The Craft of Writing

Hi, I’m beautiful, talented, and caring

This is a fun post about characterization from James Scott Bell at Kill Zone Blog: How to characterize

[T]he second paragraph went something like this: She was beautiful, talented, and caring. She was a hard worker, and earned every bit of her success…

It went on in the same vein for a few more lines. And I found myself thinking, “Really? You expect me to believe this?” …

 How would we feel if we met someone for the first time at a party, and the person said, “Nice to meet you. I’m beautiful and talented and caring. But enough about me.” 

I didn’t laugh out loud, but I chuckled. That’s a pretty good analogy: introducing a character that way IS a lot like introducing yourself that way. In fiction, it certainly screams “badly written Mary Sue.” In real life, well, we shall assume that this never, ever happens in real life. Bell advises that to avoid this problem, the author should show and not tell — I imagine everyone has heard that before.

And since everyone always says “show, don’t tell,” let me add that there are absolutely times to tell and not show. Here, in fact, is a different post about times when you may want to do exactly that. This post suggests, briefly, that telling may most often be useful when writing a transition to get from one scene to another or one time to another; when glossing lightly over over unimportant action or unimportant characters; or when adding backstory. That sounds basically about right to me.

Later in his post, it seems to me that James Scott Bell is advocating an unusually high level of deliberate thought in the writing process: Brainstorm possible actions and dialogue that will show us these things, and salt them in early in your novel, for example. My basic response to this advice is: Good heavens, that sounds painful. How about just writing the beginning of your novel. Characters will do stuff and say stuff and there you go, characterization. I suppose more writers than I realize might do this more mechanically. I find that hard to imagine.

His other advice seems more reasonable to me: have other characters react to the protagonist. Let their reactions show your protagonist more clearly to your readers. He provides some pretty good examples there if you wish to click through.

This sort of post benefits from great examples of well-done characterization in the opening scene, so let me see, what are some examples that occur to me right off … all right:

  • The Breach by Patrick Lee offers a fantastic example of developing the character very naturally and organically through his thoughts and actions. I’m certain I’ve used this one as an example before, and by the way, it’s a fantastic thriller, so if you haven’t read it, take a look.
  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith, which I just referred to for something else the other day, so it’s on my mind. Aud is one of the most amazingly written characters I can think of.
  • So, you remember how The Wizard Hunters starts out, with Tremaine contemplating suicide? Of course it turns out she had a little nudge from a despairing sorcerer trapped in a sphere, but still, right off the bat, her character is established by showing her in this darkly contemplative mood.
  • Oh, of course, Murderbot, with those waves of I-don’t-care interspersed with actions that show it absolutely does care.
  • Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson opens with strong characterization and then goes on from there, basically getting better and better. You need to be up for a novel where the journey is the story.

In Carson’s novel, having the story be the journey worked for me; in some books, the journey feels too much like the author should say, “Three months later …” and go on with the real story. In order to compress time that way, incidentally, the author would tell and not show.

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Here is a quite good post at Writers in the Storm: Harnessing the Power of Pronouns

Sit with this simple sentence for a moment:

Look at what they are doing to my city.

More than likely when you read that sentence, your inner voice reacted. How did it make you feel? What did it make you think about?

Consider this sentence below and notice what changing the pronouns does to the tone, feel, and imagery.

Look at what we are doing to our city.  

The author of this post,  John Peragine, then goes on to discuss pronouns in some depth, spurred on, we find out, by his experience changing a third-person manuscript into a first-person manuscript.

And who hasn’t been there, right?

I’m glad to say I have never had to do this for a WHOLE manuscript, but I’ve done it for pretty big blocks of pages. Not recently. This was way long ago, when I first took a stab at writing a first-person novel and gave up because wow, that is just not the same as third-person. That’s when I found out several useful things:

a) verbs are harder to handle in first-person narratives, and

b) if you don’t know who the protagonist is telling the story to, that can actually screw up the writing process terribly, at least for me. I know that not all authors have this problem, but it messed up my initial attempts at first person.

I have mentioned the problem with first-person verbs before, in posts generally inspired by seeing yet another author handle verbs badly. The fundamental problem is that when you’re writing a third-person past-tense narrative and the protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this is fine. It implies nothing. But when you’re writing a first-person past-tense narrative and your protagonist thinks, “Vampires were a serious problem in Georgia,” this absolutely implies that now they’re not.

