Actions Speak Louder Than Anything Else

On June 8, 2019, Hazel B. wrote, How do you make a character feel believable? Once you know how to make a person likable or unlikable, how do you make her real? When I’m writing, I usually pick an outward trait to start out with, such as shy or bossy. But not everyone is always bossy, and not everyone is always shy. I’m actually a combination of both. How do you make the character consistent, relatable, and believable?

Writing Ballerina and Christie V Powell responded.

Writing Ballerina: I usually don’t worry about that too much until I’m done the first draft. Then I take one character, comb through, and make everything consistent. I also like to run my characters through personality tests so I can get a better feel for them.
https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test is my favourite — free and very in-depth.

Keep in mind that the characters your MC (I’m assuming you’re talking about the MC, but this will work for any character) is around will affect how they act. When I’m with my closest friends I can be super hyper and silly but when I’m with other people I’m usually more reserved.

Christie V Powell: Enneagram is my favorite system, similar to 16 personalities. The free test is here: https://www.eclecticenergies.com/enneagram/test.

One thing I’ve been doing lately with a couple of writing friends is role-play. We take turns asking a question each week, and choose which characters will answer. Then we answer as if we were the characters. It can be a lot of fun, as well as good practice to get inside the characters’ heads. Recent questions we’ve done include: What do you do to relax? Are you a night owl or early bird? What’s a skill you don’t have but would like to learn? Some of the questions also are addressed to certain characters. We might say: To the main character’s best friend, or To the character last in alphabetical order, or To the youngest main character.

I agree with Writing Ballerina that consistency is paramount. I hate it when a character who, say, is edgy and irritable inexplicably turns calm and jovial. Character growth has to be earned, and the reader needs to understand it.

Having said that, I also agree that characters, like people, are different in different environments. Our edgy dude can be relaxed in the company of his great-aunt Susie, as long as the reader understands that she has this effect on him.

I love the role-play idea! What fun! I love it both for the writing assist and for the comradeship. Writing is lonely and hard. Writer friends understand like nobody else. And what a great way to bring in the unexpected, and the unexpected and surprising are a terrific way to create layered characters who feel real.

I’m thinking a lot about this right now, as I write the beginning of my next book, based on Greek mythology, specifically Cassandra and the fall of Troy. Cassandra, daughter of King Priam, is given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, but he curses it soon after by making no one believe her. After the curse, people, especially her father, consider her prophecies rants and believe she’s mad. I’m thinking about what it would be like both to see the future and to be considered crazy. What’s the thought process of someone who can look ahead? Who can see her own death? Does she look ahead constantly, compulsively, or does she avoid it? Does she keep trying to convince people, or does she give up? Turn inward?

I ask these questions because I find my characters in their actions. She’s a different character if she keeps returning to what brings her pain than if she distracts herself. I don’t think she’s going to be my major MC, but she’s going to be second in importance.

Characters’ characters affect our plot. An extrovert named Margie, for example, may make different decisions from a shy person, named Violet, nicknamed Shrinking. For example, Shrinking may stay home instead of going to the castle ball and may therefore be present when an intruder comes through a window. Margie goes to the party and witnesses the prime minister tip a vial of liquid into the king’s cream of mushroom soup. Each spins the plot in a different direction.

Our characters become increasingly real and layered as they make more and more decisions. Does Shrinking hide in the cellar, or run to the gallery where armor and swords are kept, or run to the head housekeeper for assistance, or appeal to her fairy godmother? Depending on her choice, other decisions have to follow, decisions that use other of her qualities, which we discover as we go along.

For example, suppose Shrinking is, to take another of Hazel B.’s examples, also bossy, so she runs to the head housekeeper and, in a trembling voice, orders her to deal with the intruder. But the head housekeeper says police actions aren’t in her job description and refuses. Well, what does Shrinking do next? We can make a list!

∙ Fires the housekeeper.

∙ Grabs the housekeeper’s hand and says, “Then we have to get to safety. Come!” (She’s still bossy.)

∙ Shrinking is shy, but she’s brave. It dawns on her that the intruder doesn’t expect terrifying small talk, and introversion doesn’t come into this. She takes a poker from the fireplace and a carving knife from the kitchen and starts searching.

∙ Sits on a stool and weeps uncontrollably. Her birthday is in a week, and her beloved father always gives the best presents, and now the intruder is going to kill her and she’ll never find out what the gifts are.

And so on. With each decision and action, we learn more about Shrinking and she becomes more real. We haven’t made her less believable–though not everything on our list has to be believable. In lists we’re encouraged to get wild.

Option two and three will contribute to her likability and relatability, because both combine two factors: Shrinking is behaving admirably, and she’s flawed, being both shy and bossy. Most readers want a flawed MC, because we’re all flawed ourselves.

Options one and four will make her harder to relate to without other factors. In them, on the face of it, she’s flawed and not admirable. We can deal with this, of course, in lots of ways. Here’s one: We may have set up the story so that the housekeeper is the real villain, and she’s drawn Shrinking into her orbit for just this moment, because she’s in cahoots with the intruder. Readers who already feel connected to Shrinking will be on her side and scared for her. Or we can make her behave well with other characters, but the housekeeper just pushes all her buttons, and they’re alone together in the mansion.

I generally don’t know my characters well when I start writing. They reveal themselves as I cook up actions for them. When I start a book I don’t generally use a character questionnaire, but I may fill one out as I keep going, to generate ideas for my list about what one of them should do next.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Add six more possibilities to my list above for a grand total of ten.

∙ Pick one of mine or one of yours and write the story.

∙ List what extrovert Margie might do when she sees the prime minister mess with the king’s soup.

∙ Pick one option and write Margie’s story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The End of Everything

First off, a bookseller who’s a friend just sent me this link, which I believe most of you are too old for, but you may know kids who qualify and would do a bang-up job on:
https://www.penguinrandomhouse.ca/tundra-true-story-contest?ref=PRH997D100A32&utm_source=Tundra_Books&utm_medium=Advertising&utm_content=Email&utm_term=&utm_campaign=Based_on_a_True_Story_Contest_Tundra_Books_-_PW

On May 23, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I’m almost done with the first draft of my story!! This is really exciting, but it’s going kinda slow because I don’t know how to end it. Eventually, I’ll run out of plot points and not know what to do so I’ll abruptly stop and leave it for days trying to come up with how to resolve it in a smooth transition.
Does anyone have any tips on how to transition out?

Three of you weighed in.

Melissa Mead: Congratulations!

Transition, or ending? Transition implies that you’re going on to something else.

Some of the most effective endings tie back to the beginning somehow. Ex, Lord of the Rings takes us back to the Shire. Camelot ends with King Arthur giving hope to a young boy as idealistic as he once was, even though up to that point, his own hope had been fading, and restoring some of his own hope in the process.

Christie V Powell: Have you looked at plot structure? Studying the “beats” that make up a story might help you. I like K. M. Weiland’s (her blog is called Helping Writers Become Authors), or you can see if your library has the book Save the Cat or the book by Lisa Cron (Story Genius? Is that the title?). All three have a similar system for breaking a story down into parts, including the ending.

Writing Ballerina: Okay, so my brain was dead when I asked this question and I worded it terribly so here we go again.

How do you end something satisfactorily? I want the reader to turn the last page, thump the book closed, sigh, and say, “That was a good book. I loved the ending.”

I want to do this right, so I’m not going to rush the ending like I’ve done so many times, but it’s not as easy as it seems. I’ve basically run out of plot points now, but it seems too abrupt to end here. Plus, one of the characters is really not pleased with a new outcome, even though it solved one of his biggest problems, so I need to fix that somehow so everyone’s happy when I end it.

What I meant by “transition” is a smooth ending with pacing that makes sense. Not just like “oh look no more plot points the end bye all thanks for reading.” I don’t want it to be like I slammed a wall in front of the characters with THE END spray-painted on it.

Katie W.: I can’t help, but I have EXACTLY the same problem. The only advice I can give is: give it AN ending, then let it sit until you find the right one. And, lest you think I’m oversimplifying here, it took me about nine months to find the right final line for one of my stories. (And that was after I spent three months cutting it from seventeen pages to ten.) Sometimes I find the right ending immediately, other times, like I said, it takes a while.

