Writing Non-Human Characters #3: Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple.

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

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

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #2: Aliens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until next time!

Writing Non-Human Characters #1: Animals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phew!

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

Until next time!

Keeping a Writer’s Journal

There are a some folk out there who will tell you that if you don’t keep a journal, you are doomed to never, ever be a writer of any kind. In fact, you will probably fail miserably at everything you ever set your hand to, both in business and at home. Others just get very snooty about the ‘right’ way to keep a journal (as if writing something simple like ‘I ate chips for my tea. That’s all I can think of to write’ means you have failed at journaling, and therefore, failed at life).

Obviously, that’s a load of poppycock.

However, even if you’re not the sort of person who normally bothers to keep a journal, you might find it useful as a writer to at least keep a writer’s journal— especially if you’re working on a large writing project such as a novel.

‘Oh nooo!’ I hear you cry. ‘That sounds too hard/time-consuming/pointless’ (delete as appropriate).

It needn’t be. You don’t need to fill it with epiphanies written in flawless iambic pentameter, you don’t need to handcraft your own leather bound volume to write in and you don’t need to write ten thousand words a day (having already written ten thousand words in your actual story). In fact (just between you and me), you don’t need to keep a journal at all if you don’t find it helpful, though I would recommend giving it a bash for a week or two to be sure that it’s not for you.

All that matters is that you do what helps you to write, and in my experience, journaling can be profoundly helpful. How you do it, however, is entirely up to you! You can write in it as often as suits you; it can be long or short; handwritten or digital; illustrated or not; written in all, some or none of the colours of the rainbow and best of all, it can be as messy as you like. No one’s going to mark it. No editor will ever read/watch/listen to it. No publisher will ever publish it. All that matters is that it helps you to write.

For me, I like to keep a written note of how many words I write each day. It’s encouraging to have evidence of daily progress when you feel like you’ve been writing forever and getting nowhere. More than that, however, I find it helpful to express all my thoughts, feelings, ideas and problems relating to my story in some way. Externalising all that stuff once a week, or thereabouts, usually suffices and it helps me to think through it all in a way that sitting staring at my manuscript does not.  If I don’t write it down, I tend to end up boring my wife to tears by talking at length to her about my characters, my setting, my story arc, my word count or whatever else it might be.

If you’ve got a thick skin and are not too worried about who gets to read your journal, you might even find it useful to start a blog (or Twitter account, if you agree the brevity is the soul of wit). While it isn’t why I started Penstricken, my regular readers (God bless you patient and forbearing people) will be able to testify that I frequently do use my blog as a place to rant and rave about things I’ve learned and the problems I’ve encountered and solved while writing. Often the posts I categorise as ‘writing tips’ are aimed at myself as much as they are at anyone else. Another big perk to this kind of public journaling is that you get a little bit of feedback (hopefully from people who care about you, your story or creative writing in general) and it will hopefully serve to motivate you to journal regularly if you have regular readers who will be expecting you to post something every day/week/month/decade.

If you’ve never tried it before, why not start now? To make sure you get the most out of it, take a little time to ask yourself a few questions such as:

What should I write in my journal? Are you wanting to keep a detailed log of your progress (i.e., daily word counts, problems encountered, feedback received and so forth) or would you prefer to use it to express the enjoyment/fear/doubt/despair you experience while writing? Perhaps you might even find it a helpful place to scribble down plot bunnies for future reference.

How often can I commit to keeping a journal? It needn’t be excessively frequent. However in my experience, it is far easier and more enjoyable to keep a journal if you do it on a regular basis. Daily, weekly or even monthly- whatever you can stick to.

What format should my journal take? It’s your journal, for expressing and exploring what’s going on in your own writer-brain. Will it be kept private or will it be online for the great unwashed to view? Will it be in written, audio or video form? Try to use a format that allows you to express yourself as freely as possible – and most importantly, which compliments your writing.

What do I hope to get out of this? There are many possible benefits to journaling: catharsis; developing your skills; tracking your progress; etc. What you are hoping to get out of journaling will probably impact on how you do it. For instance, if you’re using it mainly as an outlet for your self-doubt and frustration with your novel, you probably won’t want to publish it online. It’s not likely to improve your sales figures if ever you do publish your novel.

Do you keep a writer’s journal? Do you find it helps you to write or do you just find it a big old slog keeping it up to date? Share your insights with the rest of us in the comments section below and we can all benefit from each other’s wisdom!

Until next time!

