Throwback Thursday: Fiction- Reality Refined

Originally published: 05/11/2017

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

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

A Protagonist’s Anatomy #2: Backstory

Real people don’t just pop out of thin air fully formed. Everything about them, from the way they speak to the things they believe, to the way they dress and to the decisions they make, is the culmination of what has gone before. This is is why if you want to write a protagonist of any real substance (and you do, dear reader) a strong backstory will be a vital part of his or her anatomy.

So what is a backstory? I hear you cry.

Put simply, a backstory is everything that happened to your protagonist before the events of your actual novel. More precisely, however, a backstory is whatever has happened in your protagonist’s past to make them who they are today. You may recall that last week we discussed character motive; but what is it that happened in this character’s past to endow them with this particular motive? That’s your backstory.

At this point, I would like to sound a note of caution. It can be tempting to write a detailed backstory which documents every single event in a protagonist’s life but this really isn’t necessary. It may or may not be the case that every single day is formative in the development of real life people, but we’re not writing real life. We’re writing fiction and fiction is reality refined to take away all the rough edges. Therefore, focus on what matters.

I find that the simplest approach is think of your character’s backstory like a photograph of the protagonist’s life. If you look at any good photograph (and I realise I’m stepping outwith my area of expertise here), you’ll see two things: the main subject of the photograph which sits in the foreground and the background which surrounds it.

Children holding hands in the foreground; a cobbled road and sunset in the background.

Your ‘background’ is all the basic stuff that goes into a character’s history: where they come from, who they grew up with, education, work, all that sort of thing. This doesn’t need to be too detailed. I find a simple list of basic facts will do for this point. E.g.:

Hometown: Somewhereland
Parents: Betty (deceased) and Bob
Siblings: Tom, Dick and Harriet.
… and so on and so forth.

Our ‘foreground’ backstory, however, ought to be a good deal more detailed. These are key events that have had a significant impact on your protagonist and were instrumental in making him the person he is today. Take Batman for instance. Why does this millionaire playboy feel the need to dress up in a frightening black costume and throw himself night after night into the criminal underbelly of one of the most lawless fictional cities in America?

Because when he was a little boy, he witnessed his parents being murdered. Every single version of Batman I’ve ever come across includes that key moment because that one event, more than anything else, makes Batman who he is. It’s what endowed him with that righteous fury which now serves as the key motivation behind everything he does. Without that righteous fury, he isn’t Batman; and without that painful single moment in his childhood, he has no real reason to be so motivated. It’s worth your while, therefore, writing out events like this in detail, perhaps even in the form of a little stand-alone short story. You don’t need to include this in your published book (in fact you probably shouldn’t), but it would probably be helpful for you as the author to have a detailed record of exactly what your protagonist experienced.

One more thing to remember: your character’s backstory is not the actual plot of your novel. It’s just the history of your character that makes them who they are today. Most of the background stuff will never need to be explicitly stated in the final published version of your story and even the foreground need not be laboured (though it should be gently inserted somewhere non-obstructive). What matters is that your protagonist has a clear origin so their motives don’t appear superficial to your reader, but your readers do not want to read lengthy portions of backstory which interrupt the flow of the actual plot. Click here to read a bit more about presenting a character’s backstory.

Thanks for reading. Be sure to come back next week for part 3, where we’ll be looking at character traits.

Missed part 1? Click here to go back!


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

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

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: How to Kill Someone (in Fiction) and Get Away With It

Originally published 17/07/2016

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid any spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Green Mile by Stephen King or Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

As much as I love the BBC sci-fi/drama, Doctor Who, I have to admit that in recent years, whenever one of the main characters die, I react in a way which I am quite sure the writers did not intend me to… I yawn.

I yawn because I just know they’ll be back. No one ever really dies on Doctor Who anymore, or if they do, some wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing happens to bring them back. The same goes for the bad guys as well as the good guys; The Master, Clara, Davros, Rory (Okay, strictly speaking he was erased from history, but still the principle remains; he ceased to exist and should never have come back) – they always find a way to cheat death just when all appears to be lost. Which means that for the viewer, all never really appears to be lost. It doesn’t matter if they get vaporised, blown up along with their spaceship or erased from history; the viewer always knows there’s a good chance that somehow, with a little sprinkling of TARDIS magic, they’ll be back.

