A Place In The World

Something that drives me right around the bend, especially when reading fantasy, is blank-slating the protagonist. Killing off the parents is very popular. Brothers and sisters too, if they exist – and it’s sad how often they don’t. If the protagonist is the long lost heir to something or other, then – like Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru – the foster-family will usually bite the dust by the end of the first chapter.

Unless they’re evil, of course. There’s the Cinderella trope, where the protagonist has no ties because her family/guardians/whatever just hate her even though she’s sweet and wonderful and beautiful and all that crap. Or the protagonist could be a loner for one reason or another, living by her wits, thieving or hunting or whatever it is she does all alone with no family ties to interfere with the story….

No, no, and hell no. This is the absolute laziest, least original protag-starter there is. It’s easier to write a tie-less character setting off on an adventure, yes, this is true. But easier is not better.

Look at Katniss. She volunteers because she loves her sister, because she has a life and ties and someone she loves enough to give up her life for. And that is so meaningful and important and the story would be utterly different if she didn’t have that intense, personal love and motivation. (I haven’t even read the damn book and I know this)

People want to connect to other people. Our herd or pack or group or whatever instinct is powerful. The NaNoWriMo group I belong to is full of people (including me) who come to regular writing events and drinking-get-togethers despite a whole rainbow of social and anxietal issues, because even the most anxious shut-in sometimes wants to hang around other people, and fellow shut-ins are kindly and safe people to hang out with who know how to cope with a panic attack.

It is vanishingly unlikely that a protagonist would have no ties at all. There are exceptions – Anna from the ‘Alpha and Omega’ stories starts out having been deliberately isolated from all outside ties by her pack, and that forced isolation is clearly presented as abusive and wrong. Nevertheless, she has made a friend whose phone she can use to call for help, and the isolation is ended in the course of the story because it’s an awful thing to do to someone. Don’t do it to your protagonist!

Dorothy Gale has a loving family she wants to get back to.

Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy Pevensie have parents they are forced away from by circumstances.

Spock loves his parents, but leaves to pursue a career that is meaningful to him.

Miles Vorkosigan loves his parents, as far as I know.

Nita Callahan and Kit Rodriguez have parents and siblings who are part of their daily life.

Yet somehow, their authors manage to pitchfork them into adventure anyway.

A protagonist does not and should not exist in a vacuum. Unless you’re writing a very fresh post-apocalyptic, in which whole swathes of the human population have been killed in some way or another, they shouldn’t be functioning alone – and if they are, then there needs to be a good reason for it, and a history behind it. There are ways to get rid of the family tie – youthful dedicates to a religious organization, for example, young apprentices sent away from their homes, there’s loads of ways to put parents at a distance or out of the picture. But don’t strip your protagonist of human connections altogether.

Give them friends – not just one, who can be killed off at the beginning for motivation and manpain, but more than one. Acquaintances, teachers, that annoying guy who hangs around with your group and you don’t like him but you can’t tell him to fuck off or everyone else will get mad. Nothing humanizes a character – and gives you a basis for them not being a raving sociopath – like having a place in the world. Ties to people – and to places, such as Harry’s deep love for Hogwarts – gives them that. Makes them more, for lack of a better word given that not all protagonists actually are human, human.

A good protagonist doesn’t leap from the page, blank and empty, without ties to place or person and ready to be filled with purpose. She needs to be uprooted, gently or harshly, from her place so she can move forward, but she must have roots to begin with. (And if you must kill off her family, for heaven’s sake, let her be upset about it. That kind of loss is devastating.) It’s not quite as easy, but it’s a lot more interesting.

Words

I love words. Here are some words I particularly like.

Mellifluous.

Limned.

Catastrophic.

Sinuous.

Pulchritudinous.

You will notice that they’re all descriptive words. Here’s a quick writing exercise for you – write down the first five words you think of when you think ‘some words I like’.

