Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition

SPOILER ALERT

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not seen all of the films in the Star Trek franchise is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

The day we’ve all been waiting for with a combination of both hope and dread is finally here. Star Trek: Discovery premieres in America today, and so, in honour of this momentous occasion (and since we Brits won’t be getting it until tomorrow), I am pleased to present Super Snappy Speed Reviews: Star Trek Edition!

We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books (twice, in fact), TV shows and films but today it’s going to be a bit different. Today I’ll be reviewing all thirteen Star Trek films in order of release. As ever, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressionsphasered, disruptored and bat’lethed into just two or three sentences. So without further ado…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture

While it has a lot of the elements we might look for in a good Star Trek episode, The Motion Picture is spoiled by ridiculously slow pacing.  Buckets of atmosphere but not much else to say in its favour.

My rating: 🖖🖖

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

This film’s got it all: a familiar antagonist with a score to settle, exciting space battles and plenty of sub-plot. Arguably the best film in the entire franchise.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

I can’t say much about this without giving away spoilers galore but suffice to say it’s a good popcorn muncher and is integral to the overall Star Trek canon. Its main let-down is the half-baked antagonist: a random Klingon with no redeeming qualities trying to steal a technology which he thinks will make a good weapon of mass destruction.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Definitely the most light-hearted of the Star Trek movies. Plenty of humour, a casual ecological moral and no real antagonist to speak of (okay, there is a giant probe thing threatening to destroy Earth, but only because it wants to make friends with some humpback whales and earth doesn’t have any them any more)

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

The rest of the world seems to hate this film but I quite enjoyed it. Sybok was a particularly interesting antagonist, in that he seemed to be well-meaning, if badly misguided. It probably could have benefited from unpacking some of the more important themes, however.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

My favourite Star Trek films and episodes are always those which focus on interstellar politics, particularly the Federation’s tense relations with the Klingon Empire. If that’s your flavour too then this film’s got it all: conspiracies, interstellar peace talks and even a Klingon courtroom scene.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Generations

This film has a great bad guy (although I could have done without the Duras sisters…), strong themes and apart from being a little on the slow side at points, is generally well paced. The (mostly humorous) subplot concerns the previously emotionless android, Data, now fully equipped with emotions he can’t control, which is funny at first, then gets serious before kind of just fizzling out and resolving itself without explanation.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: First Contact

If Wrath of Khan isn’t my favourite in the franchise, this one is. Excellent acting, strong writing and well paced. The Borg Queen in particular provides the previously faceless Borg Collective with a leader who is as subtle and seductive as she is evil. Unfortunately, this film does also include my least favourite line of dialogue in all of Star Trek history: ‘You people, you’re all astronauts on… some kind of star trek?’

As an aside, non-Trekkies should not begin here; this film is full of important references to the TV series.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek: Insurrection

This might’ve worked as a TV episode, but as a film it’s just boring, boring, boring with extra boring on top. Some dude we’ve never heard of (with a simply appalling plastic surgeon), from a race of aliens we’ve never heard of wants to chase some helpless innocent people we’ve never heard of away from their planet and Picard doesn’t like it and… zzzzzzzzz…

My rating:  🖖🖖

Star Trek: Nemesis

Tom Hardy and Patrick Stewart’s acting as Shinzon and Captain Picard respectively are about the only things this film really has going for it. In theory, the premise had lots of potential but it turned out to be a bit of a poorly written non-story about a disgruntled clone who decides to kill everybody with a particularly nasty WMD, only to be thwarted by an inevitable act of self-sacrifice from one of the heroes.

My rating:  🖖

Star Trek

As reboots (especially prequels) go, this was a zillion times better than I thought it was going to be. It features, quite simply, some of the best plotting, characterisation and pacing I’ve seen in a Star Trek film. There are a few inconsistencies with prime universe that are not explained by the time travel story but nothing anyone but the most knit-picky of fans would worry about.

