Thursday, March 26, 2015

How to Write Flawed Characters

Nobody's perfect. We all have flaws, and those flaws can take a thousand different forms. In many ways it's our flaws that make us who we are, providing the shading and contrast that throws our positive qualities into a starker relief. Flaws give people depth and character, which is why if you want the populace of your stories to stand out they need to have flaws as well.

The problem for many authors comes in deciding just how to execute those flaws; specifically in how to take the characters you've created and to give them flaws that are real and meaningful, instead of purely cosmetic. Since this is not an easy process The Literary Mercenary has put together a simple guide that will help you distress your characters in ways that make them more believable.

Step #1: Give Your Characters Flaws That Make Sense

Let's start with an example; we'll call him Chris. Chris is a big, handsome young man who comes from a supporting home, and who has a long record of personal achievement. He makes good grades, achieves positions of leadership in sports, always has a smile for his classmates, and refuses to sit by while anyone gets bullied. So what's his damage? Well... he has a crippling lack of self confidence.

Okay... why?

It eventually got bad enough that he had to have a horse carry him everywhere.
Barring some secret past being revealed, the elements for this flaw aren't present. A young man who has done nothing but succeeded in his endeavors, and who is supported and valued should have, if anything, an over-inflated sense of confidence. After all, he's led the team to three championships while maintaining his place on the honor roll... what could possibly get in his way?

If you really wanted this flaw though, you could plant it in fertile soil by altering the character's background. For instance, say that Chris's mother and father divorced when he was 10 or so, but for those first 10 years nothing Chris did was ever really good enough for his dad. Good grades were ridiculed, praise from coaches sneered at, and Chris was constantly told how weak and stupid he was. Even if his mother re-married, and Chris's step dad was supportive and proud of his new son's achievements there are going to be scars from that earlier period. While he has the skills and the drive, Chris might be pushing himself to try and prove that his dad was wrong even while he's secretly afraid he might be right.

Put another way it doesn't make a whole lot of sense for your character to be deathly afraid of dogs if he's never seen one before. If you want to sell a flaw you have to make it make sense.

Note: A huge list of character flaws can be found right here on TV Tropes.

Step #2: Give Them Flaws That Will Matter

Detective Lieutenant Larry Stone is a hard-nosed homicide cop who takes no shit and gets the job done. He's tough as nails, can quote every subsection of the city's law book, and he has an unimpeachable record as a lawman.

But he's sexually impotent.

And he's really pissed about it.
If you're wondering how Larry being unable to have sex affects his ability to catch murderers then you're already on the right track. While not every flaw a character has will be center stage all the time, for those flaws to matter they actually have to get in the way of something the character is trying to accomplish. Otherwise it fades into the background, an unimportant footnote we can easily forget about because it isn't germane to the story we're telling.

I'll give you a good example.

There's a novel I'd love to write based off of White Wolf's (or Onyx Path as I believe they're known now) tabletop roleplaying game Promethean. In this game you play an artificially created being who must struggle to find humanity. There are several varieties, but one is the Wretched, known more colloquially as the Frankensteins. Enter Adolph Simmons, a 7'6" monster assembled from the best and the brightest of Ryker's Island, and brought to life in the electric chair by his maker. Escaping after his birth the giant swum to shore and faded into the alleys of Hell's Kitchen. Years go by and there are rumors of a creature called The Butcher of Hell's Kitchen, a favorite in the tabloids for his supposedly gruesome murders of criminals in the area surrounding Our Lady of Sorrows.

It's all rumors and smoke, until children start going missing from the orphanage run by said church. The self-proclaimed guardian of those unwanted youths, Simms has to find where they've gone and who's taking them. The problem is that while he possesses unparalleled supernatural strength, he isn't very smart. He has no training as an investigator, and this makes his efforts clumsy at best, brutal at worst.

This fiercely loyal monster could solve any problem with his hands if it came to a fight, but when he has to use his brain his biggest strength has been stripped away and he has to overcome one of his weaknesses. That's how character flaws add to your story.