Most of the time, the author does not realize there is a problem, so this happens a lot and the reader experiences an instant of confusion over and over. Readers (many readers) tolerate this well, partly because the problem is extremely common, so readers have lots of practice tolerating it. But even if readers will put up with this, is still not a great thing to do.

The proper way to manage verb tenses in first-person narratives is to let the protagonist make general statements about the world in present tense and then switch back to past tense as the narrative continues. This requires the author to pay attention to which statements are about the world and which ones carry the story forward and are part of the narrative. This is hard.

TUYO is, as you may have noticed, my only published first-person story (other than “Vigilante” in Beyond the Dreams We Know). I found TUYO so much easier to write than my (very) early tries at this form that there is just no comparison. I’m not sure why that is, except I have read a lot more first-person novels in the interim, and have therefore had a chance to critically notice a whole lot of good verb use and bad verb use in the process. Anyway, whatever, the point is, the form was much easier for me this time around.

I also have a notion to whom Ryo might be telling the story. I might be wrong, but kind of having an idea about that also probably helped.

Anyway, I’m not saying I’m absolutely certain I never screwed up the verb tenses, but if you pay attention in TUYO, you should see that every time Ryo thinks about the state of the world or the nature of Ugaro people or whatever, he thinks about that in the present tense. Then the narrative goes on in the past tense. So he’ll think, “Everyone knows the Lau are a deceptive people,” and then immediately, “But there was no reason he should have lied to me.”

If you read lots of well-written first-person narratives, you will see that this is generally how the authors do it. For example, I just checked The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith because she’s such a fabulous writer, I knew she would handle verb tenses this way and sure enough, there we go, right away we see: The sidewalks around Inman Park are made from uneven hexagons … and then right back to a past-tense narrative.

Let me also just mention a different but related pronoun/verb issue that drives me up the wall whenever I see it:

Every single time the direct thought of the protagonist is reported to the reader, that thought should be in the present tense, regardless of whether the story is being told in first- or third-person.

Absolutely no one ever sees a puppy come up for attention, bends down to pet the puppy, and thinks, “Wow, that was a cute puppy!” That is as wrong and awkward as if a puppy ran up and jumped on you, and you turned and said to a friend, “Wow, wasn’t that a cute puppy!” while the puppy is actually still right there, still jumping and wagging and being adorable. OBVIOUSLY in both cases, you would think or say, “Wow, THIS IS a cute puppy!” I don’t understand what that is not absolutely crystal clear.

Yet a lot of authors working with first-person past-tense narratives put past tense thoughts in the protagonist’s head in exactly this way. It’s so common I had a copy editor once try to do this to a direct thought for one of my THIRD person protagonists. [I wrote a little note saying No no no and here is why and absolutely do not do this. It’s one of the few times I wrote a note instead of just STET.]

Anyway, the post I linked way at the top is more about things like the she-is-a-subject, her-is-an-object distinction. That is useful and I hope a lot of people read that post, because last I noticed every single grammar checker on the market absolutely cannot tell the difference and fails to mark things like, “My dad drove my mother and I to the park” as wrong, and wow is that an annoying mistake. So you can certainly click through and read that article if you wish; the examples are fine. I just got distracted thinking about changing a whole manuscript from third- to first-person, and wondering whether the author also took another good look at verb tenses in his novel.

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Adding emotional heft

So, one thing that doesn’t work in a prologue, generally speaking, is a big battle scene where a lot of people die. This is because the reader has not been given a reason to care about these people, so no matter how many of them die, there’s no real emotional impact. Blow up a whole world and well, that’s a shame, but is there a reason to actually turn the page? Not really, because so what? Those people have not been made real to the reader. They don’t have the backstory, the personality, the depth, that makes a character real, so it’s impossible to care about them.

On the other end of the spectrum is annoyingly transparent tearjerker manipulation. Stephen King’s later books are bad that way. Oh, there she is! The nice female character who’s going to die a tragic death. With some of King’s books, you can literally spot that character the second she walks on stage. No matter what contortions King has to go through to make sure the protagonist fails to save her, she’s doomed. I gave up reading King some years ago because he did that in a bunch of books in a row and as I say, the technique became super transparent and obvious.