My rating: 🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Into Darkness

Take all your favourite scenes from Wrath of Khan, mix them up a bit and boom! You’ve got Star Trek Into Darkness! Even so, with its strong plot, superb acting (especially from Benedict Cumberbatch) and plenty of excitement, this remains my favourite Star Trek film since First Contact.

My rating:  🖖🖖🖖🖖🖖

Star Trek Beyond

After Insurrection and Nemesis, Star Trek Beyond is my least favourite Star Trek film. The writers clearly decided to forget about pacing, characterisation and all that boring stuff and created a non-stop heart-pumping thrill ride instead. Great acting though, I’ll give it that. Click here for a more detailed review on this film.

My rating: 🖖


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’ and share 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 crystallises  your dilithium.

Live long and prosper.

6 Mental Cobweb Shakers for Writers

Ever sat down to write and found your imagination covered in so many cobwebs that you can’t even remember how to pick up your pen? Ever sat staring at a blank screen for hours without even the faintest idea where to begin? Ever wasted your set writing time reading patronising articles on the internet telling you writers’ block doesn’t exist (when you know better) because you just can’t quite seem to get settled into your day’s work?

No?

Well I have, and whenever that happens to me I need something to quickly shake away the cobwebs to help me get off the starting block. Therefore, I am going to commend a few of my favourite cobweb shakers to you today. I don’t know if these will work for you or not but they work for me so… you might as well give them a go, eh?

Write Urgently

I’ve blogged about this before, but it has so revolutionised my whole writing life that it bears saying again. If you find yourself staring at a blank page for hours and have little or nothing to show for it when you’re done, try resolving to write for no more than thirty minutes, twenty minutes or even less all day. Better yet, start your writing session at a time when you know you’ll have no choice but to stop very soon; i.e., while your dinner is in the oven or in that spare twenty minutes before you have to catch a bus to get to work on time. It sounds crazy, but I find that writing in short bursts creates a sense of urgency which forces me not to procrastinate or edit as I write.

Background Noise

Silence may be golden, but it can also be as distracting as having someone talking in your ear. The solution? Get yourself some background noise. You could always do this by seeking out a noisier location, but assuming you don’t particularly want to move anywhere, I can highly recommend Noisli to you as a free tool which allows you to customise your own blend of ambient background noises including (but not limited to) thunder, a crackling fire, a train moving and a coffee shop. These sounds loop indefinitely, so you can turn it on and let it lull you into a false sense of sitting in a coffee shop on a rainy day or listening to birds singing beside a crackling fire.

I know lots of writers enjoy listening to music while they write, although personally, I still find that a bit too distracting, especially if it involves complicated melodies or (worst of all) vocal parts with lyrics. If you must listen to music while writing, I recommend keeping it gentle and instrumental. Video game music is particularly useful as it is designed to be incidental and keep you focused on the task at hand.

Play a Game

Speaking of games, I also find playing a computer game a good cobweb shaker. Nothing too mind-numbing, of course. Avoid anything that involves decimating sweets or throwing helpless animals (actually, just stay away from mobile gaming altogether). I find it far more effective to play a game I need to use my brain for and preferably something with a story of its own. I’m a big fan of retro gaming, so classic adventure games such as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island often fit the bill for me but anything you need to use your brain for should do.

The danger with this, of course, is that you can waste all day gaming. If you’re going to game away the cobwebs, be sure to set yourself a strict time-limit.

Indulge A Different Creative Interest

Like gaming, this approach will also require a strict time-limit but if you’re feeling too lackadaisical to get started with your writing project, you might find pursuing another creative endeavour will give you the spark of enthusiasm you need. Of course, you’ll know better than I do what turns you on apart from writing. It could be singing, dancing, painting, conducting bizarre scientific experiments* or something else entirely. Whatever it is, set aside a little(!) time to immerse yourself in something that makes you feel alive and gets your mental juices flowing. You’ll come back to writing feeling able and rejuvenated.

Go For a Walk/Exercise

Though I’m loath to admit it a bit of fresh air and exercise is a great way to shake away the mental cobwebs. Even just a five minute walk and a change of scenery can work wonders. Just don’t wander so far that you don’t have time to write!