Dear reader, what a waste this is. In real life, death is final; that’s what makes it such a big deal and why it is such a valuable tool for stimulating the audience emotionally. While killing a character only to bring them back later might seem like a cheap and easy way to make your story more exciting, it robs death of its sting if the audience knows that in this story, death is not final. If you want to produce any kind of reaction in your audience other than a bored yawn when you kill off a character, you’d better make sure the Reaper’s grip is as tight in your fictional world as it is in reality.

Moving on from implausible resurrections which suck all the drama out of fictional deaths, there are a few other unfortunate ways your audience might react to the death of a character. If you read last week’s post, you will no doubt be aware of how fickle a thing the audience’s support for your character can be. Just because you, as the writer, have decided who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the reader will like, support or sympathise with the characters you want them to like, support and sympathise with. The reason John  Coffey’s execution in The Green Mile was so sad was because over the course of the book (or movie, whichever you prefer…), we begin to sympathise with him more and more, especially when it becomes clear that he was not guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. If, however, he really had raped and murdered the girls he was accused of, I doubt very much that the typical reader’s response would have been quite so favourable towards him and it would have completely undermined the bitter note on which The Green Mile ended.

There is another point which is also loosely connected to this. Not only is it important that the audience has the right level of sympathy for the character you plan on killing, but the audience also has to have the right level of sympathy for the surviving characters too. After all, what really makes a death scene tragic is often far more to do with these characters than the ones who actually die. In the final scenes of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, one of the protagonists – the simple minded Lennie – accidentally kills a woman (‘Curley’s wife’). Most of the other characters in the story get the wrong end of the stick and decide to lynch Lennie. His friend, George, knows Lennie too well to really believe that he ever killed the Curley’s wife out of malevolence and ends up shooting Lennie in the back of the head to save him from being lynched. There are really two important deaths here: Lennie himself and Curley’s wife. Both of these characters have another character closely related to them with whom the reader has varying levels of sympathy (in Lennie’s case, it is George and in Curley’s wife’s case it is, of course, Curley). George, being one of the protagonists, garners considerable support from the audience on account of his protective behaviour towards the more vulnerable Lennie; Curley, on the other hand, is an altogether unlikable little man who is jealous, quick to anger, full of his own importance and who sees Lennie as somebody he can bully.

We’re not meant to like Curley. He’s a nasty little man from the moment he first appears so when his wife finally does die, all he is concerned about is having his revenge on the naive and lovable Lennie. In fact, the only time Curley ever appears to truly admire another character in the story is when he finds George standing over Lennie’s body and assumes that George heroically wrestled the gun out of Lennie’s hand and exacted revenge on Curley’s behalf – not realising that George killed Lennie as an act of compassion. It is almost impossible to truly sympathise with this man on account of his loss (no matter how tragic his wife’s death may have been) because his own reaction is one of hatred. He always hated Lennie for how he (accidentally) injured and humiliated him earlier in the story and now he finally has an excuse to kill him. That’s all his wife’s death means to him: an excuse to kill a guy he took a disliking to earlier in the story. George, on the other hand, clearly cares about Lennie, despite finding his behaviour challenging at times. Lennie’s death occurs only a few paragraphs before the story finally ends, but in those few paragraphs, George displays more genuine grief and regret over the death of his friend than Curley displays anywhere in the whole story. Thus, a certain bitter poignancy is added to Lennie’s death by George’s reaction, which is not so obvious in the death of Curley’s wife.

The death of a main character can easily be one of the main turning points in your story. A skillful author can use it to provoke any number of responses from all of the other characters, as well as further taking the reader’s sympathies in almost direction you like. Don’t spoil it or cheapen it by killing characters unnecessarily. If you’re going to kill a character then I implore you… don’t remove the fear of death from your story. Make sure dead characters stay dead, no matter how difficult it makes things for your other characters and be sure to do the proper ground work to get the correct response from your audience.