One of the first things I was told when I started my long apprenticeship to become a kids’ book writer was: Get out quick once my story’s main problem is resolved, because the reader will become bored as soon as there’s nothing left to worry about. I keep that advice in mind even when I write epilogues, as I often do. Readers sometimes ask me about the future of this character or that, and generally I don’t know the answer. After I type The End, they’re on their own.

So I’m not opposed to an abrupt ending, as long as the main conflict feels complete–

–which suggests what may (or may not) be Writing Ballerina’s difficulty. Possibly the conflicts in her story–or in ours–are too even, and the reader doesn’t know which one to care most about.

If so, when we revise, we can focus on that. We can make some of the other conflicts contingent on the main one–when it’s resolved, the others will become more manageable. Or we can resolve the lesser issues earlier in our story. We can increase the other characters’ emotional investment in our MC. We can expand and intensify our MC’s thoughts, feelings, and voice in our narrative, to make our readers care about her far more than about the others. When she’s settled, they’ll be satisfied. Then, if we’re me, we can write an epilogue to mop up the loose ends. An example of this approach is my beloved Pride and Prejudice. In the last chapter, Austen delivers the fate of all the minor characters, which is nice, but I don’t really care. I’m ecstatic that Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy are together at last. Sorry, Jane and Bingley, it doesn’t matter to me if you have an ugly divorce in a year. Sorry, Jane Austen!

But this may not be the problem. If not, one approach is Melissa Mead’s suggestion of a circular story shape in which the location of the beginning and the end are the same. I find this shape cozy and comforting, if the ending is happy. If the ending is tragic, a circular story can punch up the bleakness, another desirable result. A long time ago in the life of the blog, I wrote a post on circular stories. If you’re interested, you can look it up.

Along the same lines, if we focus on what our MC wants, we’ll achieve a satisfying ending when she gets it for a happy ending, or when she irrevocably fails to get it, for a sad one. Our MC and our readers don’t even have to know what the MC wants; only we have to know, and the reader will be satisfied. In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, Dave doesn’t know that he wants safety and a home most, and I don’t think the reader does, either. He believes he wants something returned to him, but that’s just a side issue. When I make him safe and contented in his sub-optimal-but-adequate home, he and the reader are happy.

I’m a pantser, so I don’t use a beat system, but I have nothing against it. I’d recommend following Christie V Powell’s suggestions to see if they work for you.

I’m thinking of books (that I remember well enough to discuss) with successful endings, and sometimes two themes need to be tied together to make the ending work. I’d say that both Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery and Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier fall into this category. Anne of Green Gables ends satisfyingly when both her relationship with Gilbert is straightened out and her near-term future is decided. Rebecca ends in its bittersweet way when the mystery is resolved and the MC finally understands herself and her relationship with her husband.

I love the shape of a quest. If I can frame my story as a quest, whether my MC or my reader sees it that way, I have an easier time with the ending when I get there. Obviously, Ella is on a quest to overcome her curse, and Addie of The Two Princesses of Bamarre is on a quest to cure her sister of the Gray Death, but less obviously, Aza in Fairest is questing to feel comfortable about herself, or Wilma in The Wish is questing for acceptance just as she is. If we can see our story as a quest, the ending is likely to fall into place.

Greek myths often conclude only at the end of the MC’s life or her ascent into immortality, and that strategy, too, provides a sense of completion, although often not a happy one. A modern example of this that works beautifully is– *spoiler alert*–the TV series Six Feet Under (high school and up).

Fairy tales generally end with the vanquishing of the villain even more than with the success of the romance. Think of “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Rumpelstiltskin.” In “Snow White” the prince kisses her before the evil queen gets her just desserts, and the classic Grimm tale ends with the queen dancing to death. We can adapt this destroy-the-villain approach for our purposes if everything else is resolved before then, but no one will be safe until the villain croaks or is permanently put away.

Mysteries, by contrast, often continue beyond the solution of the puzzle, with a beat about the detective and the state of her life going forward. In a series that state may not be happy, which leaves the reader both satisfied and wanting more.

The big takeaway is to be absolutely solid about what our story’s problem is, because in it is our satisfying ending.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m not sure how satisfying the ending of “Little Red Riding Hood” is, in the version in which Red and Grandma are saved by the hunter. What lesson has Red learned? Is it the right lesson? That she needs to be cautious, and if she isn’t, she has to wait to be rescued? Write the scenes that follow the rescue and give a fuller and better resolution to the three of them.

∙ In Pride and Prejudice, headstrong and flighty Lydia marries unprincipled Wickham. Write a sequel about their daughter, whose immediate family is penniless and whose more distant relatives have the money to help, but their help comes with conditions. You may have to read or reread P&P to do this, but what’s wrong with that? Extra credit if you recreate Austen’s voice and world.

∙ In Greek mythology, Helen is as passive as any fairy tale heroine. She’s married, and Paris carries her off. Eventually, he dies, and Helen is given to someone else. Troy falls, and her husband takes her back. Really! If you don’t know the story, you can read summaries online, starting with the Judgment of Paris, continuing with the Iliad, and ending with the fall of Troy. Write Helen’s story, and give her agency, which will probably mean changing the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic! Finale!

Before I start, I want to let you know that I’ll be at an event for Books of Wonder in New York City on September 22nd between 3:00 and 5:00 pm at 10 Columbus Circle, 3rd floor. There will be a fee for this one, but I’ll have lots of time to chat. As always, I’d love to see you there. Click here for details: https://booksofwonder.com/blogs/upcoming/tea-and-tales-at-bluebird-london-nyc.

Here’s the final installment about writing historical fiction. I’ll be jumping around to pick up the bits that weren’t in the last two posts.

Why write fiction rather than nonfiction, in which we can say directly what happened? Nonfiction is worth considering, especially if we’re writing for children. In nonfiction for adults, the author will be expected to be an actual historian specializing in the period, but for children, the expectation will be different though also demanding: that the author be a thorough researcher and a good writer. It’s an interesting challenge, to write an accessible, interesting history. The writer has to make hard decisions about balance and what to include and what to leave out. When I was starting out as a writer wannabe, I attended a lecture by Jean Fritz, notable writer of history and biography for children, who said that we learn best through being surprised. This stuck with me because it rang true. Can we build into our nonfiction account the kind of surprises that will make our narrative memorable? Can we tell the history in a lively way?

If we’re writing fiction, how much latitude do we have to bend the facts? How faithful must we be? In my first historical novel, Dave at Night, I included a painting that was actually painted a year after the events in the book take place–but I revealed the discrepancy in my Afterword. I think that in historical fiction, though not so much in historical fantasy, we need to stick strictly to the truth unless we have an important reason to stray (as I felt I did in Dave at Night), and then we have to let the reader in on our untruths in an Afterword. We kids’ book writers have an obligation to children to get it right.

How do we treat real life historical figures? In Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926, I didn’t give any dialogue to historical figures, who could appear in scenes, but at a distance. I did invent characters who stood in for real people, but I changed their names. Then I felt free to let them talk. But in A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which takes place near the end of the fifteenth century, I did put words in the mouths of King Ferdinand, Queen Isabella, Princess Isabella, the duke of Medinaceli, and Columbus. My reasoning was that we know a lot of what was said by public figures in 1926 and very little from the late 1400s, so I felt safe in the second case. You may decide differently.

We can’t really know what people were like way back when. There were even differences between almost a hundred years ago and today, but when I wrote Dave at Night, I knew and had known many people who were alive back then, including my father, whose childhood the book is based on. I wasn’t just guessing. But for the fifteenth century, I was. We have another decision to make here. Do we want our characters to be twenty-first century personalities in period costume? Or do we want, as much as we can (because, ultimately, this is impossible to do entirely), to create characters who belong in their temporally distant world? There are arguments on both sides. Characters with current attitudes and understandings will be easier for a reader to enter and relate to. But characters who belong to their time will take the reader on a deeper journey–you can see what I prefer, though both choices are valid. My MCs are generally strong and independent, but in Loma, the MC of Ceiling, I wanted a girl of her time. She’s put in situations that force her to think for herself, but when inspiration strikes, she never takes credit for it; she says God sent it or her dead grandmother or her absent grandfather. Taking credit would be beyond the way she regards herself, beyond what I believe a girl back then would think.

