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Thursday, May 15, 2014

Don't Tell Me He's Smart!

Recently I re-read the first long fantasy I ever wrote, The War for Erasthinia. It was probably around twenty thousand words. I was ... fifteen, I think.
One thing I noticed about it was my main character. Throughout the entire book we're being told that he's really smart. He's put in charge of the army at the age of seventeen, the king listens to him, etc, etc. He's also incredibly humble and brave and the best sword-fighter ever (except for his uncle who taught him how to sword fight, of course).
But, despite all the telling of how smart he is, what I actually showed was that he was pretty stupid. He did quite a few things that make you wonder how he even made it to the age of seventeen, much less became the commander of the whole bloomin' army.
So I was wondering, why is that? How come you can say something in a story until you're blue in the face, yet be contradicting yourself all along?
I think it's because I wasn't really interested in the character; I was just interested in the story. Kinlar had to become the commander, and to do so he had to be so smart, skilled, brave, and just generally amazing, that everyone else who might have been qualified were passed over in favor of him.
But then I made him act stupid in order for him to be captured. Of course, I didn't realize he was being stupid; I wasn't even paying attention! All that mattered was that The Plot went the way I wanted it to. The characters weren't part of the plot; they were just along for the ride.

I can't say that I've learned to master character completely over the years, but I have learned a few things.

1. Show, show, show! We've all heard this a million times, but showing really is better than telling; and most especially (I would say) when it comes to characters.
It can be difficult to understand what showing means; to me, I have to really take the time, because whenever I just think about showing instead of laying everything out for the reader I have a hard time imagining how to do it. I have to actually be writing.
I often catch myself describing something that I should be showing through a character's actions, and then I'll either change it or leave myself a note and come back to it later.

2. Know your characters strengths and weaknesses. In The War for Erasthinia, Kinlar didn't have any weaknesses whatsoever in my own mind. He was pretty much perfect.
When he got angry, it was at the man who betrayed his soldiers; he was so humble that all the adulation heaped on him did nothing to affect him; he was such an amazing sword fighter that even after being in prison for a month or more he was able to defeat a guy who had the sorcerer's magic sword fighting power in him. He had absolutely no flaws whatsoever.
And so he ended up being super boring. He needed a balance of both good and bad; if he was brave, he needed to be hot headed. If he was smart, and everyone was always telling him so, he needed to become over-confident and make a stupid mistake. If he was kind to his men, he needed to be too lenient to someone who deserved a heavy hand to keep him in line.
Every strength must be balanced by a weakness. Which brings me to my next point.

3. Know your villain's strengths and weaknesses, too. In my novel, Kinlar only had one enemy (besides the sorcerer). Everyone just loved his socks off except for this one guy, Keldrin. Keldrin was bad, through and through. I made sure to let everyone reading the novel know that he was a no account, nasty, selfish, jealous dude.
Throughout the book, he sneers at Kinlar, threatens him, ignores him, and then goes off and betrays him. He has absolutely no remorse; no moments when he wavers between right and wrong; and no qualms about bringing his whole country down to the ground, even if he gets very little or nothing out of it. Not only that, but he stinks at just about everything. He's no good at sword fighting, he's not very smart, he's a coward who stays as far away from the fighting as possible, and he's only tolerably good at archery (despite having trained under the same tutors as the prince).
And guess what? His being so obvious made him just as boring as Kinlar.
The things that make a villain really work are,

  • 1) Motivation. 
  • 2) A range of human emotions. 
  • 3) He (or she) must believe that what he is doing is right for either himself or everyone. 
  • 4) He must believe that the ends justify the means, but he shouldn't necessarily like the means. 
  • 5) He should have at least one moment of almost choosing right over wrong. 
  • 6) He should be at least of average intelligence.

In my next post, we'll look at these points in detail.

4. Make your plot and characters work together. If something is a convenient coincidence, it probably shouldn't be there. Coincidences are evidence of characters serving the plot. In my current novel, the main character and the villain meet for the first time in a seemingly random way; but in reality, the villain had set it up on purpose.
If something happens, it should be something in character for the characters, and it should be something that makes sense plotwise.
In The War for Erasthinia, Kinlar somehow escapes from the sorcerer's island on one of the sorcerer's ships. The explanation given is very weak; but I needed him to escape at that time, because the story was more important than the story making sense.

