Creating Unforgettable Characters


September 30, 2019  •  No Comments

A good book is filled with people we feel we’ve met. We imagine meeting them on the street, or that their name might show up in our inbox.  They exist both inside the book and in an extended version of our own reality because they’ve become part of our consciousness. They think, talk, and act in unique ways that aren’t exactly predictable, but they are knowable.

As a reader, we know these unforgettable characters when we meet them. As a writer, it’s not always that simple.

How Do We Create a Character?

There are plenty of books on the topic and they’re all probably right for some author somewhere. Psychological profiling, archetypes, questionnaires—whatever it takes to get the job started is fine if it works. In truth, I don’t use any of the above until much later in the characterization process. My cast tends to walk into my head and start telling me a story. This is simply my flavor of madness.

Once the story is populated, the real work begins. A hero is fine—a hero who is a puzzle to be solved is so much more enticing. Put another way, the worst-written characters are the ones who fulfill all our expectations. The best ones take us by surprise.

Character is conflict

What makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interesting? Spike and Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Mr. Darcy? Ebenezer Scrooge? They fulfill obvious expectations, but deeper down, they have impulses that are the precise opposite of what they seem. Mr. Darcy appears cold and proud, but he’s really loving and thoughtful. Scrooge is a horrible miser, but he has the capacity for generosity. And our darling vampires are nothing if not contrary.

Putting characters into conflict with each other is necessary to build a plot. Putting them in conflict with themselves makes them infinitely more interesting. Those mentioned above are memorable enough they almost exist outside the stories that spawned them. We may or may not remember the specifics of Jekyll and Hyde, but Stevenson’s character has become an icon for a double life.

Let’s build on this idea some more:

One arc or two or three?

How-to books mumble on about how a story needs a plot with rising action, a climax, and conclusion. Essentially, this is like the clothes hanger for the story—we need a plot structure to provide shape so the book is not one big stream-of-consciousness word barf. There are also character arcs, in which a protagonist grows through internal struggle. If your characters don’t cross the finish line with more self-awareness then when they started, we wonder why we spent 300 pages cheering them on. That’s why authors use both an external and internal story arc to accommodate a character’s conflict with the world plus their conflict with themselves.

Let’s use The Lord of the Rings as an example:

  1. There is a plot arc, which is the external conflict of a story—the rock ’em, sock ’em action component. The hobbits & friends need to chuck the One Ring into Mount Doom. It’s a physical journey with sword fights, drinking, and talking trees.
  2. Then there’s the internal character arc (arc, not orc) which is Frodo’s private war with the ring and his role in the quest. Is he worthy? Can he resist the pull of the dark side? We know he’s brave and true, but the struggle is real. He can’t resist the darkness altogether and Sam has his hands full keeping Frodo together through that long, long trek through the wasteland.
  3. In some cases—and they tend to be truly excellent pieces of writing—there is a second, or thematic character arc that intersects the other two.

The Third Arc

I’ll keep using Frodo as an example. What Tolkien does is interesting. Yes, there’s a good versus evil fight for Frodo’s soul, but the conflict has another significant aspect. Throughout the trilogy, there’s a theme around the survival of community. The elves are dwindling. Mines are abandoned. The industrial revolution rampages through the Shire. Even the Fellowship gets sundered early on. Community and cohesion are difficult to maintain in a fading world.

Frodo—the bookish heir of a rebel uncle—becomes the poster child for this thread. He’s an orphan among a people defined by its blood ties. He’s got friends, but generally speaking he’s outside the norm because of his association with Bilbo, a respected figure but a definite misfit. From there, Frodo becomes increasingly separated from the herd. He loses Bilbo to Rivendell, has to leave his home, and is eventually singled out because of the ring. There is no question he loves the Shire and all it represents, but his ties to it gradually fall away until he leaves Middle Earth altogether.

While this progression of isolation overlaps Frodo’s battle with the ring’s power (good versus evil), it’s also a microcosm of the land’s changing nature and forms a secondary dynamic arc (community versus abandonment/withdrawal). This secondary arc adds a melancholy depth to Frodo’s story. Imagine the change of tone if Frodo went home at the end, had a pack of kids, and drank beer with Sam for the next forty years.