Step #3: Flaws Are Not Strengths. They're Flaws

At this point in the list I don't have the energy to pull out rare examples or hidden gems from master authors. Instead I'm just going to go for the low-hanging fruit and use one of the many things wrong with Twilight to make this point.

This was a dead horse a while back... I guess there's one or two whacks left...
Let me draw your attention to the collection of character flaws that is the book's main object (being a protagonist would imply she took effort to achieve something). Among her many other flaws Bella Swan suffers from extreme co-dependency, being left dejected and unable to think or act for months when her abusive significant other abandons her. Rather than struggling to remember how to be independent (as one assumes she was before she was part of a couple) her complete inability to function outside of a relationship (no matter how unhealthy it was) is shown in a positive, romantic light. As if by refusing to put her life together, and actively setting the remnants of it on fire, is supposed to be a statement of great love.

Here's another example for you: Batman.

I've written about Batman's character mistakes before (the article is here, by the by), but he's the easiest example of the emotionally damaged archetype to hold up. A normal person who lost his parents in a mugging would grieve for them, and he would grow up with a sense of just how easily life can end. He would see how prevalent crime can be, and he might even be motivated to try and fight against it in his parents' memory. Perhaps he'd become a cop, or campaign for change to clean up the streets. Perhaps he'd look for ways to help those who have to deal with grief. The idea of dedicating one's life to more than a decade of training, and then several more decades of donning body armor and prowling the streets, breaking bones and smashing teeth is the act of a crazy person. When real people have done this (check out The Real Superhero Project for some real-world vigilantes who started their careers in a dark place) it's been met with abject horror. Yet when we take utter insanity and dress it up in a set of fictional tights we see Batman's dedication and drive as assets rather than a fanatical devotion spurred by someone unable to cope with a traumatic event.

Step #4: Scale Is Everything

So you've got your character, flaws and all. You've figured out what events left scars, and how he or she healed from them to become the person they are today. Before you decide you're done though you need to stop and take a look at the scale of the flaw, and compare it to the scale of the results.

And then the lemur burned down the zoo. Because reasons.
Creating flaws whose results are extreme happens all the time with villains (and I covered some of it in Under The Black Hat: Writing Believable Bad Guys). I personally call this Dr. Doom syndrome. For those of you who don't read comics Victor Von Doom is the sovereign ruler of a small kingdom called Latveria in Marvel Comics. As a young prince Doom traveled to America for his education (where we presume he earned a doctorate). While he was in the lab working on what we can only assume was his thesis there was an accident. The accident marred Victor's face, and he sought some way to repair the damage. After medicine and magic failed him he forged an iron mask, and encased himself in a suit of highly advanced armor which he is rarely seen without.

The reason I use this example is that in some versions of the origin Doom's face is marred, but it's far from a horror. A small scar was all it took to send him on a world-wide quest to restore what he viewed as perfection, and in the end he encased himself in a suit of armor that put Tony Stark's most cutting-edge Mark line to shame.

Yes the comic was trying to evoke both The Phantom of The Opera and The Man in The Iron Mask for the purpose of mystery. We never see Doom's face, so we don't know if it's a terrifying ruin, or if it just has a slight imperfection along the cheek. The point is that even if he was disfigured why the armor? Why an iron mask? Why seclude himself completely except for when he pursues his own ends? The story reads more like a myth than a character study, and as a result the actions are grand, sweeping, and ultimately kind of shallow.

Ask Yourself If Real People Are Broken Like This

Art imitates life, and vice versa. Even if you're putting your characters into a completely unreal scenario (farmer abducted by aliens becomes intergalactic gladiator), the ways in which the human psyche breaks and heals are fairly finite. Coping mechanisms are kind of universal, and someone dealing with the stress of completely Earth-bound wars may develop the same sorts of tics and triggers as those who've fought in alien gore pits. All you need is to find a situation similar to the one you're setting up, and ask how real people turn out in that sort of situation. If you can follow that blueprint then the flaws your characters develop are going to feel as real and organic as any person your readers have ever met.