In one way, writing historical fiction may be easier than writing other genres, especially for writers, like me, who are plot challenged. If we choose a time of conflict, events can structure our plot. This worked when I was writing about the expulsion of the Jews but not for my more personal orphan story, Dave at Night. In my expulsion story, events laid out the rising and falling action.

How long ago is our time period? What’s known about these events? The further in the past, the less is likely to be known. Likewise, the less famous the events, the less likely they are to be known in detail. If there are gaps in knowledge, we have some freedom to color in the empty spaces, but our plot still has to be possible in context. This doesn’t come into my book, but, as an example, between six hundred and two thousand of children of the Jews who went to Portugal after the expulsion were enslaved, baptized against their will and the will of their parents, and sent by ship to an island off the African coast to plant and harvest sugar cane. Little is known of what happened to them, so a novelist who wants to take on this saga will have some freedom to invent–but will still have to stay true to the period.

What are the known biases held by historians about a period? I recently read a historian refer to certain other historians of Jewish life in medieval Spain as belonging to the “lachrymose school,” basically the crybaby school, weeping over the tribulations of the Jews. I understood what he meant, having read some of these scholars, but I wondered if he belonged to the stiff-upper-lip, take-it-on-the-chin school. What biases are held by most people?

Whose history does a writer have the right to address? Do you have to be Jewish, for instance, to write fiction about Jewish history? I don’t think so. A wonderful example is the holocaust novel Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, an Australian Christian. What are the ethics? (This is just food for thought.)

Is the writer of historical fiction entitled to an opinion? Should we slant it? Can we avoid slanting it? More food for thought.

This has been fun to write about, though a little deeper in the weeds than usual, but I’ve reached the end of my workshop notes, just in time for three prompts:

∙ Back to the Salem witch trials. According to Wikipedia, “Overall, the Puritan belief and prevailing New England culture was that women were inherently sinful and more susceptible to damnation than men were. Throughout their daily lives, Puritans, especially Puritan women, actively attempted to thwart attempts by the Devil to overtake them and their souls. Indeed, Puritans held the belief that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but not in the eyes of the Devil. Women’s souls were seen as unprotected in their weak and vulnerable bodies.” Your MC, a seventeen-year-old female servant, believes that this is true. When rumors begin to circulate that she’s a witch, she thinks they may be true. Write a scene in which she tries to discover whether or not she’s a witch.

∙ Introduce fantasy into the world of the witch trials. Mischievous imps, who mean no good, do whatever they can to keep the witch accusations going. Your MC discovers them and tries to stop them, which makes her their target. Write what happens–a scene or an entire story.

∙ In ancient Athens, girls and women spent most of their lives at home, going out only for religious festivals. In ancient Sparta, girls were trained to be athletes, just as much as boys were, and they were outside often. Imagine that a girl of Sparta moves with her family to Athens, and that a girl of Athens moves with her family to Sparta. Write a scene in the first week for each of them in their new environment.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic! Part 2

Here’s the next installment about writing historical fiction, based on my workshop in July at Keystone college. I’ll be jumping all over the place to pick up the points I didn’t cover last time.

If possible, we should read writing from the period we’re writing about. When I wrote my historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in 1926 and features, among other things, the Harlem Renaissance, I read poems and one contemporaneous novel, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay. For A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, I read The Expulsion Chronicles compiled by David Rafael, a book of contemporary accounts written by both Christians and Jews.

Home to Harlem gave me details and the perspective of people in 1926. The Expulsion Chronicles is light on details, but it gave me an idea of how events were understood by people of the time.

Historians are nice! As I researched, I longed to speak to people, or email them, who could tell me if I was getting things right. I reached out to at least half a dozen historians. The only one who failed to help me was David Rafael, who was very ill. One historian, Jane Gerber, whom I mentioned in the last post, became my mentor for the project. She guided my reading, corrected or confirmed my ideas, and even annotated my manuscript. I think the historians were glad to help. If we get the history right, we bring their field to life.

But we can’t rely of their help. We have to educate ourselves, because the focus of most historians is narrow. The writer of historical fiction has to see the big picture. For example, a historian I consulted innocently steered me wrong about something, because his expertise was in the twelfth century, and I was writing about the fifteenth. Things had changed. I had to know enough to realize that he was wrong.

And historians have biases, which we have to know enough to be able to recognize. (This may sound intimidating, and I suppose it is. Historical fiction isn’t for the fainthearted.) For example, many of the books I read were written by historians of Jewish history, but I also read a biography of Queen Isabella, which gave me a different perspective on events. In the books on Jewish history the Jews played a larger role in what happened than they did in the biography–I don’t know enough to say which is more accurate, only that the two perspectives were useful.

A neat trick to know about is Google advanced search. If we’re having trouble finding the information we need, advanced search can help. Just type in “advanced search” and you’ll see what you need to do.

If we’re not sure whether a word represents a concept that didn’t exist at the time of our story, we can look at the word’s etymology in a dictionary.

There is a big annual medieval history conference in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I didn’t know about it until Ceiling was finished, but I went this year, because I’ve become fascinated with the period. So there are likely to be conferences we can attend to help educate ourselves and to meet enthusiastic historians. (This is expensive.)

For detail, we should go wide for whatever we can find on popular culture–fashion books, cookbooks, magazines. For food, I used a cookbook based on documents from the Spanish Inquisition, because people would be turned in for following Jewish dietary laws. In using the cookbook, I had to be aware of which foods came from the New World and not include them.

Briefly, I hired an assistant, which some of you may be able to afford to do. For me, it didn’t work out. I wanted to see the source material myself, and, frankly, I was afraid that the assistant might miss something useful or critical. But other people do use assistants, and that’s an option.

In the last post, I mentioned my timidity. I was so afraid of getting things wrong that sometimes I was frozen. A beta reader advised me to “be a novelist,” and I had to accept that I couldn’t learn everything. There’s an Afterword in Ceiling. Before I wrote it, I looked at Afterwords in other historical novels, and every one had an apology to the reader and to the past for all the errors in the book. Without a time machine, there are bound to be mistakes. We do our best.

We have to make a choice about scope–large or small. I could have written about, for example, a butcher’s daughter in a village and how her life was shaped by the worsening climate for Jews. That would have been a small-scale approach, and it would have been a fine way to go. But I chose to go big and put my MC in a prominent family, so that she can be on the spot for the major events of the day.

We fantasy writers know this already from seamlessly introducing our world building. Just as in fantasy, we should avoid info dumps.

On a one-to-ten scale of organized people, I’m about a five. A ten would have an easier time writing historical fiction. Sigh.

I wish I’d summarized my reading as I did it. Next time I will.

If we own a book, I recommend writing in the margins, which will make important parts pop out when we go back. If this is sacrilege for you, of course don’t do it. Use post-its.

We can’t expect to know everything or understand right away. One of the books I read about the expulsion was all about who owed how much to whom, who paid how much for something when a family had to leave. At first I thought, This is so dry! What about the emotion, the tragedy? But later, after I’d read more, I understood two things: first, that the tragedy was locked into the accounting, because people were grossly underpaid for their belongings when they had to leave. Not just fortunes were lost, but people arrived at the borders without funds to pay the exit duties. Then they had either to convert or to be executed. Second, I realized that there wasn’t much in the way of records. People didn’t keep diaries. The accounting records were kept and preserved. The historian assembled the big picture out of these little data points.

We have to watch out for our assumptions. For instance, I assumed that banking was primitive in the Middle Ages, but it was surprisingly sophisticated.

I think I have one more post on this, or maybe half a post, so I’ll stop here.

∙ Your MC, an archaeologist and amateur detective, reads this article: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-science-murder/cold-case-scientists-encounter-prehistoric-murder-mystery-idUSKBN0OC2GD20150527 and is fascinated. (I just noticed that this link and the one below begin with a photo of a skull. Beware!) Conveniently, the time machine has just been invented, although it may be used only for approved projects. Her application is approved, and she’s off, into the very distant past to investigate a murder among an entirely different branch of the homo sapiens tree. Write the scene of her arrival and keep going.