Free-write
freewrite

Here’s what my free-writing session looked like. Pretty dismal, right?

Free-writing is ideal for when you just don’t have the time to waste gaming, exercising or cloning your budgie. Simply set a timer for a minute, five minutes, ten minutes or whatever you feel is necessary and write WITHOUT CEASING for that whole time. You don’t need to think about structure, plot or anything. Just write. It doesn’t matter if you have typos. It doesn’t matter if you write piles of meaningless rubbish with all the orderliness of a pig’s regurgitated dinner. It doesn’t even matter if all you manage to write is ‘I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write, I don’t know what to write…’

What matters is that you pick up your pen and write!

Sometimes it can even help you to come up with ideas, but even if it doesn’t, don’t worry about it. The most important thing is that you stop doing nothing and start writing something. Anything. As long as it’s something.

I hope you found some of these tips useful. Do let us know if you did by commenting below, and also if you’ve got any mental cobweb clearing tips of your own, why not comment below so we can all benefit from your wisdom and experience? And if you enjoyed this post, be sure to follow us so you never miss another post. You can also follow Penstricken on Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if you feel so inclined.

Until next time!


*This website does not in any way endorse dangerous, unethical, illegal or otherwise ill-advised scientific experiments. Any suggestions to the contrary in this post were meant only as a joke and should not be taken seriously.

7 Things I Hate In Fiction

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

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

Obvious Morals

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

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

Excessive and/or Long Fight Scenes

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

More on fight scenes here.

Unnecessary Profanities

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

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

Flashbacks

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

All Action; No Substance

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

All Substance; No Action

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

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

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


Well that was cathartic for me at any rate.

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

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

Until next time!

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – Film

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been taken to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen The Terminator (1984), The Green Mile (1999), Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), Dune (1984), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Star Trek Beyond (2016), The Illusionist (2006) or Les Misérables (2013) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

It’s that time again! We’ve already had super snappy speed reviews for books and TV shows and now it’s time for the film edition. As before, the films I have reviewed here have been selected entirely at random from my ever-growing movie collection and do not necessarily have anything in common (apart from the fact they’re all films), nor are they necessarily films that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

As always, these reviews only reflect my own personal opinions and impressions, squeezed, whisked and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

The Terminator

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title antagonist in this movie: a cyborg sent back in time from the future to kill the woman whose unborn son will one day lead the rebellion against the Machines of Skynet. It’s a real popcorn muncher, full of cheesy humour, senseless violence, time travelling robots and a guy travelling back in time to sleep with his best friend’s mum (who he’s always fancied) so that he can become his own best friend’s dad…

Still, it’s justifiably a cult classic. Very ’80s but I defy you not to enjoy it at least a little bit.

My rating: 3.5 stars

The Green Mile

Tom Hanks portrays the protagonist in this heart-wrenching, fantasy(ish) film set on death row in the 1930s. It’s definitely not a family film but it is arguably one of the most excellent movies I have ever seen in my life. If you like a film which really draws you in and stirs every emotion from the outset and leaves you with Mega Feels for hours after then this is definitely the film for you.

My rating: 5 stars + 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Who doesn’t love Star Wars? This film is set in between the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy and follows the story of a group of rebels who have joined together to steal the plans for the Death Star. While the tone is somewhat darker than in traditional Star Wars movies, I didn’t find it nearly as outrageously different as some had led me to believe it was. For me, it stood comfortably alongside the other films in the Star Wars canon and was at least a thousand times better than the prequel trilogy.

My rating: 4 stars

Dune

The original Dune novels by Frank Herbert are as long as they are complex and I get the impression that that David Lynch (writer and director) was trying really hard to faithfully capture the beautiful complexity of Herbert’s creation in this movie. Unfortunately, the end result was a film which was poorly paced, unclear and frankly… a bit of a mess. It also includes one of my pet peeves: voice overs, allowing us to hear characters’ thoughts. On the plus side, it boasts a stellar cast including Sean Young, Patrick Stewart, Virginia Madsen, Max Von Sydow and Sting.

