Fiction: Reality Refined

There are two kinds of story in this world. Those that are not at all true to life and therefore are completely unsatisfactory, and those that create the illusion of being true to life but, in fact, are not. Very few stories (even those meticulously and faithfully based on true events) accurately reflect real life once they’ve been structured in a way which allows them to be communicated, because real life is far too much of a jumble for that to be possible.

‘But wait just a minute here,’ I hear you cry. ‘I read a book/watched a film/attended a play/played a game just the other day there and it was the truest darn thing I’ve ever seen in my entire life!’

Well of course it’s true that if you’re writing a story, you’ll want it to be true to life in the sense that it must accurately reflect the human experience. A skilled author can (and should) attempt to communicate far more fundamental truths than this about life and death, war and peace, society, philosophy, religion or whatever it might be in their stories. And of course, stories based on true events must remain faithful to history. No one is denying any of that.

However, in real life, events are disjointed and random. Things happen for no reason. Reality must therefore be refined in order to turn it into a digestible and entertaining story. For instance, you might be writing a novel (based on the true story) about your holiday to France where you met your future wife and fought to win the respect of her disapproving father. Now while you were there, you also bumped into Mr. Donald, your former maths teacher. It turns out he’s there to attend the Fête de la Musique because (to your surprise) he’s ridiculously enthusiastic about music and will travel far and wide to attend music festivals all over the world. You make polite conversation about this for twenty minutes and then go your separate ways. You put the event out of your mind. Life goes on. It never comes up again. All that you have learned about Mr. Donald, his passion for music or that there is an all-day music festival that happens in Paris every June neither harms or benefits you in any way, at any point in your life, ever.

So… when you come to write the novel about how you went on holiday, met a girl and won the respect of her father, you’re not going to include that event, are you? Because in all story telling, everything happens for a reason. Meaningless events only serve to break up the flow, rhythm and pace of the story. Have you ever been watching a film and noticed that nobody ever says goodbye to anybody else, even on the telephone? Or that nobody ever walks into a room and forgets what they went there for, or forgets what they were about to say. And no one ever needs to go to the toilet, unless there’s a mad axe murderer in there already poised and waiting to kill them. This isn’t true to life at all! In real life, people always forget things, usually do say goodbye on the phone and, more often than not, have uneventful visits to the bathroom.

Not only that, but in all good stories (even those based on true events) there is a clear and identifiable structure, sometimes called the ‘story arc’ or ‘narrative arc’ (a simple definition and description is available here) and all the events in your story should contribute in some way towards its construction. This is not true to life, but it is good story telling. In real life, you meet new people all the time. They enter your life, do or say so many things and then leave your life, often without ceremony. Many different events happen all at once and are often never fully resolved. Good story telling isn’t like that. In good story telling, A leads to B which leads to C and in the end, all the loose ends are tied up. They might not necessarily all live happily ever after, but the story comes to a neat end. Our questions are answered and we are happy to assume that life goes on (at least for the survivors).

If all of this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, let me draw your attention to one more point: dialogue. In dialogue, you walk a fine line between creating a distinctive and believable voice which tells you something about the character and constructing your dialogue in a way which allows your narrative to flow.

It may be difficult to do because we’re all so used to verbal communication, but next time you’re having a verbal conversation with someone, listen to the words they use. Don’t just listen to their meaning. Pay careful attention to every utterance. You will notice that, more often than not, the rules of grammar go out the window. New sentences are often begun before the previous one is finished. People interrupt and talk over one another. Sometimes misunderstandings will derail a conversation (‘Do you like coffee?’ ‘Oh yes I’d love one, thank you!’). Words are often misused (for instance, when people say ‘pacific’ instead of ‘specific’). Sentences are often punctuated by non-sensible utterances (‘erm…’, ‘uhh…’). The list goes on.

Seriously, I encourage you to try it someday. Make a precise transcript of a real-life conversation in exactly the order it is spoken and read it back to yourself. You will marvel at the fact human beings are able to communicate at all when you see just how muddled up our verbal communication is.

