Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Terrible Histories Don't Make Your Characters Inherently More Interesting

In case you've never been to The Literary Mercenary's sister blog Improved Initiative, I'm a big fan of roleplaying games. The big reason I enjoy them so much is it's a cooperative storytelling experience, so I get to share a passion with a group of friends that's usually something I have to do in a room by myself. It's also an interesting experience seeing people who are not storytellers by profession flex their creative muscles to create characters, histories, and quirks for who they're putting into the game world.

However, there is a particular trend I've noticed with both writers and RPG enthusiasts. Whenever they're asked to present an interesting protagonist, the first thing they want to do is beat the shit out of them, murder their family, and set their house on fire.

Because... happy people are boring, I guess?
There is this odd desire in a lot of writers, both new and experienced, to immediately try to make characters more interesting by doing terrible things to them. Their whole family was murdered in front of their face, or they were raised in an abusive home, or they experienced the horrors of war and now find themselves unable to turn off the reflexes they once had.

Now, that isn't to say that including tragic events in a character's backstory makes them a bad character. However, the correlation between overcoming terrible events and peaking the audience's interest is not a causation. And if you need more proof than that, all you need to do is look at Batman.

The Dark Knight's Appeal Isn't The "Dark" Part

When you think of Batman, you probably think of the most popular story of tragic loss and revenge-fueled heroism there is. Bruce Wayne's parents were cut down in front of him as a child, and instead of dealing with that loss in an understandable or mature way, he grew up to become one of the world's foremost martial artists/detectives/inventors/psychologists/criminologists/vigilantes. However, as I said back in Are "Tortured Souls" Really Just Stunted Characters?, that origin was tacked on after the character's initial success. So the writers could have skipped it entirely, or given him an entirely different motivation, and people still would have been intrigued by the character. Especially since the whole, "my parents are dead!" thing wasn't really emphasized until the Frank Miller era of Batman.

More commonly referred to as the characters "brick shithouse" era of design.
I bring this up to make a point. Namely, that the tragic backstory fit well enough that it flowed with the story, but readers were already intrigued by the costume, the gadgets, the imagery, and the presentation. You could have made Batman anything, from a member of a secret crime fighting league of costumed avengers, to a literal dark knight trained by descendants of Camelot, and it would have been just as good as what we got. Because while the audience was interested, the backstory wasn't what made the character interesting. It was his look, his style, his powers (or lack thereof), and the adventures he went on.

The Superman Example

Let's go to the other end of the DC spectrum for this; Superman. Superman has often been accused of being the most boring, over-powered Mary Sue in comics, but it's important to note that he also represents things so many storytellers these days think of as childish, or unrealistic. Clark Kent, Kal El, whatever you want to call him, is a good person. He's noble, he's hopeful, and he does what he does because he believes it's the right thing to do.

I know, right? Where does this guy get off?
However, if you strip away the super powers, the born of another world backstory, etc., what you wind up with is a character archetype we've seen forever. He's a knight of the round table, pushing forth on the strength of his purpose and his oath. We don't ask Percival why he does what he does, because we already know. Ditto Clark's motivations. And every time we've tried to slather on some grit, moral gray areas, or terrible past, you know what's happened? It's flopped. Every. Single. Time.

Because having his adoptive parents killed, or being forced to snap someone's neck to defend innocent bystanders, are not the sorts of things that make Superman compelling as a character. Sure, they can act as temporary filler, but once you take away the hopeful knight errant chassis, he's a lot less compelling.

Yes, you can take a story about someone who is similar in power to Superman, but who has very human flaws. That's where you get your Hercules, your Samson, etc. But even then, what makes those characters compelling isn't a tragic backstory. It's what they do with the powers they were given.

Is It A Necessity For Your Story?

If you find yourself either rejecting or defending the long and rocky road filled with blood and tears that led your character to where they are now, ask yourself one question. Are these events necessary in order for my story to work, and to provide the proper motivation for my character?

Because sometimes it is kind of necessary.
The Phantom is, perhaps, one of the best examples of when terrible circumstances are necessary to make a character work. Because, let's face it, a man of Erik's genius and talents could have become a celebrity in the art world. An exemplary musician, magician, playwright, and composer, Erik would have been the toast of Paris. Could the story of a reclusive genius training a beautiful young ingenue still work, as Christine is torn between the mysterious figure behind her art and the handsome viscount she knew in her youth? Yes, but the horror movie aspect would be gone. Erik would be a very different character than the cellar-dwelling, horrifically-visaged phantom we're all used to. And his mystery would be so much less if the face behind the mask was not a terror to behold.