As always thanks for stopping in, and if you'd like to support me and my work drop in on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron! As little as $1 a month can be enough to keep me going and the content coming. Also if you're worried about missing any of my updates make sure you're following me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

How Much Is Your Author Really Making With Patreon?

Most of you know what Patreon is, but if you aren't familiar with it The Literary Mercenary covered it in the post Bringing Patronage Into The 21st Century. For those of you who skipped the link all you need to know is Patreon is a crowd-funding website that gives little payments to creators who work on a series of projects (making YouTube videos, writing blogs, drawing webcomics, etc.) instead of making a single, big project. In short you become a patron, and you agree to pay your artist $1.00 for every piece they create so that they can focus on making things you like.

It seems straightforward enough, doesn't it? There's just one, little problem that can really mess things up for a lot of creators. That little thing is the "earning per entry" field.

The What Now?

If you go to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page you'll see what I'm talking about easily enough. The left hand side of the page shows you how many patrons are supporting my blogs, and below that it shows you how much I get paid per blog entry.

If you're thinking "Wow, I wish I got paid $48 per blog entry" let me be the first to say I wish I was being paid that as well.

Then I could give up writing ad copy for lingerie catalogs and mail-order brides.
The difficulty with that little scale is that it doesn't take patrons' monthly limits into account. Say you became a patron (which you should totally do), and you decided to give me $3 per blog entry. I write an average of 8 blogs per month that I charge my patrons for, which means you'd be charged $24 at the end of the month. However, you might decide you're only willing to part with $10 per month, so you set your monthly cap at $10.

This is a really common patron strategy to avoid going over a budget, but it isn't reflected in that "paid per blog entry" field. According to my page I should make about $320 a month or so; in reality I make about $120. Not bad money, and I thank all of my patrons for their support because you all are allowing me to pay bills I wouldn't otherwise be able to pay, but it isn't enough that I can stop writing fake success stories for mail-order bride services (I really wish that was a joke... seriously, help me walk away from that job).

Why Does It Matter?

In a word: empathy.

Let's say you just discovered an author you like, and you're considering supporting them so they create more content that you like (hello to first-time visitors, by the way). You see they have a Patreon page, so you decide to go there and see if they need help. What you find is that this artist is getting $200 per entry, so you decide to just lean back and enjoy the content that's being created.

What you don't know is that each of those patrons has limited their support to $1 per month, so that $200 is all that artist is getting for a month's worth of work. No matter how much content gets created, or how much sweat equity that artist puts in, rent simply isn't going to get paid for the simple reason that a lot of potential patrons think the artist is well-taken-care of and doesn't need anyone else to brace the rickety platform they're standing on.

For a lull in the depression discussion, have a laugh at this silly goat.
Some of you reading over those numbers will be thinking "what a shame that artists and authors have one more hurdle to overcome in pursuing their careers," and some of you will be thinking, "pshaw, that's a lot of money just doing something you'd be doing for fun anyway." To those first people I say thank you for your compassion, and to those second people I'd ask you to read Why Do People Hate Artists Who Expect To Be Paid? Go ahead, I'll wait.

Finished? Good, glad we're all back on the same page.

Now Then, Would You Like A Free Book?

Now that I've made my point about how you can't always judge an artist's income based on his or her Patreon page I'd like to make a pitch for your patronage. If you become a patron during March 2015 and pledge at least $1 per month (not per entry, just per month) then in addition to that warm feeling of helping an artist stand on his own two feet I'll also give you a free book! No strings attached, you just pledge at least $1, and I give you a book.

For my patrons who are reading this, all you have to do is increase your limit by at least $1 per month and I'll extend you the same gift! Tell your family, tell your friends, and if you're not sure whether or not the sorts of things I write are the kinds of books you'd like to read then have a look at my short story "Blackwater" in the free preview of SNAFU: An Anthology of Military Horror, or check out a high fantasy black ops team busting heads and breaking chains in "The Irregulars" a story feature in Paizo's Pathfinder Tales.