In between ho-hum mortality and manipulative tearjerking, though, is a wide range of character death that has to happen to move the plot along, and which ought not be skipped across lightly.

When I wrote the first draft of TUYO, there was a scene right about in the middle where a lot of people died, and that scene lacked emotional heft because none of those characters had been made real for the reader. That scene is still there, so if you’re about halfway through TUYO, I expect you know which scene I’m talking about. But when I realized how little emotional impact that scene had, I specifically set out to nudge the reader into caring a lot more about the real tragedy that takes place in those few pages. The decision was so explicit that I am able, for a change, to draw back the curtain and explain what I did that I think makes this scene work much better in the final version.

What I did was take one minor secondary character who dies in that scene and make him real. I gave him just tiny hints of personality in the first half of the novel, just the minimum necessary to justify a moment when he tells Ryo a little bit about his personal history. This is very short, about a page. Then he gets a few final words. Then he dies, plus a lot of other people, but this one character carries that scene. Rather than letting the reader skim across this scene and hardly notice that a lot of people just got killed, the reader cares about this character and that spills out across the scene and makes all those deaths tragic.

Or that’s how it’s supposed to work. I think it came out rather well.

As a side note, I’ll add that usually, not always, I write a book straight through from front to back. There are variations on this theme, but generally that’s how I do it.

In TUYO, though, I wrote the first half. Then, at the point our protagonists meet the bad guy, I was like ooooh no, this is going to be really awful. And I skipped ahead to the big escape scene, I expect you know the one I mean, and wrote almost all the rest of the book from there. Only after the ultimate victory did I go back and wrote those scenes in the middle. I’ve never done that before, but thinking about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever done anything quite that awful to a character before either, so maybe that’s why.

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Rogue verbs

Here’s a post at Kill Zone Blog: When Verbs Go Rogue: First Page Critique

Here is an illustrative snippet. Click through to read the whole thing:

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

And here is a portion of the critique:

Look at all those strong verbs! You didn’t take the easy road, like “walked” for example. Strong verbs create a more vivid mental image. Problem is there’s way too many. In this short sample I counted at least 43 verbs. …

Now, what do you all think? Are there “too many” verbs or “too many” strong verbs? Which of these paragraphs, if any, stand out for you as having non-great verb use? All of them?

Let’s take these paragraphs one at a time:

She rummaged in her handbag for a handkerchief, but found none. Instead she settled for her sleeve and groped along the wall, swiping at hissing tabbies and the foul air, until she had reached the shop’s back hallway.

I would say that this paragraph is basically fine. I would remove one of those verbs. Which one? Read that paragraph and zap exactly one verb. Which did you choose?

I took out “hissing.” I did that for two reasons. Three.

First, I’ve never been hissed at by a cat in a bookstore and I don’t expect cats to hiss at me, so it seems weird for these cats to hiss. Second, she shouldn’t be swiping at the cats anyway, so I’d take out that whole phrase. Third, “hissing” just sounds wrong and awkward in a way that the other verbs don’t. I can’t say exactly why. It just sounds wrong somehow.


Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

Which verbs would you take out? Any? Are the verbs the actual problem?

Here are the words and phrases that bother me:

Brook sprang over the last few cats and then let out a blood curdling scream. An enormous man leered over her. His girth topped his height by twice, and nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his soiled shirt on which a tiny badge was pinned deeming him the shopkeeper.

The verbs aren’t the problem! Over-the-top phrasing is the problem! This isn’t purple writing where adjectives and adverbs are overused. The description here is exaggerated in a different way, and awkward to boot.

Blood-curdling screams are intensely cliched. My personal advice is: never describe anything at all as blood-curdling, especially not screams. Also, who in heaven’s name screams at the sudden appearance of the shop owner? Doesn’t one expect to encounter staff or owners in a shop? What a twit this protagonist is.

I’m tired of men leering in fiction. Stop describing men as leering! It is getting to be an absolutely cliched bit of description, as bad as blood-curdling screams. Want to signal that the guy is not nice? “Leering,” poof, job done. Except it’s not done! Stop that and describe something more substantive or at least less cliched.

“His girth topped his height by twice” is terribly awkward. Why not say something more like, “He seemed at first glance twice as wide as he was tall”?