My rating: 1.5 stars

The Greatest Story Ever Told

In true 1960s Hollywood style, The Greatest Story Ever Told was a big budget and reverently embellished retelling of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Max Von Sydow… again). If you’re looking for a film which is entertaining or exciting, you’ve come to the wrong place. Most of the characters do just seem to kind of stand and gawp unless they’ve got a line to read, though I must admit to a certain fondness for this film all the same. Also if you thought Dune had a famous cast, it is nothing compared to the legion of names you’ll see in the credits of this biblical epic.

My rating: 2.5 stars

Star Trek Beyond

It’s not quite as bad a Star Trek film as, say, Star Trek: Nemesis but still… it was pretty disappointing. The plot and the characters actually had a lot of potential (I really thought we were going to finally see some proper Bones/Spock banter), but this was unfortunately wasted by the poor pacing. The end result was nothing more than a non-stop, heart-thumping, thrill-ride that never really gave the audience an opportunity to be drawn into the story in any significant way.

My rating: 2.5 stars

The Illusionist

The Illusionist is a period drama about a stage magician (Edward Norton) from a humble background caught up in a love triangle/class war with his aristocratic love-interest (Jessica Biel) and her equally blue blooded but abusive fiance (Rufus Sewell).

The pacing was beautiful. The acting was delightful. The twist at the end was marvellous.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Les Misérables

I don’t think I’m the sort of guy to scrunch my nose up at a film just because it’s a musical, and everyone else tells me this adaptation of Les Misérables is the best thing since sliced bread but…

You asked for my opinion so I’m just gonna say it: I hated this film. I can’t think of anything less satisfying than watching Russell Crowe singing for two and a half hours. My wife enjoyed it though, if that means anything to you.

My rating: 1 star

My wife’s rating: 4 stars


And that’s a wrap! No doubt we’ll do it all again soon with a different selection of stories.

Until next time… !

Hey Author, Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

‘Oh, so you’re an author then? Where do you get all your story ideas from?’

Ughhhh! Stop asking me that! I don’t know! If I knew the answer to that, I’d probably have more ideas!

Er-hem.

Okay, so for reasons best known to yourself, you want to know where to find the House of the Magical Idea Wizard and think that perhaps I, or one of my author colleagues (you know, the ones that have actually got a few novels published), might have the answers you seek. I know I’m not alone in having people ask me about this. Writers’ blogs seem to be replete with authors whining and complaining about how often their family, friends and fans (those of you who have fans) ask them this same question.

Well… today, O seeker of insight, I am going to attempt to answer this singularly annoying and misguided question in the only way I can: from my own narrow experience.

The first thing you need to know is that there is no Magical Idea Wizard. Or at least, if there is, I’ve never met him. Plot bunnies are certainly real enough, but they are not bred by any one person whom you can purchase one from, nor do they grow on a special tree. In fact, between you and me, I’m not even sure plot bunnies are all that useful. They’re certainly not to be relied upon if you plan on making a career out of story writing.

‘Hold the bus for just a minute!’ I hear you cry. ‘What on earth’s a plot bunny when it’s at home?’

I’m glad you asked. A plot bunny is a story idea that pops into your head and won’t go away. They tend to appear out of the blue. For example, I recall on one particular occasion I was sitting on the upper deck of a bus coming home from the hospital where I work. At one point, while we were stopped at traffic lights, I noticed a Chinese takeaway and I was struck by exactly two thoughts:

  1. Mmm… salt and chilli chips…
  2.  If I ever figure out how to invent a time machine, I’m definitely going to keep it a secret. Then I’ll open a takeaway and be able to trump all the competition by travelling back in time to get all my orders to my customers mere moments after they make the order.

The first thought was mere gluttony. I ordered a takeaway when I got home and that was that. But the second thought was a plot bunny par excellence. For months I turned that strange little notion over in my mind, convinced that there was a story in it (for in itself, it was not a story but just a premise) but I just couldn’t make it work. Nevertheless it was a persistent nuisance in my brain, demanding to be written but it was a whole year before I was able to actually turn it into a story. More often than not, however, I find most plot bunnies come to nothing.

