Comments on Craft: Characters with Conflict

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson CoverThe most interesting characters aren’t necessarily the ones with super-awesome skills or the best backstory. Most times, they’re the ones with the most internal conflict. One example of such a character is Joel from Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist and his co-star, Melody. In this YA novel, magic is restricted to a chosen few, and Joel is not one of them. He is, however, incredibly skilled in every facet of a rithmatist’s skills: geometry and other mathematics, the foundation of the magical system, are Joel’s forte. Melody is a rithmatist but is rubbish at mathematics. Both characters, regardless of any other plot points, are already set in conflict. Conflict is the core of plot, so Sanderson sets himself up for success right out of the gate.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Leaflet Review: Railsea by China Miéville

I apologize for the hiatus—I know it’s been a while. The good news is that I’ve haven’t been posting because a series of exciting adventures have struck: the whole pregnancy thing (only five weeks until the little guy comes!), moving back to Utah from Texas, and starting graduate school are just a few of them. Because of all the adventures, after the next three book reviews (this one included), I’m only going to post once a week, on Wednesdays, instead of the Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule I used to have. Now, speaking of adventures, here’s a look at China Miéville’s latest work: Railsea.
Cover for Railsea by China Miéville

On board the moiletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death & the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can’t shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea—even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-colored mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it’s a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a kind of treasure map indicating a mythical place untouched by iron rails—leads to considerably more than he’d bargained for. Soon he’s hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters & salvage-scrabblers. & it might not be just Sham’s life that’s about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea.

A Unique Spin on Classic Stories

As you may have guessed from the book description, Railsea bears traces of Moby Dick in it, only instead of hunting a great white whale, the crew of the Medes is hunting an ivory mole (the captain is certain to inform anyone who thinks otherwise that Mocker Jack is not yellow). But as I read, I found that the actual plot line bears a stronger resemblance to Treasure Island. Young Sham longs for adventure and finds a bit too much of it along his way.

However, as one would expect of Miéville, although the book draws on these classic stories, it has a texture and a feeling that is all its own. The dingy, polluted atmosphere of the world of the railsea permeates the book and makes it settle into your mind even when the scenes are on the lighter side. The worldbuilding is in depth and shows itself in everything from the way the world’s inhabitants think about dirt and water to the way the words appear on the page (the word “and” is never used, only the ampersand). Railsea’s world is, well, not necessarily a delight, but certainly a unique draw for the book. (I can’t use delight because that implies sunshine and butterflies, but between the polluted cloud of the upsky and the bizarre mutations it causes for airborne creatures, you find little of either on the railsea.)

A Lackluster Main Character

Although the setting was compelling, I found it difficult to read Railsea quickly (quite the change from how I felt about Embassytown). This was largely because the main character, Sham, didn’t particularly interest me. He is a young boy without much direction in life: he longs for some kind of purpose, but since he doesn’t know what he wants, he simply drifts from task to task and from event to event. That attitude doesn’t really change until at least halfway through the book, and by that time I’d failed to connect with him. This stands in stark contrast with Avice from Embassytown, who was a self-proclaimed societal drifter, but who was compelling anyway. However, like Avice, Sham changes a lot over the course of the book, and his growth is realistic. He just isn’t as compelling.

Final Thoughts

Outside of the main character issue, I think the book was particularly strong. I enjoyed the stylistic prose quirks—the self-aware narrator, the asides about storytelling, etc.—even when they interrupted the flow of the narrative. Speculative fiction is prone to info dumps, and many people hate them (myself included) as a general rule. But in Railsea, Miéville selectively info dumps in a few chapters, never taking more than a page or two at a time. The voice is so compelling that the info dumps don’t feel like info dumps, and the timeouts from the main plot were some of my favorite parts of the book.

Content warnings: Some violence, though it isn’t trivialized; some language, though nothing you wouldn’t hear on TV; drinking; sideways conversations about sex, but no sexual scenes.

