Being a Better Writer: Character Matters

So, last week I was browsing the web (one of my favorite pastimes for finding interesting details and acquiring knowledge) when I came across a very … shall we say, interesting post. It was on a book forum, where someone was, if I recall the context correctly, talking about a specific Sci-Fi book they tried to read. A recent award winner, again if I recall correctly, from one of those snooty ‘literary’ awards. Anyway, they mentioned that they’d tried reading it, but had given up because, as they explained, all the characters fell flat. Or rather, were flat, simply mouthpieces to explain the story’s science. They had no other character or uniqueness other than a name. They were just there as, well, robots, to drive the science forward. Other than that, they were simply flat caricatures. As a result, the reader had given up on the book, because there was no character to revolve around.

Now, this post jumped out at me for two reasons. The first, but not the foremost, was that it lined up with a news article I recall reading a few years ago about in which a major publisher, faced with the falling sales of their Sci-Fi and Fantasy, conducted a nationwide survey of their former readers (no idea how they pulled that off, but they have to have some metric for it) asking why their former readers had abandoned them. The answer? That too many of their books just didn’t have good characters anymore, or worse, had characters that were just ideological mouthpieces for the science/social angle of the book. Without strong, compelling, or real characters, their readers had abandoned them.

The second reason that this post jumped out at me was the response to it. This was on a forum that is … Well, let’s just say they’re the kind of readers that the current publishers want to have in greater number. The response was immediate and, shockingly, angry. We’re talking caps and exclamation marks about how dare this reader put down a book because the characters weren’t good. Because—and understand I’m summarizing a number of posts here—characters aren’t important. They’re just mouthpieces to present the science. You’re not supposed to care about them. Or find them interesting. If you do, that’s a bonusnot a requirement. Blah blah blah, you read the book for the message, not for the characters, who cares if they’re shallow, etc etc etc.

Reading over this led me to this post. Where I’m going to say something flat-out.

That stance? That characters don’t matter? It’s wrong. From start to finish. This isn’t even a matter of opinion. That’s why the survey sprang to mind. That survey said that people do care about characters, that people are invested in how characters act and why. And do you know why?

Because they are! Great characters make stories come to life! They sell stories. Not science or social messages. Those can be pandered anyone in a deadpan monotone and still find their audience of those already subscribed to the idea. But a story? That takes characters.

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Being a Better Writer: Writing About Injuries

Hello readers, and welcome to … Topic. List. Eleven!

Okay, so it’s probably not such a big deal for those of you who are newcomers or aren’t sitting on my end of the keyboard, but on this side knowing that I’ve made it through ten of these sheets of paper with Being a Better Writer topics on them is a little awe-inspiring. This marks the fifth year of writing these, and from the look if it, I’m not going to run out of topics anytime soon.

So then, let’s talk injuries. Specifically, writing about them, why we write about them, and some of the different ways we can use them in our writing, for good or bad.

Actually, we’re going to tackle this in not quite that order. First up, why write about injury? Why should we be concerned with keeping track of our characters pains and aches, especially if they’re not “important” to the story?

Well, as you can probably guess by the quotes around “important” in that last paragraph, I’d disagree entirely, regardless of the type of story that we’re writing. That’s right, injury and pain are just as important in a story that’s a Regency Romance as they are in a story that’s an action-adventure novel. Do you know why?

Because pain and injury, minor or major, are a part of life. They’re as much as it sounds strange to say it this way, a unique flavor that’s a part and parcel of the experience. Ask yourself how many times you’ve stubbed a toe, burned a finger or palm, or suffered a cut or scrape across your arm. In all likelihood, you probably can’t even remember a large number of those times … but you still know that they happened because they’re part of the experience of life.

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Being a Better Writer: Writing an Anti-Hero

Well, it’s Wednesday! And here I am with the promised Being a Better Writer post! Plus, as you can likely guess, I survived the MRI of my knee! Now I’m just waiting for the doctor to give me a call and let me know what’s up.

In other, closer to BaBW-related news, however, there are changes coming! I won’t specify anything right now (I’d rather tease), but I will say that the first of them is that Colony finally has advertising! That’s right! Not just word of mouth or what I have here on Unusual ThingsColony is now getting broadcast by Amazon’s Ad service. Which … is actually a lot different from what it was when I first took the time to look at it way back when. It’s changed quite a bit. Anyway, that’s just the tip of the iceberg on some exciting new developments coming. Check back soon, and you’re sure to see some of them!

Oh, and Shadow of an Empire is close to beta. That is all I’ll give away for now, but if you’d like to get a sneak-peek, keep your eyes posted on this site in the coming weeks. Or you can support over on Patreon for an early look at the first seven chapters of the Alpha Reader copy!

Right, enough news! Let’s talk business. Specifically the business of the last topic from Topic List Ten! And a request topic:

How to write an anti-hero.

Now, we’ve talked about anti-heroes on here before, and in fact if you have not read that post I’m going to stop you right here and make a very strongly worded “request” that you go read it. Sands, even read it before writing this post, not only to refresh my memory on anti-heroes but to check up against what I’ve written before on the topic. And this post will be written with the full assumption that you have read said post immediately before reading this one, because it provides a lot of background context on anti-heroes that I’m going to be assuming you’re already aware of in order to tackle today’s topic without spending several thousand extra words on it that I’ve already written.