In fiction, however, your dialogue can’t be like that. You can add dialects, accents and perhaps even the odd bit of bad grammar to your heart’s content but the flow of the conversation still has to be clear for the reader. Dialogue, just like the rest of your narrative, has a purpose. It drives the story on, and therefore it must accomplish its ends. Still, it must sound believable. You as the author, therefore, walk a fine line between making it sound so implausibly perfect that your characters seem wooden and so realistically imperfect that it reads like meaningless waffle and drags your story’s pace down to a crawl.

Not only that, but you also have to beware of making the content of a conversation sound too contrived. It can be all too tempting to use dialogue as a place to info-dump. E.g., ‘I visited my sister, Andrea McLaren, 24, who lives just around the corner from the butchers on Western Road’.

Real people don’t talk like that. If Andrea’s full name, age and address are important, they need to be worked in with subtlety and believably. There are many techniques you can use to lend credibility to your dialogue, but I’ll come back to that in a future post.


Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Be sure to leave us a wee comment if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to ‘like’ this post and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what fries your bacon.

Until next time!

Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Books (vol. 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson, The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, Different Seasons by Stephen King, Curtain by Agatha Christie or Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson is hereby advised that this point may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books, TV shows and films, and now it’s time to return for a second helping of super snappy book reviewsAs before, the books I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing book collection and do not necessarily have anything in common apart from the fact that they are all books. They are not necessarily books that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionssquished, sliced and diced into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

As much as I like fantasy, I’m also picky about it. Fortunately, this book (the first instalment of the Mistborn series) has it all: a richly imagined fantasy world, compelling characters, an excellent magic system and a plot which kept me glued to its pages from beginning to end. Best of all, Sanderson has obviously understood that while good world building and detailed magic systems are important elements of fantasy, it is characters that really count when it comes to writing a good story.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Speaking of fantasy, this book (the first instalment of Pratchett’s Discworld series) is arguably one of the most imaginative books I have ever come across. The characters are compelling and there is a goodly dash of wit spread throughout this rather dream-like narrative. My only complaint is that while the world building does demonstrate something of Pratchett’s superhuman imagination, the time spent he spends explaining the minute details of his world (and the additional time required for the reader to assimilate it all) does drag the pace down to a crawl at certain points.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

At the risk of being flamed to death… I found A Game of Thrones a bit of a drag. No, wait, hear me out! It’s got a lot going for it! There’s a lot of different characters’ points of view represented in the book which made it more true to life (though a bit more difficult to follow; just who is the protagonist in this story?), strong world-building, a good plot it’s just… I don’t know. I found myself getting bored as I read it. I’ve not been able to bring myself to read the next six books yet. Maybe I’ll watch the TV show one day and see what all the fuss is about.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟

The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck can do no wrong. This little novel is about a small but tactically important coal mining town which is taken over by a battalion from a non-specific nation (reminiscent of Nazi Germany) who are at war with England and Russia. It is essentially a story about freedom, democracy and oppression, crafted with the kind of fineness of style that only Steinbeck can produce. Read it now.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟

Different Seasons by Stephen King

This collection of stories by Stephen King includes, among others, the classic Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. In true King style, most of these stories have a dark tone to them, although I wouldn’t really have described any of them as horrors or fantasies in the truest sense of the word (although The Breathing Method does include certain fantasy elements, I suppose). I loved, loved, loved Shawshank. The Body and The Breathing Method were alright too. Apt Pupil was also very well written, however it did focus on a young boy with an unhealthy obsession with violence and his toxic relationship with a Nazi surgeon. Personally, I found it a little too dark for my tastes.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Curtain by Agatha Christie

In this, the final adventure for Christie’s famous Belgian detective, we see a Hercule Poirot (now very frail and elderly) who has been drawn back to the scene of his first adventure to solve one last crime before it even takes place. The mood is somewhat more melancholy than in earlier Poirot novels and I must admit… I found the ending just a little bit ridiculous, given the otherwise serious tone of the book. It feels a bit like Christie came up with a compelling mystery but then was unable to imagine a good way to resolve it. In a word, an okay read until you get to the end.