Adding a third arc—one intimately tied to the overarching theme of a story—supercharges the character by creating a resonance that extends beyond their individual circumstances. They become larger than life because they mirror the bigger landscape. The trick is to manage this secondary arc with a light hand—too much and it becomes a ponderous sledgehammer.

To summarize, there is no right or wrong method of writing characters, but inner conflict—especially with contrary impulses—will make your protagonist interesting. Adding multiple arcs to the character will further boost their complexity. After all, real people have many issues in their lives. It stands to reason a realistic character will, too.

 


The Good, the Bad, and the Tasty


September 29, 2019  •  No Comments

Food is as much part of popular culture as movies, games, and fashion trends. We wax nostalgic (or not) about black licorice bubble gum and Frankenberry cereal. We identify with gumbo or Nanaimo bars or kale. We are, in terms of identity, what we eat. So, it’s hardly a surprise that trend-watchers predict upcoming menu choices. A scan of culinary blogs reveals an interesting split—diners seem to be galloping toward (sometimes very odd) healthy choices or are in an equal and opposite rush to a heart attack.

The Good – or at least good for you

Kale was one thing. Broccoli coffee, in my opinion, is just wrong. Invented in Australia, this brew involves adding dried broccoli powder to latté-type beverages. While I cheerfully eat the green stuff raw, steamed, and hopefully smothered in cheese, I can’t see the flavor blending with my fave mocha java. Others apparently thought so as well, since this concoction doesn’t seem to have gained any traction—but watch for beverages made from moringa, coming soon to a barista near you.

Another big trend is meat that isn’t.  While veggie burgers have traditionally been patties made of vegetables, period, those days are done. The past year has seen an uprising of plant-based proteins masquerading as something else.  Check out Good Catch’s seafood substitutes, including faux tuna and don’t forget Beyond Meat and its burgers, a surprisingly successful  contender in the beef-happy fast food arena.

The Bad  – but your tastebuds are in heaven

Fries, fries and more fries—anything remotely starchy, from yucca to snap peas, is trending as long as it’s drowned in grease. Traditional potato, however, is still king of the fryer. Better still if said tots are smothered in bacony goodness. While we might have reached peak poutine, pork and carbs are a combo that’s still going strong.

For added variety, find a way to add a donut. We all know how delectable sweet/salty combinations can be, so how about a donut burger? If you’re inspired to try one, check out this video. I think my cholesterol went up just watching:

 

The Ugly – and thankfully on its way out

Describing something as poop–even unicorn poop–doesn’t make me want to eat it. But I think I’m in the minority, because multi-colored (aka unicorn-styled) food has been invading everywhere from lifestyle magazines to fast-food joints these last few years. The trend reached a notable moment when the Starbucks Unicorn Frappucino galloped past (and was thankfully turned out to pasture!).

The trend was brilliant parodied in this video for Squatty Potty. And that’s my final word on the rainbow trend.

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Fatal Fashion


September 26, 2019  •  No Comments

We think of clothing as a means of self-expression—fleeting or classic, occasionally silly, and frequently entertaining. Rarely do we think of adornment as dangerous, but history is filled with literal fashion victims.

By Nicole.c.s.y93 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

Rewind to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Clothing was dyed by natural sources, so unless one’s wardrobe was exotic and very expensive, color choices were dull compared to what we have today. Then when the whale oil used in domestic lighting was slowly replaced by coal gas, the gas industry produced coal tar, and industrialists began experimenting to find a use for this by-product. The result was gorgeous aniline dyes, which created an explosion of bright, clear hues of every description that were affordable to everyone. Predictably, the fashion pages became giddy rainbows of choice.

There was only one hiccup—there were no rules about testing these new products for consumer safety. With chromium, mercury and arsenic in the mix, this rapidly became an issue. While the solutions in some fabrics were relatively harmless—perhaps because they were not worn next to the skin—others, like the gaily striped stockings in vague during the 1860s, were activated by heat and perspiration. Consuming alcohol could also speed the action of these toxins. Blisters, rashes, and even death followed, particularly among the factory workers who handled these materials without protective gear.