So… it is possible to be struck with sudden waves of inspiration, but they’re often unproductive in the long run and — more importantly — there’s absolutely no way to simply snap your fingers and make plot bunnies come to you on demand. In a word, plot bunnies are utterly unreliable.

Wise authors know that if you want to be able to write stories on demand, you need to be deliberate and methodical in developing your idea from the tiniest seed. That ‘seed’ could be anything. For me it’s usually either a theme I want to write about (e.g., my current novel started as a simple desire to write a story about rebellion) or else it’s a character looking for a story to belong to. But where does that ‘seed’ come from?

It’s not magic. All you need to do (boring though this sounds) is to make a deliberate point of setting aside time to sit down and be proactive in developing an idea from scratch. I don’t just hope for ideas to come to me on the bus, on the toilet or anywhere else (though I certainly write down any that do pop out of the blue). I set aside regular time to sit down at my desk and produce as many ideas as I can. Coming up with story ideas is not a supernatural gift that strikes without warning; it is a discipline which can be learned through practice and patience. I can play the trumpet, not because every now and again musical talent strikes me, but because I have devoted time and effort to regularly practising my skill. I started off rubbish. Over time, through regular practice, I became an accomplished (perhaps even good) trumpet player. If I stop practising for any length of time, my ‘talent’ gets noticeably rusty. The same is true of coming up with story ideas.

For me, I find the best way to come up with ideas is to brainstorm. I sit down with a notepad and give free reign to my thoughts, omitting nothing that comes to mind. Often I will find myself inventing characters who I can then audition or ‘interview’ in different settings and situations (the main antagonist in my current novel came about this way). Journaling can also be helpful. Scribbling down all my thoughts, feelings and opinions about politics, family, philosophy, religion, humour, music and whatever else comes to mind can often help me to discover new themes to explore in a fictional setting. I then question and experiment with whatever comes to mind. From there, it’s a simple matter of taking the time to refine my ideas. If I really, really, really can’t think of anything, there are plenty of prompts available online which you can use as a springboard into creativity; however, I tend to rely on these only as a last resort.

You asked me earlier whence ideas come. The simple, boring and profoundly mysterious answer is that they come from your own mind. There is no magic, but the everyday magic of that lump of slimy grey matter in your skull which, by some inexplicable design, is able to invent entire worlds and people from nothing and to use those inventions to communicate all manner of beliefs and philosophies. If you have a brain, you have ideas. You have all manner of ideas every day, both good ideas and bad ideas. You’ve probably had dozens of ideas already today, about a whole range of subjects. Turning these ideas into stories is simply a matter of practice and patience.

Writing Non-Human Characters #4: Mythical Creatures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew!

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

Until next time!

A Few Words About Magic in Fiction

I’ve recently been reading The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson and am so far loving everything about it. I love the characters, I love the world-building, I love Sanderson’s use of language, but more than anything I love the magic system he has created for his fantasy world.

Magic (as I’m loosely defining it here) features heavily in fantasy. The forms magic can take from one fantasy story to another, however, greatly vary. If you think I’m going to give you an exhaustive break-down of all the kinds of magic that appear in fantasy fiction, you’re sadly mistaken because I have neither the time nor the inclination do so, but I do want to try and break down what it takes to construct a good one as Sanderson has.

Let’s begin by highlighting an important pitfall we need to avoid. I am of course talking about the dreaded deus ex machina. For those of you who don’t know this term, deus ex machina (literally, ‘God in the machine’) is a literary device by which the problem faced by your characters is miraculously solved in an implausible or unexpected way which tends to be profoundly disappointing for the audience. If you’re including magic in your fantasy, there is a real temptation to endow your characters with a kind of practical omnipotence whereby they can rescue themselves from any situation simply by performing the right magic trick but doing this will suck all of the excitement out of your story.