Also if you want to make sure you get all of my updates then be sure you follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Author's Fight Club: Rules For Writing Better Fight Scenes

You know how most people think they'd totally win in a fight if one broke out? About how, despite their lack of any formal training, experience, or research on the subject they're completely convinced that if someone demanded their money or called them out for wearing white after Labor Day that they would be able to give that person what-for?

Writing fight scenes is a lot like that. Everyone thinks they can do it, until it comes time to actually put up or shut up.

When in doubt, rip it out.
Writing a fight scene is about more than just describing action or spicing up your story. These scenes need to show the audience new sides of a character, and to let actions speak in ways that words can't. They need to draw readers in, and they have to get the blood pounding. Lastly, like every other scene you ever write, your fight scenes have to pop!

Here are some do's and do not's to help you accomplish these goals.

Rule One: Observe The Masters

Good readers make good writers; this is something we all know. If you want to learn how to weave political intrigue you read A Song of Ice and Fire, and if you want to write better cosmic horror you pick up At The Mountains of Madness. Tolkien paints the hero's journey step-by-step, and Robert B. Parker provides some of the best private detective stories this side of Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. The point is that the best way to learn how to write fight scenes is to find authors widely regarded as crafting good action. You need to see the kinds of terms they use, observe the ways they ratchet up tension, and really understand the elements that make the violence machine rev.

You could also buy The Big Bad II if you want to see some great examples.
What you should absolutely not do is watch a bunch of action movies. Why shouldn't you do that? Primarily because they're two different mediums. What works on the big screen (or even the small screen) often sounds patently ridiculous if you write it down in your novel. By reading action scenes you understand what works and what doesn't, when you should give your reader a blow-by-blow of a fight and when you should just describe the impression of a fight.

Rule Two: Write What You Know (And Learn If You Don't Know)

While most authors don't have the luxury of being ex-military intelligence like James Bond author Ian Fleming that doesn't mean you can't get out of your chair and get some hands-on experience. There is no substitute for doing, which is why you should consider taking a martial arts class, meeting with a boxing trainer, or maybe contacting a local historical re-enactment group who could teach you how to sword fight.

Just think, you could write this off on your taxes!
Even if all you're doing is putting on pads and doing some light sparring the benefits of actually going through the motions are invaluable. You'll be able to describe first hand how it feels to land a blow, what kinds of strikes are being used, and if you're not quick enough what it feels like when you're the one who's on the receiving end of a bell-ringer. Practice long enough and you might gain other helpful insights into your characters and stories.

Rule Three: Make It About More Than The Fight

Everyone loves a nice, refreshing brawl, but as the author you need to ask what this fight scene is adding to your story. What is it showing that the reader needs to know that you can't show any better way? For example has your lead been saying he doesn't get into fights for the past ten chapters, and this is meant to show the audience what happens when he goes off the chain? Does your villain's fighting style reveal anything about him? Is it short and brutal, relying on crippling and killing opponents with his bare hands, or is he the sort of man who pulls a trigger and walks away?

Do the knuckle spikes represent crippling self-doubt and overcompensation?
Fights can be about more than the fighters, too. They can act as a gauge for what's possible, and even accepted in the world your story takes place in. For example is your story set in the seedy underbelly of the city, where back alley bloodletting is a common part of life? Or is your character's violent responses something that marks her as an outsider, a savage to be avoided? Fight scenes are rocks that you can throw in the pond, and depending on what sort of rocks and how you throw them you can make some pretty interesting ripples.

Rule Four: The Human Body is Tougher (And More Frail) Than You Think

I'm going to share a story to illustrate this example. A long time ago I was tasked with editing a client's manuscript. I asked her to send me the first three chapters and we would see if we could work together based on that sample. There are no words to describe how poorly written the thing I was sent was, but of all its many sins its primary one seemed to be a total lack of understanding regarding how human anatomy works.