My rating: 🌟🌟

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with The Merry Men & Other Stories by Robert Louis Stevenson

I thoroughly enjoyed most of the stories in this little volume. Jekyll and Hyde is, of course, a classic tale which has justifiably earned a familiar spot in modern culture, even among those who haven’t read it. The Merry Men was okay, although I found Stevenson’s rendering of the Scottish accent difficult to follow (and I’m a Scottish person myself!). Markheim and Olalla were both enjoyable enough little reads with (not too) dark undertones. Janet Thrawn was decidedly tedious. The Treasure of Franchard, with its larger than life characters, was easily my favourite.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟

Well, I hope you enjoyed these itzy-witzy book reviews. No doubt we’ll do it all again soon! Why not comment your own thoughts on these books below? Or maybe you could give us a short review of something else that you’re reading? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to ‘like’ it and follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you fancy it.

Oh, and be sure to come back next week for the next instalment of 6 ‘SIX WORD STORIES’ FOR THE 6TH.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

No matter what genre of fiction or medium of story-telling you’re into (even if you’re into nearly all of them, like me!), we all have our own little things in fiction that we don’t like. Sometimes it’s the little things that can absolutely ruin an otherwise potentially good story for us and make us seriously think about leaving it unread/unwatched/unlistened to.

For your enjoyment, therefore, I have compiled a list of my own fiction bugbears with expositions. Maybe you won’t agree with them all. That’s okay. I’m not for one second suggesting any of these are hard and fast rules about what constitutes a bad story. These are just things that, for me, are a bit of a turn-off. So without further ado and in no particular order…

Obvious Morals

Don’t get me wrong. I definitely think it’s a good thing for stories to say something meaningful about real life. I’m not knocking stories that have morals to them. I’m not even knocking controversial morals. Quite the reverse, a good story definitely should have true and important morals or observations about life. But there’s nothing that puts me off reading a book or watching a film/TV show/play quite like that horrible sinking feeling you get in the first five minutes when you think to yourself: ‘I think I know where this is going…’

Even if it’s something I profoundly agree with, that’s not the point. I don’t read stories to be preached at, whether I agree with the message or not. Entertain me, and by all means make me think, but don’t preach at me.

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

On TV and film, I can just about(!) put up with drawn out fight scenes, but in novels… boy, I find them tedious. They’re often either too detailed (and so, the pace is dragged right down at what should be the most exciting part) or else they’re not detailed enough and I lose the thread of what’s going on entirely. If you’re going to write a fight scene, I want it to be described in such a way that I feel like I’m really there witnessing it, which must by necessity include experiencing the danger and urgency of being in a battle. It can be done with words, but only a few writers seem to be able to do it in a way I find truly enjoyable.

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

Sometimes in adult fiction, a little profanity may be justified, if it becomes the character (remember boys and girls, a character’s voice can have a profound impact on their identity). After all, in real life, people do sometimes use foul language. However, I find that in fiction, it loses its effectiveness very quickly and can come across as a fairly amateurish attempt at generating tension. Therefore, use it sparingly. If you’re struggling, watch the soaps for some inspiration: Eastenders, Coronation Street, Emmerdale and so forth.

No, really, hear me out. I don’t have a lot of good things to say about soaps, but I’ll give them this: because they’re usually on before the watershed, the writers of these shows are forced to generate tension and outright screaming matches between characters without using a single profanity. Study these carefully if you’re really struggling to write tense dialogue without the potty-mouth.

Flashbacks

As a rule of thumb, I find that flashbacks tend to interrupt the pace of the narrative too much. In addition, I often find that they are simply used as a way to info dump the backstory and as we all know, info dumping is bad, bad, bad. I might, possibly, maybe let you away with them if the story absolutely requires that one character tells another character a lengthy, detailed story about something that happened in the past (Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels, for example, frequently include flash back style chapters where one witness is telling Poirot their version of events) but on the whole, I find flashbacks a bit of a drag.

All Action; No Substance

If I wanted a meaningless thrill ride, I’d just go to Alton Towers. Don’t get me wrong, a bit of excitement is needed to keep up the momentum of your story, but if the protagonist is doing nothing but jumping over walls, dodging bullets and crashing helicopters from the outset, I won’t have any opportunity to get under the his skin enough to sympathise with him or understand his goals and motives.

All Substance; No Action

The opposite is also true. I know I want to understand the characters’ goals and motives, and I know I want the odd profound or emotional scene but I don’t want to be bored to tears either. Sooner or later, we need a bit of excitement.