“Nearly a foot of it peeked out from underneath his shirt” is also terribly awkward. Nearly a foot of what? his girth? What an odd thing to say. His girth peeked? This just doesn’t work.

“deeming him the shopkeeper” is also awkward. Deeming, really? But it’s not just the verb, it’s the whole thing.

Next paragraph:

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

What is wrong here? Not just the verbs.

Juan Carlos’s bloodshot eyes were fixed on Brook, while his yellow teeth gnashed menacingly and his hair was slicked into an oily ponytail.

It’s just all so exaggerated, especially “gnashed menacingly.” Just as screams really ought not be blood-curdling, teeth ought not gnash.

It’s not that there are too many verbs, or too many active verbs. It’s that there are too many awkward sentences and way too much exaggerated, cliched description. The writer is trying too hard to be vivid, and probably a touch humorous, and the phrases start to trip over themselves — or so it seems to me.

IMO, the take-home message shouldn’t be “use fewer vivid verbs.” It should be “use clear language that works.” But that’s harder advice to give, and much harder to follow.

If it were me, I’d be inclined to say, “Read something by Robin McKinley and see how she uses language. Then try to do it like that.” Someone who is going overboard in any way would probably do well to read The Blue Sword and get a feel for simple, plain writing that draws the reader into the story and does not call attention to itself.

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Well-developed characters are great, but –

So, recently I was thinking about “one-dimensional” characters versus “well-rounded,” “complex,” “well-developed” characters, and how the former are treated as Bad and the latter treated as Good.

From time to time this presumed dichotomy leads to some slightly odd outcomes if you read book reviews, as quite a lot of reviewers will read a book they like and write a review in which they refer to the characters as well-rounded or complex or whatever, even if the characters are no such thing. This happens because the reviewer assumes that Good Characters Must Be Well Rounded, so if they like the characters, then those characters obviously are well rounded. Conversely, reviewers who hate that same book may (correctly) declare that the characters are one dimensional, without realizing that in that particular story, well-rounded characters are not the point and would actually not suit the story that’s being told.

I’m not sure this can be clear without using specific examples, so here we go.

1. As you know, recently I read and enjoyed Cry Pilot by Joel Dane. I said in my review that many of the characters are one-dimensional, which they are. That was not intended as a complaint.

Here are some relevant comments from Amazon reviews:

From reviewer Alan Blank, who gave the book three stars: “Maseo Kaytu is arguably well fleshed out by the book’s end, but the majority of the remaining characters are bit too thin, and frankly almost stock characters from old war movies or other books in this sub-genre.”

and, conversely

From reviewer Dave Walker, who gave the book five stars: “Very well written with a tight plot and incredible character development.”

Alan Blank is, in my opinion, correct. But these characters feel satisfying to the majority of readers . . . let me see, 91% four or five star reviews at the moment . . . because the characters fit the story.

The characters ARE one-dimensional. They do not, however, read as though they are flat as long as the reader enjoys the plotting and worldbuilding elements and finds Kaytu himself engaging. Three elements make the use of one-dimensional secondary characters appropriate and useful:

First, Maseo Kaytu is the focal character. This is a strict first-person narrative. The reader is supposed to focus on Kaytu, who has been given certain very strong character traits. He is not himself a complicated character either. Instead, he is a strong character. He has a smallish number of driving motivations that are extremely powerful and sometimes in conflict, and which he often but not always understands himself. For example, Kaytu’s most central characteristic is loyalty to the group. He’ll sacrifice himself for the group and for individuals within the group; he won’t sacrifice the group for some abstract mission objective. That’s what makes him engaging and sympathetic to the reader, who might not be all that keen on reading about a sociopath (I know I wouldn’t be). He knows this about himself and – setting up tension – considers it a weakness to overcome, not a virtue. Kaytu serves as a great protagonist because he’s introspective enough to make a good first-person narrator, but not broadly informed or extremely intelligent, and definitely not objective enough that he’s capable of figuring everything out, so by using his perspective, the author keeps the reader guessing. But the important thing here is that he is not complex; he is instead effectively drawn in broad strokes.

