writing novels

Being or Knowing: Characters and Readers

Reading an interesting post recently on the estimable Story Ape’s blog got me thinking about the relationship between fictitious characters and readers — main characters, known in some circles as “protagonists.”

Some characters are primarily vehicles by which a reader may experience the events of a story. The character is a type — an amateur sleuth, a woman seeking romance, a young person on a perilous quest. Their physical characteristics and personalities may be specified, but they’re actually elaborate costumes. Readers climb in and they’re there — solving the mystery, finding romance, or surviving the perils of the quest.

In other works of fiction, characters are equipped with complex personalities and backgrounds. Their needs and conflicts are not immediately evident. The reader must get to know them in order to discern their issues. It’s quite possible readers may not be able to identify with these characters; they may not even like them, but if the author has done the job right, the reader will find the character and his or her situation interesting enough to keep reading the book.

The “wearable” character is generally associated with plot-driven genre fiction; the “get to know” protagonist is more often typical of character-driven literary fiction. Readers have different expectations for these character types; getting acquainted with the character before you know what might happen to them requires some tolerance for uncertainty on the reader’s part. Writers of literary fiction must make their stories sufficiently alluring to keep readers hanging out with their characters.

I’m fairly sure authors don’t decide, as they begin writing a story or novel, which of these types of characters they will create for it. They usually do know whether they’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction. Characters evolve accordingly.

It doesn’t have to be an either/or. Really well-written works feature complex characters and compelling plots. Readers decide unconsciously whether to become a character and ride their rollercoaster, or to observe and ponder the character’s dilemmas.

The four novels of my Herbert West Series have five different narrators — six, actually, because Herbert West is quite a different person from Francis Dexter. Each of these people has his or her own style: Charles Milburn, diffident librarian; Andre Boudreau, amnesiac Acadian; Margaret Bellgarde, widow of the Great War; Herbert West, amoral scientist, who becomes Francis Dexter, wounded healer; Alma Halsey, disaffected journalist. And The Nexus, one of the short story supplements to the series, is narrated by eccentric professor and sometime occultist Professor Augustus Quarrington.

I’m thinking all these different narrators may be somewhat disconcerting for readers who expect more uniformity among books within a series. And I’m sure not all readers have found it easy to slip into these characters and share their lives. Over the course of the series, however, they have a good selection from which to choose.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay

 

The books include elements of different genres and of literary fiction. Some readers may find the fit a little uncomfortable. I am biased, of course, but I can honestly say no one who spends time with my characters will be harmed by the experience, and some may be entertained.

Featured image created with Canva using free pictures from Unsplash and Pixabay.

 

Making Mind Movies

I’ve started writing another novel. Along with short bouts of actual writing, I’ve been reading all kinds of stuff and peering at images and maps on my computer screen.  I’ve been dumping the facts, ideas and impressions harvested from books and other sources into the brain mixer and sketching out scenes.

This time I’m paying attention to the process of novel-writing, as well as the substance. Scenes are the key elements of a novel. A novel is a series of scenes, in which characters and situations are introduced and developed, leading to a climactic scene or scenes in which the situations are resolved and the characters transformed in some way.

Writing goes best for me when I envision compelling scenes — just like a good reading experience, curiously enough. I need to see the elements of my story like a movie in my mind before I can render them into words that will invoke a movie in the minds of my readers.

That’s it! That’s all there is to it!

It sounds easy. But just try it! Especially when the scenes don’t arrive ready-made from some magical studio of the imagination.

Deliberate, sustained imagining is hard. It strains the brain. Like physical exercise, it’s too easy to quit before much progress is made. There are so many elements to be created and/or assembled — the over-arching theme of the novel, the characters with all their quirks, characteristics and emotions, their actions, their thoughts, the setting, and possibly external facts and realities that must be accurate. The writer has to juggle all this stuff in the brain, and then select words to convey it — the right words, and enough of them to do the job, but not too many.

That’s to create one scene — a few thousand words at most, possibly less. Many more scenes will be sweated out to trace the entire story arc. And all those scenes will have to be put into order and glued together with suitably sticky words to make a complete first draft.