How to Name a Hero, with Alex Bledsoe

Author Alex Bledsoe

Today’s post comes to you from novelist Alex Bledsoe. He has been a reporter, editor, photographer, and door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. Today he’s the proud author of  the Eddie LaCrosse series, the Memphis Vampires series, and The Hum and the Shiver (the text of which I reviewed here, and the cover of which made my list of favorites for 2011). His website is AlexBledsoe.com.

A character’s name is one of the most important things the writer has to discover. The way a name sounds, the way it looks on the page, even the way it’s spelled can make the difference between forgettable and archetypal. Sometimes the name seems inevitable, while for other times, the character may go through a half-dozen before finding one that fits.

Ian Fleming took the name “James Bond” from the author of an ornithological guide lying around his Jamaican home, because he wanted a bland, forgettable name, one perfect for a spy. Indiana Jones (originally “Indiana Smith”) was named, not after the state, but after George Lucas’s dog. In both cases the names already existed in other contexts, but the writers recognized that they fit their fictional characters. The same thing recently happened to me: in my upcoming novel Wake of the Bloody Angel, I realized author Rhodi Hawk’s name perfectly suited a character. I changed the spelling, and of course asked if the real Rhodi would mind. Luckily for me, she was delighted.

Sometimes you can work with the wrong name for a long time without realizing it. Margaret Mitchell’s heroine was called “Pansy” until almost the last minute, when she changed it to “Scarlett.” Luke Skywalker was originally the far more martial “Luke Starkiller.” In my own case, my hero was named “Devaraux LaCrosse” for over a decade’s worth of unpublished drafts, until I was suddenly struck by the idea that he needed a normal, everyday name and he became “Eddie” for his debut, The Sword-Edged Blonde.

Many heroes have names that conform to a system. In Superman mythology the initials “L.L.” are far more prominent than they would be in real life: Lois Lane, Lana Lang, Lex Luthor, Linda Lee. I mean, really: what are the chances of one guy having two girlfriends, and an arch-enemy, with the same initials? The absolute master for naming within a system was undoubtedly J.R.R. Tolkein: for example, the people of Rohan are expert horsemen, and so their names (Eomer, Theoden, Eowyn) incorporate “Eo,” the Anglo-Saxon prefix for “horse.” In my novel Dark Jenny, the setting and many of the characters were based on Arthurian legend, so I sought names that evoked, even if only tangentially, their origins. Lancelot, for example, becomes Elliot Spears (lance, spear, get it?); Morgan becomes Megan; Guinevere becomes Jennifer, and so on. I kept a couple of names as-is, but used them as surnames with normal first names (“Bob” Kay and “Ted” Medraft).

And on occasion, the naming gods simply smile on you. The characters in The Hum and the Shiver were named with very little forethought, with the only criteria being that they had to have Celtic origins. But it turned out that the names fit the personalities better than I ever realized. The protagonist’s name, Bronwyn, means “dark and pure.” The impulsive youngest child is named Aiden, which means “fiery.”

But the real master for names, hands down, just celebrated his 200th birthday. Charles Dickens came up with names that both sounded great and conveyed their bearers’ personalities: Ebenezer Scrooge, Noddy Boffin, Bob Cratchit, David Copperfield, and Martin Chuzzlewit, to name just a handful of his best known.

There are as many approaches to naming as there are characters to name. I’m currently working on a novel that takes its basic plot dynamics from Shakespeare, which of course means I can raid lists of Shakespearean names. Another work in progress takes place in a particular geographic area, so it’s off to find out what family surnames are found in that area. One day, I might even create a character as archetypal as James Bond or Scarlett O’Hara. Heck, maybe I already have, and I just didn’t get the name right.

If you appreciated Alex’s post, be sure to pay his blog a visit.

Foil Narratives & Fairy Tales

Ivan Bilibin's illustration of "Vasilisa the Beautiful"

Fairy tales and folktales get handed down, repurposed, and woven into new contexts and patterns every day. We see them in ads and single-panel cartoons, in similes, short stories, and novels. And yet when you ask Western people to tell you the story of, say, Little Red Riding Hood, they’ll probably come up with a lot of the same basic stuff. Some people wonder why stories so well known can continuously find new life; others bemoan the loss of variety folk traditions used to have before they became standardized by the Brothers Grimm and Disney.

