a future. An interesting tidbit. The opening scene of ‘Shattered Sea’ duology started as a flash fiction piece in response to a prompt. So you never know where those flashes will lead!

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

I’m working on a trilogy (as yet untitled). I’m obsessive about the cohesion of my stories and therefore write the entire series at once, holding up the first book until the last is ready to publish. This trilogy is daunting and the first draft is taking me forever to complete. I’m probably a year away from publishing. When they’re done, I’ll have 20 books, and hopefully, number 21 brewing in the back of my mind.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT D. WALLACE PEACH’S AUTHOR PAGE.
Soul Swallowers and Legacy of Souls by D. Wallace Peach are available to buy now from 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!

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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: What Villains Want

First published: 07/01/2018

For me, antagonists are often the most fun characters to create. However, most of the usual rules apply and it’s especially important (as it is with all characters) that your antagonist’s motive and goals are clearly established in your mind. More often than not, these will form the whole basis for the conflict your protagonist has to deal with, so it’s vital you get this right.

If I was to boil it down to a single rule for antagonists, it would probably be something like this:

An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all, but their goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist.

Let’s start by thinking about the first part of that rule: ‘An antagonist’s motive can be anything at all’. Motives are simply what drive a character from day to day. When it comes to your bad guy, this could be something sinister such as megalomania or it could be something far more ordinary– perhaps even laudable. For instance, in The Count of Monte Cristo, the antagonist, Fernand Mondego, is in love with the protagonist’s fiancee. As a result, he falsely accuses the protagonist of treason so that he can marry Dantès fiancee instead.

So, Mondego’s motive is that he is in love with Dantès fiancee. His goal (in the beginning, at least) is to get Dantès out of the way. Loving a woman is not a particularly evil or unusual thing, nor is it a motive common only to antagonists. Plenty of good guys in other stories (especially romances and romantic comedies) are driven by the exact same motive.

Ahh, but he was in love with the protagonist’s fiancee! I hear you cry. That’s bad!

Well, I agree it’s not an ideal situation, but in and of itself it doesn’t make him an antagonist or a ‘bad guy’. There are plenty of stories out there with characters who refuse to behave inappropriately when they’re in love with someone else’s partner. What made Mondego a bad guy was his goal, not his motive. His motive (which he arguably had in common with the protagonist) drove him to carry out a sinister plot against the protagonist. That’s what made him a villain and an antagonist. It is highly unlikely a good guy would act on this motive the same way Mondego does (though remember, not all protagonists are good guys; some protagonists are bad).

Which brings me neatly onto the second part of our working rule: ‘[the antagonist’s] goal should bring them into direct conflict with the protagonist’. It’s worth mentioning that this is not the same as saying their goals must be inherently immoral.

Oh sure, they can be. They often will be. Personally, I love it when an antagonist is really bad. Murdering the hero(es), stealing something valuable and violently taking over the world are just some of the more common goals antagonists sometimes strive for. But remember, an antagonist is not necessarily defined as a morally evil character; they are simply a character whose goals conflict with that of your protagonist. They can be morally evil, but even then, their function is to present the protagonist with a real and significant problem that cannot simply be ignored. They are, if you like, a walking, talking conflict for your character to face.

giphy
When you’re so evil you want to blow up all reality. Image source: http://gph.to/2AhoZVE

Take C.S. Lewis’ story The Screwtape Letters as a radical example. This story is written from the perspective of a senior devil (Screwtape) writing to his nephew (Wormwood), giving him advice on how to lead a human into eternal damnation– a morally objectionable goal to say the least. In it, Screwtape makes frequent references to their ‘Enemy’ — namely, God. In this story, Wormwood is the protagonist. His motive is his natural diabolical nature and his goal is to secure the damnation of his unsuspecting human ‘patient’. Even though God is clearly not portrayed as evil in this story (C.S. Lewis was a Christian), nevertheless he is still the antagonist because his goals are in direct conflict with those of the protagonist.

“He (God) wants servants who can finally become sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out. We are empty and would be filled; He is full and flows over. Our war aim is a world in which Our Father Below has drawn all other beings into himself: the Enemy wants a world full of beings united to Him but still distinct.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (parenthesis mine)

Which brings me neatly onto my third and final point: the audience’s sympathies. This can sometimes be a sticky issue when you try to create an antagonist of any real depths, as I previously discovered.