No wonder writers procrastinate and agonize, writing blog posts and looking at free images on the internet instead of buckling down and making mind movies from fleeting ideas they got in the shower.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Mr. King and I

A few weeks ago, as I began reading 11/22/63 concurrently with Dr. Sleep, I realized that I’ve had a decades-long relationship with Stephen King.

I bought a copy of Carrie in a used book store in Vancouver B.C. in (I think) 1975 and found it horribly fascinating, not so much because of Carrie’s paranormal power or the bloodbath at the end, but the stark picture of high school culture. Salem’s Lot is a true horror, but told with more subtlety than is common in that genre. The Shining is the same, only better, combining human drama with supernatural evil in a totally compelling way. Then there’s The Stand, the ultimate “what if” scenario. I was on board for just about all his books for years, but I never did get involved with the “Dark Tower” saga and eventually I began to lose touch with Mr. King. While I love big, fat books, I got tired of cataclysmic conclusions (as in Needful Things and Insomnia, for example). The Tommyknockers and It are saved (barely) by memorable characters. It also features one of King’s trademarks — a vivid portrayal of childhood and the past. I’ve read The Dead Zone, Firestarter and Christine more than once, and Dolores Claiborne and Gerald’s Game are among my favourites. Oh, and Pet Sematary — now there’s a perfect blend of human tragedy and supernatural evil, just as good as or better than The Shining. Over the years, I’ve spent many enjoyable hours reading (and re-reading) King’s books. As immersive entertainment, the best of them are hard to equal.

Some people don’t seem to realize that Stephen King is not simply a writer of horror fiction. It’s true that his early books were squarely in that genre, and just about all of his writing includes some element of the paranormal, but many of his books could also be called psychological fiction. Their common element is not horror (meaning evil supernatural entities or powers) but people dealing with difficult, even impossible situations, some caused by evil supernatural entities, but others resulting from bad luck and human frailty. (Think of Cujo or Gerald’s Game). Most of them seem to originate with the question “What if…?” Maybe “speculative fiction” is a better label. Readers who are put off by horror may avoid King altogether, missing out on some great reads.

I was sparked into writing my first book (The Friendship of Mortals) after reading King’s On Writing. This slender book made writing seem do-able, something not beyond the capabilities of a person with a full time job. Before reading it, I had always supposed that the only way to be a writer was to write for a living, preferably after completing a degree in Creative Writing and hanging out with bohemians in some writers’ utopia. I already had an idea for a novel — to explore the personality and motivation of H.P. Lovecraft’s character Herbert West, with a librarian at Miskatonic University as narrator. King’s book got me started, and brought me to this point, writing a blog post in tribute to this versatile and wildly successful author.

The Writing Process Blog Hop

Yesterday I found I’ve been tagged by Michelle Proulx in a blog hop about the writing process. Many thanks to Michelle for an enthusiastic endorsement of my novel The Friendship of Mortals.

But yikes! What’s a blog hop? What do I need to do? (Is it like a chain letter? If I don’t carry it on, does my blog get nuked?) On the other hand, writing process is an interesting and vital topic to writers. Every writer has one, whether they know it or not.

So here goes —

1) What are you working on?

After a few years (yes, years!) of no major new writing projects, I feel that one of my idea-seeds is about to sprout. (After all, it’s spring, and all kinds of seeds are sprouting in my garden). A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post called “I Need to Move to Another Planet,” when I was in a state of annoyance with the world as it is. Then I wrote a story set in what I envisioned as a better world, about a young man trying to create a blue rose. These threads twisted themselves together in my imagination, but nothing much else happened until a few weeks ago, when I found myself writing notes about plot details and characters. Then I actually wrote an outline for a 24 chapter, 72,000 word novel. Now all I have to do is write it.

That’s the only project that’s even come close to taking shape so far. Another that remains in the idea-seed stage is a spin-off from my now-concluded Herbert West Series, combining Egyptology and a bit of magic. Trouble is, I have to read The Egyptian Book of the Dead first, to charge up my imagination. That might take a while.

2) How does your work differ from others in the genre?

Well, this one’s easy, because my work doesn’t fit into a well-defined genre. Mostly I describe it in terms of what it’s not: not horror, not fantasy, not science fiction or historical or paranormal, but with elements of all of these, rolled into a thing that might be described as “supernatural literary speculative fiction.” Lumpy, but there it is. The Herbert West Series is rooted in a horror story by H.P. Lovecraft, but I was more interested in the characters and their personal monsters than in discrete evil entities.