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

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Like It or Lump It, Your Intended Audience Matters

Originally published 24/07/2016

The Parable of the Audience

by A. Ferguson

The stadium was a sea of overpriced band tees and elaborate haircuts. Heavy metal music was being played, inappropriately, as quiet background music over the speaker system. Suddenly and without warning, the lights went out and the music abruptly ended. The hubbub of chatter and the friendly jostling of the crowd was replaced with an almighty roar as every eye turned to the stage. People pushed and shoved their way to the front, clapping and screaming to be heard above the crowd. A plastic cup filled with beer flew towards the front, showering the ravening crowd as it passed by but no one paid any attention. There was yet another almighty roar as the band ran out on stage and struck the first chord of their opening number: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major.

*   *   *

A great number of the posts I’ve written on this site giving writing advice have come about as the result of me learning these lessons the hard way first. This week is no exception.

Every now and again I  hear authors, publishers and other would-be writing gurus all saying the same thing: it is very important to know exactly who your audience is before you write. I don’t mind telling you that every time I hear that, I groan. I don’t like to be restricted by boring things like that; I just wanted to write my story. Let the publisher worry about how they’re going to market my story: I am creating a work of art, darling!

Believe me, if you ever feel that way, you’re not alone. But lately I’ve learned that knowing who your audience is is just as important to the artistic side of writing (the most important part, surely?) as it is to the boring business side of things.

Allow me to explain. I like to write because I like to read. The type of things I write tend to reflect my reading preferences – which is hardly surprising, I’m sure you’ll agree. Now for me personally, there are a few things I like and dislike. For example, I like speculative fiction in various forms especially if it is based on mythology or history, but I also enjoy historical fiction, murder/mysteries and literary fiction. I like a little bit of action and tension in my fiction, but I do not enjoy thrillers which tend to maximise action at the expense of substance. I like the narrative to flow with all the rhythm and expressiveness of poetry while still maintaining believable and natural sounding dialogue. I like complex characters. I don’t mind a little bad language in my dialogue (as far as it is necessary) but I do not like stories which overdo the foul language as a cheap attempt to add grit and I especially despise the use of profanity in the narrative itself except on very rare occasions (and almost all of those occasions involve a first person narrative). In short, I have a bit of a mishmash of preferences. When I finish a book (even one I really enjoyed) I will say something like ‘it was very exciting, but the characters lacked substance’ or ‘it was very thought provoking but needlessly heavy on the bad language’.

Unsurprisingly, when I started trying to write my novel, I brought these and all my other likes and dislikes to the table with me. You won’t find any profanity in my narrative, for example, and only the absolute minimum that is required in my dialogue. But I also wanted to write a story which would appeal to everyone, and needless to say as I continued to work on this story, I found that I was growing increasingly frustrated with it. I just couldn’t seem to make it good although I was having difficulty putting my finger on why… until it hit me:

Nothing appeals to everyone. It is not possible to write a story that will appeal to everyone and trying to bring together elements that would appeal to all audiences only serves to create a mixed up and inconsistent story that won’t appeal to anybody. In tone, my story would have primarily appealed to a YA audience but there were too many elements which didn’t fit to classify it as such. The biggest problem was the protagonist: a bitter ex-soldier in his mid-forties who was struggling to pay his taxes. There were bits of my story that would appeal to some audiences and bits of my story which would appeal to other audiences. Even I, as the author, only liked bits of it. In trying to create a work of art for every audience, I created something that wouldn’t really appeal to anyone, because nothing appeals to everyone.

So I went back to the old drawing board and asked myself just who did I want to write for?

I tackled this question artistically (after all, business and marketing are not my forte. If anything has the power to put me off being an author, it’s the thought of all that stuff but I digress). I asked myself what kind of thoughts I was trying to provoke and what kinds of feelings I wanted to stimulate. How gritty did I want my story to be? How funny? How violent? How sensual? How family-friendly? The more I did this, the more I came to realise what I had already begun to suspect: I wanted to write (this particular story, at least) for a young adult audience.

It came as quite a surprise to me, I can tell you, but nevertheless, I made a decision to go through my story with a fine tooth-comb and make it conform to standards which would suit a YA audience. For example, my protagonist is no longer an angry ex-soldier; he’s the seventeen year old son of an angry ex-soldier. I was a little nervous that if I started to fully young adultify my story, I would ruin it but in actual fact it’s had the opposite effect. Suddenly it works. It flows from point to point with a certain consistency that was missing before and it has made for a better story; not because I made it into a young adult story specifically, but because I decided who my audience was and constructed a story which would fully appeal from beginning to end to that audience. I could have probably done the same for any audience (within reason).

