Theme: The Truth Behind the Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Until next time!

ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

Writing a Good Character Description

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

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

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

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

(John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men).

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

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

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

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

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


ARE YOU AN AUTHOR?

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

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

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

The 5 Circles of Inspiration Hell

It was an ordinary day like any other. The sky was grey and the bus was late. Suddenly, the tiniest green shoot of an idea sprouted in your head. It was small, but healthy and full of promise and you knew — you just knew — that it was going to be the novel/play/film that you would be remembered for in generations to come. Today was the day it finally happened. You got inspired.

Of course, experienced, wise and learned authors know that before you can sign that publication deal and pick up all those awards, you’ve got to actually do something with your wave of inspiration to turn it into a fully fledged story. Initial ideas (especially plot bunnies which unexpectedly pop into your head) are always full of holes, not all of which can be easily plugged. It takes effort to craft it into something that really works.

Those experienced and wise authors I mentioned will know exactly how to handle their ideas and will churn out a good story in no time at all. The rest of us, however, if we’re not careful, might find ourselves languishing somewhere in INSPIRATION HELL.

Abandon hope ye who enter here. Wanderers in this dismal place may find themselves endlessly going around and around the same circle for weeks, months or even years before moving onto another or, worse yet, back to one they’ve already been on. They are damned to be forever inspired without completing a single draft. As a former inmate, it is my sorrowful privilege to shew unto thee the Five Circles of Inspiration Hell.

I: The Burrow of the Plotbunny

If you ever find yourself walking along one day, minding your own business when a wonderful and more-or-less fully fledged story idea suddenly pops into your head with little or no effort, beware! You are in danger of wandering into the Burrow of the Plotbunny. On the surface, it is a paradise where the ecstasy of inspiration fills even the most self-doubting writer with confidence that they will one day become the next Shakespeare, but in the end, nothing ever gets written lest the euphoria be broken. Those who find themselves in the Burrow of the Plotbunny are forever doomed to think about the wonderful idea they’ve had and dream of the day they publish it for all the world to enjoy… but they never actually begin to write it.

II: The Drawing Board of Despair

After spending untold days, weeks or months wandering in the futile bliss of the Plotbunny’s Burrow, you may decide it’s finally time to make your idea really happen. And so you conclude, quite correctly, that if you’re ever going to break free of Plotbunny’s Burrow, you’ll need to sit down and plan out your story. So far, so good. No good idea ever became a story without much toil.

However, beware! It won’t take more than a couple of minutes attempting to bring some structure to your idea that you begin to realise this idea isn’t nearly as good as you thought it was. It’s full of holes and is going to take way more effort than you ever dared to imagine. In fact, you’re not even sure if it ever can be crafted into a good story. The longer you spend, scratching away at the old drawing board, the more you tie yourself in seemingly impossible knots and sink, ever deeper, into a pit of despair. You’re no author. You’re ashamed to have ever thought you were.

III: The Pants of Denial

You wake up one morning after a good night’s sleep and remember that idea you had… that idea that was so wonderful until you tried to plan it.

‘Yes…’ you say to yourself, ‘it was planning that ruined my story…’

So you decide to throw away all notions of planning and simply ‘pants’ it instead. You convince yourself that if you just make it up as you go along, you’ll have a finished draft in no time. The trouble is, all those holes and problems you discovered with your idea at the Drawing Board of Despair weren’t caused by planning. They were simply discovered through planning. And so you spend eternity churning out disjointed narrative after disjointed narrative until you’re up to your armpits in random scenes and character auditions that serve no purpose. You convince yourself you’re making progress but the problems you faced at the Drawing Board of Despair remain unresolved. Your idea is still full of holes.

IV: The Fires of Refinement

Your enthusiasm has taken a few bruises now but you’ve accepted that your idea will never become a true story unless you sit down and plan it properly, even if that means making drastic changes to your initial idea. And so you decide to try planning again, only this time, with a more realistic attitude.