Second, there are a lot of other characters in this story, most of whom are not important or at least are certainly not supposed to draw attention away from Kaytu (except Ting, to an extent). The reader might have trouble telling the large cast of secondary characters apart if they didn’t each have some clear, defining characteristic, so the author gives each of them one such characteristic and leaves it at that. Then he puts more emphasis on the interaction among the characters and particularly on how Kaytu perceives them and reacts to them, which keeps the focus on the protagonist. Something interesting happens as the group goes through training: they become supportive of the weaker members of the group, and in my opinion, Kaytu himself is at the heart of that interaction. He is completely focused on getting the team to succeed as a team; he’s the one who would naturally, even instinctively, focus on hauling the weaker members of the team through tough situations. I strongly suspect the group would not have clicked together as it did without him.

Third, this story is world-driven and plot-driven more than character-driven. I’m mostly a character reader, sure, but I like world development too, and I care about writing style. Cry Pilot has characters who are clearly delineated and who don’t need to be deeply complex in order to carry the plot and show off the world. Handing Kaytu deep motivations and everyone else identifiable characteristics works well for this story. Insisting on adding complexity to all the characters wouldn’t improve this story.

To nail down this point, let me mention a handful of other good stories – many of them great stories – that you may be familiar with, which also feature simple, clear characters that are not complex or well-rounded.

1. The Lord of the Rings. This is a venue novel that is showing off the world, and it’s plot-driven, or you could say theme-driven. The characters are simple. Not a single character is complex, except maybe Faramir. This is not a weakness of the story. It’s just a feature of the story, one that appeals to some readers and doesn’t appeal to other readers, but either way a feature that suits the story being told.

2. Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell. This duology is the one that first prompted me to declare that good characters may be one-dimensional and that sometimes this is exactly right for the story. Ah, I will add that these are very intense novels, and include possibly the worst situation I’ve ever seen in a fantasy or SF novel, so don’t pick them up lightly. Also, no, the biology is not plausible.

3. The fantastic Illumini trilogy by Kaufman and Kristoff. These fast-paced, witty, highly entertaining novels are crammed with excitement. Character development is neither present nor needed in these action-packed, plot-driven stories. The characters are mostly simple and one-dimensional. I can think of one exception. At the moment, I can only think of the one exception even though the cast is huge.

4. The Martian by Andy Weir is a fantastic story that has essentially no character development from front to back; and in fact if Weir had tried to develop his protagonist, that would have detracted from the world-driven, plot-driven, science-first story. Watching someone have a nervous breakdown because of isolation and stress was emphatically not the point, so it didn’t happen – it was never even hinted at. If it had, the novel would have been entirely different and (for me) a lot less appealing. Instead of character development, we got lots of sciency lectures. Great novel. Good movie too.

Now, let’s take one example of the reverse situation: a story that gives enormous attention to the development of complex characters. I’ll just use the first story of this kind that comes to mind, which happens to be the Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear.

Now, in this fabulous trilogy, there are so many pov characters who are fascinating, complex, thoroughly developed and so on that I wound up almost frustrated because I wanted a whole story just with that character. This was especially true with Yangchen, the queen who betrayed her country and then tried so hard to redeem that mistake. This is a trilogy for the character reader who also likes worldbuilding and, of course, lush prose, but wow, the whole story would have been entirely different with simpler characters.

I doubt that in this case too many reviewers complained about one-dimensional characters. You know what they’re going to complain about instead?

a) It’s too slow.

b) It’s too complicated.

c) Two many pov characters, switches from one to the next too frequently.

Let me just look now at Amazon reviews — I’m looking just at three-star reviews. And what do I find?

Scott Wozniak, “This story is way too slow. It was literally 1/3 of the book before any of the protagonists decided to take strong action–around 112 pages of 334. It’s hard to like characters that are walking with no plan (Temur) or waiting to see if they have magic power (Samarkar).”

Melanie D Typaldos, “For me, there were too many characters and their names were too weird, with some of the names being very similar. Plus she switches POV frequently. I find all of that confusing.”


It’s a tradeoff — an unavoidable tradeoff — and it’s why there are different ways to tell stories and they work for different reasons and please different readers.

One reviewer does complain even regarding the Eternal Sky trilogy — a story I picked to typify complex characters — that the characters are flat. This is, I think, an example of the phenomenon I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I suspect this reviewer disliked the characters and therefore concluded they must be flat, rather than actually responding to flatness as such. If asked, “Why did you find the characters flat?” I think probably this reviewer would wind up explaining why they disliked the characters or found them unbelievable, which would not involve lack of complexity.

