Throwback Thursday: Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

Originally published: 14/05/2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew!

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

Until next time!


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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:

Author Interview: G.M. Nair

A few months ago, I featured Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire by G.M. Nair on Spotlight. Like a lot of the books I feature there, I hadn’t personally read it at that point but it had come highly recommended to me by a few other people from Twitter’s vast #WritingCommunity who had read it.

Naturally I was keen to read it myself after hearing such good things about it and, by the magic of the internet, the author was kind enough to gift me a copy. Let me tell you, it’s a scream from start to finish; funny, irreverent and with just enough substance to make it hard to put down.

I’ve since had the pleasure of interviewing the author, G.M. Nair, about his writing, and especially his novel, Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire. Read on to see our full conversation.


How did you first get into writing?

My grandfather lived with my family when I was growing up and was a big lover and writer of poetry, and always encouraged me in my own creative writing efforts, so I’m pretty sure I got the writing bug from him. But I also think my healthy consumption of novels, TV and movies gave me the desire and know-how to tell stories.

Duckett and Dyer: Dicks for Hire is, hands down, the wackiest book I’ve read in a long time. What was the initial inspiration behind it?

The idea for Duckett & Dyer came to me back in 2007, and went through several iterations until finally winding up on bookshelves. Back then, I had a boss named Michael Dyer who was pretty quirky and his name struck me – for whatever reason – as interesting. So I affixed it to a bumbling detective and came up with the idea of a webcomic called ‘You’re A Mystery, Michael Dyer.’ I lacked any sort of follow-through on that, but the idea eventually evolved into a duo, and the subtitle ‘Dicks for Hire’ just screamed at me, because who doesn’t like a good rhyme?

It first started off as a simple mystery series with a bumbling pair of detectives, but I had brief periods where I tried to merge them into a sort of spy-fi world, or even as action heroes, or time-travelling ne’er-do-wells. Ultimately, that last one struck a chord with me and, with a slight massage into multi-verse hopping (to allow me to do whatever I really wanted), the final Duckett & Dyer: Dicks For Hire manuscript was born.

Reading Duckett and Dyer and looking through your website, it’s obvious you have a fondness for comedy. What’s the hardest thing about writing funny fiction?

The hardest thing about writing things that are funny is remembering what actually is funny. After four or five or six different drafts of looking at the same joke over and over, you might end up cutting something really good because it just doesn’t make you laugh anymore.

Any tips for authors who want to add a bit of comedy to their writing?

The first thing to remember is that no matter how funny you are, you’ll fail. Humor’s subjective, so not everybody will find your comedy funny. But once you’re okay with ‘bombing’, writing jokes becomes much easier. Just try to make ‘em feel natural and not forced.

I loved the characters in this story. Were they based on anyone from real life to any extent?

Michael and Stephanie’s characters come easily to me because they’re very much two sides of my own personality. I have been known to be a nervous overthinker who is his own worst critic, while simultaneously being and outwardly worry-free comedic jokester who tries not to take things too seriously.

It’s tough being a walking contradiction, but it makes writing Michael and Stephanie very simple, as I only need to consider what kind of dumb joke I would make, while juxtaposing it against how a Nervous Nellie would feel when completely out of their depth.

I’m lucky to have both of them in my head, because, splitting this into two characters makes for an interesting friendship dynamic that hammers home that neither sort of personality can fully function without the other.

Plotter or pantser?

Plotter for the story. Pantser for the execution.

I typically make a ‘Beat Sheet’ that cover all the individual details and story beats that I need to cover in a specific order. I’m an engineer by trade and really enjoy architecting my stories and universes as tightly as possible ahead of time. Then, the actual word-to-word writing (and the jokes) is done off the top of my head to connect the dots.

What are you doing when you’re not writing?

Well, I’ve been working on a TV Pilot with a friend of mine – wait, no that’s writing. I’m also one of the writers on a New York-based Sketch Comedy team – wait, that’s also writing. Oh, I guess you mean my day job.

I’m currently employed as an Aviation and Aerospace Consultant, and that’s what I do to pay the bills.

What authors or books have had the biggest influence on your own writing?

I think the obvious conclusion is Douglas Adams. There’s no way I can escape that comparison (not that I’d want to). But I also draw a lot of inspiration from Agatha Christie, Arthur C. Clarke, as well as comic book writers Jonathan Hickman and Chip Zdarsky.

If they ever make Duckett and Dyer into a movie, who would you want to play the main characters?