Your idea sucks. You know it to be true. But that’s okay, because all ideas suck until you turn them into a story. So you plan diligently, ruthlessly, killing whatever darlings stand in your way. You twist and mould and sculpt your initial idea until it’s no longer recognisable. But it’s taking shape. It’s getting better. It’s becoming a story. In fact, you even manage to produce a first draft. It’s hard graft and it hurts like blazes but you’re finally beginning to make real progress as you put your precious idea through the fires of refinement.

If you’re thinking this is a great opportunity to break free from Inspiration Hell, you’re absolutely right. In fact, you’re within spitting distance of The Pearly Gates of Authors’ Heaven. But beware! There is a trapped door beneath your feet which leads to…

V: The Pit of Capitulation

It was all going so well. You endured the pain of true planning and clawed your way to the very brink of completing your novel. You might have even produced a draft.

But it sucks. Your plan sucks. Your first draft sucks. You suck. And so you fall upon your own sword. You refuse to work on that idea any longer. The whole idea is dead to you.

What you failed to realise is that first drafts are meant to suck. Bringing a good idea to fruition requires perseverance. Planning, drafting and redrafting are all vital stages in producing anything even remotely good but it can be so difficult to keep going when your momentum starts to falter. You must persevere to succeed. The truth is, your initial idea really did have potential; potential it was perhaps even starting to realise. But potential alone does not make for a good story. It must be refined and polished again and again before it will truly shine as a story.

So… is there a way out of Inspiration Hell?’ I hear you cry.

Yes, there is.

First, you must actually begin working on your story idea. Second, you must remember that no story idea is perfect. It may have potential, but it will require serious effort and darling-killing if you’re to refine it into something worthwhile. Finally, no matter how hard it gets and no matter how awful your plans and drafts appear to be, remember and keep the Golden Rule:

Quitting is NOT an option!


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

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 #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!

Preventing Nowhere Nowhen Syndrome

A few months ago I wrote about the crippling effects of what I dubbed Phantom Protagonist Syndrome; a condition some stories develop whereby an otherwise excellent story can be ruined, or even left unfinished, on account of a protagonist who is so vague and undefined that the story crumbles to pieces. Today I want to talk about a similar condition which I have occasionally found in my own writing, as well as in that of others: Nowhere Nowhen Syndrome (NNS)

Savvy authors should be able to identify NNS in their story at the earliest stages of writing their manuscript (though you would be surprised how often it crops up even in published writing). You will settle down to draft a scene, confident that you know what is supposed to happen in this scene and what highly detailed and lifelike characters are involved. But somehow… you just can’t seem to get the engine running. You can barely envisage the scene in your mind’s eye, much less describe it. There are of course, several possible reasons why this might happen (including Phantom Protagonist Syndrome) but in my experience, NNS is one of the most common.

NNS is when your setting is too vague. In the same way that Phantom Protagonists are characters who lack the substance to create convincing people, a setting with NNS lacks the substance to create a convincing time and place. You may know that your story is set in post-apocalyptic London, circa AD 2084, but that is not the same as creating a setting. That’s just telling us the name of the place.

Creating a setting involves stimulating the imaginary senses of your reader so that they know what it’s like to really be there. They need to see it, hear it and smell it in their own imagination, or else they will never be truly drawn into the story. The best you will accomplish is a mere description of what is happening with all the substance and excitement of a history essay. This is especially important in sci-fi or fantasy settings where a reader has no common frame of reference (it’s no good telling me ‘Jimmy was on the lower deck of the Martin spaceship’ if I’ve never seen a Martian spaceship) but it applies to all genres of fiction, all the time. If you can’t clearly imagine what it is like to be in that drawing room or smoky jazz bar, neither will your reader. The cure for NNS, therefore, begins not on the page but in your imagination.

Go and stand outside. What do you see? What can you hear? What can you smell? What can you feel?