The same holds true for characters like the Frankenstein monster, Jason Voorhees, and others. The tragic events that shaped them, and made them what they are, has lent them a compelling narrative. But before you start your next project, ask if the awful events in your own story are likewise necessary to make the characters what you need them to be. Especially if those events are to provide motivation, since a murdered spouse or dead family isn't really a necessity if you have a character concerned with justice, or who is simply opposed to the doings of the antagonist on some other grounds.

You don't have to jab your hero in the eye with a stick to make them confront the villains. Sometimes duty, faith, adherence to a code, or just the need to seek a worthy cause are enough to get them moving.

For additional reading, check out Why So Many Sad Backstories? over on Improved Initiative.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing installment. Hopefully it got some folks out there to reflect on their stories, and what is and isn't a necessity. If you'd like to stay on top of all my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help support me and my work, then head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! As little as $1 a month gets you a free book as a thank you.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Dreams Only Stay Dreams If You Let Them

Lots of people dream of being writers. They imagine how great it would be to have a big audience, a fat check, a big following, and a shelf full of awards. Sometimes they see authors being interviewed on TV, or as guests of honor at a big convention, and they sigh, and say to themselves, "One day, that's going to be me."

And it could be. It very well could be. If, that is, you understand the difference between just having a dream, and the ritual it takes to turn that dream into a reality.

Sweat, Blood, Tears, and a Little Luck

We just had ourselves a new year not too long ago, and I would be willing to bet there was a massive slew of people who made a resolution that this year was going to be different. They were going to go to the gym every day, pump that iron, do their reps, and stop eating cookies for breakfast. They were going to get ripped, get strong, and have the body they always fantasized about. Now, some of the folks who made that resolution may have kept it. They're still on their regular gym schedule, and they're going hard. They're seeing results, and though they may have had a slip-up or two, they stuck with it.

A majority of people, though, have not stuck with the resolution. They bought themselves a new set of workout clothes, they got their gym membership, and they worked up an entire diet plan and exercise routine. And they followed it... for a bit. Maybe it was a few days, maybe a few weeks, or maybe even most of a month, but old habits are hard to break. When it comes down to it, they weren't able to change their old behaviors in order to get new results.

You need to keep at it, if you expect serious results.
Being a successful writer is a lot like that. Because it isn't enough to have good ideas, or to just want to have your books written, or your stories published. You have to actually put in the work to do it. That means every day, you sit down at the keyboard, and bleed. Some days you might bleed more than others, and some days it might be easier, but you do it no matter what. The same way that guy with the six-pack who runs marathons does it; every day, rain or shine, whether you have a cold, you're hung over, you're tired, or you just don't want to.

And when you have a story done, you send it out, and start another. And another, and another. Just like going to the gym, you're not done just because you got the results you want. Now you have to keep working in order to maintain them. Publish or perish, as the saying goes. Because if you stop writing, stop working, and stop publishing, it's the same as if you stop lifting, stop eating healthy, and stop running... you go back to who you were before.

If you want it badly enough, you can make that dream into a reality. Whether you want to write books, draw comics, make videos, or run a podcast, you can do it. The same way you can burn off that belly fat, eat healthier, and feel good... if you're willing to do the work. Day in, day out, until you get the results you want. Because it isn't easy, there are days when it isn't fun, and it can be hard to see all the progress you've made sometimes. But if you're not climbing the slope, then you're sliding back down toward the bottom.

That's all for this week's Business of Writing. Just remember, you might not be the best today, but you're probably better than who you were yesterday if you put in your time on the keyboard. To stay on top of all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Or, if you'd like to help support me and my blog, head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron. Or, if you prefer, you could just Buy Me A Coffee. Every little bit helps, and if you pledge at least $1 a month, I'll send you a free book as a thank you!

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Don't Be Afraid To Change The Rules When You Write Your Story

How many times have you sat down to write a story about something really popular, but you can't think of a way to make your story different from any of the others already out on the market? You want to write a zombie apocalypse, but you don't want to just fade into the horde of other cannibal outbreak books. Maybe you really like this idea for a modern fantasy story about a witch investigator, but sexy witches who use occult rituals are a dime a dozen. Or you've got a really cool concept for a vampire novel, but you're worried it will just get swallowed up by all the Anne Rice imitators out there.

If you find yourself in this situation, get out your pickax, and dig a little deeper. Upset the foundation stones of the story you think you're writing, and question the rules you accept without thinking. You might find a whole, unplumbed subbasement waiting for your creative touch.

Careful, some of these holes go down pretty far.
A lot of the time when we want to write within certain genre lines, we restrict ourselves without even thinking about it. So, before you get discouraged that your book sounds like everyone else's, take a moment to question the pillars holding up those other stories, and ask if they're supporting anything in your book... or if they're just big, ugly impediments.