Ready, Steady, Write!

According to my wife, I am a creature of habit. I do the same things, at the same times, in the same way every week like clockwork. I think she’s right. However, every now and again things happen in such a way so as to interfere with even the most meticulously organised daily routine. It was just such an occurrence which led to me discovering a new and effective means of making progress with my novel (new and effective for me at any rate).

A week or so ago, we had my parents over to help with a little bit of decorating. They were bringing the brushes and rollers etc. with them, so it was not possible for us to start without them. We arranged for them to come over at about 10am and I, anticipating a busy day, decided to set aside the entire day for decorating. However, by 9:30, I was already dressed and the house as prepared to be decorated as it could be. I was at a loose end.

Thirty minutes to kill, I mused. What can I do in thirty minutes? 

Since I wasn’t expecting to get any writing done that day, I decided to use the time to work on my novel. Under normal circumstances, I like to set aside at least two or three hours to write (with breaks) so this was an unusually short burst of writing for me. Imagine my surprise when I managed to write as many words in that half hour than I often manage devoting an entire afternoon to writing. With such a tight deadline hanging over me, there was no time to procrastinate; no time to read and re-read my notes, no time to edit as I wrote (a cardinal sin when drafting a novel), no time to shove notes around on Scapple or “research” my novel by Googling every trifling detail. There was even less time to waste on Facebook, Twitter, WordPress or studying for my exams (the ultimate waste of time). For that miserly thirty minutes I produced words like my life depended on it and let me tell you, I finished drafting that chapter.

I couldn’t believe it. After months of straining out the tiniest little strands of text and getting nowhere, suddenly my word count grew wings and flew!

Over the next few days, I began to change my novel-writing routine. Instead of allotting entire afternoons to drafting my novel, I have looked for the small gaps in my day — the half hour my dinner is in the oven, or the one hour window in which I expect my Tesco delivery to arrive — and have devoted these to writing. It has paid dividends. If you feel like you’re flogging a dead horse, sitting and staring at your manuscript for hours without accomplishing anything, I would strongly recommend giving this a go.

Write often and in short bursts. Don’t allow yourself the luxury of going overtime (unless you’re really into the flow I suppose, but should that flow dry up, stop immediately). Even if you manage 500 words a day, it will still bring you up to an 80,000 word draft in less than a year.

If you have been taking part in Camp NaNoWriMo this last few weeks (alas, after my experience last year, I personally decided to give it a miss) you might know what I’m talking about. Part of NaNoWriMo’s charm is that it forces you to write fast. You might even take part in a “sprint” or two, which is a brief, timed writing session where you basically try to write as much as you can in the little time available.

Are you going to produce excellent words this way? Certainly not. Creating excellent words takes effort. You have to craft and mould them to give them exactly the kind of punch you want them to have (to say nothing of ensuring your spelling and grammar are above reproach).

It doesn’t matter. There is an editing stage (dear writer, you know this already) where we will tidy up the mess we’ve made and that truly is meant to be a slow and painstaking process. I am not for one second endorsing speed-editing. Speed-editing will result in a permanently bad story. But as I’ve said once or twice before and now say again, even with tears: you cannot edit a blank manuscript. Nor is it wise to edit your manuscript as you go along. If your first draft is appalling, let it be appalling. Better an appalling first draft than no first draft. You must write your appalling first draft in all its awful terribleness and then you can bring it to perfection when you come to edit and redraft later.

I’m curious to know if this works as well for others as it did for me, so why not give it a go yourself now? You don’t need to wait until you’ve got a roast in the oven. Grab a timer and time yourself half an hour or so and write. See how you go, and be sure to let us know in the comments section.

Until next time!

5 Super Snappy Speed Reviews – TV Edition

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not seen Agatha Christie’s Poirot, Treasure Island (2012), Doctor Who, Sherlock or Supergirl is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well, I know it’s not been all that long since the last edition of Super Snappy Speed Reviews but I’ve spent the last few hours banging my head against the desk trying to think of something to write for today and I’m drawing a blank so I’m afraid you’re getting more speed reviews today- this time focusing on the realm of televised fiction. I’ve picked 5 TV shows entirely at random from my DVD rack Now TV/Lovefilm/etc. accounts and have prepared for your information reviews of up to no more than three or four sentences each.