If the answer is ‘nothing much’, you’re doing it wrong. There is always something, even if it is just miles and miles of unspoilt pastureland, a small cluster of oak trees and a clear blue sky. Are there birds twittering? Can you smell freshly cut grass or is it obscured by the smell of manure from some distant field? Is it cold or warm? Are there any buildings? Trees? Animals? People? Roads? How does the weather look? Is there graffiti on any of the walls? Posters? Litter? Cigarette ends? Pools of blood? Crashed spaceships?

Look carefully and see everything. Examine every detail, both big and small: size, shape, textures, colours, etc. It’s not just a field. It’s a lush green paradise, dotted with cows who are enjoying a cool summer breeze and are oblivious to the steep inclination of the hillside. It’s not just a lamppost. It’s a lamppost littered with political posters and the stench of urine, intermittently illuminating the road with its flickering light-bulb. That’s the kind of detail we want in our fictional world.

Once you’ve got that setting clear in your imagination, then you can begin to put it on paper. As the author, the more details you have for your own reference, the better, so you might find it helpful to draw maps, write out descriptions of key landmarks or even take photographs if your setting is a real place. Personally, I suck at drawing and I tend to write a lot of fantasy, so I tend to write out a scene in which I imagine walking through the street/town/hotel lobby and I describe everything I see (though if I’m creating something as big as a town, I tend to draw a rough map too). These are just for your own reference as the author.

The audience, on the other hand, will probably get bored if you describe every lamppost, every tree and every cobblestone. When it comes to describing your setting in your manuscript, you will probably need to be selective about how much description you give. As a rule of thumb, the more important it is to your story, the more carefully you should describe it (and you understand, of course, that by ‘describe it’ I mean show us your setting; don’t just tell us about it).

You see, as well as helping your reader imagine the scene, a vivid setting also goes a long way to tell you something about life in our fictional world without having to state it explicitly. Your audience are probably smart enough to figure out a lot of what you haven’t told them from what you have show them. For instance, suppose we had this as our first line:

‘Swastikas fluttered brazenly on banners of blood which hung from almost every window.’

Boom. The reader instantly knows something about the political situation in this place and can probably take a reasonable guess at roughly where and when our story is set (heck, it even gives us a pretty decent chance of guessing who the bad guys are). Notice also that by describing the colour of the banners as ‘blood’ instead of simply ‘red’, I am able to create a certain impression in the audience’s mind of the meaning of this setting. It doesn’t simply tell you that this is a Nazi town; it also hints at some violent undercurrent implied by this setting.

If, on the other hand, the street had nothing remarkable hanging out of any of the windows, I probably wouldn’t bother mentioning the windows at all. Most buildings on most streets have windows. The reader knows that. You don’t need to describe each one if they have no bearing on your story. Instead give detailed accounts of important things, such as the bullet-holes in the wall or the train that your protagonist is about to board. Treat more trivial details as salt and pepper to add substance to your setting; not to bore your audience to tears with. When possible, select trivial details which can foreshadow what is to come (‘It was a dark and stormy night’ might be a rubbish line in many respects, but trivial details like the weather can often help to set the mood and foreshadow what is to come, though I’m sure you can think of something better than bad weather to help you do that).

I hope you find some of this useful. I fear I’ve barely been able to scratch the surface of creating vivid settings in this post (after all, creating a place is a big job), so if you’ve got any tips about creating vivid settings for your story, do share them with us in the comments section below.

Until next time!

 

3 Ways to Ignite the Imagination

The Parable of the Cars

by A. Ferguson

There were once two brothers who lived in Glasgow, who both managed to get jobs in Edinburgh. This was not a problem, since they both held full UK drivers’ licences, which they had acquired at about the same time and they both owned the same make and model of car. The eldest brother was wise. He set his alarm early in the morning and as soon as he was in his car, he turned on the ignition and drove to work in plenty of time.

The younger brother was foolish. He did not get ready for work until it suited him to do so, and when he finally did make it into his car, he sat there for a few minutes waiting for the ignition to turn itself on – which never happened. ‘Maybe it’ll come on tomorrow.’ he thought. ‘I’d better go back to bed in the meantime.’

