On Character Traits

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Show me a good story with bad characters and I’ll show you a liar. There is a direct correlation between the quality of a story and the quality of its characters. Good characters are not optional. They are essential.

Are we all agreed on that?

Good. Go to the back of the class if you said ‘no’.

Now I know what you’re thinking: what makes a good character? Well, there’s quite a few things, but if you really want to write a character of substance, you’ll need to give him a few key traits. At their most basic level, a character’s traits can be defined simply as a list of a few critical adjectives which describe the sort of person your character is; for example, cowardly, obliging, sarcastic, compassionate, devout, holier-than-thou, etc. We’re not interested in physical descriptions here, nor are we interested in their thoughts or feelings at any particular point. We want to know what sort of person they are. If you don’t know what I mean, just think about someone you know well; a friend, relative or colleague. Ask yourself what sort of person they are.

‘John is really obnoxious.’

‘Susan is kindhearted.’

‘Peter is fly.’

These are all traits. They are fundamental to a character’s personality and will usually remain consistent throughout the story (with perhaps just a little wiggle room for growth). If you’re struggling, just Google ‘list of character traits’, you’ll find that the internet is simply teeming with lists of character traits that you can easily pick up and apply to your characters. It’s entirely up to you how many you choose, but I tend to go for nine traits for each major character: three positive traits (e.g.: generous), three neutral traits (e.g.: whimsical) and three negative traits (e.g.: censorious).

‘Sounds simple enough… ‘ I hear you cry, with a note of caution in your voice. And you’re right! It is simple. But there’s a way to do it and there’s a way not to do it.

Detailing your entire plot (or worse, writing an entire draft) and then deciding on your characters traits based on what happens to your character throughout your story is how not to do it. This will result in flat, predictable characters around whom the whole world seems to revolve.

Real people aren’t like that. The sun shines on the righteous and the wicked– and on the zealous, the pious, the pitiable and the proud. Life happens to people regardless of what sort of people they are, and we all deal with each situation in our own way, based on the sort of person we are. Therefore, if you take my advice, you’ll sketch out your characters’ key traits before you begin any detailed plotting or drafting, even if you’re a pantser. And stick to the traits you decide on, no matter what events befall your character. These traits will help to define every choice your character makes, everything they say and, perhaps more importantly, how and why they do/say it.

Try to be adventurous when it comes to selecting character traits. Even pick a few traits entirely at random (yep, there are places online you can do that too) and work with whatever you end up with. Don’t worry if the traits you end up with seem contradictory. Real people are full of contradiction too! This will only enrich your character and you can always smooth out any rough edges that seriously impinge upon your story later if you absolutely have to.

When you finally do come to draft your story, be sure to keep your characters’ traits in mind at all times but do not explicitly state your characters’ traits in the narrative (e.g.: ‘Dave was an evasive and brusque man’). Let your reader get to know Dave by experiencing Dave, not simply being told about Dave. Portraying a character’s traits is a subtle balancing act, where you drip feed your reader just the right quantities of each trait at the right time. You don’t need to bring them all out in equal measure all the time, however I would advise making a character’s fundamental traits fairly clear from the get-go. Even shifty, unreliable characters can be portrayed as such through voice and body language. Let’s think about Dave again. Dave’s a bit of an enigmatic fellow. No one really quite knows what he’s planning, whose side he’s on or what his true intentions are. You can portray this to the reader simply by making him guarded or abrupt in his dialogue.

‘Up to much this weekend?’ Pete asked, pulling on his coat and switching off the office lamp.

‘Nothing much.’ Dave sniffed.

‘Why don’t you come over on Sunday? Susie’s doing Sunday dinner and she always makes enough for ten–‘

‘Sorry Pete,’ Dave interrupted. ‘Maybe another week, I can’t this week.’

‘We never seem to see you anymore, is everything okay?’

‘Fine. Just busy that’s all.’

Thus the mystery is not only preserved, but it is also enhanced, because it makes the reader want to know more. Is Dave out killing people at the weekend? Has he got some illicit love affair on the go somewhere? Does he simply dread socialising? We don’t know. One thing we do know: Dave is evasive and Dave is brusque. The narrative doesn’t say it. Dave just is evasive and brusque. Experiment with using characters’ actions and dialogue and especially body language and voice to portray your characters’ traits and you’ll have a vibrant and distinctive bunch of characters before you know it.


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 mashes your spuds.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

I once read somewhere (and I do wish I could remember where so I could give proper credit) that we story-writers are in the entertainment industry; that the primary goal of the story-writer is to entertain. While I basically agree with this statement, I think it’s also true that the best stories all have something real to say.

This is where theme comes into play. The term can be a little bit broad sometimes so just to be clear, when I talk about a story’s theme, I am referring to the meaning(s) or dare I say, the message(s) of the story. What fundamental truth(s) are you conveying in your idle fantasy? What aspects of real life are you exploring? And equally as important, how are you conveying that truth?