By writing your story for a particular audience, you aren’t stopping other potential audiences from also reading and enjoying your story, any more than being a Mozart fan prevents you from also being a Black Sabbath or Alice Cooper fan (I’ve been known to listen to all of the above myself). All you are doing is adding a consistency to your story which allows it to work and flow in a way which makes sense. Besides, nothing in this life appeals to everybody; therefore, be sure to make your story appeal to somebody… And if the result of all this effort is a more marketable novel then so much the better!


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

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Mr. Holmes (Film Review)

Originally published 29/05/2016 under the title: ‘If You Don’t Like Mysteries, You’ll Love Mr. Holmes’
SPOILER ALERT

Although every effort has been made to prevent spoilers, anyone who has not yet seen the film Mr. Holmes (2015) or read the novel A Slight Trick of the Mind by Mitch Cullin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Last year, I was standing waiting for a bus when one passed by (not the one I was waiting for) with a poster on the side, advertising a new film that was about to be released. The poster was plain white apart from a very well dressed and sour faced Ian McKellen. The title of the film was Mr. Holmes.

‘Oh, a new Sherlock Holmes film.’ I thought, my interest piqued. ‘I must remember to make time to go and see that.’

Suffice it to say I did not remember and, whether it was because of my own poor fortune or because the film was inadequately publicised, I did not see hide nor hair of that film again until this very year when I was perusing Amazon for something to watch and it recommended this little gem to me. The reviews on Amazon were generally good but there were also enough negative reviews to give me doubts. However, being a big fan of Sherlock Holmes and knowing that Ian McKellen’s acting is always a joy to watch (no matter how bad the rest of the film is) I decided to give it a chance.

In this film, Sherlock Holmes is now in his nineties and is struggling with his failing memory. He has long since retired to a farmhouse in Sussex where he lives in relative solitude apart from his housekeeper, her son and the bees he now keeps. Because of his failing memory, he cannot precisely remember how his last case as a private detective ended; however, he is certain that the now deceased Watson’s novelisation of it cannot be correct because it portrays Sherlock as having solved the case triumphantly, as he always does. Sherlock cannot accept that he would have retired except after a terrible failure, and so, with the encouragement of his housekeeper’s son and consumed with guilt over something he cannot fully recall, he tries to write the story of the case as it truly happened. Meanwhile, his housekeeper is growing increasingly restless with her role as Sherlock’s housekeeper-come-nurse and resolves to move to Portsmouth with her son, who has grown very attached to Sherlock. There is also a sub-plot concerning a Japanese man who lures Sherlock to Japan in order to confront him about the disappearance of his father, for which he blames Sherlock.

If you’re looking for a ‘who dunnit’ or another exciting instalment of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, you’ve come to the wrong place. Sherlock goes on no adventure in this story, nor is there a particularly mystery to be solved (unless you count his attempt to remember what he has forgotten). Unlike more traditional Sherlock Holmes stories, Mr. Holmes is gently paced and driven by its key themes: regret, ageing, death and senility. I know that probably makes it sound like quite a miserable film, but in reality I found this film to be surprisingly light-hearted and sweetened with a light dusting of humour and sentimentality.

This film is particularly concerned with giving us a glimpse at the real Sherlock Holmes, as opposed to the ‘character out of a pantomime’ he feels he has become through the novelisations and dramatisations of his various cases. Indeed, Sherlock himself appears keen to distance himself from that character. For example, there is a reference at one point to the fact he does not have his deerstalker or pipe. The reason for this, he claims, is that the deerstalker was a mere embellishment and that he prefers a cigar to a pipe; especially now that the pipe has become nothing more than a ‘prop’. It is also revealed to us that 221B Baker Street was, in fact, not his actual address but a deliberate attempt to mislead fans and tourists who were intent on visiting him.