He lost his job without ever setting a foot in Edinburgh.

* * *

A common mistake amateur writers make is to believe that they cannot write a story unless an idea – or inspiration – comes to them heralded by a chorus of angels. Like the foolish brother, they have all the necessary equipment (in the writer’s case, a brain with an imagination) but do not realise that to get any benefit from it, they need to make the effort to turn on the engine/imagination themselves.

Now, as we all know, turning on a car’s ignition doesn’t immediately take you where you want to go. It simply starts the engine, allowing for the possibility of motion. In the same way, igniting the imagination (to continue the metaphor) does not immediately give you a fully formed story. It just gives you the idea, allowing for the possibility of a story. Perhaps I’ll talk about turning your idea into a story next week, but this week, I want to focus on that all important first stage: going from having nothing to having something.

There are many different things you can do to spark the imagination, none of which involve sitting down and waiting for inspiration to strike. You can…

Read history, the news or even mythology. Just think for a moment about how long humanity has been around for and how many different things happen all over the world at any given time. Wars, disasters, weddings, funerals, births, deaths, financial meltdowns, lottery winners, crime, charity and a million other events besides. As if that were not enough, most societies throughout history come with a catalogue of myths, legends and fables that you can also delve into. If something from history grabs your interest, you could write it as a piece of historical fiction or you can simply borrow a very small element of it to inspire a whole new story. If you’re into character driven stories like me, and have the patience to do so, I would particularly recommend trying to find old letters, journals, newspaper clippings (particularly advertisements and letters from readers) and other primary sources to draw on because these give a much richer flavour of what kind of people lived in the time and place you’re reading about and what mattered to them.

Try using a resource especially designed to provoke creativity such as Oblique Strategies, Story Dice or even random title generators. If you ask the internet, you’ll quickly find that there are loads of tools out there like these, especially designed to help spark the imagination. Some are especially aimed at writers, some are not; some are very cryptic, some are very clear; some are very expensive, some are free. It can be trial and error finding the right tool(s) for you but they can be a wonderful resources to have when you find the right one for you. However, whether you’re the sort of person who likes cryptic prompts such as ‘change nothing and continue consistently’ (Oblique Strategies) or very precise ones such as ‘in 100 words or less, write a story that includes the following: a poet who always speaks in rhyme, a pill bottle, a luminous feather’ (Writer Unblocked) – or even pictures, like I used to inspire my 6 word stories, it is still ultimately down to you to come up with your own idea. See that you don’t fall into the trap of thinking any of these tools can tell you what to write. They cannot. Even very explicit prompts, such as the Writer Unblocked one I referred to, still leave it very much up to the writer to turn that prompt into a usable story idea.

‘Pantsting’, even if you’re more of a planner can also be a good place to start. If you’ve got nothing, then make up a person – any old person. You might even want to base him on a real person that you know well (though be very, very, very careful about doing this in your final story). Then just write and see where he takes you. Maybe he’s going to the chip shop but… is abducted by aliens. How does he escape? I dunno. Just make it up as you go along and edit nothing. It doesn’t matter if you hit a dead end or if you end up writing a really rubbish story, since this is simply the writer’s equivalent of doodling. What matters is that you keep making stuff up. Most of it will be chucked out but some of it might contain the golden nuggets of inspiration. I once ‘doodled’ a story about a guy who was in prison (in fact, he wasn’t even the main character of this particular ‘doodle’) and now, he’s the main antagonist of my novel and possibly one of the characters I’m the most proud of creating.

This is, of course, only a small selection of things you can try. No doubt if you ask the internet, you’ll find dozens more. Perhaps you even invented a few techniques yourself that you absolutely swear by. Do let us know about anything which works for you in the comments below!