Let’s look at the easy(ish) bit first: identifying your theme (we’ll come back to how to convey your theme later). Themes can take many forms: it can be a moral lesson (e.g., ‘don’t do drugs, kids’), a particular idea or belief (‘the meaning of life is such-and-such’, ‘God is like this’, ‘socialism/capitalism is destructive in this way’, etc.)  or it can be a general portrait of a particular subject (friendship, poverty, religion, etc.). Depending on how you write, you may have decided on a theme before anything else (that is to say, your initial idea was something like ‘I want to write a story about domestic violence’) or the theme may have come about as a natural byproduct of your story. If it’s the latter, you might be tempted to ask yourself: ‘do I really need to identify my theme(s), since they occurred purely by happenstance after I began writing the story?’.

Answer: yes, you do. After all, whether it was your intention to write a story about lies, sex and/or murder or not, your audience will pick up on these themes if they’re there. And believe me, if you’ve written a half-decent story, there will be at least a couple of naturally occuring themes. It’s unavoidable. Has one of your characters been pursuing a love interest who doesn’t reciprocate his feelings? Then your theme is unrequited love. You may not have intended it, but it’s there, growing wild in the tulip patch that is your story. Depending on how your characters behave, it may also become a story about obsession, harassment or rejection. Therefore, since it’s almost impossible to write a good story without a theme or two popping out of the mix, it’s worthwhile identifying your theme so that you can make it work for you. Themes may be naturally occurring, but they shouldn’t be allowed to grow wild. Once you’ve identified them, you can use them to really enrich your story.

How you convey your theme is something else entirely, and will depend largely on the kind of story you’re writing, but the best advice I can give you is this: avoid sounding preachy. That’s not what people want from a story and it will certainly annoy your reader, even if they agree with you. Don’t misunderstand me, you should be bold in communicating your ideas, but there’s a way to do it and a way not to do it. The chances are your readers came to your book quite comfortable in their own opinions. If you want to change their opinions, you’ll need to do it with tact and subtly. Show them the truth by the events of your story.

In the same way, avoid soapboxing (yes, I just made that term up). This is when you turn your characters into a soapbox from which you casually throw out your opinions on controversial subjects, usually in the form of internal or external dialogue. e.g.:

Pro-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. Didn’t these outdated old crones realise that a woman has the right to make decisions about her own body?

Anti-abortion soapboxing: There was a small group of nuns standing outside the hospital, clutching pictures of the Madonna and Child. Isobel shook her head. It saddened and amazed her to think that in this day and age, there was still any need to protest what was clearly the legally sanctioned murder of unborn babies.

Soapboxing won’t only annoy your reader, it will actually undermine your story. Remember stories and characters must develop. A story never ends where it began, because the characters therein must develop (even if that ‘development’ involves a downward spiral of self-destruction). If a character’s strongly-held beliefs are relevant to the story, they ought to be challenged throughout that story (and probably, although not necessarily, altered in some way by the end). Therefore, if you begin with absolute statements (‘such-and-such is evil!‘) you’ve nowhere to go but contradiction or compromise (‘such-and-such isn’t so bad after all’ or ‘I’m not sure what I think about such-and-such now’). You could, of course, end with an absolute statement (‘Jeanie thought such-and-such was okay, but now she knew it was evil!‘) but that is a very lazy way to write. If your audience was truly drawn into Jeanie’s plight throughout the story, they’ve probably already come to the conclusion that such-and-such is evil. They don’t need you to lecture them.

If, on the other hand, your character’s opinions are not not relevant to the overall story, ask yourself why you’ve included them. There may be a legitimate reason to include them (e.g., characterisation), but if it’s nothing more than an opportunity to soapbox, chop it out. Air your controversial opinions on Twitter if you must, but don’t let it ruin your story.

Remember, your audience didn’t come here to learn your opinions. Your audience doesn’t give a rip about your opinions, even if they happen to share them. Instead, focus on telling the story. Make it as true as you can and fill it with believable, sympathetic characters to whom your reader can relate. They’ll start to understand what it’s like to be in that position and will begin to think. And that’s all you can hope to accomplish as a writer: provoke thought. You cannot force someone to believe something. You can only offer them the truth as you see it.


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 plucks your eyebrows.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 2 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

31949641_10103880103049296_8630631606152855552_n

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. This is the second half of that interview. Click here to read the first half.


Let’s talk some more about your characters. Teddy is probably one of the most messed up characters I’ve ever come across. He’s absolutely vile in many respects and guilty of some pretty awful crimes yet there is also something pitiable about him. How do you go about developing a character like that?