Honestly, while I’ve thought about this a lot, I’d really have to go with two unknown actors who’d have impeccable chemistry with one another. Otherwise, the jokes and timing just wouldn’t work.

What’s next for Duckett and Dyer?

Oh, I have about nine books planned. Some novels, some short story collections. But, most immediately, I’m finishing the final drafts of the sequel: The One-Hundred Percent Solution, and it should be out in a month or so if all goes to plan! So expect more nonsense soon!


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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:

TV Review: Doc Martin (Series 9)

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen any part of the ITV series Doc Martin is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well it’s finally probably definitely over this time, probably. The last episode of the last ever series(?) of ITV’s extremely popular comedy/drama, Doc Martin, aired on Wednesday past. And so it seems only fitting that I do a little review of the final series of a show which has been with us now for fifteen years.

Before series 9 started, the last few series of Doc Martin had been unremarkable. It felt a bit like the main story (the ‘will they, won’t they’ between Louisa and Martin) was well and truly over after series 7, since Martin and Louisa had already got together, had a baby, split up, got back together, got married, separated and got back together again and were now living in marital bliss contentment with a son. What more could they possibly do before fans started throwing bricks at the TV and screaming for them to just get divorced already?

Well, as bold a move as it was, I was pleased to see series 9 did not really focus too heavily on Martin and Louisa’s relationship with one another. There was a lot more focus on Martin’s career, which was put in jeopardy when the GMC come to investigate his fitness to continue practising medicine; the difficulties Martin and Louisa have producing a second child and the lives of other characters, particularly Morwena and Al, who are about to get married.

In actual fact, this series had a great deal of potential. Individually, each episode was very enjoyable. The classic Doc Martin humour seemed as fresh as ever and there seemed to be lots of different story lines all intermingling in a way which promised a worthy climax for such a popular and long running show. I was loving it…

Until we got to the end of the series, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, the final few episodes were good fun in and of themselves, however in the last episode or two, it felt like most of the key story-lines which made up the overall story arc had either been rushed to a sudden ending or forgotten about entirely. For example, Martin and Louisa trying to have a second child could have easily provided a whole series worth of rising tension climaxing in a dramatic final resolution. However it was poorly executed. They acknowledged their difficulties in having a second child early on in the series, began attending a fertility clinic and in the final moments of the last episode, Louisa reveals that she is pregnant. There was, however, nothing in the middle; no rising tension of any kind, unless you count the odd cheeky comment from minor characters here and there.

It also looked like something significant was going to happen with the undertaker. This brand new character popped up in quite a few episodes and there seemed to be some tension between her and Louisa for some reason that was never fully explained. In the final moments of the series, she asks Martin to father her child as a sperm donor. Martin refuses and that’s that.

The final episode in particular felt a bit anticlimactic when compared with the final episodes of other series. Usually these feature the highest drama, as the rising tension is finally released in one big medical emergency in which Martin performs some heroic medical procedure to save the day while resolving all emotional conflict between himself and Louisa. None of that this time. Martin went for his final assessment with the General Medical Council and, realising how poorly he had performed, decided to resign from being a doctor, moments before Louisa announces her pregnancy. There is a tense moment as they realise he has picked a bad time to quit his job, Martin says a very uncharacteristic and out-of-the-blue ‘I love you’ and that’s that. Frankly, the series did not feel finished.

If I sound like I’ve hated this series, nothing could be further than the truth. I looked forward to it every week and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was funny, it had drama and it was everything Doc Martin should be on an episode-by-episode basis. Only the sloppy story arc let it down, which was real a pity on the final series. I’ll still be getting the DVD though and I encourage you to do so too.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Review: Kim’s Convenience (season 1)

SPOILER ALERT

Anyone who has not seen season 1 of the CBC TV show, Kim’s Convenience (season 1) is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Every now and again, you’ll be perusing Netflix looking for a new show to watch, unsure as to what you’re looking for and feeling frankly jaded with the search. Nothing looks any good. It all looks rubbish. Sure, you could always just rewatch Star Trek for the billionth time, but that would feel like admitting defeat.

You look up at the clock and see bedtime is fast approaching and you still haven’t actually watched anything. In a panic, you take a gamble on some random Canadian sitcom you’ve never heard of and are quite sure is going to be rubbish. A few hours later, much to your surprise, you’ve made it all the way through to season 2 and deeply regret having to turn it off to go to bed. Such was my experience with Kim’s Convenience.