Whatever kind of words they are – verb, adjective, criticism, descriptor, long words, double-meaning words, words starting with X – they’re likely to be the ones you use just a bit too often. I forget where I read this, but I have consistently found it to be true. I grew up reading Tolkien and other high-fantasy authors heavy on the….

on the…

GODDAMN IT WHY DO I ALWAYS FORGET THIS ONE WORD ARGH THAT WORD YOU KNOW THE ONE IT MEANS WHEN YOU TELL WAY TOO MUCH IN A BIG CHUNK EXPOSITION! EXPOSITION THAT WAS IT!

Ahem. That’s actual stream of consciousness right there.

Anyway. I actually like exposition. I love old-fashioned novels that spend the first three pages dumping backstory on you in a charmingly prim, sternly punctuated sort of way. I like reading long descriptions of the country our heroes are travelling through and what they eat on the way. I’ve heard many criticisms of Tolkien’s obsession with talking about food, but have never agreed with them – food’s important when you’re travelling. And hard to get. And heavy. It’s actually a thing, here!

Did you know that Enid Blyton deliberately included many descriptions of delicious food in her novels because she was writing for children and children like to eat? I vaguely remember reading that somewhere and it seems legit, but I couldn’t be bothered to look it up, so, you know, trufax. Except now I’m feeling guilty for not doing my research. Half a mo.

Google did not immediately turn anything up on Ms Blyton’s motives, but here’s a nice Scotch Egg recipe I found.

So. Back to the words. If you really like a certain kind of word – or any other writing quirk, like the abuse of the ellipsis – you probably use it a little too often for your potential reader’s tastes. In the same vein as ‘kill your darlings’, cut your favourite words unless they’re absolutely necessary. If you’re anything like me, your definition of ‘absolutely necessary’ will mean plenty of them survive the culling.

I hope you all have a great day. My daughter just came up to me and gently stuck a purple smiley face sticker on my forehead. I liked it. So here is a virtual smiley face sticker, from me to you. Stick it on yourself somewhere conveniently visible!

 

 

Clothing

So I’m running around doing a ton of laundry for our trip – for those who don’t know, little kids can get through a shit-ton of clothes, what with getting wet or pouring their dinner into their pants and such. The only way to get most of the kid’s clothes clean for packing is to do laundry at the last possible minute and pray to the household gods that she doesn’t have a vomiting fit or a Chocolate Incident in the intervening day. (I also have to wash a number of my clothes because in case you hadn’t noticed, I procrastinate like whoa.)

And I love my washing machine. I love it like I love coffee, and only a little less than I love chocolate.

I tell you, you don’t appreciate modern conveniences until you’ve lived without them. And I did live without them – we didn’t get a washing machine until I was in high school, by which time I’d been washing my own clothes for some time. Which is why I’m still a bit lax on the subject of ‘all clean things every day’, because jeans are good for at least a couple of wears and if I’m just hanging around the house who cares if this is yesterday’s t-shirt? I remember so vividly what it was like to wash all my clothes by hand that I have a lingering aversion to making more laundry than absolutely necessary. (Queensland also spent ten years in an increasingly severe drought, so my desire not to waste water is totally responsible, honest)

Jeans are the worst. They’re heavy, they’re awkward, and they abrade your hands after a while. Sheets are a pain in the butt, but at least if you do them fairly regularly it’s just a matter of vigorously sloshing them around then rinsing them out and trying not to mind the deluge of water that runs over you when you try to lift them out of the tub. A nail-brush is useful for scrubbing at spots, and soaking overnight cures many an ill. Always wash out blood in cold water, never hot, and red and blue are the colours most likely to run.

If you are writing any kind of medieval or renaissance-ish setting, here are some things to remember about laundry:

1. Water, and cloth soaked in it – especially thick wools – weighs a hell of a lot. Washing clothes, or anything else, is some seriously hard graft if you’re doing it by hand, even if you can go down to a river and don’t need to haul your water. There’s a reason that ‘muscled like a washerwoman’ used to be a saying – if you want a Deceptively Physically Strong Peasant Lady, make her a washer-woman! Not only has she got muscles like a blacksmith, but washerwomen used to use big sticks for stirring up the laundry tubs and the like, so she comes armed.