Call Your Story Confessions of an [Optional Adjective] [Noun]

This will make me hate your story before I’ve even read it. See my previous post On Titles.


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

Did any of that ring true for anyone else? Or maybe you actually love flashbacks, lengthy fight scenes and tedious titles? Maybe I’m alone in disliking these things…

I know! Why not leave a comment below and share your own fiction pet-hates with the rest of the world? You might feel better if you get it off your chest. And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!

5 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a list of posts I’ve enjoyed from other writers’ blogs, I decided that it was about time I did another one. So this week I have listed, for your enjoyment, 5 story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across which I found particularly useful or enjoyable.

So, without further ado and in no particular order:

J.C. Wolfe – 3 Reasons You Should Write Fiction in Active Voice (confused about passive voice, active voice and why it matter so much? Be confused no more).

Georgio Konstandi – Creating That “Killer” Character (you know how I’m always banging on about how important it is to construct compelling characters? This little gem is sure to help you do that).

Meg Dowell – The 4  Stages of Accepting Negative Feedback (negative feedback is sure to come. You might as well be prepared for it).

Carin Marais – Writing Tips – Actually Getting Started (we all struggle to get our groove on once in a while, so why not try out some of these handy hints to get you back in the flow?)

Louise Jensen – Readers/Writers – How do we all feel about ebook piracy? (this post really got me thinking. True, it’s not exactly a post about writing, but as a writer, it’s a subject I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about and I would expect all writers to at least have some opinion on it)

5 Ways to Write a Terrible Novel

You might recall, if you’ve been putting up with this blog long enough, that I once wrote a post on how to avoid becoming a writer. Of course, if you are a writer, you’ll know how insistent that little Inner-Writer’s voice can be, constantly banging on about the different ideas he’s come up with that you absolutely have to write. You might find it simply impossible not to write.

But fear not, ye who are enslaved by the urge to write. Your salvation is at hand. If you dread becoming a full time author, but cannot resist the urge to write, there is another solution: write badly.

It’s easy to do. Just follow these simple steps.

1. Use Dry Descriptions; Avoid Figurative Language

How you describe things can often be the difference between an excellent story and a terrible one. I can’t labour this point enough. Using metaphors, personifications and other forms of figurative language can turn even the most unexciting passages of narrative into a thing of sheer beauty, whereas dry descriptions can make even the most intense scenes seem duller than the Phone Book. Allow me to demonstrate using the first few lines of John Steinbeck’s Cup of Gold:

All afternoon the wind sifted out of the black Welsh glens, crying notice that Winter was come sliding down over the world from the Pole; and riverward there was the faint moaning of new ice. It was a sad day, a day of gray unrest, of discontent.

Steinbeck, J. (2000), Cup of Gold, Penguin Classics, UK. p. 1

This is what you want to avoid. All Steinbeck is doing here is describing the weather, yet it’s so chock full of figurative and poetic language that it’s an absolute joy to read. It flows beautifully and really makes you feel like you’re there, in the Welsh glens, feeling the cold of winter rolling in from the Pole. If you write like that, everybody will want to read your novel. Instead, aim for something like this:

It had been windy all afternoon in the black Welsh glens. You could tell it was nearly winter. In fact, the river was starting to freeze. The sky was grey and the mood was sad. There was a bit of a breeze and a bad feeling in the air.

Considering the above paragraph is only two and a bit lines long, you’ve got to admit… it’s a tedious read. I got bored writing it! You can be sure your reader will get bored if you write your whole novel that way.

2. Use Stock Characters

You know how I’m always saying that characters are people, and should therefore have all the wonderful complexity and contradiction that make up a real person? Well… forget all that. If you want to write a bad story, you’ve got to make sure your characters are as flat, predictable and stereotypical as possible. So, you might have characters like this:

Johnny Famous (our dashing hero). He’s strong, noble and righteous in all things. He neither smokes nor drinks, has no skeletons in his closet and knows neither fear nor selfishness.

Emperor Zorg (dark lord of all). Wears a black cape and wants to conquer the universe. Thinks love is a weakness. Lives in a black castle, or maybe an underground base.

