Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Preventing Characters From Becoming Caricatures

A little while ago I was reading a short story whose simple premise was that an abusive husband is paranoid his wife is going to kill him. As their honeymoon car trip developed more and more problems, and his temper flared, he grew more and more aggressive toward her. The purpose of his actions, in this case, was to create the story's central conflict, and to set him up as the character we were supposed to dislike, and want to see punished.

The problem was... well, he wasn't a character. He was a caricature of an abusive spouse, and that drained the drama and tension from the story.

Woman, didn't I tell you to bring me a beer 2.5 seconds ago?
This story could really have been unnerving if we were allowed to see the slow boil of the husband's rage, and watch the effect it had on his wife. If we could have seen her wince back, or watched her demeanor change, showing us without telling that she had moved into pleasing mode to avoid troubles. Maybe even rubbing at a place that had been hurt before on her arm, or her neck. It could have quickly established the dynamic and history of their relationship, making the reader wonder if this was going to be a flare-up, or if she was going to be able to defuse this bomb before it went off.

Instead of all of that, though, we simply got a guy who swaggered when he walked, talked like a time traveler from the 1940s (it was ostensibly set in the modern day, though it was hard to tell that for a fact), and who threatened his wife openly and clearly in a way that was... well, which kind of underscored how shallow the character was. The story didn't have our husband struggle with his temper, trying to keep himself under control, or making excuses about how it wasn't really his fault. We learned nothing else about him, either, so his sole defining characteristic was, "Dickbag wife beater." But they're on their honeymoon... what else did he have to offer? Why is she with him? Who is he the other 99% of the time when he isn't taking his frustrations out on his spouse?

We'll never know... but it got me thinking on the difference between character, and caricature, and how it so often gets lost in the mix.

Seeing Things in One Dimension

If you've ever seen a caricature artist at work, you'll realize that a lot of the art style is deciding what their subject's most noticeable feature is, and making that the centerpiece of the image. Obama is shown as a cartoon with huge ears, for example, and Jay Leno's portraits tend to be three-quarters chin. Whatever stands out, that's the feature that gets exaggerated until it becomes the single dimension that everything else in the image is hung off of.

You see what I mean.
The issue with caricatures in writing is that the one feature you wanted the character to have (in this case making it clear this guy beats his wife, and that he should be despised for that) ends up subsuming the whole character... and it brings down everything around it. Because it's a shallow portrayal, and having a shallow character in an otherwise fully-rendered world is the equivalent of having Bugs Bunny walking on set while the crew is shooting Casablanca; it's a jarring flat note in an otherwise rich song.

And if there's more than one caricature, then you have a bunch of flat notes that's going to ruin whatever piece you were trying to compose.

Caricatures come in a thousand different forms, and when they get particularly crass they can turn into rather awful stereotypes. From the gang members in the bar fight who all had their pants sagging and their gold chains out, to the greedy pawnbroker with the big nose and the small spectacles, to the bottle blonde with the tight sweater and the unfocused expression, these aren't really characters... they're caricatures.

Digging Deeper

The best way to avoid turning your characters into caricatures is to dig deeper. Unfortunately, there's no shortcut, and it's particularly dirty work.

So, better start digging.
The best thing you can do in this situation is to ask yourself what other aspects of this character matter? What other dimensions are there to them that the audience would see, even if it's only in passing? What can you do to avoid this character being just one note?

Let's go back to the bar fight scene I mentioned in passing earlier. Before the action, you've got your gang of stereotypical hoods in the bar. They look the part (tattoos, flashy jewelry, maybe a shot of a chrome pistol or two), but what can you add to these characters? Do we see that one of them has a quote from Banquo on his wrist, making the audience wonder what this shooter's relationship is to MacBeth's second-in-command in the Shakespeare play? Do we overhear one of the others talking on the phone to his kids, sharing an earnest moment that lets us know there are people that depend on the money he brings home? Is the heated conversation between two of the younger members over anime trivia, showing they have a life outside of gang life?

Every single one of those instances adds touches of character, and suggests depths that lay beneath the surface to these people. We've seen them in what amounts to their work attire, but we've caught glimpses of who they are beyond that. Enough to make us curious, and perhaps enough to add poignancy to one (or several) of them getting wounded or killed in the violence that's about to happen.

The More We See Someone, The More Depth They Need

One of the most common push backs I hear against adding more depth and nuance is people who argue, "Oh, so I'm supposed to know the whole life story of the waiter in scene two who takes their drinks, and then we never see again?"

No, and to even suggest that's somehow a requirement is ludicrous. However, it's important to challenge yourself to add at least two facets to any character you took the time to give actual lines to in your book. And the more time we spend with a character, the more depth you need to add as we get to know them.