As well as his obvious trademarks, his own personality is also very different from the character we are used to. The writers (and, I should add, McKellen himself) have done a fantastic job here of showing us the other side of Sherlock, without making him a different person altogether. His paternal feelings towards his housekeeper’s son, for example, seem to be a far cry from the cold hearted mystery solving machine that we are all so familiar with. In spite of this, he still retains his uncanny ability to tell everything a person has done simply by looking at them and his philosophy that the truth will always be uncovered by careful analysis of the facts. While he does retain a certain bluntness and an apparent cold heartedness, this seems to be little more than veneer (a thin one at that) which he uses to distance himself from difficult feelings. His warmth towards his housekeeper’s son, the empathy he shows towards his client’s wife and his regret over her death and the deaths of his friends make him seem altogether more human.

His attitudes towards death strikes me as particularly important. He approaches his own looming demise with an apparent nonchalance and claims never to have mourned the dead – bearing in mind that this is set after the death of John Watson, Mycroft Holmes and Mrs Hudson, all of whom were key figures in Sherlock’s life.

I can’t say that I’ve ever mourned the dead, bees or otherwise. I concentrate on circumstances. How did it die? Who was responsible? Death, grieving, mourning; they’re all commonplace. Logic is rare (Mr. Holmes 2015).

This air of indifference is typical of the traditional Sherlock; in Mr. Holmes, however, it sounds quite hollow. The fact that he was powerless to prevent his client’s wife from killing herself, despite recognising all the facts, has affected him deeply – to such an extent that it drove him to retirement. He also regrets that, after breaking off contact with Watson, he never had a chance to say goodbye to him before he died. When his housekeeper’s son is nearly killed by a swarm of wasps, he sees all the evidence of what has happened and, uncharacteristically, assumes it must have been his bees that were to blame (at least at first) rather than notice that the evidence clearly implicates a nearby nest of wasps. While most of us might consider this a normal reaction to finding a boy lying bruised and unconscious next to a hive of bees, it is rather atypical of Sherlock Holmes. The film also ends with him setting up memorial stones for everyone he has lost (or at least, everyone we have heard of anyway)

All in all, this is a enjoyable and easy to watch film but I would certainly caution any lifelong Sherlock Holmes fan that Mr. Holmes is best enjoyed if you approach it with absolutely no preconceptions about what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. It is a very good piece of cinema but it is not a typical Sherlock Holmes film by any stretch of the imagination, nor does it try to be. It’s not a mystery. It’s not an adventure. It’s a drama and a pretty decent one at that. Approach it as such and you will probably come away satisfied.


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: Figuring Out Foil Characters

Originally published 29/04/2018

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.

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.

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.

No one wants to only be a sidekick.
Image source: http://gph.is/257jTXn

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

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Throwback Thursday: 50 Character Motives For Your Story

Originally published 18/08/2019

If you’ve been looking around my blog for any length of time, you’ll have noticed that I often bang on about giving characters strong motives. That’s because it is very important to do so. Motives are what get your character up in the morning and form the basis for all the specific things your character is trying to achieve. For this reason, they are essential for making your audience understand and care about your character’s goals.

Often your character’s motive will be a deep seated hunger, or longing, which your character hopes to satiate by achieving their goals. Alternatively, they may be driven by some chronic fear, past trauma or intense feelings towards another person or persons. Some motives will have obviously dark overtones, while others may appear more positive or neutral. Don’t let that restrict you though. ‘Positive’ motives can still be turned to darkness in the hands of a well written bad guy and the reverse is also true. For instance, a man motivated by love for his family might murder his teenage daughter’s boyfriend. That’s a positive motive gone bad.

I’ve listed a few possible character motives in the image below and I would encourage you to play around with different ways of interpreting and applying them. Most motives (including those not on this list) can be used in a variety of ways, giving you an almost limitless pool of material from which to create character after character, and therefore, story after story.

Have you tried experimenting with any of these motives? What gets your characters out of bed in the morning? Share your own insights and experiences in the comments below!


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

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

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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

Originally published: 04/06/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!


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

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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

Originally published: 28/05/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple.

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

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

Until next time!


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

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

WordPress.com Jetpack WooCommerce

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

You can check out our previous interviews here:

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

Originally published: 21/05/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!


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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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

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

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

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