As ever, these reviews reflect nothing but my own personal opinion. They are not necessarily TV shows of the same genre, nor are they necessarily TV shows that I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, crushed, blended and flattened into a few short sentences. So without further ado…

Agatha Christie’s Poirot 

This adaptation of the adventures of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective aired on ITV from 1989-2013. While some episodes are more loosely based on the original works of Christie than others, they nevertheless bring the jolly charming and, dash it all old bean, sometimes dark world of Poirot to life in a way which is mostly lighthearted and easy to watch. While I prefer to focus on the story-telling rather than acting when reviewing TV shows, I also cannot help but point out how singularly superb a job David Suchet does portraying Hercule Poirot.

My rating: 4 stars

Treasure Island (2012 mini-series)

This adaptation of Robert Lois Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island, boasts an all-star cast including Eddie Izzard, Elijah Wood and Donald Sutherland to name but a few. I’m not a particular fan of Eddie Izzard, but I must say I thought he gave a stellar performance as the dastardly (yet somehow likeable) Long John Silver, capturing the complexity of the story’s villain in a way which seemed natural and believable. They have been somewhat liberal with the plot for such a famous novel (some might say too liberal) but if you can live with that, it’s still an enjoyable enough watch. The ending felt a bit abrupt, but not inappropriately so. There are only two episodes, both about an hour and a half long.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Doctor Who

It is difficult to compress a review of this, since it’s been running (on and off) for more than fifty years now. It started in 1963 but didn’t really find its feet until the 70s when Jon Pertwee and later Tom Baker portrayed the Doctor. If you like light-hearted, imaginative (but not too scientific) sci-fi fantasy TV shows with lots of monsters and a colourful protagonist travelling through time and space in a police box then you’ll probably enjoy at least one incarnation of this show. If you’re the sort of sci-fi fan who enjoys hard sci-fi, you might want to give this a miss. Incidentally, series 10 of its current incarnation started just yesterday.

My rating by era:

Hartnell era: 3 stars
Troughton era: 4 stars
Pertwee era: 3.5 stars
T. Baker era: 4.5 stars
Davison era: 3 stars
C. Baker era: 1.5 stars
McCoy era: ?
McGann era (movie): 1.5 stars
Eccleston era: 4 stars
Tennant era: 5 stars
Smith era: 3.5 stars
Capaldi era: 3.5 stars

Sherlock

Many have undertaken to create a modern spin on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Most have made an absolute pig’s ear of it. BBC’s Sherlock is an exception to this rule. It is, understandably, quite liberal with the original story (mobile phones, blogging and other modern technological and cultural phenomenon play a fairly significant role in this series) but it thankfully avoided falling into some of the traps other adaptations have fallen into of making fundamental changes to who the characters and are (though they pushed their luck a bit with Irene Adler and Moriarty). Regardless, it’s thoroughly entertaining (though the last series got a bit silly I thought).

My rating: 4 stars

Supergirl

We’re just now nearing the end of series 2 of this adaptation of DC’s super-heroine, Kara Zor-El, cousin of Superman. I must like something about this show because I’ve watched it pretty religiously since it’s been on, though I find some of the acting a bit naff at points and frankly, I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t more aliens living on planet earth in this show than there are humans. Basically, everyone’s an alien or a cyborg. Oh and Jimmy Olson has decided to become a superhero too now… (?!). Socio-political themes are present and very thinly veiled, if that’s your bag. Also if you enjoy playing ‘spot the actors from previous Superman/Supergirl adaptations’, you’ll love this show too.

My rating: 2.8 stars


And that’s a wrap for today!

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!

 

Flash Fiction! Aah!

Many years ago, when I first came across the concept of flash fiction, I thought it sounded like a fashionable waste of time, without literary value of any kind. These days, I realise how totally wrong I was. I have seen the light. In fact, I am a fully converted reader and writer of 500 word, 100 word, 50 word and even 6 word stories, though today I want to focus on stories that fall somewhere in the region of 50-500 words (I find the discipline of writing a 6 word story is somewhat different, though many of the same rules apply).

One of the obvious perks to flash fiction is that you can have it written in a relatively short period of time. After all, flash fiction is usually defined as a story which is written in fewer than 1,000 words – the length of an average Penstricken post (in fact, the posts on this website often go a little over 1,000 words). Well, I manage to write these posts in a single morning most weeks so… how hard can it be to write a story of half that length, or even less?

Harder than you think. Remember, we’re not writing a poem or an essay here but a story. That involves the same basic elements common to all stories such as characters, plot and so forth.