2. Truly fast dyes aren’t always guaranteed even now – they certainly weren’t then. Washing a coloured garment in water is a risky proposition, and soap is worse. Tread carefully, and do some research on what dyes were available in which geographic areas. A fancy garment – especially an outer one – may be sponged or steamed rather than being washed, and leather is never laundered – I know there’s a different cleaning process, but I’m not sure what it is.

3. Don’t assume soap! Handmaking soap is likewise a painstaking process. Other solutions like lye (containing urine!) and even vinegar are more common in some times and places. Soap made from animal fat and ash doesn’t smell especially good either, so if your people are a bit well-off they might add herbs – orris root was popular – to the water for scent. Dried lavender, roses or other herbs or flowers might be stored with clean sheets and clothes, too.

4. Anyone doing laundry is going to get pretty damn wet. Trust me, the splashes add up. Long exposure to lye and harsh water will do a number on their hands, too – your washer-woman will have red, rough hands and arms for a certainty, and she’ll be used to getting around soaking wet.

5. In short, laundry is hard work and people didn’t change their clothes or even their underwear every day because doing laundry was hard and painful and time-consuming. Depending on your time-period, clothes might get washed every month or every few months, especially in winter – in colder climates, drying laundry is a pain in the ass in winter, because it has to be done inside by a fire and it takes hours and hours. Ditto for long hair, incidentally, so if your heroine has hair flowing to her knees – or even her hips – she’s not going to wash it much in winter unless she’s rich enough to have a fire in her room, as it will take days and days to dry and be chilly and unpleasant the whole time.

 

 

 

Google Your Words

Real actual writing advice today!

You know how when you’re writing fantasy/science fiction/imaginary whateveritis, and you make up words? Names, little language phrases, stuff like that?

Google them.

Always, always, always Google them I am not even slightly kidding.

For example… remember the Powerpuff Girls? The clearly-made-up city of Townsville? I was born in Townsville. It’s on my birth certificate and everything. Townsville, Queensland. It’s named after the guy who financed the settlement, Robert Towns. I am not making this up, I swear. (Incidentally, it’s a hole. Don’t go there.)

The beautiful and you-should-absolutely-watch-it Studio Ghibli movie Laputa: Castle In The Sky was shortened to Castle In The Sky for US release. La puta, get it? Yeah, not so good, and never mind that it’s a perfectly innocuous name taken from Gulliver’s Travels. Make sure you’re not swearing in a language you don’t know!

Incidentally, even within the same language, dialect differences can make an innocuous statement into a filthy joke. For example, in Australia, ‘root’ is a synonym for ‘fuck’. In Canada, there is a store chain called ‘Roots’ (There’s also a ‘Roots Kids’. You can imagine our reaction). I don’t know if it’s still there, but the Outback Steakhouse used to have a dessert called the Chocolate Thunder From Down Under. I ask you, who names a dessert ‘synonym for poop’? People who don’t speak that dialect, that’s who. The dessert was not half bad, though. (Yes, of course I ordered it, how could I resist?)

Of course you should always be careful when throwing in words from languages you don’t know, we all know that. But be very, very careful about your made-up words, too. They may not be as made-up as you think, and while ‘Koorva’ may sound like a nice fantasy name, Google tells me that it’s ‘whore’ in Ukrainian.

Don’t assume that this is something editorial will pick up, or that you’ll remember to check some other time during rewrites! Getting the words right is your job, so play it safe. Google your words, guys. Every one.

Following the Language Barrier, The Dialectic

So, let’s talk about dialects.

A dialect, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is ‘a particular form of a language which is peculiar to a specific region or social group’. Dialects within the same language can vary pretty damn enormously. Remember the adorable but barely comprehensible Young McGuffin from ‘Brave‘? He was speaking Doric, a dialect of Scots which may be an obscure subdialect of English or may be simply a very closely related language, apparently that’s up for debate, which I didn’t know, so thank you Wikipedia.

I love Wikipedia. It’s not always perfect, but on average it’s usually reasonably close-ish, which as internet sources go is pretty good.