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis presumably wanted us to sympathise with God’s goals instead of Wormwood’s, even though God is the antagonist. After all, The Screwtape Letters is as much as Christian Apologetic work as it is a story. Under most circumstances, however, you will want your audience to support the protagonist’s goals instead of the antagonist. I know of only two ways to do this effectively:

  1. Make your antagonist at least a little bit immoral (optional – but usually a good idea)
  2. Create a strong protagonist with goals and motives the audience really cares about (mandatory)

Remember, an antagonist might provide the vital point if conflict in a story, but he is not the sum total of the story. If all you have is a really complex antagonist who threatens to take over the world and some half-baked protagonist to fight him just because that’s what good guys do, you’ll not hold onto your audience for very long. Remember this rule:

Your story is about your protagonist, not the antagonist.

The antagonist is the point of conflict for your story, but he is not the story in and of himself. Take the Wicked Witch of the West from The Wizard of Oz. She is a persistent hindrance to Dorothy throughout the film. Without her, it would be a frankly boring film about a girl who gets a bit lost (okay, very lost) then goes home. But none of that would matter if it wasn’t for the fact that Dorothy wants to get home. If we didn’t care about Dorothy and her plight, the Witch would be pretty redundant.


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:

Creating Conflict Between Your Characters

I’ve often said that good characters are at the heart of every good story. This is true, however there is another crucial element that is required for a compelling story and that is conflict. Of course, as we shall see, a well-written conflict is born of well-written characters. The two elements are not mutually exclusive. Let’s start by trying to define what we mean by conflict.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines conflict as ‘an active disagreement between people with opposing opinions or principles’. This is certainly a good enough definition, however when it comes to the conflict found in any good story, I would take it one step further and suggest that conflict is an active disagreement between people with opposing goals. Alternatively, your central conflict may also revolve around one character’s goals being at odds with a particular circumstance. In any event, your protagonist wants something so badly it was worth writing a novel about it and yet someone or something is preventing him from getting it.

Creating a strong conflict is mandatory in any style or genre of story writing. Your reader will bore quickly without it. Even the most seemingly mild-mannered, light-hearted, inoffensive stories have conflict at their core. My two year old is currently quite obsessed with The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, in which a mouse living in the woods avoids being eaten by various predators by pretending he’s going to meet a particularly ferocious imaginary friend. It’s a children’s picture book, yet at its core we still have this conflict between the cunning but ultimately vulnerable mouse who wishes to avoid being eaten and all the other characters who do want to eat him. Thus we have characters with diametrically opposing goals, thus we have conflict, thus we have a story.

So if you’re writing a story and you feel like it’s lacking that bit of tension needed to keep it interesting, take my advice: go back to your characters. It can be tempting to try and fix a lack of tension by throwing in more fight scenes or adding a pointless romantic subplot, but if your characters’ goals are not at odds with each other or with a particular circumstance, adding extra subplots or intense scenes will only make your story appear bloated.

First, check your characters’ motives. What is that one thing that gets them out of bed in the morning and spurs them on to action? Remember, this will be the basis for whatever goal your character has and it is this that will lend importance to your characters goals and make your audience care about whether or not they achieve them (I’ve spoken a bit about this before here).

Now ask yourself: on the basis of my character’s motive, what are they actually trying to achieve? This is their goal. Success or absolute* failure will mean the end of the story because the conflict will have been resolved. All of your main players should have clearly established motives and goals. If you have a character whose goals are diametrically opposed to another’s, you pretty much have your conflict and a clearly established antagonist [2] into the bargain.

Of course, there are other, less obvious types of conflict than simply pitting two characters against each other. These will still be grounded in your protagonist’s motives and goals, but instead of coming into conflict with another character, they will be brought into conflict with themselves or other external forces, such as God, nature or a socio-political situation which is beyond their control. Even in these cases, the principle remains the same: your character needs to acquire or accomplish something but something external to his or herself is stopping them from doing it.

In addition, there are also internal conflicts, where a character is wrestling with his own contradicting goals and motives. I’ll maybe(!) write a separate post about internal conflict because it can be footery to get right, especially if you’re wanting to write a story where something actually happens (and yes, you do want this). Suffice it to say for now that the issue still concerns a conflict of goals and motives: the main difference being that the protagonist’s goals are in conflict with each other. For my money, however, an internal conflict should not be used as a substitute for an external conflict, but something to go alongside it.

Whatever kind of conflict is at the heart of your story, remember this: it starts with your characters. A character will not throw themselves into danger for no reason. They need to want or need something badly enough that they are willing to struggle against themselves, others and all the forces of nature to get it. Only when your audience understands and cares about their goals and motives will they care about whether or not your protagonist manages to overcome whatever antagonists you throw their way.

Footnote:

*There will usually be an apparent failure halfway through the story. This is not the end, but rather gives the protagonist the final push they need to try again and succeed. You knew that already though.


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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.

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