One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how long your story is, it must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A beginning, where everything is normal for your protagonist until that fateful day; a middle, where your protagonist faces the conflict or problem the story focuses on; and an ending, where your character’s problem has been resolved one way or another and life goes on (though it may never be the same again). I do apologise if this is teaching your granny to suck eggs, but it’s a point worth labouring.

You see, one of the traps writers of flash fiction (myself included) often fall into is missing out one or more of these vital parts because their word count is so limited. Usually (for me anyway), the temptation will be to skip straight to the ending. So the first line of your story might look something like this:

Michael stood with his father’s blooded sword in hand, glaring at Kar across the volcano’s fiery chasm…

Woah, woah, hold the bus a minute! Who’s Michael? What happened to his father? Whose blood is it on the sword? What’s his beef with Kar? What are they doing on top of a volcano? This is the kind of line you might expect to find at the climax of a story, not at the beginning! You’re starting at the end!

I know, I know… you’ve only got a couple of hundred words to play with, if that much. But the way to deal with that limitation isn’t by chopping off vital parts. Instead, try to include all the parts using as few words as possible. It might be tempting to do this by dividing your word count in three and allotting so many words to each section (so in a 100 word story, each part would be about 33 words long). I’m not entirely convinced that’s the best approach however. In most stories, the middle section is usually the longest part and I would argue that the same is true in flash fiction. Aim, therefore, for a very snappy beginning and ending. For instance, in the last 100 word story I wrote, my beginning was only 17 words long and my ending was 14 words. That gave me 69 words to play with in the middle in which my character faced and dealt with his problem.

Which brings me neatly onto the subject of characters. Characters are the beating heart of every good story. Because your word count is so limited, you need to give yourself as much room as possible to develop your characters. The sensible thing to do, therefore, is try to keep the number of characters to a minimum. Any more than three is probably pushing it and I wouldn’t even go that high if your story is fewer than 100 words long.

Introduce your characters at the very beginning. We don’t have time for detailed backstories, so my advice would be to keep it simple. Tell us who they are and what their situation is:

Simon thought about boarding a different bus today and escaping forever. He hated Mondays.

Boom, job done. He’s called Simon, he is toying with running away and he hates his job (we can glean that from the fact he is planning on running away from a place he regularly commutes to and the fact he hates Mondays; after all, why else do people hate Mondays?). That’s a slice of the everyday for Simon. This beginning also works because his fantasy of escape foreshadows the possibility that he maybe will escape. It forces the reader to wonder whether or not Simon will ever be free from his monotonous life. Obviously if we were writing a novel we would need a lot more than this, but it’s plenty for flash fiction.

Now comes the middle, where we turn Simon’s life upside down.

‘Simon Brown, I am going to make you a wealthy man.’ Someone said in his ear. ‘Follow me.’

Well, I’m not going to write the rest of the story for you but I’m sure you get the idea. Does he go with the mysterious stranger or not? Whether the answer to that question is yes or no, I would generally recommend centring your middle around this one key event. If we’re going to develop a satisfactory character arc, we need something that will change Simon for better or worse, but we need to do it in only a few sentences.  Therefore keep the action simple but loaded with significance.

I recently read an excellent 100 word story by one Jeanne Waddington entitled The Accident (available here – round 1, runner-up) in which a teacher “accidentally” spills a cup of water on a pupil who has wet himself. That’s the central event. Simple, right? And quick – it’s easy to describe this event in a few words. However, the result of this seemingly minor event is that the protagonist goes from being afraid and ashamed to being confident and happy. So:

Beginning: Percy is sitting in school having just wet himself. This is a slice of his normal life.
Middle: Suddenly, the problem strikes! It’s playtime! Everyone will know he wet himself! Fortunately, along comes Mrs Gently to spill water on him.
Ending: Percy’s problem is solved. He can enjoy playtime without shame.

That, I believe, is what makes flash fiction uniquely valuable as a form of story telling. By writing with such a tight word count, a skilled author can turn even the most small and seemingly insignificant events into something meaningful and even exciting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be imaginative or even include a bit of magic or fantasy in your flash fiction (my most recent 100 word story involves time travel!); just be realistic with how much you can squeeze in and don’t let the length of your story compromise the quality of the story.

8 Super Snappy Speed Reviews

Spoiler Alert

While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers, anyone who has not read: The Count of Monte Cristo by A. Dumas, The Afrika Reich by G. Saville, The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by R. Winder, The House of Silk by A. Horowitz, The Gospel of Loki by J.M. Harris, I, Robot by I. Asimov, Deception by R. Dahl or Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.