So, let’s get down to business. You’re going to write an anti-hero. Or, at least, you want to. How do you go about this?

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Being a Better Writer: Sex Appeal, Attractiveness, and Character Description

Could someone please get a fire extinguisher and have it standing by, please? Because this is one of those topics that, thrown before the wrong crowd, can have torches lit before the title has even finished appearing on screen.

Which, obviously, is not the goal of Being a Better Writer … but torch-lighting is the goal of others online, so there’s still a chance. Hopefully the comments on this one don’t devolve—or worse, dive—into a flame war.

Because, if I’m honest, this is a topic that I think needs to be discussed more among writers, if only to keep them from falling into what is, quite frankly, a bit of a trap-like pit that can drag multiple aspects of their story down if tackled poorly. And … let’s be fair here, a lot of works handle this poorly. Which is why I chose to write on this topic in the first place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself, here. So let’s back up and start where these things ought to start—the beginning—and get some context out of the way. Such as “What do I mean when I say this post is about sex appeal and character description?”

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Being a Better Writer: Overpowered and Beyond Characters

So, this topic is an interesting one. In a way, it’s sort of the inverse of a prior Being a Better Writer post on Overpowered and Underpowered characters. Or perhaps an extension of that same post. I’ll let you be the judge, though both probably work depending on what part of that post stood out to you.

In any case, today’s topic comes via a request from a reader, who was wondering how one could write characters that were bonafide reality warpers, like the imfamous Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, without breaking their story. A valid question, considering that such characters are typically powerful enough to solve a story’s problems with a snap of their fingers … or at the very least usually a similarly light level of exertion. How can one have a story while still playing around with a character that’s capable of solving everything with a flick of their near-omnipotent wrist? How do you have any sort of tension with a character like that around?

Well, the answer is at once both simpler and more complex than you might expect. The first, because there are some pretty common workarounds to the “problem” a reality-warper character presents for your narrative. And complicated because, well, while the solution sounds simple, pulling it off poorly leaves the reader with a bad taste in their mouth. A case of “simple solution, tough execution” if you will.

We’ll start with the simple bit: Give them limits. Yes, reality-warpers and nigh-omnipotent beings. Limits. It may seem like a contradiction, but if you recall the post on overpowered and underpowered characters linked at the beginning of this blog, having characters with limits, and then exploring how that character overcomes them, create some of the best narrative experiences.

Now, I can already see some of you younger readers shaking your head and saying “Limits? But an all-powerful character can’t have limits. That’s the point!”

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Being a Better Writer: Sympathetic Villains

URGENT: READ THIS FOLLOW-UP IF YOU READ THIS POST! It clarifies a few important things.

… are a mistaken understanding.

Okay, that’s a strong statement as a lead-in for today’s post, but it has merit! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer, the weekly writing guide post where we discuss, well, writing topics of all kind.

Today’s topic, Sympthetic Villains, is another request topic. It’s also a topic that I knew would inspire a bit of controversy when I tackled it, particularly among newer writers, because of the amount of misunderstanding I’ve seen concerning it. Misunderstanding that comes from, unfortunately, the name itself and the oft-mistaken misuse of two similar but different words: sympathy … and empathy.

See, a lot of people use the former when they mean the latter. And, to be fair, the two share similar meanings. Sympathy is defined firstly as “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune,” and empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

Pretty close, right? Well, you’d think so until you saw the second, third, or even fourth definitions (depending on the dictionary) of sympathy, which move from “feelings of” to “sharing understanding” or even “agreeing with.”

Uh-oh. Can you see where the the use of the wrong word can cause a problem for young, newbie writers yet? Or even for more experienced authors? The problem is that while empathy means understanding a character’s perspective, sympathy means agreeing with it.

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Being a Better Writer: Dialects

When you go to the grocery store, what do you call the wheeled apparatus that you collect your groceries in? Is it a shopping cart? Or is it a carriage? Or a trolley?

I’m willing to bet that a good number, if not most of you said “shopping cart.” But if you were from the American northeast—say, Connecticut or Rhode Island—there’s a high chance that you said “Carriage” instead. Or that you might say “bubbler” instead of “water fountain.” Or “soda pop” instead of “soda.” Or crud, maybe you’re even one of those individuals who calls all sodas “coke.” You know, as in “Get me a coke,” followed by “What do you want?” and “Oh, a Pepsi.”

All of these differences (and many, many more, from snow machine to snowmobile) are examples of what are know as “regional dialects.” Which makes today’s post a bit of a companion piece to last week’s on accents. And, I must admit, this topic wasn’t on the list, but after a comment about the concept by reader ocalhoun (no, I don’t know how you pronounce that either, but I’ve always read it as “o-cull-hoon”) brought up the subject, I realized that it was worth posting about, rather than just giving it an offhand mention as I had previously done.

So, dialects! What are they, how do they come about, and—this part is a bit key—what separates a dialect from an accent? Because yes, they are two different things. You can have two individuals with the same accent but a different dialect.

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