This show, based on the stage play of the same name, focuses on the lives of a family of Korean-Canadians who run a convenience store in Toronto. Kim Sang-il (more often referred to as ‘appa‘, which I gather means ‘father’) and is wife Kim Yong-mi (umma) immigrated to Canada from Korea, and hold fast to Korean tradition and values while their daughter Janet, who is fully assimilated into Canadian culture, frustrates her parents by her refusal to take over the shop or marry a ‘cool Christian Korean boy’. Meanwhile, Mr. Kim’s estranged son and reformed teenage convict, Jung, works at a car rental shop with his flat mate under the supervision of a socially awkward manager who also happens to have a crush on him.

As is so often the case with TV shows I like, the characters in this show are what make it what it is. Sitcom characters are often very two dimensional, easily whittled down to a smattering of traits and nothing more but the characters in Kim’s Convenience have all got a little extra depth. Nothing too deep (it is still a sitcom), but their motives, goals and conflicts are sufficiently defined that we do actually find ourselves caring about the characters and not simply laughing at them. I found I was eager to discover if Shannon and Jung were going to get together or not, or if Jung would ever speak to his father again or if Janet would ever win the approval or acceptance of her parents. As a result, this show is often funny but sometimes touching, without being over the top with it. As a result, the closing scene of the final episode (big spoiler coming up now) packed a heartfelt punch which sitcoms often lack, as Mr. Kim sorrowfully accepted his daughter’s decision to move out of the family home by giving her a relentless list of instructions about how to be a good roommate, thus providing a satisfactory conclusion to some of the conflicts in their relationship throughout the series.

Janet: I’ll still be working at the store. You’ll barely know I’m gone.

Appa: I will know.

Janet: Appa… let’s get some hot chocolate.

Appa: Yeah. Be good roommate. Pay utility bill. Wash dish after you finish eating.

Kim’s Convenience, s. 1, ep. 13

The individual stories often touch on a lot of contemporary issues, particularly discrimination and diversity though not in a way which feels preachy or insensitive. On the contrary, there is something quite refreshing about this show’s simple and direct approach to delicate themes which maintains the show’s entertainment value without shying away from difficult subjects.

So I know what you really want to know: is there anything I didn’t like about this series?

The short answer is: no, not really. It isn’t side-splitting, eye watering laughter from start to finish, but it’s not really supposed to be. Some episodes stand out more than others and there are a few story which seem to end rather abruptly, but in general I’d call this show an ‘all rounder’ piece of light entertainment which you can easily spend an hour or two binge-watching.

Get yourself onto Netflix and give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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, if that’s what fries your bacon.

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ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Review: The Orville (season 1)

As a lifelong Trekkie (who has been profoundly disappointed by Star Trek: Discovery) I’ve been really curious to see what The Orville was all about. I’ve heard a lot of folk talking very positively about this show, even claiming it fills a Star Trek void in a way the most recent Star Treks fail to do.

High praise indeed. My curiosity was piqued. And so, late for the party as usual, I watched the trailer for season one before deciding to buy the DVD.

I won’t lie to you. I bought it with a certain trepidation. The trailer made it look a bit too spoofy for my liking. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good spoof, but it’s been twenty years and I’m still in remission from Galaxy Quest. Had it not been for the great reviews I found online, I probably wouldn’t have taken this gamble.

Lucky for me, I did. Season one was brilliant. Yes, it is a comedy spoof in some ways, with subtle-as-a-phaser-on-kill references to all your favourite Star Trek tropes, but it also retains something of the drama and depths that made Star Trek great.

So, that’s enough about how it compares with Star Trek. Let’s get down to brass tacks.

This series begins with Captain Mercer being grudgingly offered the captaincy of a starship after a year of wallowing in a pit of despair after he caught his wife, Cmdr. Kelly Grayson, in bed with a blue alien. He’s thrilled to be in the captain’s seat again– until he discovers his ex-wife is his first officer. The ensuing story arc concerning their working relationship is predictable but enjoyable nonetheless. The other characters are also reasonably well developed, largely playing on your favourite Star Trek tropes (an artificial lifeform who doesn’t understand humour, a burly alien with a grim countenance and so on and so forth) but distinctive enough in their own right.

The first episode or two seemed a little heavier on the immature spoof humour than the rest. Off-beat gags about how frequently aliens need to urinate, whether or not the navigator was allowed to bring drinks onto the bridge and how badly framed the Krill commander appeared on the view screen while he threatened to destroy the Orville jarred slightly, however as the show wore on it began to develop a much more even balance of humour, drama and suspense, seasoning each story with humour rather than depending on it to carry the narrative.