∙ I happened across this very interesting article about a medieval victim of leprosy: https://www.cnn.com/2017/01/26/health/leprosy-medieval-pilgrim-skeleton-study/index.html. You may want to do a little more research–or not. After you read the article, make this young man your MC and have him fall in love. Or his love interest can be your MC. Write a scene or their whole tragic tale, unless you can find a way to a happy ending.

∙ Your MC lives in Salem, Massachusetts, when the witch accusations begin to fly. She’s friends with the chief accusers and realizes with horror that they’re beginning to hint that her beloved aunt–who unwisely tends to say whatever she thinks–is a witch. Your MC wants to save her aunt. Read up a little on the Salem witch trials and write a scene or the whole story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Historic!

Last month I gave a workshop, really a talk, on writing historical fiction at a conference at Keystone College, which I mentioned here. The conference was expensive-ish, and I suspect that few of you live near Scranton, PA, so, in a departure from the ordinary, I’m putting my workshop into a blog post–or two or three. There will still be prompts!

My forthcoming historical novel, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells is my second historical novel. Dave at Night, which came out in the late 1990s, is the first. And lately I’ve done a little historical research for some of my fantasies. Most are vaguely medieval, though Ever is vaguely Mesopotamian.

Ceiling is about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and it was the most exciting writing experience I’ve ever had, because I learned so much. The world of the late Middle Ages is in many ways vastly different from our own–and in some ways just like it. Different, for one thing, because so little science was known, and people came up with bizarre explanations for occurrences like disease. Similar because, among other things, money was at the root of most evil.

We can use history in our fantasies, too, as much history or as little as we like. Even in fantasies, historical research is great for surprising details. If we’re writing fantasy that’s only tangentially historical, we don’t need much in the way of resources. A book on daily life during the period (not hard to find), a book or websites on fashions of the time, an online encyclopedia, and general online searches for whatever comes up, will probably be enough–and we’ll still find surprises that will light up our writing.

But if we’re writing historical fantasy or speculative fiction that takes place at a particular time on actual planet Earth, or if we’re writing realistic historical fiction, we need more. And we need to understand that the project will call for a substantial time commitment. Unless we’re already steeped in our period, it will take us a while even to discover what we don’t know. The process will be enormously rewarding, but we should take a deep breath before jumping in.

The good news is that there’s lots of help and we don’t have to be historians to do this.

We’ll start with a survey book. The book that most directed my research for Ceiling was The Jews of Spain, a History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane S. Gerber, which covers the history of Jews on the Iberian peninsula from Roman times to the expulsion, and their history after they were kicked out, into the 20th century. If we don’t know what our plot will be, we’re looking for times of conflict and for interesting people.

Daily life books will be useful at the beginning and as we continue. Dummy or Idiot Guides can make the difficult simple-ish. Since I’m not religious and had little religious education, I relied on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Judaism. I also attended a service at our local synagogue and asked the rabbi some questions.

When we have an idea for our story and a sense of the times, we can move from the general to the particular. A danger at the beginning and all the way through is that we may get so immersed in our research–it’s so fascinating and writing is so hard!–that we can’t stop. We have to remember to write.

Here’s something I wish I did from the start of my research: write a timeline of events, citing sources and page numbers. I spent unnecessary hours hunting for facts I knew but couldn’t remember precisely. If I’d been more organized at the beginning, I would have saved time.

Our survey book’s bibliography and footnotes will help us continue our research, likewise the bibliographies and footnotes of any encyclopedia articles or book we consult. A nice discovery I made is that some of the citations on Wikipedia can be clicked on, and we can read scholarly research for free. I think this is how I found an undergraduate thesis about caravels, 15th century sailing ships, that the author had posted online.

Since I was writing about Spain, I found it helpful to use the Spanish version of Wikipedia and the online translator, even though the translations were sometimes obviously off the mark–and funny. But mostly, they were good enough. If my story moved to a particular town in Spain, for example, the Spanish Wikipedia had a lot more information and more pictures than the English version.

We can also use an online translator to email people in other countries for information. Museums and tourist destinations, for example, are likely to have email addresses, and we can reach out, politely in their language, to staff for more information. Then we can translate the answers. Knowing that my manufactured communication might not be perfect, I always included my English original.

I didn’t travel to Spain, so I relied on online images to bring my story to life. In fact, the hardest part of writing the book was my timidity. I didn’t want to get the details wrong. For example, what was it like to stand on a medieval wharf? How do I find out?

Turns out Reddit has a handy Ask-a-Historian group. We can type in our question, and it will be screened by people who monitor what comes in. If approved, our question will be opened up to the Reddit universe of volunteer historians, and if someone is interested, it will be answered. My first question (I don’t remember what it was) was never answered, but my second was. This very kind historian not only wrote back, but he also sent me links to reproductions of paintings and murals from the period–of wharfs. The pictures made it possible for me to write two scenes. If you try Ask-a-Historian, don’t mention that you’re working on a novel. Questions from novelists are regarded as frivolous!

Old crafts, as you may know, live on on YouTube. In one of my fantasies I needed to know how to card wool, and I found a demonstration on YouTube. In this regard, we historical fantasy and fiction writers are lucky to live in the age of the internet.

More to come! Here are three prompts:

∙ In a world that’s loosely based on ancient Egypt, the king’s beloved cat Tuttie has died, and the king decides that it should be mummified and buried in style, along with a human, your MC, who will be ceremonially sacrificed so she can care for it in the afterlife. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ On November 9, 1965 most of New York City experienced a power outage, a blackout. At the time I was in college, but I was home with a newly broken ankle–with an enormous cast and crutches. Read about the blackout online. Your MC, who, like me, is on crutches, gets a phone call (mostly, phone service wasn’t disrupted) from a friend in distress, who lives half the city away. Your MC has to go to her friend. Using as much period detail as you can, write her trek across the city in the dark. Decide if she makes it or not. Remember: no cell phones back then, but there were phone booths–and a fifty-fifty chance that the phone would work.

∙ Research a historic battle. Can be during our Civil War, World War I, the Spanish conquest of Granada in 1492–or any one you pick. At a critical moment, a dragon lands on the battlefield. You decide what kind of dragon. Write what happens.

Have fun, and save what your write!

Sh! Intrigue…

On May 20, 2019, Katie W. wrote, Any tips on writing a political conspiracy? In (one of) my WIPs, the queen is a commoner from the poorest part of the country, and the nobles want to get rid of her so the king will remarry. They try enlisting a dragon to steal the crown princess (creating a Rumpelstiltskin retelling), and eventually they poison the king and drive out the king and princess, but I have no idea what goes in the middle. 

Christie V Powell had questions and suggestions: Hmm… what’s the POV? Is it the queen? Your explanation here focuses more on the nobles, so is the main character(s) a noble? If so, you can list out the steps that they will have to take to reach the queen (step 1: find dragon. Step 2: convince dragon to help… etc.). If it’s the queen, you can use the same list, but then brainstorm how she finds out about it, how much she finds out about it, and how this impacts her character. What does she want? Is she happy being queen, or does she find herself missing a simpler life? That will impact how she reacts to the conspiracy.

Here’s an example of how you might plot it out using a list: Step 1: find dragon. What queen knows: some people don’t like her, but not what they plan to do about it. How that affects queen: frustrated because she’s doing her best to be a good ruler. Step 2: convince dragon to help. What queen knows: glimpses a dragon in the distance but assumes it is wild. How that affects queen: annoyed that yet another (apparently separate) problem has emerged…

Katie W. answered, Actually, it’s from Rumpelstiltskin’s perspective. I wrote a short story of the kidnapping attempt alternating between his perspective and the dragon’s. So I have a pretty good idea how that part is going to play out. What I’m stuck on is what happens after the attempt fails. The nobles don’t give up, but what do they try next? Something happens during the fifteen years between the kidnapping attempt and the king’s death, but I have no idea what it should be.