Dimensions along which we can view characters without requiring a value judgment about how well-drawn or well-written the characters may be:

Simple …. Complex

Unpleasant …. Sympathetic

Dimensions which necessarily include a value judgment about the writing:

Unbelievable …. Believable

Boring …. Interesting

When writing reviews — or for that matter, thinking about whether a book or a character did or did not work for me — something I try to do is separate whether I liked the character personally from whether the character is suited to the story and well-drawn.

For me, characters that work have to be sympathetic and interesting, but do not necessarily need to be believable. Simple or complexity of the character, or development of the character through the course of the story, doesn’t necessarily matter to me. That’s why I can very much enjoy stories with zero character development like The Martian and also stories where the character development is central, as with Yangchen in The Eternal Sky trilogy.

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Showing rape in SFF

Here’s a good post from Marie Brennan at Swan Tower: Thoughts on the Depiction of Rape in Fiction

Brennan has an archive of good essays at her website, many about the craft of writing. This one demonstrates that. Here’s a sample from near the beginning:

There are a lot of reasons you might have one of your characters be raped. Some of them are better than others; all of them are things you should think about.

1. I need to show that my villain is evil.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to method for showing he’s evil?

It’s one thing if you’re writing a mystery about a detective hunting down a serial rapist. In a story like that, the bad guy raping people is the entire point. But if your villain is a genocidal tyrant? Then I kind of give the side-eye to the notion that you need rape to convince me he’s bad. If that’s true, you haven’t done a very good job writing the “genocidal tyrant” part.

This is a serious topic, obviously, but I did chuckle at the last sentence of the excerpt above. That’s definitely true.

The broad category of “worst things I’ve seen in fantasy novels” doesn’t include many instances of rape — I know other readers say their experience differs in that regard, but I think the books I’m reading must not overlap much with the ones they’re reading.

The “worst things” category does include Gedder, in Daniel Abraham’s The Dagger and the Coin, who burns down a city after blocking the gates so that no one can get out. There is a genocidal tyrant, even though Gedder is not really a tyrant, at least not at the time, as he doesn’t have that much power.

Enough to burn down a city with the population locked inside, though.

It is not necessary to show Gedder doing anything cruel, in person, to an individual. In fact, showing him being cruel on an individual level would make him less awful. A villain who glories in being vicious is probably not as utterly horrifying as a villain who sort of stumbles weakly into mass murder, then justifies the act afterward.


This moment, and this character, are not the only reason I never went on to the second book in that series. But they contributed to that reluctance.

A good example of epic fantasy with a gritty edge and many villains, some quite complex and some simpler, is The Shadow Campaigns series by Django Wexler. I will note that in that series, Wexler shows attempted rape. But he never shows successful rape on screen.

Off screen, in a character’s backstory, yes. Marie Brennan has something to say about that too:

2. I need to motivate one of my characters.

. . . okay. But why rape? Why is that your go-to motivation? …

… time and time again, we have female characters being motivated by rape, and male characters being motivated by the rape and murder of their wives/sisters/daughters.

Try harder. Think about the emotional impact of everything else this character has experienced, and what else you can use if the current material isn’t enough. Ask yourself why rape is the best answer to this question, when it’s about as fresh as having a Dark Lord with Armies of Monstrous Minions as your villain. 

In Wexler’s case, there is in fact a reason why rape is one motivator for Jane (not the only or probably the most central motivation, I’ll add). This is the case because being sold into slavery/marriage was the whole point of that home for girls where she and Winter were both held for part of their childhood. It wasn’t incidental. That institution set up everything about Winter’s backstory as well as Janes.

Being sold to that brute was not only a motivator — again, not the only one — for Jane; having Jane sold that way, and failing to save her, was a central motivator for Winter. So in this case, that element of the backstory ticks both boxes for the “time and time again” comment Marie Brennan makes.

Why it works: Lots of reasons, I think. It’s in the backstory; it’s not only non-explicit, it’s not shown and barely referred to; the rapist is killed because of his act; the victim is the ones who kill her attacker; Jane’s primary motivation comes from other issues that have only a tenuous relationship to that aspect of her backstory.