Perhaps if you're still here by Chapter 7 I will tell you my name.
If your private detective is just ordering a drink from a bartender, we don't need to really know anything about him; he's just there as a background player to make sure your character has a scotch in his hand when the time is right. But if they start making conversation, well, now the bartender has lines. Even if he's not an important character, he's part of the tapestry now. If he's a witness, or someone who has information that proves helpful, then that means we should find out a little more about him each time. For example, we might have just thought of him as a big guy working a bar and busting heads when things get rowdy. But when we see him again in chapter 6 he's reading a romance novel. Maybe he mentions he picked up books again while he was doing time, and now he's just trying to keep up on the habit.

And so on, and so forth. Anytime we come back to a character, we learn a little more about them, and you need to pull back the curtain just a little more on who they are as well as what they're adding to the story.

However, there is a risk that comes with characters we see a lot; they might become caricatures through a process known as Flanderization. Named for the Simpsons' Ned Flanders, it refers to how a character slowly has their various traits stripped away, until all that's left behind is their single, core trait blown up to ridiculous, one-dimensional proportions. Much like how Homer's neighbor started off as a considerate man, all-around great dad, and guy who actually went to church, but eventually had most of that other stuff stripped away in favor of the ultra-Christian thing.

Creating and maintaining character depth isn't easy, but it's a habit. And like any other habit, it requires working until it becomes a reflex. Once you're there, maintaining it is a cinch.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Patreon Creators, Keep Your Patrons Happy (Without Busting Your Budget)

For folks who don't keep up on my offline doings, I spent the past weekend at Windy Con in Chicago. I saw a bunch of friends I've made over the years, and met a few new folks while I was at it. I sold a few books, and as usual sat on a couple of panels. Perhaps the best-attended panel I was on, though, dealt with crowdfunding, and how you can get your project off the ground. Some folks were experts on Indiegogo and Kickstarter, but some of us were more used to platforms like Patreon. Something I sort of rely on most months, and if you haven't read my previous post Why Patreon is a Lifesaver For Authors (Like Me), I highly recommend checking it out.

Anyway, it was while we were answering questions that an important point came up that I wanted to talk about this week. That point, in short, was that little extras and bonus gifts are what get people to pledge more... but you need to carefully consider what you're offering, and what these bonuses are going to do to your bottom line. Because the more it takes you to produce and send off those presents, the smaller your profits are going to get when all is said and done.

Don't promise, if you can't deliver.

Gifting Your Patrons (Without Going Broke)

If you've run any kind of crowdfunding enterprise, or just participated in a few of them as a backer, you've likely seen the kinds of high-dollar patron packages or stretch goal rewards. You know, stuff like tee shirts, or small statuettes, or signed copies of a bonus book, things like that. And you may have wondered why those only go to high-dollar donors when the items are so relatively small.

Relative is the key word, there, because you have to foot all the costs for it.

That means you need to buy the item in the first place, as well as designing it if it's a unique prize. Let's be generous and say it's only $3 for a paperback book that's being given as a bonus. You then need to pay the shipping on the item (sometimes twice if you need the item shipped to you so you can sign it, and/or repackage it before sending it on its way again). That could cost anywhere from $5 up to $15 or $30, depending on weight, location, and so on. You then need to perform this process for every person who contributed at a certain level, which means you need to handle all the costs, the mailing, and following up on deliveries.

Trust me, it hurts your bank account even more than your brain.
There is a middle ground here, though, and you've seen it even if you didn't put two and two together at the time. If you scroll through Kickstarter or Patreon right now, and you look at contributor rewards, you'll see all sorts of stuff that might strike you as kind of cool, but really low effort when you think about it. For example, a space in the credits of a film, or having your name on the special thank you list for backers for a book or game. If you're a patron, then you might receive free ebooks, digital art, or similar items in your email every month. If you support a YouTube channel at a certain level then you may be able to suggest topics for the show to cover, or even be treated like a sponsor and get a shout-out for the episode you helped make possible.

None of these things require a lot in the way of additional work, or (more importantly) additional costs to the creator. But they still provide something of value to a patron, or make them feel special, or valued in some way. Hell, I use this strategy myself. Folks who donate at least $1 over on The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page get a free copy of whatever gaming supplement I've released that month over on Drive Thru RPG. Why? Well, because they're digital, they're already out, it costs me $0 to send them to any patron anywhere in the world, and it provides them something of value that they no longer have to purchase outside of supporting me.