But for writers, the fact that there’s a “standard” version of most popular fairy tales is a boon.

The Power of Foil Narratives

When you retell a fairy tale, or when you use a fairytale motif in a scene, chapter, or sentence, you draw on a shared cultural background with your reader. Whatever you say with your fairy tale contrasts with whatever they already know. Initially, that sounds a bit unappealing (if you retell “Beauty and the Beast,” your story gets thrown up next to a golden ball gown and a singing teapot, whether you like it or not). But it really is an immensely powerful tool.

You’ve heard of foil characters, yes? Two characters who share certain things and throw their differences into relief? Using foil characters is a good way to strengthen your characterization and drive interest. With fairy tales, you get an entire foil narrative. Even if your story or scene shares very little with an “original” fairy tale (original is such a messy word when speaking of folklore), if you have a character wearing a red hood, you can evoke an entire parallel plot line that can throw your narrative into relief. Each choice you make gains force and momentum because it contrasts with the story your reader already has in his or her head.

Stories That Rely on Foils

You can use fairy tales as foil narratives in all sorts of ways, and as I said before, you don’t have to write a story that is solely a retold fairy tale to do it. Permit me a few examples.

  • Disney’s Enchanted is only really funny because viewers have a background in Disney fairy tales. Without them, the humor is much weaker.
  • Ditto with Shrek, only it’s much funnier because it contrasts with an entire tradition of animal bridegroom stories (“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Frog Prince,” etc.).
  • Roger Zelazny and Robert Sheckley embedded “Sleeping Beauty” into their novel Bring Me the Head of Prince Charming. The portion of the book that is a retold tale follows the standard exactly—prince fights his way through briars, kisses the sleeping princess into wakefulness, marries her, and resolves to live happily ever after—but the frame story of a demon playing puppet master lets the standard make a statement about free will.

Using Foils in Your Stories

You can employ a foil fairytale narrative by retelling a tale or merely evoking the idea of it—your reader already has the story in his or her head, so you don’t necessarily need to lay it out explicitly for them. Whether you’re embedding an abbreviated version of a tale in a scene or chapter, retelling the whole thing, or simply setting up a pleasant metaphor, you need give only the basic motifs because the standard fairy tale can do the rest of the work for you (you can give more, of course, but it isn’t necessary).

Some more examples.

  • To evoke “Little Red Riding Hood” use motifs like a waiting wolf, a journey through the woods, a basket of goodies, a red hood, or an ugly grandmother.
  • To evoke “Cinderella” use a glass slipper, a pumpkin coach, a stroke-of-midnight time limit, or a fairy godmother.
  • To evoke “Jack and the Beanstalk” use magic beans, a giant in the sky, or a singing harp.

I’m sure you can come up with more motifs you could use to evoke a foil narrative in your writing, so share them in the comments. Also share your favorite retold tales, or even your favorite “original” versions (I’m partial to bloody animal bride/bridegroom stories, myself).

Villainous Characterization Techniques

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about humanizing your book’s villains. Today I’m going to analyze some humanized villains and talk about the specific traits and techniques that make those villains more human and interesting—I’ll even show a humanizing element that can save your villain from being completely flat. Because a villain’s characterization spans entire books and series, let me preface this post by saying it’s probably full of spoilers. I’ll keep them as mild as I can, but if you want any of these books to remain completely unspoiled, avoid reading that book’s section and skip to the technique summary at the end.

Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. TolkeinI’ll start with the book most of you won’t mind having spoiled. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is the most humanized villain in the trilogy (some might even argue that he’s not much of an antagonist because he helps so much). J.R.R. Tolkein humanizes Gollum by making him utterly pitiful. The heroes of not only Lord of the Rings, but also of The Hobbit, pity Gollum, and the reader does too. He’s a lonely, mostly deranged creature that is driven by something other than his own rational thoughts. His addiction to the ring has made him less than his own man. Because the reader can feel sorry for Gollum, it’s hard to hate him completely, and his villainous actions are more impactful. When he falls back into actions driven by his addiction, the reader aches a bit because he couldn’t resist it forever.

Villainous technique: Make your reader pity the villain.

The Last Unicorn: King Haggard

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverThrough much of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn there is no physical antagonist impeding the unicorn’s quest to find the rest of the unicorns. Once King Haggard arrives on the scene, he fills that role. Haggard lacks the human ability to be happy, which you might think would make him less than human, but he lacks this ability because of a common human failing: he doesn’t know what would make him happy. This selective ignorance drives Haggard’s deepest flaw, and it’s also something many people in the world share. Lots of people don’t know what will make them happy. Many of them spend years in pursuit of something they think will make them happy, but because they didn’t know what would make them happy, they end up unhappy, just like Haggard. Haggard’s ignorance is his most endearing factor (and it makes you pity him a bit, just like Gollum).

Villainous technique: Give your villain some ignorance your audience shares or sympathizes with.

Blackdog: Tamghat

Blackdog by K.V. JohansenTamghat in K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog isn’t exactly a poster boy for a humanized villain (although I loved the book, I didn’t think he was even that memorable). However, one thing that kept him from being completely flat was Johansen’s use of a foil character. Tamghat is the villain, but he shares a lot of backstory with Moth, a character who the reader is supposed to like and sympathize with. Because readers learn Tamghat’s backstory (and thus, much of his motivation) from a foil character they like, it’s easier to understand his motivations and follow his goals.

Villainous technique: Introduce a sympathetic foil character that shares some of your villain’s traits.

I Am Not a Serial Killer: Dan Wells

I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells(Heads up: This is probably the most spoiler-filled section.) Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer has a very humanized villain, Mr. Crowley. As the book’s antagonist, Crowley is behind a series of killings in the main character’s home town. However, his motivation is what makes him incredibly human. He kills because he needs to steal body parts so he can stay with his elderly human wife, who he fell in love with even though he’s a demon. He gets caught for his killings because he doesn’t want to have to go far from his wife to harvest body parts. Crowley displays traits that most people would consider admirable: love, fidelity, and consideration for someone he’s been with for a very long time. The fact that these traits drive him to a horrible outcome makes that outcome more powerful.

Villainous technique: Give the villain morally admirable traits (which can sometimes lead to morally reprehensible results).

These are really just a few ways you can make your villain more dynamic. How have your favorite authors humanized some of their villains?

Humanize Your Book’s Villain

Things Fall Apart by Chinua AchebeYour book’s villain or antagonist is probably the reason why you have a story to tell. He or she is the one who causes the protagonist’s problems, stands in the way of the protagonist’s desires, and completes the conflict that lies at the heart of your story. Even so, many writers (not always newbies) neglect to make the villain a compelling character in his or her own right. When your villain is a one-dimensional character, your story’s conflict also becomes one-dimensional and you miss out on a prime opportunity to make your book more compelling.

The answer? Humanize your villain.

Humans are complex beings; nobody has only one dimension to them. Even real people you dislike have more to them than that one annoying habit that drives you up the wall. I’d venture to bet that people are so complex that you can find common ground with anyone on this planet if you have a chance to interact with them long enough. So there is absolutely no reason why your books’ antagonists can’t have complex motivations, competing impulses, and maybe even a bit of goodness in them.

An Example: Achebe’s Okonkwo

To illustrate my point, I’m going to use an example of writing that humanizes with painful precision (although the character I’m going to be using is the protagonist, not the antagonist). In Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, the main character, Okonkwo, is a strong and fierce man. I hated him. He beat his wives and killed children. Even though those actions were acceptable in his culture, he did them in ways that discomfited and outraged his peers. Almost everything he did made me hate him more. (So much so that I probably would have stopped reading the book had it not been assigned reading. I came to be very grateful that I read the entire book; it’s on my list of best eye-opening experiences.)