I don’t want to harp on about Sanderson’s magic system in The Final Empire too much (mainly because I haven’t finished reading it yet and I might get things wrong) but it does serve as a good example of how to avoid this. This magic system (called Allomancy) involves ingesting and ‘burning’ certain key metals. Each metal endows the user with a particular ability. There are, however, only so many metals which can be used in Allomancy, which therefore puts a limit on the kinds of magic that can be used. Characters cannot randomly breathe fire or travel back in time but they can enhance all their physical attributes if they burn pewter, for instance. Allomancy is further limited by who can use it (Mistborns, who can burn all the metals and Mistings who can burn only one kind). There are many other limitations on this system too, but I hope you get the point: by creating limitations on magic, deus ex machina can be avoided because even the most powerful Allomancers can only act within the boundaries of what that world’s magic system allows them to do.

Another thing to bear in mind is that your magic system is inseparable from world-building. Indeed, creating your magic system is part of your world-building process. You need to ask yourself, therefore, where the magic comes from and how it works, even if you don’t make this explicit in the text itself. For instance, is it something inherent to certain creatures or people-groups in your world (fairies, wizards, dragons, women, children, the rich, the poor, etc) or is it something that can be learned or even purchased? Is it perceived as something natural or supernatural (in the same way we might perceive a difference between the science of medicine and miraculous spiritual healing)? In short, you need to ask yourself exactly what magic is, who has it, where it comes from and why.

Incidentally, it’s also worth remembering that the longer your fictional world has existed, the further your society’s understanding of magic is likely to have developed, in much the same way in the real world our knowledge about the universe has steadily increased – and we have developed technology which exploits that knowledge. If your characters are still crawling around in caves, they probably are barely aware of the intricacies of magic (even if they are aware of it at a primal or superstitious level), but if they are already flying around in spaceships, it’s likely that their understanding of your magical system will also be more advanced and this will be reflected in how they use (or avoid using) it.

Also remember that no matter what kind of system and history you create for magic in your world, it will affect the rest of the world and the characters in it, even if they cannot all perform magic themselves. It is not possible, for instance, to write a story set in a world just like our own except that all the children are telekinetic. Believe me, if a world ‘just like ours’ featured telekinetic children, we would have a very different society indeed; perhaps even a paedarchy. Certainly family life and systems of education would be drastically different from anything we have in the real world.

This is why it is so important to also ask yourself, why your story needs magic and what kind of magic it needs to make the story work. Having magic in your fictional world will fundamentally redefine that world and can undermine your story. Therefore, do not include magic just for the sake of having it. Like everything else in any good story, it must serve some function. And please, do not fall into the trap of thinking that magical abilities are your story. They are not. You can write a story which features telekinetic children if you like, but that’s not a plot or a cast of characters. That’s just a premise. Even in a magical fantasy, characters and the situations they find themselves in are always, always, always the beating heart of your story. The audience doesn’t really care about what your characters can do. The audience cares about what your characters need to do.

 

Using Dialogue to Bring Your Characters to Life

They say we all smile in the same language*. Fortunately for us writers, just about everything else we say, we say in our own unique way. It doesn’t matter if everybody in the room speaks the same language (English, for instance); accent, dialect and all the different words and idioms we tend to use have given each one of us a way of speaking which is almost as peculiar to ourselves as our fingerprints. For us story tellers, understanding and harnessing this knowledge can be the difference between writing a good story and creating a masterpiece.

No, I really don’t think I’m overstating it at all. I think they’ll probably put this on my gravestone but I’ll say it again anyway: characters are always the beating heart of a good story. You can plot until you’re blue in the face, but if all your story has in the end is a good plot and shallow characters, your story will feel abstract, flat and difficult to relate to; in a word, boring. And how are you characters manifested in your story? To some extent it is by what they do, but I would argue that to a greater extent it is by what they say, and more importantly, how they say even the most mundane things. For example, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, the character Data frequently irritates other characters by giving time intervals to the nearest second.

BORG QUEEN: How long has it been since you’ve used them?
DATA: Eight years, seven months, sixteen days, one minutes, twenty-two…
BORG QUEEN: Far too long.