Daisy Divine (love interest). Stunningly beautiful and serves no function in the story except to be rescued by and fall in love with Johnny. If you must give her a back story, don’t let it be anything that might interfere with her living happily ever after with Johnny.

3. Use ‘deus ex machina’

Even the most well written story can be ruined at the last minute by deus ex machina (‘God in the machine’). This is a technique writers sometimes use (usually when they can’t figure out how to progress the story in a way which is believable and satisfying) which essentially involves a random, improbable or otherwise unsatisfying solution to your story.

Just the other day I was watching an episode of Star Trek: Voyager called ‘Twisted’ in which a spacial implosion ring is slowly twisting and crushing the entire ship from the outside in. Eventually the regular cast find themselves trapped in the one and only unaffected room on the ship and are desperately trying to come up with a solution to save themselves before that room also implodes. Finally, they accept that they can do nothing but accept their fate. The implosion ring enters the room and begins to crush the remaining crew…

Then it suddenly disappears and everything is fine. Turns out the implosion ring wasn’t nearly as deadly as it seemed. In fact, it was trying to communicate.

I wasted an hour of my life watching that. Take note: deus ex machina is a great way to make your readers hate you forever.

4. Employ Numerous Cliches

Actually, just between you and me, you can sometimes include a tiny amount of small, carefully camouflaged cliches in a story and still end up with a good story… but as a rule of thumb, the more cliches you have and the more obvious they are, the more terrible your story will be.

There’s an almost endless list of possible cliches you could use to make your story extra-awful, but a few examples include:

  • The Chosen One: Our hero thinks he’s just an ordinary guy but it turns out he is actually the fulfilment of an ancient prophesy and must save the world because it’s his destiny (in a good story, the protagonist will act in a way which is in keeping with their own motivations and desires).
  • Love conquers all: Just when all seems lost and the world is doomed, the bad guy’s evil plans are utterly thwarted because someone performs some great act of love (usually either involving sacrificing oneself for another or just plain old fashioned snogging).
  • The Final Battle: The whole story culminates in final dramatic fisticuffs between the noble hero and the evil dark lord in which, after a bit of a wobbly start which is supposed to make the reader think all is lost, the noble hero inevitably wins.

5. Info Dump

To understand what is going on in your story, your reader must be aware of certain facts. Characters’ backstories or particulars about how your fictional world works, for instance. Good writers feed this information to their readers in small doses and, where possible, will subtly weave it into the narrative so as not to drag the pace of their story down to a tedious belly-crawl.

But you don’t want to be a good writer! You want to write a terrible novel, so make sure your novel reads like a textbook of facts and figures about the history of your characters and the world they inhabit. Ideally, if you can devote the first chapter or two entirely to providing facts and backstory without getting down to telling the actual story, you can be sure your reader will put your book down without finishing it. If that seems too hard, try to info-dump in a character’s dialogue instead. For example,

‘I was born on the 29th of May 1982 at the Queen Mary Maternity Hospital to Jean and Philip Jones.’ said Peter Jones. ‘I lived with them in the leafy suburbs of Anytown all my life until I met Miss Backstory who broke my heart and now I can’t handle adult relationships at all…’

Follow even just some of these steps and I can guarantee you, you’ll never write a good story in your puff. No matter how many manuscripts you complete and submit for publication, you can still return to your tedious office job day after day, secure in the knowledge that you’ll die at that grindstone before you ever have to take the plunge to become a professional, full time author.

Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

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!

Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

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!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

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!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

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!

Flash Fiction! Aah!

Many years ago, when I first came across the concept of flash fiction, I thought it sounded like a fashionable waste of time, without literary value of any kind. These days, I realise how totally wrong I was. I have seen the light. In fact, I am a fully converted reader and writer of 500 word, 100 word, 50 word and even 6 word stories, though today I want to focus on stories that fall somewhere in the region of 50-500 words (I find the discipline of writing a 6 word story is somewhat different, though many of the same rules apply).

One of the obvious perks to flash fiction is that you can have it written in a relatively short period of time. After all, flash fiction is usually defined as a story which is written in fewer than 1,000 words – the length of an average Penstricken post (in fact, the posts on this website often go a little over 1,000 words). Well, I manage to write these posts in a single morning most weeks so… how hard can it be to write a story of half that length, or even less?