Well this might be a great idea or it might not be, but I thought it might be fun to knock together a couple of two or three sentence book reviews based on a selection from my bookshelf. Who knows, if it’s a hit, I’ll maybe do it again… maybe with movies or TV shows. But for today, it’s books.

I selected the books for review entirely at random. They are not necessarily of the same genre, nor are they necessarily books I particularly liked or disliked, nor are they sorted into any particular order.

What I have written about them are my entirely own impressions and opinions, compressed, squeezed and crammed into a few short sentences. So, without further ado…

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Justifiably a classic of the genre; a good wholesome historical adventure story and love story rolled into one. It helps to know a thing or two about the period of the Bourbon Restoration to fully appreciate everything that’s going on but don’t let it put you off if you don’t have any knowledge of that period. Oh, and make sure you read the unabridged version translated by Robin Buss. It is the best.

My rating: 5 stars

The Afrika Reich by Guy Saville

If alternative histories and non-stop heart-pounding thrill-rides are your thing, you’ll probably enjoy this. Personally, I can’t help feeling the protagonist should have died from his injuries- or at least been slowed down enough to be caught and executed by the Nazis but I suppose that’s what we have suspension of disbelief for.

 My rating: 3 stars

The Final Act of Mr. Shakespeare by Robert  Winder

Historical fiction featuring William Shakespeare as the protagonist. This novel is set shortly after the Gunpowder Plot and tells the fictional story of the last play Shakespeare (never actually) wrote: Henry VII. In some respects, the story is quite exciting; filled with personal danger for Shakespeare and his troupe. While the narrative does drag at some points, it is beautifully written in a way which brings many of the real historical characters to life and is kept afloat by its interesting premise and a goodly dash of humour. It also includes the full script for the fictional play this novel focuses on.

My rating: 4 stars

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

Many have tried to capture the magic of Sherlock Holmes in books and films throughout the years. Few have done it as well as Anthony Horowitz does it in The House of Silk, balancing fidelity to the original creation of Arthur Conan Doyle with a fresh and exciting new plot for modern readers. It has everything in it you ever wanted from a Sherlock Holmes story; mystery, excitement, a dark secret to uncover and a quality of narrative which draws you right into the heart of Holmes’ London. Parental advisory: the ending is a lot darker and more disturbing than anything A.C.D. might have written.

My rating: 5 stars

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M. Harris

This novel is an imaginative reexamination of Norse mythology, given from the unique perspective of one of its central villains: Loki, the god of mischief. This novel is full of sharp and occasionally dark humour and a very compelling antihero. Downsides? The first few chapters felt more like a list of cosmic anecdotes forming a backstory, which made it a slow read at first but it does pick up. I also found the narrative voice of Loki a little irksome, but then again, the Loki character is probably supposed to be irksome so I suppose that’s a good thing.

My rating: 3 stars

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

What can I say about I, Robot that hasn’t already been said? Almost every robot character that has ever appeared in sci-fi since owes something to this collection of short stories which are set at different points in the lifetime of robopsychologist, Dr. Calvin (though she is not a character in every story, the stories are largely told from her perspective). Each story is generally centred around the Three Laws of Robotics (Google it) and the problems caused by human and robot interpretations of these laws. I found the pacing a bit slow occasionally, but all in all it’s a good read and an essential addition to any sci-fi buff’s bookshelf. This book sets the standard for everything modern sci-fi readers expect from a robot story.

My rating: 4.5 stars

Deception by Roald Dahl

As a child, I loved almost everything Roald Dahl ever wrote. Deception is certainly not for children but it is an excellent collection of short stories all dealing with theme of lies and deceit. Some of the stories are quite dark (for instance, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ deals with a woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb then feeds it to the police) while others are a little more lighthearted. I loved it. I think you will, too.

My rating: 4 stars

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis

Lewis is probably more famous for the The Chronicles of Narnia and his assorted theological texts but this book (the first in ‘The Cosmic Trilogy’) is well worth a look anyway. Hard sci-fi fans, don’t waste your time. This is a story about a man who travels to Mars, but Lewis’ idea of space is clearly grounded in his interest in mythology rather than modern cosmology. Treat it as a fairy-tale rather than a sci-fi, though, and it’s a darn good read.

My rating: 4 stars


Phew! Well, that was different!

Until next time!

Using Dialogue to Bring Your Characters to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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