I agree with Christie V Powell that POV is important here and whenever we’re dealing with a conspiracy, because conspiracy means secrets, and how does the POV character find out what’s going on? (Of course, POV is important in every story.)

Conspiracy is wonderful, because it brings in an obstacle for our MC and the characters the reader is rooting for. So we don’t want to make the secrets easy for Rumpelstiltskin or the royals to penetrate, and we don’t want to make them impossible. We need to start thinking about Rumpelstiltskin’s powers and also the kinds of access to information that the royals have, like their spy network, and who’s loyal and who isn’t. We’ll have to work out a lot about the royals, too. How vulnerable is the king? The queen? The princess? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

In my opinion, it’s nice to give our villains, in this case the conspiring nobles, complexity. What’s their side of the story? Is there one particular noble who leads the pack, someone we can focus on? Is there anything in the king’s rule that’s genuinely problematic? Does the queen have a role in the kingdom’s woes? And what’s good about their rule? What positive contributions have they made? How is the queen a good monarch? How can we reveal all this? Is there a council? A parliament? Does the king have advisers? Does he hear from his subjects? Is Rumpelstiltskin himself at court, so it’s easy for him to observe?

Obviously, I’ve learned a lot about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain lately. My sympathies, of course, are with the Jews, but I’ve made discoveries about the monarchs, too, and the reasons they believed the expulsion was right. For example, the Jews, by their presence and because of popular opinion against them (made worse by some clerics), caused unrest among the majority Christian population. Another example: the monarchs thought that almost all the Jews would convert (roughly half actually did), and they believed their souls would be saved.

Political upheavals don’t come out of nowhere. Maybe the nobles believe that commoners are inferior by nature and unfit to rule. If the queen wears a gown that to them seems unsuitable, for instance, they regard her fashion choice as emblematic of the wrongness of a commoner in such an elevated position. If the king issues a decree they disagree with, they regard it as an example of her bad influence. We want to show all this.

So what else will fill in Katie W.’s middle? Here are two strategies, and both can be used in the same story.

The first is along the lines suggested by Christie V Powell: What’s the desired outcome, and what are the steps to achieving it and the obstacles along the way?

The second concerns the characters. Who is Rumpelstiltskin? Why does he care about the kingdom, the monarchs, the nobility? Does he have another story that dovetails with this one? His story will fill in the middle and carry the story to the end.

Fifteen years are a lot. Maybe Rumpelstiltskin is a young gnome at the beginning and he has to grow up a bit before he can take on this challenge. Some of the middle can go to his growth: the challenges he faces, the conclusions he draws, and how both make him the right–or wrong–gnome for this job.

Let’s assume that he’s an outcast, as the fairy tale suggests, but he craves acceptance and understanding. In his eagerness to help, he makes mistakes, which reinforce the reasons that he’s ostracized. Also, his attempts to help, even when he does nothing wrong, are misinterpreted. If the reader cares about him, his progress toward acceptance will be the most important thread, and his success or failure will determine whether the ending is happy or sad.

Say he makes the safety of the king and queen his top priority. Then he’s spending a lot of the fifteen years infiltrating the nobles, finding out what they’re up to, foiling their attempts. Might he find himself at one point sympathizing with them? And then shifting back. Does he want the dragon to succeed, or does he want to save the family himself, unaided? How does he feel about dragons?

Say he meets the princess and she’s kind to him. What are the consequences of that? Or she might be cruel, and he’s still trying to save her miserable life.

Or the king is cruel.

Or just by watching these humans, he forms opinions of all of them, from the royal family to the nobles to the people in the queen’s hometown to the dragon. How does all that influence his actions?

The same goes for the other characters. What do they want? How do their goals intersect with Rumpelstiltskin’s?

Going back to what I said before, that fifteen years is a big chunk of time to cover–it’s hard to make so much time tight. If we can’t shorten the time span, we can use telling to get the reader through. In a paragraph or a page or two, we can summarize the years, stopping now and then to show the most important moments. When we’re up to date, we return to showing and start the play-by-play action again.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Rumpelstiltskin, held in contempt by everyone, knows he’s a good gnome. His goal is to be one of the king’s councilors in the Kingdom of the Peaceful Valley, where there are more disputes than there are water droplets in the River of Harmony, which runs through the kingdom. Write his first attempt to interest the king in his qualifications and his virtues. If you like, keep going to write the whole story.

∙ The dragon, who happens to be a genius at playing parties against one another, attends a castle ball and mingles (he’s quite a dancer!), sowing resentment and mistrust among the nobility. Write the scene.

∙ The princess, who cares most about her mom and who recently heard about the circumstances of mom’s marriage to daddy, the king ( the whole turn-straw-into-gold-or-be-executed thing). The princess loves her father, too, but thinks he needs a lesson in empathy. Write how she delivers the lesson and how it goes.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Magic Central

On April 24, 2019, SluggishWriter wrote, I write primarily middle grade and young adult fantasy (as well as some science fiction). As much as I love magic systems, I struggle to make them fit within my stories, both plot-wise and scene-by-scene-wise. I don’t want my stories to have a useless magic system attached, but I can’t figure out how to make them important, even if I love writing them in. Part of this is that I tend to feel like special magical objects and such are kind of cliché in fantasy, even though I love reading stories about that sort of thing. My magic can get a little too abstract because of this. If anyone has any tips, I’d really appreciate that!

Two of you responded.

Christie V Powell: Brandon Sanderson, the fantasy author, teaches a university class and has posted all of his lectures online. Here’s his lecture on magic systems: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXAcA_y3l6M.

Melissa Mead: Maybe figure out what’s unique about your world first, and then build your magic system around that? And choose your MC and their dilemma based on something that’s different about them relative to this thing.

Ex: Maybe your world has “Phoenix trees” that burn on the top while replenishing themselves from the bottom.
And magic in this world relates to the trees–eating the fruit, carving the wood, climbing the trees without getting burnt…
And your MC either can or can’t do something that everyone else can’t/can, which causes a problem, bothers them, or otherwise makes them want to change this thing.

I love the phoenix trees ideas! I’d love to see one.

And I’ve watched many of Brandon Sanderson’s lectures, which I’ve found very interesting. I marvel at how methodical and rational he is about writing–where as I count on intuition and muddling to get me, eventually, where I need to go.

So here’s a weird question: Does fantasy need magic at all? Please weigh in.

I don’t know if it does, necessarily. Susan Fletcher’s Shadow Spinners, which I recommend heartily, is a fresh take on the framing story of The Arabian Nights. It feels like fantasy and comes entirely out of fairy tale land, but there’s no magic.

As a child–and to this day–I love to read fairy tales, which I did not get from Disney but from the old versions that I found in my child’s encyclopedia and in the Lang fairy tale books (which are all available online for free, since they’re in the public domain). If you don’t know the original tales, I’d suggest going to Lang. (The books are named after colors: The Blue Fairy Tale Book, The Lilac Fairy Tale Book, etc.–there are lots of them.) I still love the magical apparatus in fairy tales: the flying carpets, the dead horse who can talk, genies. So I’d suggest an afternoon spent reading fairy tales and, if you like, taking notes. Think about how the magic functions in these stories.

Not that I have anything against Disney. But Disney and fairy tale novels like mine and others’ are too filled in. The old fairy tales that you’ve read or are about to read are short. Nothing is dwelt on, so the magical elements aren’t, either. The flying carpet in these stories is just transportation, but what does it feel like to ride one? The dead talking horse merely delivers its messages, and the tale rattles on, but how does it sound? Does it sing? Does spittle fly? It’s in the details that we get away from the ordinary.

Regarding clichés. Sure these old fairy-tale devices have been done before, but readers–and writers–go to them because they love them. There’s comfort in their familiarity. I use them.

I don’t think we should worry about cliché anyway, as I’ve said more than once on the blog. The worry tends just to fuel our self-criticism. If we tell our story as we alone can, the clichés will shrivel up.

What technology does for us today, magic does for the characters in fairy tales, and we can use it that way. Your character needs to get somewhere in a hurry? Bring in the seven-league boots. Your character needs to see what’s going on a hundred miles away? Give her a crystal ball. And so on. We just have to pay attention to the opportunities.