8 Useful Posts on Fiction Writing

Sometimes, I just can’t say it better than my fellow bloggers, and since it’s been a while since I’ve compiled a ‘list of things I like’ kind of post (in fact, I don’t think I’ve done it since the very first post I ever wrote for Penstricken; sigh) I decided that it was about time I did another one. And what better thing to list than some of the best story-writing related posts from other blog sites that I have found particularly useful or insightful in recent weeks.

In reality, there’s dozens of writing and fiction related blogs I like to read on a regular basis and there have been numerous posts I’ve read lately that I could include in this list. I could not even begin to list them all. This is just a selection of some that I have recently come across (not necessarily ones that were written recently) which proved invaluable to me.

So, without further ado…

C.S. Wilde – Free Basic Scene Planner (especially handy for ‘pantsers’ like me who are working hard to become ‘planners’).

Rachel Poli – Why Fan Fiction is Important to Me (I had to include this, because to be frank, fan fiction was pretty much where I also started writing and I have a sneaking suspicion that a great number of writers today can probably relate to this refreshingly unashamed, reflective little post).

Larry Kahaner – How To Screw Up Your Novel: The Series Cheat (because I want to poke novelists who do this in the eye with a chopstick, too).

Tobias Mastgrave – World Building Part 5: How To Build a People Group – Custom and Tradition (this post deals with one of the most important aspects of world building and is full of really insightful points that most people over look. Yes, I know it’s a couple of years old now but I don’t care; it’s got some important stuff in it. Essential reading for the speculative fiction author).

Kristen Twardowski – The Curse of Rewrites: How Many is Too Many? (useful insights for those of us who suffer from perfectionism).

Jean M. Cogdell – Are your adjectives in the right order? (by all accounts, this is more of a language related post, rather than a fiction specific one, but I think it is especially useful for us writers).

Bridget McNulty – Novel plot mistakes: 7 don’ts for how to plot a novel (actually, there are about a hundred posts on NowNovel’s blog that I could have linked to. The blog at that site is just one of the really useful services they offer to novelists, no matter what their level of experience. I just keep coming back and reading this site again and again… but this was the one I read the most recently about how not to plot your novel).

K.M. Weiland – The #1 Key to Relatable Characters: Backstory (remember that post I did recently about writing a backstory for your protagonist? Well… forget it. This one by K.M. Weiland is better).

Keeping Focused With Scrivener

Don’t you just love Scrivener? I certainly do. I was a little wary of spending money on another glorified word processor but years later, I still think Scrivener is the best thirty quid I’ve ever spent.

However, simply having the right tools for the job does not an author, make. While Scrivener did provide the resources to easily research, plan and write my novel in an organised way, I was not getting the most out of it at first because I wasn’t bothering to do any proper planning. I was just writing mountains of narrative; something I could have done for free on OpenOffice. However, not to be deterred from my dream of finishing that novel, I (a natural ‘pantser’) decided that I had to become a ‘planner’ to take my writing to the next level.

It was the right decision but it was still an unnatural transition for someone used to the freedom of ‘pantsing’. I decided in advance, therefore, to stick to a simple three-staged approach:

1- Research everything I needed to know in order to write my story; history, science or even good old fashioned people watching. For fantasy stories, this stage would also include ‘researching’ everything I needed to know about my fantasy world (i.e., world building). No actual writing happens at this stage.

2- Plan the specifics of my story. This is when I plan out my plot and flesh out my characters.

3- Write a draft. Assuming the first two stages are complete, this should involve no plotting or research. I should already have the fully fledged story in my mind; it is now a simple(!) matter of bringing that story to life in pleasing language.

This is where Scrivener came into its own. Useful though the pre-loaded templates on Scrivener were, I needed a template that would make it easy for me to remain focused on what I was supposed to be doing at each stage. Fortunately, it’s a doddle to make your own templates on Scrivener, so that’s exactly what I did; one based on the above structure.

scr1I began by creating a blank Scrivener project. By default, a blank project on Scrivener still includes three folders: ‘Draft’, ‘Research’ and  ‘Trash’. I added two more, which I labelled ‘The Old Drawing Board’ and ‘Stage 2 – Plan’. I also renamed the ‘Research’ folder as ‘Stage 1 – Research’ and the ‘Draft’ folder ‘Stage 3 – Draft’ and shuffled them into numerical order. These would form the basis for my ‘born again planner’ approach to writing.