[Slight spoiler] A point came in the novel in which Okonkwo is summarized. A stranger takes one element of Okonkwo’s life and uses it to create a summary and “understanding” of him that supposedly stands for his entire life. [/Slight spoiler]

That moment broke my heart. My heart broke for a man I detested, because he was such a complex person that seeing him reduced in that manner was horrifying.

The key to making me sorry for Okonkwo was the fact that Achebe made Okonkwo a man. Not a straw man, not a cardboard cutout, but a man. Most things in that man irritated me. Some I could understand. Okonkwo was proud and never wanted to be seen as less than a paragon on manhood by everyone around him. I’ve never tried to be a paragon of manhood, but I have felt the pressure of other people’s eyes and the need to look capable. I’ve never felt like those feelings could justify the sort of things Okonkwo did, but I’ve felt those feelings.

Means to a Humanized End

What’s the takeaway from all this? Your antagonist doesn’t have to be one-dimensional to be villainous. I found Oknonkwo villainous, but reducing him to less than he was offended me. Your villain can be a heinous human being, but make him or her a human being. Here are some ideas on how to do it:

Give your villains more than one reason for their actions. We all do things for a variety of reasons. Very rarely does one motivating factor determine all our actions. If your antagonists wants to take over the world—or even just the corner store—give them more than one reason. It will make their goals more realistic and their means more understandable. Okonkwo wanted to look good in front of others, to be a good father, and to defend his culture against invaders. Those motivations all influenced his actions.

Give your villains universal traits. Everyone has felt embarrassed, angry, hurt, and betrayed. All of us may not have felt those things to the same extent, but we’ve all felt them. If your villain can act on traits that your reader understands, even if your villain’s reactions are more extreme than what your reader’s, the reactions will be more human. Okonkwo feared shame above all else, and that’s something I could sympathize with.

Give your villains a reason to think they’re heroes. Everyone is the hero of his or her own life story. When you’re crafting your villains, consider things from their points of view. Would they be able to justify these actions to themselves? Their mothers? Maybe your villain is motivated by love, by family duty, by a desire for security. If your villains are motivated by a goal your reader shares, their actions will be more believable and even more horrifying. Okonkwo thought he was fulfilling his role as a man; the idea that his actions were what it took to be a man made my insides roil.

Your villain’s actions need to be as realistic and as human as your hero’s. When both of them are multidimensional and realistic, the conflict between them becomes more engrossing. The more you engross your readers, the more they’ll keep coming back to hear your stories.

For more tips, check out this post about villainous characterization techniques.

Leaflet Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

Embassytown by China MiévilleIn the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.

Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.

When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer believes in, and to her place in a language which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.

First, check out that cover. Isn’t it awesome? Maybe it’s my recent obsession with black-white-red color schemes, but I love it.

China Miéville is known for bending things: definitions, genres, minds. His latest novel, Embassytown, follows that vein. It’s a science fiction novel, a mystery, a thought experiment. It’s a book that, at one point, I thought of as the Opium Wars in Space, except it’s not like the Opium Wars at all.

What drew me to the book was the idea that it’s all about language: the Embassytown colonists and their Ariekei Hosts speak very different languages. The Hosts have two mouths that speak in tandem, but simply emitting simultaneous sounds is not enough to speak their language: machines cannot speak it; they cannot write; they have no word for “that.” Hosts can only speak the truth, because their language is truth, and they only hear Language when there is a soul behind the sounds. They need humans to act out events so they can construct similes; for this to be like that, that must have actually happened. Avice Benner Cho, the main character, is the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her, and the Hosts use her simile all the time.

So that’s what intrigued me. What really impressed me was Avice’s growth. This is a character who is very different at the end of the book than she is at the beginning, and yet her growth is so masterfully done, so natural to her surroundings, that it never felt like a character arc. It felt like someone maturing to meet her circumstances; it felt real.