We can complicate things. Our MC has a crystal ball, but it works only when she’s calm–and she needs it only when she’s not calm! Notice also that we’ve introduced two magical elements here. The crystal ball can see into the distance, and it’s psychic, too. And we’re moving into plot as well, because our MC has trouble controlling her emotions, a liability in a hero.

Of course we can’t let the magic solve the story’s problems. We have to limit its power and/or make it a source of trouble.

Magic is part of our world-building, as Melissa Mead’s phoenix trees demonstrate. Hers is a world that accommodates that sort of flora.

An easy-peasy way to introduce magic is to include a magical creature or a species of magical creatures in our world. These can be ogres, dragons, elves, and so on. Or we can bring in a kind of creature never before seen in the pages of a book, as I did with brunkas in my mystery Stolen Magic. As soon as the creatures are in, the world becomes magical. They don’t even have to do much that’s magical. They can live among humans. Broad-minded humans and elves can seek out diversity by living side-by-side. Some ENT doctors can specialize in diseases that afflict pointy ears. We can let our plot make room for a creature or two. If our MC is on a quest, she can bring a dragon along, and we can decide in what ways he’ll make things easier for her and in what ways harder. She can encounter evil gnomes, who stand in the way of her fulfilling her quest.

The problem at the center of our story can be magical, as I made it in Ella Enchanted and Ogre Enchanted, both of which revolve around a fairy’s gift, and The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which is about a magical illness, the Gray Death. If magic is at the core, it won’t be an appendage to our story, it will be central.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has found a crystal ball in a cave. Inside the ball is a tiny person who is wringing her hands and muttering incomprehensibly. Your MC needs to know if it’s safe for her to leave the cave, and she can’t just go to the opening and peek, because the villain who’s after her may be there. She needs the crystal ball, and she has to figure out how it works. Write the scene.

∙ We’re in the world of phoenix trees. Suppose the tree produces a single fruit every 300 years, and whoever eats it will live until the next fruit ripens. The 325-year-old who ate the last fruit wants to keep it from ever ripening. Your MC wants it for her beloved cousin who’s dying of an arrow wound, and other people want it, too. Write a scene. Write the whole story.

∙ List ten other plot possibilities that center on the phoenix trees. Pick one and write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Toe the Line, You Pesky Characters!

A reminder of the conference I mentioned in my last post: The Gathering at Keystone College: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.

On April 17, 2019, Grace L wrote, I was just wondering if anyone has any tips on keeping characters consistent? My main character tends to be kind of contradictory in her actions.

A few of you chimed in.

Writing Ballerina: I have this problem, too!

I plan out my characters beforehand, so that helps a little bit, and then I write my story. As I’m writing, if I find my characters are contradicting themselves, I make a note of it at the bottom of the document in a section titled “Things to fix in next draft.” That section is filled with inconsistencies that I’ll fix after the general story is down. In my current WIP, I originally made her afraid of heights, but I’m thinking now that it won’t work with the story so I might take it out.

I also find it helpful to have people who will give you CONSTRUCTIVE criticism read your story as you’re writing it to see if there are any inconsistencies, which you can make note of when they point them out.

I would also appreciate any other tips anyone else might have! I don’t want my stories to be inconsistent, either!

Christie V Powell: I second having beta readers. They’re especially helpful for pointing out things like this.

Melissa Mead: In what ways? People can act in ways that seem inconsistent sometimes, for interesting reasons. Or is it more that you haven’t figured out who they are yet?

I agree about CONSTRUCTIVE readers!

About seven years ago, my husband lost a lot of weight, mostly by exercising portion control. I loved the new slimness for health reasons and for how great he looked–and still looks, since he’s kept the weight off. But, once in a while, I wondered (out loud) if he’d been replaced by a Martian. If he were a character, he’d be acting inconsistently.

Here’s a difference between fiction and real life: David couldn’t tell me exactly what triggered the change and made him able to do something that had eluded him for many years, so he doesn’t know, and I don’t, either.

That’s unacceptable in fiction. We’ve talked about character change a few times on the blog, mostly about whether an MC has to change in the course of a story, and opinion has been divided, but not divided about making the change, if it happens, understandable.

This goes for secondary characters, too. As soon as we define them through their actions, if they deviate, we have to explain why, through dialogue or narration or future action. So long as we’ve explained and the explanation leads to better understanding–and possibly more complexity–of the character, it’s great.

The most charming example of this that I can think of comes from the Wizard of Oz movie. The viewer who’s paying attention notices that, as the story plays out, the lion, who believes he’s cowardly, is always the bravest, the tin man, who thinks he has no heart, keeps rusting himself with his tears, and the straw man, who wants a brain, comes up with the best ideas. I don’t think the audience understands why their actions contradict their beliefs about themselves until the wizard gives the lion a medal, the tin man a ticking alarm clock, and, my all-time favorite, the straw man a diploma, with a line that goes something like, “Plenty of people are no smarter than you, but what they have and you lack, is a diploma.” Then he gives the straw man a rolled-up document tied with a ribbon. The viewer realizes that these characters weren’t inconsistent; they’d been showing their true natures all along.

The surest sign for me of inconsistency is when I make a character do things for plot reasons alone. We can train ourselves to be aware of this, as in, Stuart, the character who always thinks of himself first, runs into a burning building to save a child he doesn’t even know. He’s done it because our plot needs that child to be alive, and Stuart is the only one handy.

Not good enough. We have to go back in and change things. Maybe the child can not be in the burning building in the first place. Or we can alter Stuart from the beginning. Or maybe we can have him trip over the child while he’s saving himself, and the reader will agree that he has just enough compassion to pick her up, as long as she doesn’t slow him down, and he’ll be happy to appear to be a hero later.

If we’re going to make our readers understand inconsistencies, we have to understand them ourselves. Why would Stuart face a fire and possible death, if we don’t want to change him or put him in the building when the fire starts?

Well, he isn’t just one thing. Suppose he wants people to admire him, which would fit, and suppose there are journalists present or someone whose good opinion he wants. Then he might run in, intending to stay just inside the door, count to thirty, and run right out, but the door collapses behind him. He saves the child because someone shoves her into his arms and he doesn’t even notice in the course of saving himself.

Yes, people are inconsistent. We change our minds about lots of things. We behave differently with different people. We have moods. Sometimes we’re our best selves and sometimes our worst. For our main characters, we can explain the inconsistencies through thought, dialogue, and action. For our secondary characters, through dialogue and action–and the MC’s thoughts about this character.

However, there are fundamentals that don’t change much. I figure Mother Theresa on her worst day wouldn’t steal from a poor person and probably not from anyone else. Genghis Khan wouldn’t be a pacifist for even a minute.

Before I got published, I took a writing class from the late children’s book editor Deborah Brodie, who asked if the writer had to know everything about a character before he started writing. I thought yes, but she didn’t, and I no longer do, either. I get to know my characters as I write them. They act in the first situation I set up, and their personalities begin to form and narrow their choices. In the next scene, they act again, and the narrowing continues. If they and my plot diverge, I have to change one or the other–

–which is why, based on as much of my plot as I know when I start, I imagine characters who will go naturally in the desired direction. If that’s working, we don’t have to do a lot of course correction. In my forthcoming historical novel, for instance, I needed to give Loma, my MC, agency in a time when girls and women had next to none, but I didn’t want her to be a modern feisty heroine plunked down in the fifteenth century. I wanted her to be, as much as I could imagine, typical of her age: focused on family and domestic arts. So I turned to a secondary character, her grandfather. I decided he would become attached to her and take her with him on his travels across Spain, making her a witness to the great events and also putting her in situations where she would have to act. But first I had to define him as someone who would take a granddaughter–without making him modern, either. I think I managed, though I won’t say how, and neither of them had to do anything uncharacteristic to advance the plot.

So we can create secondary characters as well as MCs who will keep our characters consistent and our plots on track.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Up until now, your MC has been unfailingly kind to her best friend, who is shy and not well liked by others. But after the friend has failed some sort of test and is feeling awful, your MC belittles him and calls him hopeless. A moment later, she tears a rose bush out of the ground by its roots. Without making her really be the villain or be under a spell, write a scene, or more than one, that presents the before and after and explains the change.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella finally snaps and tells off her stepsisters and her stepmother. Write an earlier scene that firmly establishes her subjugation to the family tyranny, and then write the blow-up scene, making her transformation understandable.