5. Your story will be much better if you just tell it. There are plenty of Christian books that I've read that I'd never read again.
There are other Christian books that I've liked enough to read again, but have skipped large portions in the re-read.
The first group are just sermons disguised as story; the second group is comprised of books where the author has a good story and good characters, but once in a while lets the message overwhelm them.
I once read a series of books where each one was called A Journey in ... where it was basically a theology book with a bit of story to give it more interest. The theology was good, and these weren't exactly supposed to be novels. The characters had conversations and debates on whatever the theme of that book was, and at the end came to a conclusion; and that was fine (though definitely not 'read again' material).
But it seems like a lot of books that claim to be exciting novels are really about the same as that series; the story comes second to the agenda, the characters are not developed, and both plot and characters serve the ultimate purpose of bringing us to whatever point the author wants to make.
People don't like being lectured. They like reading a good story where the message isn't in their face. So just tell the story. Your readers will thank you.

6. Don't be obvious.
I'm not telling you to be obscure. That's just as bad. But don't throw the villain's nastiness or the hero's awesomeness in our faces. Let us figure it out from the story.
In cowboy movies, everyone knows immediately who the bad guy is because the music turns sinister, we see a close up shot of a nasty smile and cold eyes, and he starts making trouble the second he's on screen. We know the hero because there's a beautiful girl who smiles at him, and he's handsome, and right away he starts being amazing.
Not every hero/heroine should be the epitome of beauty, and the villain shouldn't right off the bat repulse everyone except for the other equally evil (but less important) bad guys who work for him.
Also, if someone dislikes your main character, that shouldn't automatically put him/her on the bad guy's side. Maybe he has a legitimate reason for not liking your amazing, perfect hero; or maybe he's been lied to. There are a lot of possibilities, so why just stick with the boring one?

7. Don't flaunt your idea's uniqueness. If there's one thing that annoys me, it's this: in the middle of a book, typically fantasy, the author will either break in with narration or have one of the characters say something about how different this book is. Something like, "Now fairies are often regarded as cute little pixies with wings; but in reality, they are far more dangerous than the tales would have us believe."
For me, that destroys the credibility of a book. That's just as bad as any other kind of telling. Why do they feel the need to jerk us out of the story, just to point out that fairies aren't really like we think they are? How about you show us that? And don't show it by having a character yell,
"Wow! I always thought that fairies were cute little pixies with wings! Apparently they're far more dangerous than the tales would have us believe! RUN!"
Show it by being subtle. Or maybe don't call them fairies, since the word has so many connotations that you might not want to have attached to your totally unique dangerous beings.
Nothing will drive me further away from a book than being told that it's breaking the mold and that (by implication) all the books where fairies are cute little pixies with wings are boring and not worth my time. Maybe they are, but I don't need to be hit over the head with the author's opinion on that.
The best stories are those that are focused, unassuming, and self-confident enough to trust the reader to figure things out. If your story is unique, then we'll be happy to acknowledge that. But if you tell us it is, then we might just put the book down and go read something better.
Plus, it just makes you look desperate. "My story is amazing! I have ideas in here that no one's ever thought of before! I'm really thinking out of the box on this one! Please read it! It's so unique!"
Now, of course, if it's a comedy then that might be different. In the 'Ella Enchanted' movie, there are some genuinely funny references to well known fairy tales that are sort of turned on their heads.
But don't do it if you're trying to be serious.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed this! Now go write a unique story where Hansel and Gretel aren't the shivering, scared children that we've always heard about, but are instead fearsome warriors ...

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed this. It was very good, although I'll admit a little painful, taking me back to those earth-shattering, destined-to-be-bestseller stories I was working on when I was fifteen...
    I remember my character Matt, who was essentially that classic embodiment of all that is good and right in this world, brilliant but down to earth, hardworking, compassionate, and kind, and the only time he ever did anything stupid was out of sheer, overwhelming love, upon learning that his long-lost sister was in mortal danger, at which point he charged out the door in a tornado and almost died protecting her. *swoon* Well--at the time, anyway. Now I look back and think "Blegh! This guy is so sappy!!!"
    Thank goodness my dreams of seeing that book on the shelves never came true!