Anyway. Dialects within a single language can vary hugely and sometimes very subtlely. Varieties within one country can be pretty broad – between different countries, even bigger. I’ve been married to an American for nigh on ten years now, and I still occasionally come out with words or phrases he doesn’t know, despite the fact that we are both English speakers first and only. I comprehend Television American (the tidied up version, like BBC English) reasonably well, but when the slang comes out I am rapidly lost. Although to be perfectly honest I get confused by a lot of Australian slang too because I am a nerd in her thirties and didn’t know the cool things the kids were saying even when I was one.

This is relevant to writing because it is very very easy to get dialects wrong. I’ve been corrected multiple times, when writing Harry Potter fiction, for using words or phrases that are dialectically inappropriate. Ditto for writing American characters, though not as often. If you are writing a story set in a country or area or something with which you are not personally familiar, and you want to publish it, do really try to find someone who knows it to act as a beta-reader for your dialogue at the very least. People will usually do this for unfamiliar languages, but they don’t always realize how wildly dialects can vary among, the most prevalent example I know of, English Speakers Of The World. (I don’t read any other languages, so I don’t know how frequently this problem occurs elsewhere, but from what I have picked up here and there English-speakers are bar-none the worst for not realizing that their language has dialectic variations)

And don’t crack the shits if your source says you can’t tell your bogan from your wanker.

See? See what I mean? And I don’t even speak Strine! I’d be confusing you all if I could, I can tell you.

Seriously, English is not just English. Check your dialects, especially if you’ve set your novel in a country other than your own.

 

Captain Of The Story Ship

So do your characters always do what they’re told?

I’ve read many an account of characters getting away from their author, and quite a few people sneering at the very idea because honestly, you’re the author, keep the little bastards under control.

… have I written about this before? God, I have no idea, there are too many entries to read over all of them every day to remember what I’ve already written, and I know I’ve ranted on the subject before but have I done it here?

I don’t know. I’m going to say not. If I have, please point and laugh discreetly.

Anyway, I’ve had characters ‘get away’ before, doing things I hadn’t planned. I actually plan for that, since I tend to write better when I give the narrative its head and see what happens. And I have been criticized for that, because clearly my characters are just made up in my head and they can’t do things on their own because that’s silly. To which I say… well, yes and no.

Yes, technically, my characters are generated by my brain, and have no outside existence and no free will. In theory.

But the brain is a magnificently complicated organ, with several layers of processing going on that have nothing to do with my conscious thoughts. The more fully realized a character is in my head, the better I know them, the more likely I am to suddenly lose the ability to force them to do something that isn’t appropriate to their internal logic.

Seriously, imagine someone you know well, say a family member. Now make that person, in your head, do something wildly out of character, like axe-murdering babies or giving money to Greenpeace. (I’m not judging, I’m just saying, different people have different absurdity-thresholds) It’s hard to do, right? You generally don’t imagine your mother laughing maniacally as she tears live kittens apart with her teeth, because it’s not something she would do. Your brain knows that this is an unrealistic simulation and doesn’t fire up the old adrenal glands because seriously, Consciousness, that is a completely unrealistic fear what are you even trying to pull here.

When you know your characters well enough to understand their internal logic, to get them as people, it’s hard to force them to behave out of character, because deep down you know better. And when they start doing something you weren’t expecting – well, for me, it usually turns out that while my conscious mind hadn’t taken into account this or that minor thing, some lower level of my brain had, and was factoring it into their characterization. Internal consistency is incredibly important in a believable character, and forcing them to behave irrationally in service to the plot doesn’t do anyone any favours. And just as you can often predict the reactions of people you know without thinking it through consciously, you can start doing it with well established characters, too.

So my characters do things I wasn’t expecting sometimes, and it’s often only on the reread that I realize oh, hey, that actually makes perfect sense because she’s actually quite defensive and wouldn’t even have done that so yeah. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and I do have to beat them back onto the planned path, but not often. As a rule, if a character insists on doing something, in my head at least, it’s because it’s in character for them to do that thing at that time, and my subconscious knows it even if my conscious mind hasn’t thought of it yet.

So if people give you crap for letting your characters get away from you, tell them you’re just very in tune with your subconscious. Or that you feel that maintaining plausible characterization is more important than adhering rigidly to an arbitrary plan. Or just ‘screw you, I write how I write and it’s none of your damn business’.