∙ Before the prince comes along, Cinderella not only does what she’s told, she does it perfectly. When she scrubs the floor, she’s willing to spend an hour on the tiniest stain. When she does the laundry, she folds even her step-mom’s unmentionables in such a way that they open up without a wrinkle. But now, in the scene you’re going to write, she loses her work ethic. She gives the marble floor, which shows every speck of dirt, a quick once-over and just dumps the unmentionables in the chest where they go. In a scene, explain the change.

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Writer As Houdini

If anyone is looking for a short, intellectually stimulating break, I’d recommend The Gathering, a Friday-to-Sunday conference at Keystone College near Scranton, PA, which starts on July 12th, when I’ll be speaking about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. I’ll also be giving a workshop on writing historical fiction. For participants only, I’ll be sharing pages that I cut from my forthcoming book, A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, which few others will ever see. (My editor said they were too depressing for kids, and, as I revised, I came to agree with her, so I turned many pages into a single paragraph.) The food is great. The accommodations are college dorms. There is a cost, but there’s a student discount and a few scholarships are available. Here’s the link: http://thegatheringatkeystone.org/2019-theme-schedule/.

On March 27, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, I have written myself into a roadblock.

So in my WIP, the bad king’s plan is to release a deadly epidemic on his kingdom then go away before he gets infected and bring back an enormous army to conquer the remaining weak subjects. The good guys have a plan to cure the disease, thwarting that part, but it is totally unrealistic for them to throw together an army in less than a month when they haven’t had one for a good number of years (BTW anything that seems like a loose end in this summary all checks out in the actual story it’s just too complicated to explain it all here). I considered having a good guy send a letter to the approaching army with all sorts of bluffs in hopes of scaring them off, but that’s also unrealistic.

I need some help, please!! I have no clue how I’m going to get out of this.

A few of you responded.

Kyryiann: You could have a group that wasn’t happy underneath the King’s rule and was already planning on raising an army anyway. Or have veterans of war be able to call on their old contacts, who are close by.

Melissa Mead: Maybe one of the disgruntled subjects is the one who crafted the disease, and they expose the evil king to it. When the army sees their king showing signs of the Dreaded Plague, while the opposition looks perfectly healthy, they flee.

Christie V Powell: Sounds like list time! Feel free to list any of these you like and keep going.

An army is made up of people. That means they can be changed. Perhaps if you feed them propaganda, they’ll doubt their orders or even switch sides. Perhaps you could send a special task force in to defeat just the leaders, so that they’re now the ones issuing orders to the army. You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural. You could use a natural barrier of some kind to block the army, such as an avalanche clogging a mountain pass or redirecting a river to make a flood. You could speak to the king’s underlings, sub-captains and whatnot, and offer them the cure in exchange for the king’s life.

Me: I’m so glad to see a LIST! Thank you, Christie V Powell!

Yay, Writing Ballerina! You’ve made a mess–and that the writer’s job. It’s our task to tie our MCs and other characters the reader cares about into knots that would challenge Houdini. I’ve done this more than once without an exit strategy.

Christy V Powell’s list is great, although I suspect she might have cut the stupid ideas that crop up in all my lists, like the giant frog that materializes in the evil king’s bedchamber and kills him with its acidic slobber.

Let’s look at this one of Christy V Powell’s possibilities: You could pretend to surrender to the king on the condition that he makes you second in command, and then poison him–especially if the poison mimics the effects of the disease, so people think it’s natural.

The You here would probably be the MC, and everything will turn on the characters of the MC and the evil king, whom we’ll call Zigurd, and we’ll call the MC Lady Edna, who is a renowned warrior.

Let’s start with the Zigurd. What might make him susceptible to persuasion by Edna?

We make another list:

∙ He’s considers himself a visionary and likes to delegate the nasty details to others.

∙ He has this deep-down fear that at bottom he’s not very clever, so anyone who sounds brilliant can win him over.

∙ He’s susceptible to flattery.

∙ He devises unpleasant loyalty tests. If Edna passes, she’s in.

∙ He has a mistaken idea that he’s fabulous at reading other people. He tends to guess wildly wrong about people’s motives.

You can keep going. Note that I’ve listed only qualities that make him vulnerable. We also need for him to be formidable, which may require another list.

Onto Edna:

∙ Her beloved brother was killed by Zigurd. She’s willing to sacrifice her life to bring the king down. What she lacks in skill, she makes up in determination.

∙ She is better than good at flattery. She has a knack for making people feel loved, no matter what the truth is.

∙ She’s a super-skilled liar.

∙ She’s a pastry chef, and her mother is an herbalist. (We may need to add to Zigurd’s list that he’s a glutton.)

∙ She’s a whiz at chess. Her thinking is always three steps ahead of everyone else’s.

Again, we can continue. And again, I’ve listed only qualities that make success possible. We also need traits that will handicap her–another list.

In both cases, the characters can have more than one quality on our list.

The reason for the second list in each case (of strengths for the villain and weaknesses for the hero) is that we don’t want to make success too easy. First Edna has to get into Zigurd’s good graces, and she may fail a few times along the way. Then, she needs to put her plan into operation, and this shouldn’t go smoothly either. Until the moment when Zigurd swallows the poison, the reader’s knuckles on the book should be pale.

The point is that, almost always, the resolution, happy or tragic, of terrible situations goes straight to character. Houdini got out of the restraints he set for himself because he was Houdini. I would have been dead if I tried his stunts. I just googled him, and a quick look suggests that people who preceded him used their skills at getting out of restraints to create other illusions. Houdini seems to have been first to make escape the main event. He was the real Houdini.

There’s another principle we can bring to bear: setting things up early. Suppose we decide Zigurd gives loyalty tests, and that’s how Edna will win him over. We show him giving a loyalty test to someone else earlier in our story. And to ratchet up the tension, we show the consequences of failing. Then, when Edna gets tested, the reader recognizes the pattern: Zigurd doesn’t trust people until they’ve proven themselves.

If we want to bring in a natural event, like the avalanche on Christie V Powell’s list, we have to be sure there are mountains in our setting and that people sometimes start them and know how to–more or less-aim them.

We’re always going for both the surprising and the believable. Surprising, because we’ve used sleight-of-hand (speaking of Houdini) to divert the reader from thinking about avalanches, and believable because the reader remembers that there are avalanches in this world.

Before I began learning to be a writer, I was into watercolor painting, about the least forgiving artistic medium there is. If I made a mistake–and I made lots of them–the painting was ruined.

But writing is kind. We can revise and revise again. If we need to change Edna or Zigurd or both, if we need to grow a few mountains or introduce a loyalty test, to save the day, we can go back and do it.

I don’t recommend revising until we finish our first draft if we can possibly keep going. We make a note of the revision and continue writing as if the revision has happened.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Pick the loyalty-test option. Write the scene when Edna takes it. Make it touch and go. Make the consequences of failure evident.

∙ Write the scene in which Edna wins Zigurd’s trust.

∙ Write the scene in which Zigurd eats the poisoned meatloaf (or roast hart). Make Edna almost have to eat it, too. If you’re up for it, write his suffering and slow death.

∙ Invent an escape artist. Think about the qualities she needs to be successful. Develop a plot around her and write the scene in which she tries her most daring stunt. Decide if you want her to succeed or fail.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Like- or Dislike- ability

First off, for any educators who are near Bethel, Connecticut, this Friday evening, June 7th, I and Alan Katz, author of many funny books for kids, will be hobnobbing with educators at Byrd’s Books. Details here on the website. I’d love to see you!

On February 27, 2019, Raina wrote, I need some help brainstorming! What are some traits that make a character sympathetic/likable to you, that go beyond just being a good person? (For example, do you like characters who are clever? Brave? Ruthless? Confident?)

And on a different note, what makes you dislike a character? I’m not talking about antiheroes or intentionally “unlikable or antihero characters, but rather things that make you dislike a character because they’re not written well.