I’m not normally in for alien-world science fiction. Those books normally get too weird for me, to be honest. (Even in Embassytown it still gets weird, and I have absolutely no idea what a Host looks like. I ended up just imagining them like praying mantises and adding eye stalks and other bits when the narration called for them—then I’d go back to my praying mantis model.) But Embassytown kept me interested and engaged. It may have been that there was a lot of linguistics in it (mostly from Avice’s husband, who is a linguist) and I was able to recall the linguistics I studied in college. That probably helped. But Avice kept me rapt. I devoured this book. I thought about it for days afterward (I’m still thinking about it).

The book jacket copy and the Library of Congress information for Embassytown make loyalty out to be one of the main themes of the novel. I didn’t get much of that vibe. Sure, there are little loyalty battles in there, but I didn’t come away from the book aching about loyalty. The ache that I came away with was the idea that change has to happen, progress has to be made, but sometimes what you leave behind is just as valuable as what you’re moving towards. Sometimes you have to leave things behind out of necessity, and what you leave them for may be better in some ways, worse in others, but it’s what you need. And that’s a little sad. Bittersweet enough to make me ache.

I guess that’s probably too hard to fit in Library of Congress filing information. Basically, this book is wonderful. I’ll likely reread it. I feel like I shortchanged everyone involved in its creation because I got it 50% off at the Borders liquidation. And when it comes time to nominate books for the Hugos, this one’s going to be on my mind.

Content warnings: Language, mature themes, sci-fi violence.

Leaflet Review: Snuff by Terry Pratchett

Snuff by Terry PratchettAt long last, Lady Sybil has lured her husband, Sam Vimes, on a well-deserved holiday away from the crime and grime of Ankh-Morpork. But for the commander of the City Watch, a vacation in the country is anything but relaxing. The balls, the teas, the muck—not to mention all that fresh air and birdsong—are more than a bit taxing on a cynical city-born and -bred copper.

Yet a policeman will find crime anywhere if he decides to look hard enough, and it’s not long before a body is discovered, and Sam—out of his jurisdiction, out of his element, and out of bacon sandwiches (thanks to his well-meaning wife)—must rely on his instincts, guile, and street smarts to see justice done. As he sets off on the chase, though, he must remember to watch where he steps. … This is the countryside, after all, and the streets most definitely are not paved in gold.

I’ve mentioned before that I adore Terry Pratchett’s novels, right? Almost as much as I love fairy tales. And most of my favorite Discworld novels are Sam Vimes Discworld novels, so of course I had to read Snuff, Pratchett’s most recent release.

For any of you who haven’t read any Discworld novels and don’t know anything about them, let me preface this by saying that you can pick up pretty much any Discworld novel and read it without reading those that preceded it. The novels all stand alone reasonably well. That said, I’d recommend reading Thud, the last Sam Vimes novel, before picking up Snuff. There are some things I believe would make a lot more sense if you’ve read Thud.

Snuff is a fun read, enjoyably paced and full of Pratchett’s distinctive voice. Sam Vimes is just as wonderful as always: who doesn’t love a cop who does whatever he can to make the world right, while still holding himself to the law because he understands he needs it just as much as anyone? With all the TV shows with devil-may-care protagonists, Vimes stands apart. He always gets his man, but he knows when he’s crossing lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and his integrity in that is always impressive.

Praise like that for a character in a comic novel sounds a little odd, and it should. Snuff wasn’t the sort of gut-bustingly funny novel that Pratchett has turned out in the past. I didn’t laugh out loud very often (though I did still), and there wasn’t quite as much absurdity in it. The novel felt more serious to me than most of Pratchett’s work, although it didn’t reach the elegant poignancy of Night Watch, my favorite novel of Pratchett’s.

All in all, I enjoyed Snuff. I’d recommend it to people. I recommend it to you. But I can’t say that it’s the best thing Discworld has seen. Nor is it the worst. When compared to other Discworld novels, it stands up somewhere in the middle of the road. Still, that means it’s miles ahead of many other things I read.