Critics have largely slammed this show’s mixture of drama and comedy, perhaps because it doesn’t quite fit the pattern for your typical spoof or a sci-fi drama, but instead mashes them together in a way which is, perhaps, a little unusual. But this show isn’t your typical spoof. It’s a homage to Star Trek by someone who clearly loves the show and wants to do it justice; as such there are episodes which tickle you, others which have you on the edge of your seat and others make you stop and think. I don’t think it’s a flaw. In fact, I liked that about this show. It made it stand out among other tedious spoofs and depressingly grim actual Star Trek shows like Discovery. “Majority Rule” for instance (easily my favourite episode of the season) brings together a well measured dose of humour and a plot the audience could really care about. There was something at stake. Lt. LaMarr was in real danger and we cared about his plight while also bemoaning his hilariously cringe-inducing attempts to save himself. I think this episode even has something to say about real life and the negative impact of social media on the modern world. It’s everything a meaty but light-hearted TV comedy drama should be.

I will say this against the first season: some of the stories have slightly disappointing endings. I don’t want to get too detailed and spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it so I’ll just give one example of what I’m talking about. Be warned, there is a big stinking spoiler coming up in this next paragraph. Ready? Here it comes:

In the episode “If the Stars Should Appear”, the Orville crew discover a massive ship with an artificial biosphere inside: grass, trees, cities and farms. The people living there have never seen a night sky because the ship’s roof constantly displays a day sky. They do not realise they are on a ship and, apart from a small and fiercely persecuted group of heretics called Reformers, they all revere a deity called Dorahl. Social tension is at boiling point between the Reformers and the established theocracy. Then in the final moments of the episode, the Orville crew find a way to open the ship’s ‘sunroof’, thus allowing the inhabitants to see a night sky and proving the Reformers right. Good night. The end. Mission accomplished. All social tensions resolved, truth wins over ignorance and…

Yeah. This is a dissatisfying ending, no denying it. It was too easy. You can’t just flick a switch and resolve centuries of false belief, social tension and theocratic dictatorship. Remember, these guys have never even seen stars. What do you think would happen in real life if the sky was suddenly replaced with something bizarre, like brickwork or something. Rioting, surely. Certainly not a quick fix to the main conflict that’s blighting society. Not only was it hard to believe, but it’s also one step away from deus ex machina, which is unforgivable even in a comedy. And there are a few episodes which end like that.

I do have one more complaint about this series. Sometimes, especially on the more serious episodes, key issues will be left hanging and are never referred to again. For instance, it is strongly implied at the beginning of one episode that Bortus and Klyden are having marital difficulties, as Bortus leaves for work in a huff while Klyden whines that he feels neglected. Given that in a previous episode they had recently been to court over whether or not their newborn should be given gender reassignment surgery (being female is considered a birth defect on their world), I naturally imagined that this was going to be an on-going part of the story arc but… it wasn’t. It was never referred to again and that was pretty much it.

All in all, a very enjoyable show. There’s probably a lot of good reasons why the critics can find fault with it at a technical level but if you just take it for what it is — a bit of Star Trek inspired fun — it’s a thoroughly enjoyable show. I loved every minute of it and I will certainly be purchasing season 2.

My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟


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 Twitter and like Penstricken on Facebook, if that’s what opens your pickles.

ATTENTION AUTHORS:

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.

You can check out our previous interviews here:

Sharleen Nelson, Author of The Time Tourists [2]

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!

Amazon Storywriter

UPDATE: amazon storywriter was retired on the 30th june 2019.

If you’ve ever dreamed of writing scripts for TV and aren’t quite sure where that golden opportunity is going to come from, might I suggest you have a look at this tasty free app I discovered. The Amazon Storywriter (developed by the good people at Amazon Studios, naturally) is a very neat little app for script-writing which formats your script for you as you go and saves your work online for you to access from any computer in the world.

‘So what?’ I hear you cry, ‘There are dozens of online script-writing apps out there!’

True, but unlike most others, this script-writing app will send your completed script directly to Amazon Studios. If it is accepted, your script might well end up being the next TV show or movie to be produced by the same people who gave us Bosch, Mozart in the Jungle and The Man in the High Castle. Tell me, dear would-be screenwriter, that you’re not a little bit interested.