Also, how do you have a character grow and overcome their flaws without having those flaws annoy the reader at the beginning? People aren’t perfect and usually change and learn/overcome their flaws throughout life, but I’ve noticed that people often get annoyed and stop reading before that can happen.

And finally, on a much more general note, has anyone else noticed that characters in YA get a *lot* more scrutiny and criticism than those in other age categories? Be too snarky, and you’re “annoying.” Feel hesitation or ambivalence or change your mind about a situation (as any normal person would) and you’re “wishy-washy.” Be too perfect/special in any way and you’re a Mary Sue, make too many mistakes and you’re TSTL (too stupid to live). I have rarely, if ever, seen any reviews of MG books talk about characters like that. (Flat or ineffective characterization, yes, but nothing like this.) Do MG books just happen to have better-written characterizations than YA books, on average? Is this a matter of audience? (I’ve found that a lot of YA reviewers tend to be older teens or young adults (20-30), while MG reviewers tend to be parents reading with their kids or MG-aged kids themselves.) Or are we just holding fictional children and tweens to a different standard than teens?

You responded with a bunch of ideas:

Sarah: I think YA books in the Chick Lit category often portray teenage characters as full of angst, which is difficult to accomplish without making readers roll their eyes. There seems to be a big market for teenage girls who read for the “feels” instead of enriching their minds. Plus, so many YA books set up their characters in a way that allows for a steamy romance by giving them malleable morals or making them clueless to the situations they find themselves in. Though many books like that exist, they do not make up the whole population of YA books. Perhaps people roll up their sleeves when analyzing all YA books now and expect to find artificial motivations behind the characters’ behaviour. If I myself wrote a decent YA novel, I would rather that people give me a chance.

You may be right that we hold teens to a different standard. I think that’s because stories about teens deal with more controversial aspects of society and ethics than books about the lives of children do. If readers disagree with the treatment of these aspects in some YA novels, this may bring them to the conclusion that the characters are designed to be unrealistic to help further a “false” message.

Unfortunately, I have not read a large number of YA novels that exist today, so I may be way off.

Sara (no h): For the question about characters overcoming flaws, what I try to do is make the character realize their flaw and want to overcome it, but fail initially. Good intentions should probably make them sympathetic. And, if they know they have this flaw, they might joke about it in a slightly self-deprecating way, and that self-awareness should also make them less annoying. It’s like Jo in Little Women, who is definitely aware of how bad her temper is, and she wants desperately to change it, but for a while she can’t.

Chrisite V Powell: KM Weiland talks about each character having a Lie, a Want, a ghost, and a Need. The Lie is something that the character believes about the world, and all character flaws are symptoms of it. So, in my current WIP, my character’s Lie is that trusting others is a weakness. Her flaws include hiding emotions, keeping distant from others, running away when she’s uncomfortable, and avoiding new experiences. Her Want is to find a home, both physically and socially. Her ghost is the reason she has her Lie: what past experiences caused her to form her lie. In this case, bullying by her cousins for showing weakness, and a betrayal by her father. The ghost makes her Lie relatable, and her Lie makes her flaws relatable. Her Need is the same as her truth–it’s what she discovers through the story that counteracts the Lie and allows for growth. My character Keita’s Need is that trusting others can be a great strength that empowers her to find her Want.

So, the main way that characters change (still summarizing Weiland) is through rewards and consequences. In the beginning, when you see the character in their normal world, they are rewarded for their lie. However, once the plot gets going, acting on their lie gets punishments and acting on the truth gets rewards. They discover the Truth in the middle of the story and wrestle between the two until the climactic end.

Melissa Mead: Sense of humor is a biggie for me. Not so much snark, but witty or dry humor.

For the second question, I do think it comes down to the difference in audience. Middle-grade (MG) kids are easier to please (and don’t write reviews very often) than teenagers and readers in their twenties. Older reviewers may have gotten past the age of snark. Not, I hasten to add, that all or even most teens and twenty-somethings are snarky. This blog, which is a meanness-free zone and on which, I think, many commenters are teens and twenty-somethings, is proof of that.

Many years ago, I volunteered teaching an after-school writing class at the local middle school. One afternoon, I brought a prompt: to write a self-portrait, not just of the writer’s appearance, but also of her inner self (they were all girls). The ten- and eleven-year olds were very uncomfortable and didn’t want to do it, so I told them to write a portrait of a friend, which they were eager to do. Twelve and over loved it. One said it was the best prompt ever.

I took the difference as revealing a distinct borderline between the eight-to-twelve-year-old set and young adults (YA). Seems to me that young adults are more introspective, middle graders more outward-facing and less critical. Do you guys agree?

Also, fault-finding begets more fault-finding as tit one-ups tat. As soon as a chain of criticism begins it takes a while to run itself out. The YA publishing world may be in a cycle of attack that will end eventually.

Onto the first question.

What makes a character likable is the same as what makes a person likable in real life. Being likable isn’t the same as being virtuous, although when I think about it, I do tend to like people I admire. But there are people I admire whom I distinctly do not like.

I go for people and characters who are relatable, vulnerable, and fun to be around. I’m very fond of people who tell stories on themselves, and I’m with Melissa Mead in that a sense of humor has to be in the mix. We can make a list! I’d put kindness on mine. Here are a few more, but this isn’t an exhaustive list:
∙ Intelligence, at least enough to see around a few corners
∙ Energy
∙ Thoughtfulness
∙ A tendency to see the best side of things
∙ Calmness, or at the very least, an absence of hysteria
∙ Reliableness
∙ Honesty tempered by empathy
∙ Unsentimentality

I’m having trouble stopping. Enough!

Your list may be different–in fact, Raina’s short list is mostly different from mine (brave, ruthless, confident). It will be helpful sometimes to have real people in mind when we make the list and when we craft our characters, the likable and the unlikable ones.

A friend once said to me that the way to make a character likable is to have him save someone. I don’t think that’s all there is to it, but that can nudge a reader in the direction of like. Saving someone will arouse our sympathy.

In an MC, whose thoughts the reader will know, the voice of the character matters in creating likablility. And this is a good spot to bring in the traits from our list to reflect them in our MC’s thoughts. This makes me think of flaws–a likable voice can immunize me from a character’s flaws. If I like being in her company, in her mind, I’ll be on her side, and I’ll root for her to overcome her faults. Say she takes the easy way out to avoid arguments even when she should stand up for herself. If she’s self-aware, as Sara says, I’ll want to stay with her and hope for change.

I agree with Christie V Powell that change usually comes about through actions and consequences, and usually the medicine (the bad outcome) has to be delivered more than once.

As for unlikable, I don’t like people who, when I see them coming, I want to run the other way. I don’t like complainers or people who are endlessly needy, even though I like being helpful. Of course I don’t like people who are cruel or manipulative or evil. We can make another list.

In terms of bad writing, I get annoyed if a character behaves out of character and does for plot reasons what he never ever would do. To me, the writer of that character has committed a writing crime worthy of sentencing by a judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Another infraction is writing characters who are so vaguely defined they can do anything and don’t have to be consistent–because who are they?

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your main character is the judge in the High Court of Writing Offenses. Frustrated readers haul in characters who haven’t behaved according to their personalities. Attorneys argue their defense. The characters take the stand. There’s examination and cross-examination. Pick a character that has annoyed you by behaving against his or her nature or a character who is ill-defined. Write the courtroom drama.

∙ Your MC is brave, kind, funny–also whiny and self-centered. She’s preparing to face (in any way you decide) the villain of the story, who has taken her family hostage. Write the scene as she gets ready. Include thoughts, dialogue, and action. Reveal her flaws and make her likable at the same time.

∙ Sometimes it’s hard to find the likability sweet spot. Your MC, out of kindness and sympathy, has befriended a newcomer to the neighborhood, who seemed to otherwise be shaping up to be a picked-on loner. But this new friend turns out to be very high maintenance: clingy, jealous, demanding. Still, your MC is aware of the pain she’ll inflict if she dumps him. The reader does not want the MC to be a doormat and also doesn’t want her to be mean. Write her thoughts about the situation and then the scene in which she takes action.

Have fun, and save what you write!