And most of all because of the complicated way the whole situation feeds into Winter’s backstory and into the relationship between Winter and Jane. The primary problem for Winter was that Jane asked her to murder the man for her and Winter couldn’t bring herself to even make a serious attempt to do that. Not only did that motivate Winter’s escape from the home, it became for her the central defining failure of her life. Then later, well, Winter’s and Jane’s shared background has a ton of ramifications and in fact the relationship between those two characters is arguably the central pillar of the whole series.

So, Brennan’s essay is definitely a good one and well worth reading. And Wexler’s series is definitely one I’d pick over Game of Thrones, not only because of treatment of rape in the respective series, but just because as far as I’m concerned The Shadow Campaigns is just a better epic fantasy.

In fact, it would be great to see it turned into a TV series. If we were voting on next epic fantasy series to be picked up for TV, I’d vote for it. I’d even actually watch it.

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Killing your characters

Can you kill important characters? Sure. Happens all the time.

Should you? When does that work and when does it fail, or perhaps go over the top? Let’s take a look at various examples of SFF novels featuring the deaths of important secondary characters and/or the deaths of protagonists, and consider why those do or don’t work.

As it happens, I’m not personally too keen on authors who slaughter characters left and right for no good reason. I’m thinking here of Game of Thrones. It was one thing when Martin set the reader up to think Ned Stark was going to be an important protagonist and then killed the character early in the series. That was a way to break important assumptions for how the story was going to unfold. It increased tension in a good way, for a good reason — who else might seem too crucial to die, while actually headed for an early grave?

But besides that, as I recall, from time to time Martin also introduces a new pov character and then kills that character at the end of the chapter. I mean, what is even the point?

On a related note, personally, except in murder mysteries, I detest the trick where the author kills the pov character with whom he opens the book. When that happens with a new-to-me author, it’s probably going to be a DNF moment.

Even more annoying than that are authors who set out to manipulate you by introducing a very likable character specifically in order to kill her. (It’s always a “her.”) If this manipulation is too blatant, it’s a real turnoff. I’m thinking of all of Steven King’s recent books, here, where very likable characters are obviously present solely to function as tearjerkers upon their gratuitous deaths, which is why I eventually stopped reading King’s books.

However, it’s not like I’m opposed to character death per se. The pathos created by a sympathetic character’s death can be very useful when it’s done well and for a good reason. In a recent WIP, I deliberately killed a particular secondary character after going to some trouble to make the reader like him. Even though his death wasn’t at all important to the plot, it wasn’t gratuitous either; on the contrary, it was essential. I had to do it because without the death of that character, the deaths of a couple hundred other people would have passed without a blip on the reader’s emotional radar. They weren’t known, they were just a faceless mass. The death of the one character served as a proxy for all those deaths, giving that whole scene emotional heft it had completely lacked before.

I’ve killed other characters, of course, and I’m sure I’ll kill more in the future. Sometimes it’s necessary to get the plot to work and sometimes it’s necessary to add emotional weight and sometimes for some other reason — you know, there’s an infographic for this — here:

I think this is a very good infographic! Best touch: having “removes an extraneous character” on both sides of the graphic.

Perhaps somewhat iffy: while the death of a secondary character may be motivating to your primary protagonist, the modern author may wish to avoid having all the female characters exist solely to motivate the male protagonist through their abuse and/or death.

I will also just note, considering the above infographic, that if I’d known how The Great Escape ended, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. I prefer less realism and more survival in my WWII fictionalized novels and movies.

But, though I really like the above infographic, I believe that the whole thing can be boiled down to this: two things are always, always bad when killing a character —

a) The reader can see the strings you’re pulling. You should indeed do things for a reason, but your manipulation should not be nearly that visible.


b) Killing a dog. Sorry. Other sympathetic characters may have to die, but the dog should live happily ever after.

Incidentally, T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones, which I’m about a quarter of the way through now, features a Very Good Dog. The dog is an important character AND important to the plot AND really well done, because Ursula Vernon / T. Kingfisher knows her dogs.

And right up near the beginning, the author makes it clear that the dog lives by throwing in a casual line: “… but because he’s a coonhound and all nose, we both survived.” or something like that. I bet that is not a chance occurrence. I bet she deliberately chose to let the reader know this up front, to avoid alienating those readers who won’t touch a book until they can be sure the dog lives.