(Star Trek: First Contact, source: http://www.chakoteya.net/movies/movie8.html)

This is more than just a recurring joke. This absurdly precise approach to calculating time is a constant reminder to the audience that Data is an android. At a fundamental level, his mind works like a computer and we can see that in the way he speaks. He doesn’t have to say ‘I’m an android!’ in every single episode to remind us that that is what he is. It’s made obvious by the kind of expressions he uses.

The way a character speaks will tell your audience buckets of information about that character without it being explicitly stated at all. The kindly, elderly member of the local parish church in a quaint middle-class village is unlikely to replace all her commas with strong profanities. Again, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot frequently code-switches into French, signifying his Belgian origins. In addition, a character’s accent will also tell you something about their origins and you can communicate this accent to the reader through how you spell and punctuate your character’s dialogue (this little article I found might prove useful if you’re planning on giving it a go). In short, a character’s register and accent tells you something about their social and geographical background without it being explicitly stated.

Of course, I’m sure that’s obvious to you. But if you really want to harness the power of dialogue to build your character, it’s time to start thinking about your character as an individual. Go back to your character profile and consider his needs, wants, fears and goals, as well as his personal history. Bring it out in everything they say. For example:

Character A: Oh dear, I missed my bus! C’est la vie! I’ll catch the next one. If I’m late, I’m late!

Character B: Sake! See these #$@&%*ing buses! I think they just print the #$@&%*!ing timetable to noise us up; some kind of sick #$@&%*!ing joke on the stupid little commuters! They’re never here when they say they will! Now I’m going to be late again!

Character C: Oh no! I think I’ve missed my bus… ohh, what do I do? I’m going to get the sack for sure! Oh no, no, no, no, I can’t be late again! Oh please, why is this happening to me?

In all three situations, our characters have missed a bus and are late for work. In all three, our characters are miffed to be in this situation but they all express their disquiet very differently and this tells us something about their personalities. One of them is a bitter and twisted man who has had a few hard knocks in his life and is convinced the world is out to get him. One of them is a worrier, constantly nervous and assuming the worst. The other is a carefree optimist. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which is which based on the above dialogue.

There are two reasons these characters personalities come out so clearly in their dialogue. The first is what they said. Character A easily laughs off the inconvenience with a pithy little c’est la vie, while character B’s bitterness is immediately evidenced by the fact he not only blames the bus service for his trouble, but goes as far as to suggest they have deliberately conspired against him.

But if we go a little deeper, we can also glean the personality of each character by how they said what they said. Character B is the only one who uses bad language, for instance (I’m afraid you’ll need to use your imagination as to exactly what he said, I’m determined to keep this website family friendly). He could have just as easily said, ‘These buses are always late! I think the timetables are just there for fun!’ but that would not have communicated the same kind of pent up angst this character obviously has. Indeed, if he had said it that way, it might have even sounded jocular, even though it communicates exactly the same idea. The audience would simply have no way of knowing for sure what this character was like, or even how he really felt. The original version, on the other hand, leaves the audience in no doubt that Character B is one angry man. In the same way, Character C’s repetition of the word ‘no’ brings out the growing sense of dread he feels that his life is going more horribly wrong than he ever dared to imagine. He could have just said ‘Oh no, I can’t be late again!’ but… it just doesn’t communicate his barely suppressed panic in quite the same way.

If you’re a writer of fiction, it would be well worth your while investing some more time in studying this. I can only scratch the surface of this in a 1,000ish word post but if you master this, dear writer, you will have taken an important step forward in becoming a better story teller. Your characters will have been endowed with a personality that really shines through and makes them stand out as unique individuals. It also goes a long way towards mastering the art of subtext in your dialogue but… alas, that is a subject for another time.


*Although it might be more accurate to say, we all speak the Universal Language of Smiling, which arguably has a vocabulary all of its own. After all, we all know that a sneer, a grin, a grimace and a chuckle all mean quite different things, don’t we?