He started out being just this borderline sociopathic neighbourhood bully with a kooky mother. We do feel sorry for him at times because, after all, he is this sort of confused teenage boy who wants to be good–he is envious of Imogen’s family. He would like more than anything to be their boy and have a normal life. But on the other hand, his mother has been doing unspeakably vile things to him since he was a child. He knows he will never be able to recapture that innocence and he also doesn’t feel like he deserves to be loved and he takes all that rage and pent-up anger and directs it at Tiffany. But just when he was beginning to feel better about his life, she shows up with the news that she is pregnant. He liked his job. Niles was mentoring him. He was thinking about a career. But Tiffany ruined everything. His reaction was obviously to get rid of her. In developing Teddy, I read up on sociopathic behaviours– antisocial behaviour, deceitfulness, hostility, irresponsibility, manipulativeness, risk taking behaviours, aggression, impulsivity, irritability, lack of restraint–and combined that with a narcissistic, abusive mother–and voila! Teddy.

timetouristsYou mentioned earlier that Imogen had her own opinions about things. Throughout The Time Tourists, the audience is privy to a lot of Imogen’s strongly-held beliefs about a whole range of controversial subjects from abortion to Darwinism. Do you think it’s important for authors to use their protagonists to make points on important real-life subjects?

I think every author’s approach is different. Each author has their own story to tell. I don’t know that it’s necessarily important, but for me personally, I think addressing real-world topics makes my characters more believable. I read something the other day about the movie Dirty Dancing. Everyone loves that film and it always feels like this very light, entertaining outing about dancing. However, the entire premise for Baby and Johnny getting together at all is because she is called upon to fill in for his usual dance partner after she falls victim to a botched, illegal abortion. I also think that if my characters are going back in time I have a responsibility to provide context and comparison.

If they ever make a film adaptation of The Time Tourists, who would you choose to play the lead characters? 

Haha, I actually have thought about this–what author hasn’t? I sort of envision Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss in The Hunger Games) or maybe Emma Watson (Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter)– both seem like strong, feminist-type women. For Herbert Doran– Michael Shannon. He is so intense and awesome. Simon was actually based on a sort of Robert Downey, Jr. prototype, but I think we’d need someone a bit younger for the role. Not sure about Teddy– a method actor, for sure!

The Time Tourists is, of course, the first book in the Dead Relatives Inc. series. Now I know you won’t want to give too much away but I have to ask: what’s next for Imogen? 

Imogen will have more adventures in time, of course, but there are a number of loose ends– her mother and father are still lost in time and we may never know what happened to Tiffany, or will we? I envision Mimi Pinky playing a larger role in this second book. Simon will have to also become acclimated to living 100 years in the future and as the new guy in Imogen’s life, I envision some conflict between he and her ex-boyfriend Fletcher. There will be a few other surprises that I’ll keep under wraps. I also see some danger ahead.

Final question: do you have any advice for anyone out there who might be thinking about writing their first novel? 

Forget an audience. Write for yourself and don’t censure yourself. What do you like to read about? When I was a little girl, I enjoyed it so much because I was basically telling myself a story. Enjoy the journey. Just like the reader, as the writer I keep going so I can find out what happens next. Say what you want to say and write what you yourself would like to read.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

MISSED PART 1 OF THIS INTERVIEW? CLICK HERE TO READ IT.


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 interviews your author.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

Until next time!

Author Interview: Sharleen Nelson (part 1 of 2)

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

31949641_10103880103049296_8630631606152855552_n

If there’s one thing I love, it’s a truly imaginative story. As a story about a time travelling private detective, The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson definitely fits that category!

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sharleen Nelson, whose debut novel The Time Tourists is available to buy on Amazon and other retail outlets. What follows is part one of that interview. Be sure to check back next week for part two!


You’ve been a journalist and an award-winning photographer for over twenty years. What made you decide to write a novel?

I have always been a writer, ever since I was a little girl. I used to spin stories in my head, complete with an array of characters and dialogue. I started one novel and got about 40,000 words into it, but then couldn’t figure out what to do with the characters, so abandoned it. This particular story started percolating about 10 years ago. My father had died recently and I was pretty devastated. I thought that getting lost in a nice little fantasy might be good therapy.

What was the main inspiration behind The Time Tourists?timetourists

Well at the time I was working as a magazine editor/writer at this place called Marathon Coach– they build these million dollar luxury buses. Anyway, in the bathroom were framed prints of local street scenes from around the turn of the century– people walking, doing things, cars and buggies. I remember looking at those and thinking, ‘how cool would it be to just be able to walk into that picture, into that scene and be a part of it.’ I love history. I’m a photographer, and if time travel was real, I would totally do it! The combination of things just sort of meshed and I started forming the story. I didn’t want to deal with the tech part of having a time machine; I wanted it to be more of a magical thing, so that when my character arrived somewhere in time, the universe just filled in everything for her.