Napoleon by Delaroche

These new shades were also used in home décor, candy manufacture, and artificial flowers. Green had a particularly nasty reputation, since its key ingredient was arsenic. The pigment Sheele’s Green was a particular favorite of Napoleon Bonaparte. There is some suggestion the arsenical paint on his walls was a contributor to his eventual death.

There is a saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.  Be careful what you’re getting into! If you were in old Venice, those shoes might be chopines. These platform shoes proved disco had nothing on the Renaissance. Originally arriving from Turkey in the 1400s, they were invented to lift the wearer out of the mud of the streets. The style lasted in Europe until the mid-1600s. The height of the heel also became linked to the status of the wearer, and both noblewomen and concubines wanting to make a statement had them.  While many examples of chopines are around seven or eight inches high, other examples reach twenty inches. Women requires canes and servants to move around, and there is more than one story about women falling to their death. Laws were passed to limit the height of the shoes, but to little effect.

Chopine. Rama & the Shoe Museum in Lausanne [CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (link)]

Cosmetics were another pretty way to die. Queen Elizabeth I was reported to use Venetian Ceruse as a skin whitener. The paste was a mix of vinegar and white lead and was apparently applied quite thickly. A popular companion to this white base was cinnabar or vermilion rouge, derived from mercury and Sulphur.  This duo, while the height of Tudor fashion, caused skin eruptions, hair loss, and bleeding gums.

To complete the look, women used Atropa belladonna (deadly nightshade) to enhance their eyes. Bella donna means beautiful woman, and a drop or two dilated the pupils to enhance a dark, enticing gaze—right up until increased heart rate, visual distortion, and eventual blindness took over.

The list of potentially fatal fashions goes on and on, from combustible crinolines to young girls removing ribs so their corsets could be cinched that much tighter. Lest one think women alone were subject to dangerous dress, the mercury used in felting men’s hats was well-known to produce “mad” or at least very sick hat makers. Even setting aside the hazards of sweat shops, it was a dangerous time to be in the clothing trade.

Have we escaped such madness in the twenty-first century? I’m not so sure—we have our own version of fashion madness, though hopefully nothing quite so drastic. All the same, if someone tells me they’ve discovered a trend to die for, I’m running the other way!


Superior Procrastination Techniques


September 23, 2019  •  No Comments

Most of us experience procrastination at some point in our lives. I’m guilty of some very late night submissions, study blitzes, and (ahem) blog posts that barely slide under the wire. But rather than focus on the less attractive aspects of dilly-dallying, why not embrace the creative potential? Don’t settle for any old delay—go for the procrastination gold!

 


Scorpion Dawn Dream Cast

Emma Jane Holloway
September 5, 2019  •  No Comments

The members of the Rogue Skies box set were asked to provide a dream cast for their books. This is always tricky because actors are by nature chameleons and they may match the character in one role but not in the next. I therefore put a disclaimer on this assembly–these folks match the characters in this photo. That being said, here we go for Scorpion Dawn and the series that follows:

Clockwise from top left:

  • Emily Blunt as Miranda Fletcher – a rebel just finding her feet
  • Natalie Dormer as Sidonie Fletcher – pretty but with a generous helping of mischief
  • Jude Law as Detective Palmer (because Jude Law appears in every movie ever)
  • Aidan Turner as Gideon Fletcher. It was the disgruntled eyebrows that sold me.


5 Tips for Sending Your Monster Back to School


September 2, 2019  •  No Comments

It’s that time of year again!  The pressure is on for parents to outfit their kids for success. For first-timers, it’s a bewildering season, and for non-humans there are extra considerations most parenting columns ignore. So, because we care, here are 5 tips for sending your monster back to school.

  1. Clothes

New clothes are part of the back-to-school ritual. Advertisers remind us of this emergency approximately thirty minutes after the last bell of the previous school year.