Change Is Different

To help you get an idea of what I'm talking about, let's return to those previous examples I used. Let's start with the zombie apocalypse.

So, you've got the dead returning to walk the earth. They destroyed society, and their virus is transmitted by a bite. Maybe, if you're hip, everyone on the planet already has the virus, so they rise when they die even if they weren't bitten as long as there's a lot of the body left intact. In the face of such a well-trodden setup, you feel like the drama of your story is going to get swallowed up in the indifference to zombies. So, change that up.

Well, I guess I don't really NEED the pseudo-scientific angle...
Change it how, though? Well, let's start with the "plague" part of the zombies. Toss that out entirely. There is no scientific reason for the dead to walk, so break with tradition there. Maybe, instead, it's a curse. Maybe demons have possessed the corpses, and are wreaking havoc. Maybe no one knows why they come back at all... they just do! Perhaps that means society has broken down into pragmatists, religious fanatics, and post-modern shamans, putting their faith out there along with their guns to stay one step ahead of the slavering hoard. While not a gigantic change, it's enough of a change that it might get people who are all zombied-out to read your back cover, and give you a chance to make your pitch.

You can do this with pretty much any cornerstone of a genre. Take the witchy investigator. You don't want your story to be just another hard-edged-Wicca story where witches are misunderstood, and she has to use her powers for good. So, question why you'd use that setup. Make your protagonist a traditional, Halloween-style, sold-her-soul-to-Satan-for-power witch. Give her a canary that is actually a horrible demon in disguise, and make the struggle for her soul a genuine point of contention. She has to deal with what she gave up for power, and her only solace might be to use those infernal gifts to do some kind of good. By changing that single pillar of the genre, you've made something that's pretty damn different.

Or take the vampire example. Vampires are a mythology that's existed in practically every civilization across the world. The sort of Anne Rice/Vampire The Masquerade setup is relatively recent. If you want to avoid falling into those tropes, then ask why you're using that kind of vampire at all? Why not use old English folklore, and make them the risen dead who were werewolves in life? Or people who were cursed at the time of death, and so may not rest? Is it a strain on the psyche not to devolve into a ravenous monster, thus adding the element of loss of humanity that drives many horror stories? Or is being a vampire something that only a select few can become? Whether by birth, genetic activation, or some other sort of sorting principal? Bonus points if you don't actually call your character a vampire, and you step away from the powers/weaknesses we've associated with the monster archetype since Bela Lugosi did his thing.

You Might Need The Pillar, But If You Don't, Knock It Down!

There are no rules to good writing that anyone can agree upon, but a lot of us will use existing shorthand to bring across big aspects of our stories. However, if those boundaries are getting in the way, toss them out! Your private detective doesn't have to be a former cop with a busted nose and a drinking problem. Hell, make him a guy with a bad heart who was way too smart for the written exam, but who couldn't pass the physical. Don't want your fantasy wizards to feel like every other spellslinger out there? Change up your magic system, and do away with the fireballs and lightning bolts that have dominated our covers ever since Dungeons and Dragons got popular.

Be different. It's your story, so before you conform to any guidelines or preconceptions, ask if those things are genuinely supporting the story you're telling. If they're not, then toss them out!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing. Hopefully it got some wheels turning in my audience's minds. If you like what I have to say here, and you want to keep up on all my releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to help support me here, then consider contributing to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. Or, if you'd rather, you could Buy Me A Coffee, instead! Either way, I'll be happy to send you a free book as thanks for the support.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Ko-Fi is The Latest Way You Can Support The Creators You Love

Artists depend on the support of their followers in order to make a living. We depend on you to read our articles, buy our books, grab our merch, and to tell all your friends about the things we're doing so we can (hopefully, at least) reach even more people. And, with the advent of crowdfunding, it's now possible for our fans and followers to help fund us directly. Whether it's by contributing to a Kickstarter for a big project, or becoming Patreon patrons for smaller, more regular projects, fans can directly support the creators they like with the click of a button.

Seriously, guys, every little bit really does help.
While Patreon is great (I would seriously be up shit creek without a paddle, rudder, or boat without folks contributing to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page), there are a lot of folks who aren't comfortable with it. For some people, they don't want the commitment of being automatically charged every month for their contributions. For others, they don't like that Patreon takes a cut of their donation. For some patrons, the recent Patreon SNAFU where patrons were going to receive additional charges over and above the amount of their pledges turned them off from using the platform entirely.

Those are all valid concerns. However, there is a solution that nicely solves all of them. Do you want to support a creator when you want to, choosing to leave them a tip when you feel they've earned it (or when you can afford it)? Would you rather not use Patreon, and ensure that more of your donation reaches your favorite creator's pockets? Then you should check out Ko-Fi.