Did you find anything particularly difficult about writing this novel?

Yes, I wanted it to be more character-driven, less science fiction. I guess you could say it’s more of a fantasy, but it doesn’t really fit neatly into either genre. I guess you’d call it ‘speculative fiction’. The most difficult part of writing it for me was letting myself get bogged down with plot structure. I knew the story. I never have writer’s block at all, but I wasted a good deal of time organising and reorganising and moving chapters around–should I weave in the backstory? Should it be chronological? Finally, I just decided that I needed to write the damn thing and worry about that later. Once I did that, it all sort of fell into place.

When I first read the synopsis I thought I might be getting a sort of sci-fi/cozy mystery combination but there are actually a lot of different and sometimes very dark themes running through this story making it quite hard to categorise (definitely not a cozy, however!). What would you say was your central theme(s)?

That is a great question! You’re right, it isn’t the cozy tale that one might expect. Of course, as every writer does, I drew things from my own life and I wanted Imogen to be this very real, complex person with opinions about things. I didn’t want to just send her off on adventures without the audience knowing what motivates her. So much of it evolved as I was going along. It’s true what people say, that sometimes characters seem to have minds of their own. Teddy is a very dark and twisted character. He came about from an experience I had when I was 19. I was majoring in psychology and for a time, I volunteered on a crisis line. The phone calls were routed to my home phone and I had a list of resources to recommend to people who called in. One night, a 16-year-old boy called. I wasn’t supposed to counsel anyone, just refer them, but he started telling me this horrible story about how his mother was abusing him sexually and that she would let him use the car if he slept with her. Of course, that stuck with me and not only did it make the reader feel more sympathetic to the Teddy character, he wasn’t all pure evil, but also showed that abuse comes in many forms. It’s not always male perpetrators. I also wanted to explore themes like religion, misogyny, feminism, or what it’s like being a gay person in another time. So I’m not sure that there is a central theme. I just wanted to create characters that the reader could maybe identify with, who have real motivations and real flaws.

COME BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART 2.

The Time Tourists by Sharleen Nelson is available to buy now on Amazon and other retail outlets.
Click here to visit Sharleen Nelson’s author page.

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 snaps your photo.

ATTENTION AUTHORS: 

I’m hoping to do author interviews here on Penstricken over the coming year, especially with new fiction authors. 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.

Until next time!

Writing a Good Character Description

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: characters are the beating heart of every good story. Good characters, more often than not, make for a good story. That means you need to write a character with strong goals, strong motives and a clear problem to overcome. We know this. Nevertheless, it also goes without saying that your characters must all have a physical appearance, which you can describe to the reader (unless, of course, you’re writing some highly ambitious piece of supernatural fiction where all your characters are non-corporeal beings who never interact with physical reality as we know it).

Let me tell you right now, there’s an art to describing characters. Do it right and your audience will have such a vivid image in their minds that they’ll swear they’ve actually met your character. Do it wrong and you might just produce one of the most pedestrian scenes in your entire story. Nothing drags the pace of a narrative down quite like a long winded description of Jimmy’s hair colour, eye colour and whatever unremarkable clothes he might be wearing. I say it’s better to have no physical description than a bad one.

If you give a simple description of height, weight, hair colour, eye colour and so on you will not only bore the reader to tears but you will also, in the most long-winded way possible, tell us nothing significant about the character. Instead, focus on distinguishing features and other details which help us to really get to know the character. Let us refer, once more, to the master, John Steinbeck. He described his character, Lennie Small, in this way:

A huge man, shapeless of face, with large, pale eyes, with wide, sloping shoulders; and he walked heavily, dragging his feet a little, the way a bear drags his paws. His arms did not swing at his sides, but hung loosely and only moved because the heavy hands were pendula.

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

If you’ve read Of Mice and Men, you’ll know there are two essential things to know about Lennie Small: 1) he’s a large and strong man and 2) he has a childlike mind. These two facts form the basis for his entire plotline from start to finish. Is it any surprise, then, that Steinbeck’s description emphasises these qualities? Just look at the adjectives/adverbs: ‘huge’, ‘large’, ‘wide’, ‘heavily’, ‘heavy’. All these words signify bigness. Notice, incidentally, that Steinbeck never says ‘tall’, nor does he give a specific height. After all, Steinbeck’s purpose is to emphasise how physically imposing Lennie is but not all tall people are imposing. Whether Lennie is tall or not is unimportant. What matters is that he is huge.

Similarly words like ‘shapeless’, ‘pale’ and ‘hung loosely’, used to describe his face, eyes and body language all have a certain vacant quality to them. The bear metaphor is especially powerful, as bears are animals which are known to be physically imposing but not frightfully intellectual. Nothing in this description is superfluous. It tells us everything we need to know about Lennie. We can imagine unimportant details like his hair colour for ourselves.