3) Why do you write what you write?

My first answer — I have no idea. After thinking about it, though, I suspect it’s an effort to create situations in which individuals find a way to access magic. I have been fascinated by alchemy since I read Mircea Eliade’s writings about it in university, and more recently discovered Carl Jung’s Alchemical Studies and Psychology and Alchemy. When I felt compelled to expand upon H.P. Lovecraft’s amoral, corpse-animating doctor, Herbert West, I decided he had to undergo a series of transformations such as those in alchemy, to create excellence from base matter.

4) How does your writing process work?

Well, it starts with one of those idea-seeds. I know it’s viable once I find my brain working on it in the background, throwing out little ideas that I must write down immediately. Those ideas are pretty fleeting, and if I don’t nail them down right away they depart forever. Eventually I start thinking in terms of scenes or chapters and once there are enough of those, if I’m lucky I actually sit down and write something. All my first drafts so far have been in longhand — pen on paper. When I come back to the work, the first thing I see is the spot where I left off, not the beginning. I like watching the pile of manuscript pages fatten up as the days pass, and because my scribble is harder to read than the mercilessly legible text of a Word document, I’m not tempted to fiddle with what I’ve already put down, but  press on to the end. Once I reach it, I transcribe the whole thing into Word, editing on the fly. After that, I add stuff, delete stuff and move stuff around until I feel the work is ready to be seen by my critique group. beta readers, etc.

OK, that’s it. Now for tagging four other bloggers who will (I hope) be delighted to talk about their writing process just because I thought they might.

Edeana Malcolm is a member of my novelists’ critique group. She has read all my novels and suggested improvements. She has published a quartet of novels herself, based on the history of her family. Her blog is called My Writing Eden.

Sever Bronny is a fellow Victorian. He is about to release his debut fantasy-adventure novel and has created an awesomely thorough marketing plan.

Cole Davidson is one of the best WordPress bloggers I know. (He’s been Freshly Pressed!) His posts display strong opinions eloquently expressed and more often than not contain links to music, with lyrics appended. I’m pretty sure he did Nanowrimo last year, so he must have a fiction writing process.

Christian Tanner is a writer of short stories worth reading. (How could I ignore a blog called Weird Short Stories by Christian, with the motto “Stay weird”?)

 

No NaNoWriMo

I know it works for others, and is probably great for dispelling the loneliness of the long-form writer, but NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. I’ve already realized that getting connected via the internet (and I am only slightly connected) has been the kiss of death to writing another novel. It’s so much easier to read blogs, comment on posts and write posts, read and write reviews of other people’s books, and generally goof off while doing “research” online.

Here are the elements I need to start the writing fire:  first, an obsession-generating idea. Not necessarily a killer plot “hook,” but some basic configuration of characters, situation and setting that I can’t stop thinking about. It acts like a magnet, pulling other elements to itself until a kind of fusion reaction begins.

Second, time and space. This means a room with a desk and a door, and at least two unbroken hours every day in which to write.

Third, a big stack of paper and a bunch of pens. Yes, I write my first drafts in longhand. The first thing I see when I get back to my opus is the spot where I left off, not the first few paragraphs grinning at me in the stark black-on-white of the computer screen. Reading my scribble discourages the impulse to edit the beginning rather than driving the first draft to its end. And yes, writing longhand makes it almost impossible to track the word-count, which is just fine with me.

That’s it. At the first draft stage, I don’t need anyone rooting for me or keeping track of my words. Talking too much about the work-in-progress might jinx it. For me, the act of writing is as private as — well, use your imagination.

Strangely enough, I did start writing seriously in November. November 7th, 2000, which is why the main character of my trilogy, Herbert West/Francis Dexter, was born on that day (in the year 1886). Fall and winter are great for writing, especially for a gardener. Summer evenings are too valuable as gardening time to be spent writing, but when darkness comes early, often with rain or snow, what else is there to do?

Plenty, for those who insist on being constantly plugged in to the hive of the internet. Which is why, when I find myself preoccupied with a novel-nub that simply must be developed, I will have to unplug. Descending to my subterranean writing room, the equivalent of an alchemist’s cave, I’ll stack up the paper, uncap the pen and begin the Work. The blog may be neglected, but that’s the tradeoff.