The opening scene dealt with a teenage boy getting into a row with his father. His dad felt his son's long hair was too feminine, and the son decided to mouth off to his old man. What followed was a page and a half of one of the most brutal beatings I have seen put into print. The son, barely half the size of his domineering father, was repeatedly punched at full strength, had his face slammed into the corner of the kitchen island several times, was bodily dragged upstairs by his hair (proving that in some circumstances it was indeed too long), handcuffed to a radiator and then whipped. The author clarified that he was indeed whipped with a bullwhip, not a quirt or a lash. He was then left there overnight where he wet himself, soaking his wounds with his own urine.

Now it is perfectly possible for someone to survive that kind of treatment. With proper medical attention and therapy it's possible that he'd even return to a relative normal. However a character who received treatment like this on the regular would have some serious scars to show for it (not to mention a hospital record that would set off every alarm bell in existence), but in this particular work he was able to just take a shower and put on some band-aids to pass for normal.

She may have been raised by fast-healing mutants though, I try not to judge.
Before you write a fight scene you need to understand the basics of how the body works. You need to understand what happens when someone gets shot, or stabbed. Most importantly you need to know what sort of damage certain things do so you can ask yourself if that's the sort of trauma you want your lead to inflict or receive. Nothing is worse than action-hero syndrome; a condition whose symptom is when your lead gets injured in a fight, and then in the next chapter has shrugged off wounds that should have put the character in traction.

Rule Five: This Is Not A Comic Book

I read a lot of short stories in a year. Most collections get forgotten, but a very few of them get noted in my memory. Some because they are good, others because they are terrible. The Darker Mask was one of the latter, and I could not bring myself to read more than a few of the stories in it.

The reason? Authors tried to literally describe comic book action.

If that made your head hurt, read the Big Bad II instead. We don't do that here.
I mentioned this earlier, but it bears repeating; visual media work because they are visual. Action movies are pretty because they're filmed and choreographed to look good. Comic books work because they're illustrated. Do not, I repeat do not try to describe fight scenes in this way. I don't care how many souped-up vampires, cage-fighting werewolves, mutating spec-ops soldiers, or parkour demons you have in your story; don't do this. Find a metaphor that describes the feeling if you have to, but if you attempt to have your lead doing triple-back flips while firing two guns in the air you're not going to impress your readers. You're going to upset them, and they will stop reading.

Rule Six: Change it Up

So let's say you wrote a great fight scene. It's gripping, shows depth of character, illustrates the world, and gets the reader's bloodlust up. Good job! So how are you going to top it? Fight scenes and sex scenes are cousins, and one of the features they share is that if you do the same thing over and over again it's going to get boring. Your lead can only quick draw his long iron and plug three bad guys so many times before it gets old.

Also like sex scenes you can't just change up the moves and hope your reader doesn't notice. You need to use different language, different tension, and each fight scene has to contribute to the story in a new and different way. Otherwise you're likely to wind up with one really good bit of action repeated until the audience closes the covers.

Rule Seven: (Edit) Keep Your Tone Punchy

There have been some complaints that this rules list was vague, and didn't cover examples. So I have decided to add rule number seven (which should really be number one, but I digress). This rule is very simple, and it's one that should be intuitive to writers. Simply stated it says:

"Use words, metaphors, and a pace that matches the action you wish to portray."

This sounds simple, and indeed it is. So is boxing, fencing, or hitting a bulls-eye with a handgun, with enough practice. The point of this rule is that your fight scenes should have a pace and a word choice that reflects the fight. For example, say that you're writing a fist fight between two characters. Punches are flying, elbows are digging, and both parties are going whole hog. You want your audience to really feel the blows as they land, and to get a sense of the pain being inflicted. To do that you need to use the right words, and you need to pull your reader in.

Here's an example.

"Paul led with his left foot and punched Peter. He followed up the first blow with a second, pushing Peter back as he tried to protect himself."