Another important thing to consider is how subjective/objective your word choice is. Objective language sticks to the facts. For example: ‘Johnny had brown eyes’. Subjective language is based on one’s personal impressions: ‘Johnny had eyes of the richest chocolate’. Or alternatively, ‘Johnny had eyes like a pair of dirty brown pebbles’. Striking the right subjective/objective balance can be hard and will be largely dependent on your narrative POV. As a rule, First Person and Third Person (Limited) narratives can and should include a generous dose of subjective language, since we are being given the personal impressions of a particular character. We want to know whether or not the narrator is attracted to or repelled by the character in question. Third Person (Omniscient), on the other hand, should be more reserved with its use of subjective language. But that’s only a guideline.

One last tip: use vivid but precise language. Consider again Steinbeck’s description of Lennie. The word ‘pendula’, used to describe the movements of Lennie’s arms, creates a very sharp image in the reader’s mind. After all, we’ve all seen the lazy, mindless but unceasing swing of a pendulum that hangs from a clock, powered by nothing but simple physics. We can imagine that motion so clearly that it is easy to picture Lennie’s arms as they swing in a way that more bland language might not have been able to convey. Beware, however. Don’t let clever sounding words get in the way of a description which is also precise. Steinbeck is a master of description not only because of the vivid imagery he employs, but also because the imagery is so very appropriate. If simple language creates desired effect, use it. Don’t bamboozle your reader with peripheral unnecessary purple prose, especially not if it is less precise than simple language. You will lose your reader’s attention if you do. Instead, aim to use words and metaphors which convey an accurate and vivid image in the most direct way possible.

Remember, your reader doesn’t really care what your character looks like. They care about who your character is. So when you describe your character’s looks, cut to the chase. Keep it snappy, keep it sharp and most importantly of all, keep it relevant.


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Figuring Out Foil Characters

We’re all familiar with some of the traditional character types you find in most fiction: protagonists, antagonists, love interests and so forth. But there is another common type of character out there; one which can sometimes be harder to define, though we know them when we see them (intuitively at least). I am talking about foils.

The OED defines a foil in this way:

A person or thing that contrasts with and so emphasizes and enhances the qualities of another.

Source: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/foil

In fiction, therefore, a foil is a character (or sometimes an object or idea) who highlights the traits of another character (usually the protagonist) by contrasting with them. But apart from that, these characters can play just about any role in your story you like. They can even (and often do) fulfil other key roles in your story, such the main antagonist or love interest (actually, as an aside, I often think love interests make great foils; opposites do so often attract, especially in fiction).

There’s a lot of good reasons to include a foil in your story. They can be an excellent tool for emphasising qualities in your protagonist which you might wish to draw out without stating explicitly. They can also go horribly wrong if executed poorly or needlessly.

As is so often the case, I have one particularly important rule I like to stick to whenever I write a foil (though you can apply this rule to any of your characters). Ready? Here it is:

No character should exist solely for the benefit of another.
robin
No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

Yes, a foil character must, by definition, contrast with another, but if that’s their only function in your story, watch out! All people in real life have their own motives, goals and problems and so should your characters. A good story can get along just fine without a foil character, but a character who serves as a foil and nothing else will be nothing but a burden on your narrative. At best they will read like a two-dimensional sidekick.

I would therefore strongly advise against sitting down to ‘write a foil character’. Figure out who the main players are in your story first. Ask yourself what they all want, what’s preventing them from getting it and why they are necessary for your story. You may well find that your story will benefit from having a foil and it will probably become pretty obvious who should assume that role once you’ve finished most of your planning.

Take Star Wars for instance. Power and its ability to corrupt is a central theme in these movies. Every Jedi, trained in the Force, faces the temptation to be seduced and corrupted by their power. In the original trilogy, the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, faces this very issue in the form of his foil and antagonist, Darth Vader. Both of these characters come from humble backgrounds, both were trained by Jedi Masters and became powerful Jedi themselves. Yet only Darth Vader was seduced by the Dark Side; Luke resists the same temptation and his life takes a completely different path. Cosmetic contrasts such as differently coloured lightsabres also add to the effect.

Darth Vader works as a foil for Luke, because it feeds right in to one of the story’s key themes and draws out Luke’s inner struggles against the Dark Side. Indeed, Darth Vader serves very much as a personification of Luke’s inner struggles. He represents the course of life Luke can but must not choose.

Darth Vader: You’ve only begun to discover your power. Join me and I will complete your training! With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.

Luke: I’ll never join you!

Darth Vader:  It is your destiny. Join me, and together, we can rule the galaxy as father and son!