Buy Me A Ko-Fi?

If you've never heard of it, Ko-Fi is a free-to-use platform that allows fans to support the creators they love when they want to, and how they want to. It functions as a kind of digital tip jar, allowing supporters to give a creator a one-time donation when they want to. For example, if someone wrote a great gaming guide, you might "buy them a coffee" with a $3 donation. Or if you saw a creator was having a tough time this month, you might want to drop a coffee or two into their tip jar to help them get back on their feet.

The difference between Ko-Fi and Patreon is that your payment goes through immediately with Ko-Fi, and Ko-Fi doesn't take a cut of the money. It goes to the creator, via PayPal. And just because you bought a creator a coffee once, that doesn't mean you're going to get tagged to do it again next month. You can give as often as you like, whether it's once a week, once a month, or just once.

Authors turn coffee into magic. So if you'd be willing to help fill the tank, it would be much appreciated.
There is also, of course, no rule that says you have to limit yourself to the platforms you use. Which is why I now have a Ko-Fi for The Literary Mercenary. It's new, and it's fresh, but you should keep an eye out for a button cropping up on the page somewhere. Until then...

That's all for this week's Business of Writing post. Hopefully some of the creators out there found it interesting, and look into the possibilities the platform offers. If you want to stay up-to-date on my latest releases, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. And, if you prefer Patreon when it comes to offering your support, then please become a patron on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. $1 a month helps out a lot, and I'll toss a free book your way as a thank you!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Repeated Phrases Are The Bane of Good Stories

Have you ever told a really good joke? The kind that left everyone at the table in stitches, or that made a dinner guest snort wine halfway across the room? That kind of cutting wit is a skill, and it takes practice to deliver it just so. However, if you try to tell that joke to the same group of people, chances are good the reaction won't be as over-the-top as the first time you delivered it. And if you tell it a third time? Well, a third time might not even get a polite titter. A fourth time, and you'll actively start to strain your audience's patience as all the good will you established drains away.

One more time, and we start throwing things.
Writing a book is like this, but even worse. Because when you use a great turn of phrase, or come up with the perfect way to describe a character, or an action, you only get one. Check the box, and strip it from your mental record, because it better not show up again in the story if you want to keep your audience rolling.

Cool-Down Time

To be clear, this particular problem is not something that happens all that often in dialogue. Because, as anyone who's had a real-world conversation knows, people from a given area or culture tend to use the same turns of phrase or local colloquialisms. However, if you get repetitive in your prose, your reader is going to notice it. And once they notice, it's going to start eating into their goodwill regarding your book.

It was unnameable... and... ugh... indescribable?
As a quick example, take a fight scene. You've got two guys in a fist fight. It's supposed to be pulse-pounding, brutal, and harsh. But how many times can you say they slammed their fists into each other before it gets boring? How often can someone spit blood, and grin through a predator's smile before the reader starts rolling their eyes? Or, phrased another way, how many times can the bottom fall out of your protagonist's stomach before we begin to wonder if the trap door in their guts has a lock on it at all?

The difficulty with writing stories, and particularly with writing books, is that you don't write it all at once. Nor do you edit it all at once. So you might have used a particularly cool metaphor in chapter one, then you clicked save, and went to bed. Problem is that, a few months later, you used the same description while you were wrist-deep in the re-write for chapter seven. Then you put it in chapter twelve without thinking.

So, at a minimum, you've told the same joke three times now, and you're hoping your audience has forgotten it since the last time you threw it out there.

Sometimes this isn't that big of a deal. You can use similar (or even the same) description if they're on opposite ends of your book. Because your reader will probably have forgotten they read it by the time a few hundred pages have passed. But your prose is kind of like special powers in an online RPG. You fired the power once, and it was really impressive, but now you need to hold off on using it again until enough time (or in this case, word count) has passed. Otherwise you're in danger of actually distracting your reader from the story by the way you're telling it. Sort of like how you stop paying attention to the tale of an epic shootout between drug dealers and the vice squad because the guy telling you the story keeps getting his mustache caught in his mouth, and it makes him slur.

Make Notes When You Check Back

When the editing process starts, make sure you keep an eye out for favored phrases or descriptions. Ask your beta readers to do the same. And, most importantly, try not to carry your tics from one project to another. Because that is exactly the wrong kind of thing for readers to remember you by.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing update. Hopefully folks out there found it helpful, and some are going back to check over their manuscripts one more time. To stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help me keep this blog going, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to drop a little love in my jar? As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it gets you a free book as a thank you!