For non-human students who wear their fur or scales to the first day of classes, missing out on new stuff will seem unfair. Few clothing manufacturers make rompers for a first-grade dragon. And who can blame werewolf moms from shopping at second-hand stores when junior will trash his new duds on the first full moon? As always, parents will have to do their best. A little nail polish on the claws or temporary color in the fur might do to make your little monster feel special. And what could be

more fetching than a baby Cthulhu in a sparkly tutu?

  1. School supplies

Thankfully, school supplies are far more species-agnostic, assuming your progeny has opposable thumbs. But if your offspring are heading to a specialized school, it might be wise to

consult with other parents who have young ones a grade or two ahead. Magical academies are all the rage these days, but no one talks about the cost of spell ingredients or rare grimoires. Consider sharing some items, such as rare enchanted skulls, among students in the same class. Moreover, be sure your student has a sturdy locker equipped with appropriate wards.

  1. Homework

Werewolf, witch, or troll, kids are kids and homework is drudgery. Set scheduled times for after-school study and stay in touch with your child’s teacher. It’s easier to catch poor study habits and correct them early in the year. If your student hangs out with friends after school, consider a summoning circle for the home. It’s a no-fuss method to ensure junior returns in time for dinner.

  1. Meet the teacher

Parent-teacher interviews are an important ritual for all concerned. At the same time, the first meeting with your child’s instructors is never completely comfortable, especially if your student is struggling. Be open-minded if your child describes his or her teacher as an absolute demon. You never know.

  1. Extra-curricular activities

School isn’t just about academics. Band, sports, and debate club are time honored ways for children to socialize and broaden their horizons. So is Brownies (please check the rules before giving them new uniforms), candy-stripers, and all manner of volunteer activities.  Given new digital technology, vampires are now able to appear in the yearbook, so that might be of interest to your baby fangster.  Unfortunately, due to complaints from parents and organizers, the 4-H Club still withholds membership from most predatory shifters.

 


Fun Summer Activities To Do With Your Dragon


August 30, 2019  •  No Comments

Hello, we’re here at the pet line to answer your questions about how to cope with those special family members during the summer holidays. No, I don’t mean your in-laws. I’m referring to that cute little dragonet you gave the kids for Christmas. Yeah, the one currently charring the back yard to ash. He looked so darling lighting the plum pudding, but now he’s, well, Santa’s short a few reindeer.

Before you download the Dial-a-Slayer app, remember there are No Bad Dragons. Your pet depends on you for direction and affection, and kennels aren’t necessarily the best option once summer arrives. He needs to feel like a part of the family, and there is no shortage of dragon-wise activities during fine weather.

The Family Barbecue

Dragons are a natural at the summer cookout! The smell of charred flesh is irresistible to our scaly friends. Once they know where to aim, all you need to do is baste. Be sure your guests stand well back, just in case Smokey gets over-excited. Cautionary note: be careful with spiced rubs and marinades (as well as scented body lotions and/or sunscreen) in case your dragon has a delicate stomach.

Summer Camp

Be sure to check your local community center for pet-friendly programming. There’s nothing like lots of fresh air and exercise to ensure your dragon stays happy and relaxed. Some locations offer agility trials, including storm-the-village events. August features the traditional running of the knights and armor-shucking contests. Bouncy castles are not recommended.

Summer School

If your pet is more the scholarly type, don’t forget reading club! He’ll receive a sticker and a bag of Snackin’ Squires for every grimoire he reads. For the truly ambitious, there’s the skywriting competition (spelling counts!)

But of course, the real value comes from giving your dragon the attention he craves. Not everything needs to be an organized activity and unplanned fun is often the most memorable. Bask in the sun. Go paragliding (who could ask for a better sail?). Play fetch. Gently. Don’t let him chase the water skiers. Sharknado is not a suitable game for young dragons.

 

 


Character portrait: Cormac from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
August 8, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Stokes from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 31, 2019  •  No Comments


Character portrait: Tessa from Shatter

Sharon Ashwood
July 30, 2019  •  No Comments