Star Wars (ep. 6): Return of the Jedi

Of course, not all foils are antagonists. They don’t even need to be central characters (I’ve even heard it argued that they really shouldn’t be, though I don’t personally agree with that). All a character really needs to be a foil is to draw out your protagonist’s key traits by contrasting with them. But for my money, a good foil should be a fully-fledged secondary character, antagonist, love-interest, etc. in their own right first and a foil second. Perhaps a better way to think of it is to say that a foil is not so much a character type as it is a literary technique; one which just happens to often be associated with one character in particular.


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 kicks your side.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Gleaning Ideas from Other Stories

Every story, good or bad, starts with an idea. Before you can have a plot, characters or any of that other wonderful stuff, you must have an idea. This we know. We also know that plot bunnies can sometimes pop up at the darnedest times and provide you with a wealth of truly original material with which to create your masterpiece.

But what do you do when the Idea Tree stops putting out its juicy fruit?

Easy.

Glean ideas from someone else’s story.

No, don’t look at me like that! I’m not for one second advocating plagiarism. That’s illegal and rightly so. But reading other people’s books and watching other people’s films can be a great place to find ideas. In fact, you’ll never read/watch/listen to a story of any kind that doesn’t contain at least a few ideas. Even really bad stories still have ideas embedded within their pages which can be used, reused and used again without any risk of plagiarism, so it’s worthwhile learning how to find them and make them work for you.

It’s also worth being clear on what you absolutely shouldn’t do. It’s all very well watching Star Trek and deciding you want to write a novel about space exploration, but it is not okay to write a story about a pointy eared, emotionless man from the planet Vulcan’t who explores the galaxy on the Confederate Starship USS Business. CBS would have every right to hunt you down and pinch your neck sue your face off if you try that. Moreover, it’s okay to read a Batman comic and decide you want to write about a masked vigilante, but I would think twice about making it a millionaire who operates from a secret cave and wears black rubber and a cape. The line between originally and plagiarism can sometimes be fuzzy, so the best advice I can give is to stay far, far away from this kind of obvious idea stealing. Remember, the goal is to get inspired, not to copy. And there’s an art to it.

Think about the last story you read/saw/heard, whether good or bad. For me, it was the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Most Toys’. Not my favourite episode by any stretch of the imagination, but that doesn’t matter. We’re going to break it down and squeeze it for every last juicy idea droplets we can and turn those into something good and original. Begin deconstructing the story by asking yourself some basic questions about the plot, characters and themes. Simple stuff like:

Q: Who are some of the key characters?
A: Data, an emotionless android Starfleet officer; Fajo, a cruel and irreverent collector of rare items; Varria, Fajo’s long-suffering slave-come-mistress.

Q: What was the basic plot?
A: Data is kidnapped by Fajo and forced to perform as his latest museum piece. Data refuses to perform and, recognising how Varria has come to loathe Fajo, enlists her help in escaping his captor.

Q: What are some of the key themes?
A: Greed, pacifism, physical and psychological violence against women/domestic abuse, deceitfulness

Q: Any other interesting facts about this story?
A: The title comes from the expression ‘he who dies with the most toys, wins’. This expression emphasises the ultimate futility of humanity’s obsession with accumulating things in the face of our inevitable mortality.

And that’s just for starters. I haven’t even begun to consider settings, minor characters, motives/goals/conflicts or some of the more subtle themes buried throughout the story but I used the questions above just as a demonstration. Your aim here is to deconstruct the story to the nth degree, thus drawing out as much raw material as you can.

Don’t worry about whether or not the themes or character motives are “really” in the story or not. All that matters is that you amass as much raw material as you can and take a note of it. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find it helpful to pool all this material together into one place (in my case, a Scrivener project in which I dump all my loose bits of idea).

Now all you need to do is take some of those individual idea bits and try to turn them into something new. Do a bit of zero drafting or free writing based on what you’ve come up with. For example, the material I gleaned from The Most Toys’ could inspire me to write a story about:

  • A slave trying to escape his owner who sees him only as property.
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship.
  • A woman who, perhaps fearing for her own life, murders her abusive partner.
  • A robot trying to establish his rights as a sentient being.
  • Capital punishment. Is it ever morally justifiable to kill?
  • A robot judge in a criminal court.
  • A museum where the exhibitions include living people (perhaps from a particular culture or race which that particular society views as inferior?), forced to perform for paying clientele.

Furthermore, by pooling these ideas together with ideas you have extracted from other places, you can mix and match ideas to come up with even more original and interesting stories. Ultimately, no idea is truly original. When you break them down, you’ll find common themes and recurring motifs in almost every story you ever come across. So be sure to pick up all the gleanings from every story you come across. Before long, you’ll have an endless supply of raw material that you can work into something original.


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 steals your android.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Should You Use Profanity in Your Story?