And that ticks all the boxes for what ideally makes a solid gift that should (at least in theory) act as a solid enticement to get your patrons to chip in just a little more every month.

Gifts and Prizes Are No Substitute For Quality

Since it has to be said.
To be clear, here, stretch goals, bonus gifts, tier levels... these things are icing on the cake when it comes to your crowdfunding efforts. They're nice to have, and sometimes they can be the extra little draw that gets someone to take a look at what you're offering.

However, the icing can't make up for a shoddy cake. Remember that, because you need to be producing something good in the first place if you want people to be happy with you. The extras are nice, and may draw some occasional extra funding, but you can't sell a plate of icing and call it a cake. Well, you can, but it probably won't go over as well as you think.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Older is Better: A Trope That's Become A Reflex For Many Writers

Ertrand raised his torch higher, examining the tomb of the ancient king. The name was incomprehensible, but the sheathed sword on the casket glimmered when he wiped at the dust. Taking hold of the hilt, he drew the blade, and examined it. It had the distinct sheen of the old styles of metal smithing, and the dry air of the tomb had kept it mostly intact. He slid it back into the sheathe carefully, and lifted it as if it were made of glass.

"Some collector is going to keep you on his wall," Ertrand said, wrapping his find in soft padding. "For my money, I prefer a sword that isn't so brittle it splinters when you strike a shield with it."

"Of course it's valuable! What? No, I have a high-carbon steel blade for a reason, you idiot!"
This is a scene we almost never seen in fantasy stories, and it's because of a trope that has bothered me more and more the longer I've been swimming around genre fiction; Older is Better. While this trope isn't inherently bad, I do think that too often writers in general (and those of us who work in sci-fi and fantasy in particular) reach for it out of reflex. We don't stop and think about whether it's a trope that makes our story better, or if it adds to the tale we're actually telling... we just put it in there for the same reason elves have pointy ears, and dwarves have beards.

Because that's how so many other writers have done it.

What Does It Say About Your Setting?

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples of this trope out there. Conan's Atlantean steel sword that can slash through Cimmerian blades and survive hundreds of years in a dank cave with impunity, for instance. The missing STCs from the dark age of technology in Warhammer 40k that represent the pinnacle of ancient human achievement. Most of the old elven weapons we see in Tolkien's works that are leaps and bounds beyond what even dwarven princes are given to wear at their sides when adventuring.

However, this trope goes beyond weapons and gear; it can extend to everything in your universe.

Especially your magic.
Are the ruins of the old empires huge, sweeping things that were built with techniques that have been lost to the ages? Were their enchantments so potent that nothing today's wizards can conjure can match them for glory? Did the old ones have the skill to weave fabrics that could endure for generations, and fit themselves to each wearer?

All of that stuff is cool, but it poses a central question that you as the author should consider... why?

Humans (as most of the time we have humans as our core races) are really inventive creatures, and when you ask a few generations of us to reverse-engineer something, our results can be rather startling. All you need to do is read the rant on why humans are so central in Star Trek to get the impression that we are both extremely dangerous as a people, but also extremely inventive.

The first version of this question you need to answer is "Why can't that ancient thing be made anymore?"

The route most authors go for keeping ancient achievements from being a part of the modern age is that the technique for doing so was lost to time, which is a historically valid option if you're looking for real-world examples. We have amazing metal working skills today, for example, but we have zero clue how an iron pillar in Delhi has stood for over 1,600 years without a single speck of rust. And sometimes if the technique fell out of favor, or it was rigidly controlled and those capable of making the thing died, the knowledge could be lost.

The second question you need to answer, and arguably the more important one, is "Why hasn't anyone figured out how to do it again?"

This is where things can get sticky, but where you have a lot more options. For example, is the pursuit of independent knowledge considered heresy (as you see in Warhammer's setting), stifling any meaningful efforts to recreate these ancient miracles? Are there not enough examples of the thing to reverse-engineer it (or is doing so a particularly dangerous process)? Or, my personal favorite, is a key ingredient for the old process no longer around, making it impossible to recreate in the modern setting (the bones of a certain extinct animal, a seed from a plant that was harvested into oblivion, etc.)? If something is not just difficult to create, but out and out impossible, then it makes the surviving versions even more impressive. But it could also mean that rituals, rites, and other tools are truly beyond the grasp of your protagonists, unless they re-discover the element needed to make the old methods work once again.

How Has This Loss Been Compensated For?

Magic sword, huh? Cool story, bro.
One of the other issues that comes with the Older is Better trope is that it often creates a photocopied setting; each era is just a smaller, less impressive version of the one that came before it. However, if something that made a previous era of prosperity possible is lost or forgotten (whether due to resources, a dark age, or what have you), then ask what people did to replace its loss. What direction did society go in, and how did it change?