In the meantime, happy birthday to Herbert, and good luck to all you industrious NaNos.

Facts From Fiction?

I learned a lot about ancient Greece from Mary Renault and quite a bit about the French Revolution from Hilary Mantel. Reading Mary Stewart’s novels about Merlin and Arthur made me want to learn more about the facts behind the legends. I knew nothing about the business of making and selling fine china and porcelain until I read Richard Adams’ The Girl in a Swing (which also has an unexpected mini-travelogue of central Florida).

All of these books are works of fiction, but with the bonus of facts, or at least gateways to facts. Fiction is fiction, however, so it’s unfair to expect hard factual information there. Or is it?

Some would say that if a writer decides to use a historical period as the setting for their work, they must learn all about it and be true to the facts. If a novel contains information about a profession or craft, the author is obligated to find out all about it and not guess or extrapolate. Others would argue that unless the plot of the novel directly involves historical events or technical processes, it’s all right for the author to blur things a bit. After all, how many readers are going to bother checking whether a battle was fought on a Tuesday or a Sunday, or what the exact temperature is for firing porcelain? And anyway, no one should expect to learn history or science from novels. If you want to find out about Athens in the time of Socrates, or what Alexander the Great was really like, there are plenty of serious, well-researched books about these subjects.

Well, what do I think?

Except for students, it’s very unlikely that anyone would read a serious, well-researched book on anything if their interest in that subject hadn’t been piqued by something, such as a story in the media or a work of fiction. Authors of novels can contribute to knowledge in this way, and they are most likely to do this by incorporating into their fiction subjects about which they are enthusiastic and knowledgeable.

I also think writers must exercise responsibility when they incorporate elements from the real world into their fiction. For example, World War I appears several times in my Herbert West Trilogy. It was such an enormous and terrible part of history that I decided I had to treat it with respect, which meant doing a lot of reading about the conditions the soldiers and medical personnel endured. Writing about quasi-fictional places in H.P. Lovecraft’s New England, such as Arkham and Kingsport (thought to be Salem and Marblehead), made me uneasy, as I have never been near these places, but I rationalized my ignorance with their quasi-fictional nature.

Even though fiction is fiction, therefore, it presents a unique opportunity to entice people into reading and learning more about the real world. Writers of novels must keep this in mind, and writers of nonfiction would do well to sharpen their technique and present their facts in prose that is entertaining as well as educational.

Flashing Back (Again)

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about flashbacks in fiction, opining that they are useful but best used sparingly and with specific purposes in mind. Then I began reading a book with helpful chronological flags at the start of some chapters. “The Previous Winter.”  “The Present.” “Three Years Earlier.” That got me back to the topic of time shifts.

(Just here I’ll note that I hate labelling chapters to indicate where they are in time. Ideally, time jumps should be signalled clearly within the narrative itself, without the need for little signs saying “You are now in March 2013.” However, I understand that some readers are more easily confused than others and a writer can’t be faulted for helping them out, even at the expense of chronological elegance).

Reading the book with those labels, I was reminded of another reason for flashbacks:  a novel opens with the main characters doing something compelling — the proverbial “hook” that draws the reader in. If the book is character- as well as plot-driven, the reader needs to know about the characters’ backgrounds and how they got into the compelling situation in the first place. Obviously it’s not possible to start the book with this stuff, because that will move the “hook” scene beyond the first few pages. Moreover, “backstory” is a dirty word to some. Hence the flashback, to flesh out the characters and give them context once the reader is snared by the drama of the first few pages.

This technique can be formalized if both the narrative present and past feature compelling events. The two story lines can intertwine and reinforce one another, creating a narrative rope to keep the reader firmly tied to the book. Or even if they don’t constitute a storyline of their own, the backstory flashbacks can be used as shots of contrasting mood between chunks of the main story.

I enjoy setting these kinds of parameters and patterns for a work of fiction. Several years ago I wrote a novel in which the chapters alternated between third-person narrator in present tense and first-person past tense. Right now I am trying to get launched on a project alternating chapters featuring the main point-of-view characters (written in third person) with ones in which supporting characters present the fictional world in which the story is set by describing their occupations and professions (in first person). Sadly, I haven’t written enough of this tale as yet to see whether it will work.