I’ve been reading Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type: Some Stories. It’s not really my intention to review it here today (not least of all because I haven’t read it all yet), but I will say I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the quality of his writing. It doesn’t read like an actor trying to make a few extra quid by writing a book. It reads like something written by a professional author who knows a thing or two about writing quality stories. In short, I’m enjoying it. But something else about it surprised me: the language. There’s a lot of profanity in there and for some reason, I expected Tom Hanks’ work to be a little bit more family friendly. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s just because I’m hearing it in Woody the Cowboy’s voice.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about the use of profanity in fiction. We authors walk a fine line between realism and rudeness, especially when it comes to writing dialogue. Where do you draw the line?

Well… it depends.

The first and most obvious thing is to consider your audience and what they expect from your story. Certain audiences tend to go for certain genres, and as such, the level of profanity in your work will often be largely dependent on your genre. If you have a real aversion to using any profanity whatsoever in your writing, the simplest way around this is to stick to those genres which tend to have less profanity in them. Alternatively, you can always sit down and watch the soaps for inspiration. Really, I’m serious. Emmerdale, Eastenders and Coronation Street are simply chock full of characters having heated arguments about adultery, betrayal, crime and all sorts of other grim subjects without a single f-bomb being dropped.

giphy
Image source: http://gph.is/1c3k48L

However, let’s assume you are willing to use some profanity in your story. There might be lots of reasons why you use bad language in your story. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Spock makes frequent (mis)use of mild profanity in a vain attempt to fit in with 20th century human society. Here it serves a very simple function: comedy relief (even though The Voyage Home is pretty light-hearted anyway). It also works, because it’s done in a fairly subtle way. Bad language is also often used to add a sense of anger or urgency to a character’s dialogue. It is, therefore, an undeniably useful tool for some authors.

A word of warning, however: profanity has the power to augment your story or to utterly ruin it, perhaps more than any other technique you might use. A measure of bad language may or may not be appropriate if you’re writing for adults, but bad language is not the defining characteristic of a good adult story. It is simply a tool that you may decide to use or not use as you see fit. Overusing it, as with any other literary technique, can destroy your story. The fact is, profanity loses its power very quickly. The more often bad language is used, the more desensitised the reader becomes to it. What began as a striking technique with which to shock or amuse the audience quickly becomes nothing more than a few pointless extra words which ruin the flow of the narrative.

‘But in real life, some people do swear ten times in a single sentence!’ I hear you cry. ‘How can I make my dialogue realistic if I water it down?’

It can be tempting to think this. On the surface it seems perfectly rational. However, any seasoned author knows that dialogue in fiction is actually very different from the way real people talk from day to day. Dialogue flows. Dialogue makes sense. Dialogue is to-the-point. Even when sub-text is used, what is said remains clear and advances the story in a very definite direction. For this reason, profanity may sometimes be necessary but it should be carefully measured, lest it lost its power.

In real life, people talk rubbish. They say things they don’t mean. They’ll change the subject. They’ll utterly misunderstand the subject and, you know, they’ll like… how can I put it? They’ll, I don’t know, they’ll– respond in inappropriate ways. You know, like, you’ll say something and they’ll say something back and it’s obvious they’ve not understood you because what they’ve said back doesn’t make any sense. Like that time I was talking to Sandra about fly fishing and she… [insert long winded, irrelevant anecdote here]. They’ll misuse pacific words, mishandle slang and make such a mess of their utterances that it frankly beggars belief that humans are able to communicate verbally at all.

In the same way a real person might swear twenty times per sentence, but if you want to fictionalise that person, you’ll probably want to tone down his language lest it ruin the flow of your narrative.

One last thing to bear in mind: You’re never going to please everyone. What matters, therefore, is you, your story and your intended audience (not necessarily in that order). Ask yourself, why am I using profanity here? Is it really necessary to make my story work? Am I comfortable using it? Will it produce the correct response in my intended audience (forget your ‘unintended’ audience; you can’t possibly please everyone), or will it bore/offend them? Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s appropriate. Personally, I find less is usually more when it comes to profanity, but maybe that’s just me.


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 #!$@*!!’s your &#@%!!!.

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

I’m looking for authors (especially, but not limited to, new and/or indie authors) whose work I can feature here on Penstricken over the coming year. It will simply take the form of a quick Q&A about yourself and your work via private message or e-mail and, of course, a link to where we can all get a copy of your work.

I’m open to interviewing authors of almost any kind of story, provided your work is complete, original and of course, fictional. I will not consider individual short stories/micro-fictions, however I am happy to feature published anthologies or entire blog-sites of micro-fiction, provided you are the sole author.

If you’re interested, or want to know more, be to sure to drop us an e-mail or message us on Facebook/Twitter.