Because it isn’t. We think how we think, we write how we write, and what’s important is finding the process works for you, not what other people think you should do.

People Have Strange Ways

People handle stress in strange ways.

I know someone who has literal fainting fits when under extreme pressure. I know a couple of people who actually lose the ability to digest food properly, to the point of a doctor asking pointed questions on the ‘are you sure you’re not anorexic’ theme of someone who ate half a chocolate cake for breakfast but is losing weight anyway. I know one person who gets enormously constipated and one who gets nervous diarrhea, neither of which are even slightly helpful. I used to know someone who coped with sudden stresses by dying her hair. I know one person who develops crazy protein cravings (crazy as in ‘walks around muttering about needing a bucket full of meat’ levels of intensity)  and another who sucks down water continuously as if stress can be flushed out via the kidneys.

One of the above people is me. It’s not the chocolate cake one.

Point is, people handle things in non-standard ways sometimes.

So it drives me mad when I hear complaints about ‘weird’ or ‘unrealistic’ characterization choices in fiction because people aren’t responding to grief or stress or fear in a ‘normal’ way. Not everyone copes with pain by sitting down and having a long talk with a Possible Romantic Interest about their Innermost Feels, or getting very angry at someone who died for dying and being really unreasonable and then having a good sob. Sometimes they do, and that’s fine, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they’re Loki and respond to being emotionally hurt with ‘You’ll all be sorry when everyone’s DEAD’ and just go completely off the rails. Sometimes they’re Tiffany Aching and go so deep into denial that they need perspective shipped in by broomstick. Sometimes they’re Dean Winchester and I don’t even know where to start with that guy.

You know what’s unrealistic? Sex-fixes-everything. That’s unrealistic. Romance does not cure all ills. Yes, sometimes sex can be reassuring or cathartic or a desperately-needed interlude of not-thinking, but it doesn’t fix you. It doesn’t cure depression or trauma or grief. It is, at best, a comfort, not a cure.

So don’t feel constrained by the tropes when writing a character in pain. They can get angry at the world, they can just BAKE ALL THE THINGS, they can eat or not eat or cry or not cry or go on a mad killing spree. Whatever works for the character. Some people faint when given a shock. Some people punch the messenger. People do what they do, and it’s not always what you-the-reader or you-the-writer would do, but that doesn’t make it an invalid response, as long as it’s consistent with the character, or even inconsistent in a plausible way.

In case anyone wonders why I am so insistent on this, I got a rude feedback message which called me on ‘poor characterization’ on the subject of how a certain character handled a stressful event. And told me smugly how much better my fic would be if I would just make my characters more ‘plausible’, by doing it right like this yahoo says I should. I AM RAGE. I am annoyed by this because not only was the smug condescension incredibly offensive, but because the yahoo in question was advocating a very limited and culturally inappropriate (to the character) set of reactions that would ‘work better’ on the strength that he says so. In case anyone is wondering, ‘it would have been better if you’d written it like this’ is a TERRIBLY RUDE THING TO SAY TO A WRITER. Pointing out that the plot flags a bit two thirds in? Fine. Suggesting perhaps that a character is a bit exaggerated? Sure. Calling me names because I’ve mentioned abortion in a less than totally negative way? Won’t be the first time.

But ‘I could have written your story better than you can, you silly person, benefit from my wise counsel’ or ‘you should have written it the way I like to envision the character because that would be better’? Not cool. If you think Snape should be written as a misunderstood snuggly kitten or that everyone in the history of time and space should universally accept that eighteen is the Right And Correct Age Of Consent In The Face Of All Logic And Reason, fine. YOU write it that way. But don’t tell me to!

I think the point I’m trying to make in my rage-fuddled way is that saying ‘your story suffers from these flaws’ or even ‘your story isn’t very good’ is fine. Ever, ever, ever telling another person that they should write the way you think they should, or what they ‘should’ write or what you ‘expect’ from them? NOT FINE NOT EVER FINE. SQUID OF ANGER.

I need some chocolate and a drink of water.