As far as I can tell from looking at their website, they are particularly interested in drama series, comedy series, children’s TV shows or movies, so you’re probably best restricting yourself to those genres (though don’t let me stand on your toes). I’ve not actually submitted anything yet (I’m getting there!) so I don’t have too much first hand knowledge about any issues that may or may not arise around creative royalties, contracts, copyright issues or anything else like that (therefore, I would strongly recommend doing your research before you submit anything – good advice any day of the week) but I can review it as a writing app.

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The interface is very simple. There are two tabs along the top: ‘Write’ and ‘Review’. The ‘Review’ tab is, unsurprisingly, where you go to review scripts that your friends have sent you. I’ll maybe talk about that another day, but right now I want to focus on Storywriter’s function as a script-writing app. So, let’s have a look under the ‘Write’ tab!

Here we have a sidebar consisting of two fairly self-explanatory options: ‘Create a script’ and ‘Import a script’. ‘Create a script’, as you might guess, creates a brand new project which is automatically saved to the cloud. ‘Import a script’ allows you to import either text-based PDFs, FDX files or Fountain files (5MB or less) into Amazon Storywriter from your computer. Either way, what you’ll end up with is a very intuitive little writing environment: a page, already set up and ready for you to write (or continue, if you imported) your script.

amazon7If, like me, your skills in proper script formatting are a little rusty, the sidebar on the right (or ‘element menu’, as it is called) will help you to format your script as you go along without having to spend a lot of time faffing around with line-spacing, margins, alignments and all that sort of thing (though I would still strongly recommend learning how to format your script properly and proof-reading it to be certain anyway). Your work will save automatically as you type and whenever you close your project, but there is, nevertheless, a big handy-dandy ‘SAVE’ button on the top right hand corner of the screen, if you crave that reassurance that only manually saving your work can bring. You will also find a small drop-down menu at the top-right of the screen. This is where you can make (fairly limited) changes to the layout of the editor: you can hide the element menu and you can toggle ‘typewriter mode’, which causes the editor to scroll as you type.

amazon3Along the top-left of the screen there is a simple menu, most of which you will recognise from every other word processor you’ve ever used: undo, redo, bold, italics, etc. Clicking the ‘Amazon Storywriter’ logo will take you back to your home screen. There is also a single drop-down menu (which for some reason is labelled with the name of your project) which most closely resembles the sort of things you might find in a ‘file’ menu on most normal word processors, but there are some important differences. I’m not going to waste time explaining every option in the menu since most of them are self-explanatory but there are a few that are worth highlighting.

First, this menu includes all your options for letting other people (specifically, your friends and Amazon Studios) see your work. Clicking on ‘share’ lets you send your script to whoever you like: friends, neighbours, dentists, anyone. All you need is their e-mail address and they will receive a notification asking them to review your script (they must accept this). If, however, you feel your script is as good as it’s ever going to be, clicking on ‘Submit to Amazon Studios’ will begin the step-by-step process of submitting your work to Amazon for consideration, so don’t use it until you’re certain your script is ready.

Another useful feature in this menu is ‘Save a draft’, though it might not be exactly what you imagine it to be at first. Once you save a draft, it is saved as a read-only file that can not be edited. It can only be viewed, renamed, shared, exported, deleted completely or submitted to Amazon Studios. You can create as many drafts as you like (or at least, if there is a limit, I’ve not hit it yet) and you can continue to edit your script as before; only the draft files are read-only, allowing for easy redrafting without losing any previous drafts you might want to revisit. Every draft file can be found attached to your project on the home screen.

If, however, you want multiple editable scripts for the same project, choosing ‘Create a copy’ from the same menu will create a brand new project identical to the one you’re working on at the time. The only thing it won’t copy over is your read-only draft files. As before, this copied project will also be available from your home screen and will not have any effect on the original project and its associated drafts.

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There is only one major thing this app does lack: any kind of planning environment where you can write up character biographies, storyboards and the like. This app doesn’t really come into its own until all your planning is already done and you’re ready to actually write a draft.

Still, it’s a swish little app for would-be screenwriters, especially if you’re a beginner looking for an easy way of having your work reviewed by your peers and considered for production by a company who can (maybe, possibly, if you’re lucky) bring it to life for you. The app’s functionality may be a little basic in some respects (though there’s something to be said for that when writing, I find) but it’s certainly much easier to use than some more expensive apps and does the job well.

Also did I mention that it’s completely free to use?