Harder than you think. Remember, we’re not writing a poem or an essay here but a story. That involves the same basic elements common to all stories such as characters, plot and so forth.

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how long your story is, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning, where everything is normal for your protagonist until that fateful day; a middle, where your protagonist faces the conflict or problem the story focuses on; and an ending, where your character’s problem has been resolved one way or another and life goes on (though it may never be the same again). I do apologise if this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, but it’s a point worth labouring.

You see, one of the traps writers of flash fiction (myself included) often fall into is missing out one or more of these vital parts because their word count is so limited. Usually (for me anyway), the temptation will be to skip straight to the ending. So the first line of your story might look something like this:

Michael stood with his father’s blooded sword in hand, glaring at Kar across the volcano’s fiery chasm…

Woah, woah, hold the bus a minute! Who’s Michael? What happened to his father? Whose blood is it on the sword? What’s his beef with Kar? What are they doing on top of a volcano? This is the kind of line you might expect to find at the climax of a story, not at the beginning! You’re starting at the end!

I know, I know… you’ve only got a couple of hundred words to play with, if that much. But the way to deal with that limitation isn’t by chopping off vital parts. Instead, try to include all the parts using as few words as possible. It might be tempting to do this by dividing your word count in three and allotting so many words to each section (so in a 100 word story, each part would be about 33 words long). I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best approach however. In most stories, the middle section is usually the longest part and I would argue that the same is true in flash fiction. Aim, therefore, for a very snappy beginning and ending. For instance, in the last 100 word story I wrote, my beginning was only 17 words long and my ending was 14 words. That gave me 69 words to play with in the middle in which my character faced and dealt with his problem.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of characters. Characters are the beating heart of every good story. Because your word count is so limited, you need to give yourself as much room as possible to develop your characters. The sensible thing to do, therefore, is try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Any more than three is probably pushing it and I wouldn’t even go that high if your story is fewer than 100 words long.

Introduce your characters at the very beginning. We don’t have time for detailed backstories, so my advice would be to keep it simple. Tell us who they are and what their situation is:

Simon thought about boarding a different bus today and escaping forever. He hated Mondays.

Boom, job done. He’s called Simon, he is toying with running away and he hates his job (we can glean that from the fact he is planning on running away from a place he regularly commutes to and the fact he hates Mondays; after all, why else do people hate Mondays?). That’s a slice of the everyday for Simon. This beginning also works because his fantasy of escape foreshadows the possibility that he maybe will escape. It forces the reader to wonder whether or not Simon will ever be free from his monotonous life. Obviously if we were writing a novel we would need a lot more than this, but it’s plenty for flash fiction.

Now comes the middle, where we turn Simon’s life upside down.

‘Simon Brown, I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ Someone said in his ear. ‘Follow me.’

Well, I’m not going to write the rest of the story for you but I’m sure you get the idea. Does he go with the mysterious stranger or not? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no, I would generally recommend centring your middle around this one key event. If we’re going to develop a satisfactory character arc, we need something that will change Simon for better or worse, but we need to do it in only a few sentences.  Therefore keep the action simple but loaded with significance.

I recently read an excellent 100 word story by one Jeanne Waddington entitled The Accident (available here – round 1, runner-up) in which a teacher “accidentally” spills a cup of water on a pupil who has wet himself. That’s the central event. Simple, right? And quick – it’s easy to describe this event in a few words. However, the result of this seemingly minor event is that the protagonist goes from being afraid and ashamed to being confident and happy. So:

Beginning: Percy is sitting in school having just wet himself. This is a slice of his normal life.
Middle: Suddenly, the problem strikes! It’s playtime! Everyone will know he wet himself! Fortunately, along comes Mrs Gently to spill water on him.
Ending: Percy’s problem is solved. He can enjoy playtime without shame.

That, I believe, is what makes flash fiction uniquely valuable as a form of story telling. By writing with such a tight word count, a skilled author can turn even the most small and seemingly insignificant events into something meaningful and even exciting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be imaginative or even include a bit of magic or fantasy in your flash fiction (my most recent 100 word story involves time travel!); just be realistic with how much you can squeeze in and don’t let the length of your story compromise the quality of the story.