If magic lost some of its potency, or vanished entirely except in rare cases, did that lead to a rise in more reliable forms of alchemy? If the method for creating relic shields that could guard against any arrow was lost, did this lead to a change in protections, or a change in tactics? If shimmer cloaks became so rare as to be effectively non-existent, then what replaced them as a status symbol and/or means of personal protection?

While having relics from the past, lost rituals, or ancient rites are fun additions to a story, too often writers forget that subsequent generations don't stay in a holding pattern waiting for those things to be re-discovered. They're going to be moving, changing, altering, and finding new ways to accomplish old goals. Sometimes this means embracing new technologies, and other times it means changing your entire society... but rarely do things stay exactly the same for huge swaths of time.

Even language changes, and a way of speaking or writing that would be quite plain just a few generations ago can feel strange and foreign. After several hundred years of linguistic drift, well, that might be another reason that lost methods remain lost.

Like, Follow, and Come Back Again!

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing! For more of my work, check out my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Authors, Don't Put Your Cart Before The Horse

I've talked with a lot of authors over the years, and there is something that I've found to be true. Authors who focus on the task at hand (writing the book, making sure the story is good, getting the proper spin on their marketing, etc.) tend to be successful, by and large. Those who get overly concerned imagining the future of their book (how many copies will I sell, how big will my fandom get, how large of an impact will I have on my genre) tend to go nowhere.

We're all entitled to a bit of day dreaming now and again, don't get me wrong. But if you don't hitch up the horses to the wagon, then you aren't going anywhere.

All right, first novel's out... my go a bit faster if we hitch that second one up, though.

Focus On The Book (Let The Rest Take Care Of Itself)

Let's be real for a moment here; when was the last time someone told you, "This book made me re-think my political stance on an issue," or, "Reading this changed my life," and you immediately decided you needed to go out and get it? If you're like most of us out there, you probably nodded politely, rolled your eyes, and moved on with your life unless that person was very important to you, and you put a lot of weight behind their opinion.

But if someone came up to you and said, "Oh my god, you have to read this book! There's demons, witches, a sentient car with the soul of a dead jazz singer under the hood, and a blind chain smoking nun who stole the archangel Michael's sword and refuses to give it back to him!"

Well shit, now you're curious.

No, I haven't written this book yet. But it may be on the list now.

It All Starts With Your Story

We've all had those stories that change our lives as readers. At least a few of us remember the big trends that seemed to encapsulate moments, or the books that became the voice of entire subcultures, or even generations. And sure, that's a nice goal to have. It's up there with winning a big award, or making the sort of money where you can just buy a house in cash, and kick up your heels.

But if you focus on that, then you lose sight of what actually gets you there... your book. The one you're supposed to be writing.

Seriously... it's a trap within your own mind.
By all means, have goals. Know where you want to go with your work, and your career. But remember that when you're a creator that you're essentially closing your eyes, spinning around in a circle, whispering a prayer, and hoping to the gods of chaos that the dart you're about to throw happens to hit a bullseye in a completely dark room.

As I said in Writing a Bestseller is Like Winning The Lottery, you have a 1 in 200 chance of hitting bestseller status. That's better odds than playing the lottery, but you aren't going to improve those odds by figuring out what message you want to give to a legion of adoring fans you don't have, or coming up with important political stances to take once you're famous. What will improve those odds, though is making sure that you write the best book you possibly can, doing your market research, having a solid promotion plan and schedule in place, and making sure that you've got a network of people who are willing to help you spread the word when your title drops.

Practical stuff, in other words.

But even if you do all of those things, there's no guarantee you'll become famous. The odds are, in fact, pretty damn poor. You may not sell a meaningful number of copies of your book for years, and it could take grueling efforts to promote, peddle, and hand sell your stock until your name is finally known to people who aren't your friends and family.

You can't actually do any of that, though, until your book is done and on the market. And if you spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about controversies your stances might generate in the genre as a whole, or worrying that people might attack you for daring to defy tradition, let me tell you this with all sincerity; those are problems you'll be lucky to have.

Because it means enough people noticed (and read) your book to give a damn who you are, and what you have to say.

Like, Follow, and Stay Tuned!

That's all for this week's Business of Writing! If you'd like to see more of my work, take a look at my Vocal archive, or at My Amazon Author Page where you can find books like my sword and sorcery novel Crier's Knife!

If you'd like to help support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi, or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page! Lastly, to keep up with my latest, follow me on FacebookTumblrTwitter, and now on Pinterest as well!