The Old Drawing Board

‘The Old Drawing Board’ isn’t, strictly speaking, a stage in the process. This folder contains three documents which I have dipped in and out of throughout the whole process:

Initial Idea(s) – a small document in which I keep all the little flights of fancy I have which will eventually give rise to an actual story. I began by writing down my first idea in here, but quickly realised that I would need to keep coming back to it whenever a new idea occurred that might tempt me to skip research or planning.

Timetable – This document consists of a table recording what I intend to do each day and what I actually accomplished. This helped me to stay focused on whatever task I had set myself for that day because it provided me with realistic goals that could be achieved each day. It was also rewarding to see evidence that my work was heading in some direction. The only difficulty I had with this approach, as a natural ‘pantser’, was deciding in advance what I would need to do each day.

timetable

Jotter – I used this document to scribble down any notes I wanted to write to myself (all headed and dated, so I could keep track of them); plot ideas, character auditions and whatever other odds and ends came to mind at inappropriate times. I also found it useful to begin work every day by setting aside twenty-five minutes to write anything that came to mind. It got the urge to ‘pants’ out of my system and allowed me to focus on what I was supposed to be doing that day.

1 – Research

Anything that I needed to know to help me write my story went in here. Anticipating the likelihood that I would have to research a variety of subjects, I divided my research folder into several sub-folders that I was likely to need: ‘Religions/Philosophies’, ‘Historical Events’, ‘Locations’, etc. In most cases, these folders would contain documents, images and webpages of relevant factual information.

However, the novel I was working on at the time was a fantasy novel. This meant that factsresearch and world-building went hand in hand. I decided, therefore, that for fantasy stories, I would have a ‘Factual’ sub-folder, in which I would keep all the factual information that inspired my fantasy world but the other sub-folders would be used to hold all the ‘research’ about how my fantasy world worked. This allowed me to keep all my factual research and world building separate yet together.

2 – Planning

There were two related goals that I wanted to realise in the planning stage: plotting and creating characters. It was natural, therefore, to divide this folder into two sub-folders for characters and plot respectively.

The plotting folder contains a variety of self-explanatory documents such as ‘synopsis’, ‘timeline’ (doubly-essential in my story, since I’m using a fantasy calendar) and a chapter-by-chapter outline of events that occur in my story.

charactersThe character sub-folder is more complicated. It contains a further two sub-folders for the ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’, as well as an individual document which deals with how each of the characters relates to one another.

The ‘Good Guys’ and ‘Bad Guys’ folders work the same way. Each one contains a profile of every character in the story (names, ages, etc.). Thanks to the magic of Scrivener, these profiles also double-up as ‘folders’, which contain a variety of other folders and documents such as ‘auditions‘ (short bursts of narrative which I write to flesh my characters out) and ‘gallery’ (a fairly self-explanatory folder of images). This allows me to produce a large amount of information about each character while keeping them all separate and orderly.

The aforementioned ‘Relationships’ document is not attached to any one character. Instead, it is a single document which I use to map out in a few sentences how each character relates to all the other characters in the story.

relationships

3 – Draft

Last but not least, we have the drafting stage. I don’t have very much to say about this section which won’t be painfully obvious to you, especially if you use Scrivener yourself. I have left the drafting folder exactly the way Scrivener gave it to us: each folder is a chapter, each document within that folder is a single scene. Scrivener even formats each document for us into a suitable manuscript format, so there was very little in the way of customisation required here. All I needed was the discipline not to touch this folder until I had finished my research and planning.

And there you have it! A simple three-staged approach to planning for ‘pansters’ made easy by Scrivener, Literature and Latte‘s glorious contribution to the world of writing.