Writing Child Characters

Whenever I write a ‘writing tips’ style of post here on Penstricken about how to deal with one problem or another, it’s often as a result of me having recently encountered and overcome that particular problem myself. Today is no different, so I hope you’ll bear with me while I share my limited insights into the challenge of writing child characters.

It can be tempting to approach child characters differently from adults. Don’t fall into this trap. A character is a character, regardless of age. They are all imaginary people made up of motivations, goals, backstories, dialogue and all that wonderful stuff. Therefore, the exact same rules and techniques apply to creating child characters as they do to making adult characters. The only real difference is how you apply these familiar principles to making a child character.

Let’s start with the basics. When you created your adult characters, you undoubtedly prepared a detailed biography of every character detailing everything from their name and address to their favourite invertebrates (didn’t you?).

Well, this may sound obvious to some of you but it’s too important to leave unsaid: Your child characters’ biographies should be every bit as detailed as your adult characters’ biographies.

A name, an age and a gender is not sufficient to create a rounded child character anymore than it is sufficient to an adult. Take my daughter for example. In addition to these things, she has a height, a weight, a hair colour, an ethnic group, a national identity, a citizenship, a place of birth, an eye colour, a whole bunch of associates who interact with her regularly, a social status, things she’s good at (e.g. saying ‘mum’), things she’s not quite mastered yet (e.g. saying ‘dad’), things she likes (Mr. Lion) and things she dislikes (mushed up banana). She has a physical appearance which can be described in objective terms and she has a backstory (that is, I can think of several key events in her short life so far which have had an impact on who she is now and who she will be in the future). She is being raised with particular beliefs and she has a distinctive personality.

And she’s not even one year old yet. Don’t cut corners. Give your child characters detailed biographies.

Moving on from there, it’s important to remember that children, like adults, vary in their complex natures and are capable of a wide range of feelings and ideas, just like adults are. They have beliefs and uncertainties; goals and motives and everything else besides. Some are thoughtful while others are impulsive. Some prefer imaginative play while others are interested in puzzles and games. Some are chatterboxes, some are painfully shy. Et cetera.

Therefore, when you come to write your child character, it is vital that you have clearly established his or her motivation, (what drives them to do what they do), goals (what they hope to achieve), conflict (what hinders them from achieving their goal) and epiphany (what they learn as a result of it), just like you would with an adult. I’ve written about this in more detail here, so I’ll assume you understand how this all works in general terms.

One of the worst mistakes you can make is assuming children don’t need all this stuff. They need it just as much as adult characters. The only difference is what motivates them, what they hope to achieve, what hinders them and what they will learn. Even so, when you boil these elements (especially the all-important motive) down to basics, you’ll find a lot of parallels. They may be driven by personal ambition, a noble cause, the desire for friendship or many other things besides. It’s only the particular details that will be significantly different. For example…

Motivation Amy (8 years old) wants to be accepted by her peers.
Goals To acquire the full range of Pogs and Tazos (because this story is set in the ’90s; ask your parents, kids).
Conflict Amy’s parents think Pogs and Tazos are a fantastic waste of money and absolutely refuses to indulge her.
Epiphany  If you have to acquire the all trendiest things to win somebody’s respect, their respect isn’t worth having coveting.

Amy’s motivation, you will agree, could just as easily be that of an adult character. However the goals, conflict and epiphany which derive from it are far more peculiar to children. It is, therefore, the particular details that separate adults’ goals and motives from childrens’.

One more important difference between adult and child characters is how they express themselves, whether in terms of what they say or what they do. For instance,

  • A shy adult at a party will make awkward small-talk, silently wishing he was somewhere else. A shy child will hide under a table and refuse to come out.
  • An adult at the buffet table might be quietly annoyed to discover the pigs-in-blankets have all gone before he got any– but won’t say anything. A child, on the other hand, might cry inconsolably over the empty plate, or try to beg someone else to share theirs. A more shrewd child (because believe me, children can be shrewd!) might even try to trade a sausage roll for it, even though there’s still plenty of sausage rolls available at the buffet table.

Dialogue is also important in this regard. There are two key things to note.

  1. Children generally don’t mince their words. They say what they mean and they mean what they say, even if it’s inappropriate or rude. Avoid innuendos, double entendres and euphemisms.
  2. Children may have insightful or complex ideas, without necessarily having the vocabulary to communicate them. What they say, therefore, should reflect their level of education. Use shorter words and shorter sentences. Avoid code switching or cultural references that a child is unlikely to understand.

I find the simplest way to write children’s dialogue is to begin by writing it normally and then simplifying it. Keep sentences short and to-the-point and use big words sparingly. Don’t fall into the trap of filling your dialogue with deliberate mistakes, however. Children are not stupid. They just have a more simple language than adults with which to communicate (or ‘they don’t know as many words as grown-ups’).


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 knocks your door.

Until next time!

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!