That's a basic, if boring description of what's going on. How can you fix it? Well if you wanted to make it a little more bare-knuckled you might instead say something like:

"Paul sank his fist into Peter's guts, driving the breath out of the smaller man. He snarled, hammering his fists down again and again. Peter stumbled back, blood running from his nose and mouth, unable to do more than get his guard up."

We have more indicative action words, and it's changed the tone of the scene. It's gone from a simple, ho-hum fight to something where people are really out to hurt each other. We refer not just to the ferocity of the strikes, but also to the damage they're doing. If you want to evoke different images though, you might try something like this:

"Paul crossed the room with murder writ large on his face. Peter put his hands up, tried to say something, but Paul was listening to a darker voice. His fist went in clean, but came back bloody. Peter's lips burst against his teeth, but Paul wouldn't stop. Splinters of teeth joined the blood, and eventually the words stopped."

The tone shifts, and the action's punchiness alters. The second seems much more deliberate, and as a result a little more brutal. You'll notice what you don't see in these examples though. You don't see the names of martial art strikes, or labels for the blows. Because your audience might not know what a flying butterfly kick or a spinning back fist looks like. So whenever you can, describe the motion of the body, and the results of the fight. Even if you're not describing the fight itself you need to bring across the tone of what it feels like.

As always thanks for dropping by The Literary Mercenary, and if you'd like to help support me then stop by my Patreon page. Also if you pledge at least $1 per month this March I'll give you a free book as well as my gratitude! Lastly if you want to make sure you're not missing any of my updates then be sure you follow me on Facebook and Tumblr!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Blackheath Dawn Is A Place For Writers To Get The Help They Need

When I first decided I was going to write fiction for a living I was 14 years old. It seemed like a simple enough career path, honestly; you write stories, get them published, and keep doing that until you have a huge catalog of books under your belt. People buy your books, you get fat royalty checks, and it's bye-bye day job, hello book signings!

There was just one problem; I had no idea how to get from where I was to where I needed to be.

Now remember, take a left at Albuquerque.
Like any schmuck convinced of his own manifest destiny I set off into the publishing wilds with my dreams under my arm, and a head full of story ideas. I made a lot of mis-steps, walked right past a dozen good opportunities, and got caught by at least one scam. In time I figured out what I was doing wrong, I changed my approach, and re-aligned my perceptions. I kept kicking down doors, taking whatever publishing work I could get, and approaching companies big and small with an outstretched hand and a ready business card. Part of the reason I started The Literary Mercenary was because I wanted to give other authors and hopeful authors a resource that would provide the kinds of information I could have really used when I was starting out.

It's in the same spirit of that intent that I recommend my fellow writers check out Blackheath Dawn.

What Is Blackheath Dawn?

According to the Blackheath Dawn website the company is a co-creative platform for writers and partners. That sounds like jargon mainly because it is. Put in simple terms Blackheath Dawn is a British organization that offers publishing services to new and established writers (things like manuscript editing and polishing, cover art design, etc.) so they can make their books look as good as possible. These services aren't free, so make sure you read the fine print if you intend on using them.

That's the business side of things, and it isn't why you should check them out.

Because if you look a little deeper you'll find...
The reason you should check out Blackheath Dawn is because it provides need-to-know information to writers. From articles about the creative process to updates on writing competitions and warnings about scams and fakes this site is a one-stop-shop for useful facts. Whether it's figuring out how to use your blog to sell books, turning freelance jobs into regularly-paying gigs, or any of a hundred other topics Blackheath Dawn can help.

Before you decide to click the link and head over there though, keep in mind that the site IS British. While storytelling craft is pretty universal it's a good idea to check and be sure that the particular publishing subject works the same in your country as it does in the U.K.

If you do stop by and find something interesting, or a topic you'd like to see me cover here at The Literary Mercenary just leave it in the comments! If you would like to help support this blog then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page and become a patron today; even $1 a month can make a big difference. If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates then be sure you're also following me on Facebook and Tumblr!