I really like the story so far, by the way! Getting creepy, but without overt gore or anything of the kind. It reminds me just a bit of Sunshine by McKinley, even though it’s very different.

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Shifting the reader’s view of secondary characters

So, Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan is a new standalone, or perhaps the first book of a series related to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. It definitely reads like the first book of a series, though it concludes the main plotline perfectly well.

If I’d realized there were two covers, I’d have gotten the white one. Oh well. Moving on to the actual story:

This is an epistolary novel, which is in keeping with the Lady Trent series. In this case, it’s mostly diary entries written by Audrey, granddaughter of Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent. Audrey has been given the task of translating an extensive set of Draconean tablets, which turn out to contain an important creation myth of the Draconean people. (To offset the unlikely nature of this amazing discovery, we are told that the vast majority of Draconean tablets found are just tax records, which does seem a lot more likely than stumbling across a central myth.)

The myth is interesting and engaging in its own right. Brennan plainly put a lot of thought into writing a creation myth in a style that seems (a) archaic; (b) plausible; (c) different from, if reminiscent of, any actual creation myth in the real world; and (d) consistent with what we already know about Draconeans from the previous series. Interspersing the myth with current action as bits of it get translated is a good way to handle it. If it were handed to the reader all at once it wouldn’t be as interesting or (it turns out) as suited to the overall plot.

Anyway, translating this myth in time for a specific political event constitutes the basic setup of the story. There’s a certain amount of chicanery going on, as plenty of people have strong motivations to interfere one way or another. But that’s not quite the aspect of the story I want to focus on here. Audrey is an engaging-enough protagonist, though actually I found Cora Fitzarthur the most interesting character in the story by a wide margin, but I don’t actually want to focus on either of them right now either.

No, what I’m most interested in is the development of a secondary antagonist, Aaron Mornett, and the reason I’m interested in him is because he presents such an interesting contrast with another antagonist, James Drake from Kate Elliot’s Spiritwalker trilogy.

Now, if you’ve read the Spiritwalker trilogy, then you definitely remember Drake. He’s the one who seems like a good guy when we first meet him, and then every single time he reappears, he seems worse. And worse, and worse, until he arguably becomes the primary antagonist and definitely becomes the most despicable villain in the story. Elliot takes her time developing Drake, so for some time the reader may be unsure. This one thing he did was bad, but maybe not that bad? Maybe we can understand it. It’s offset by actions that are good. Or arguably good, if possibly a bit ambiguous. Then Drake does something else, and something else, and before long the reader is repulsed and then strongly repulsed. By the end, James Drake is one of the most awful bad guys I can think of. But when the reader first encounters him, that won’t be the impression at all. This is something Elliot develops slowly over the course of the whole story.

Aaron Mornett in Turning Darkness into Light seems poised to develop in precisely the opposite direction. Here in this book, we are given ample reason to distrust and dislike Mornett, but – and I think this is important – not because he is a really awful person. His great fault is intellectual fraud and plagiarism, and while I absolutely agree with Audrey Camherst that this is very bad, it’s not remotely on the same level of, say, torturing puppies.

James Drake is the kind of bad guy who isn’t going to be redeemable because the arc of justice in the story demands his destruction; nothing less can possibly satisfy the reader. That isn’t likely at all in Mornett’s case. Several times during the course of the story, Aaron Mornett does something kind or virtuous or both; it’s clear he really does have feelings for Audrey, though she is totally justified in not forgiving him for the things he’s done. It seems to me that Marie Brennan is deliberately setting Mornett up to be a returning character who shifts from an antagonist to an ally, and then most likely to a love interest.

That’s interesting and fun. It’s probably tough to do this kind of shift, where the reader’s perception of an important secondary character shifts completely over the course of the story, in less than a trilogy. The author has to do it gradually or it’s not as believable or at least not as effective. Plus Aaron really did engage in dreadful intellectual fraud and that is not something that can be brushed lightly aside. Not just a shift in the reader’s perception is going to be required (if Brennan does go in that direction) — it will take a change in the character himself.

Not quite the same, but related: some authors have a knack for handling an abrupt shift of perception from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally. In this case, the abruptness can be part of the reason it’s effective, as the protagonist’s, and thus the reader’s, opinion is jerked sharply sideways. Barbara Hambly is especially good at that, or at least especially likely to do that. If you’ve been keeping up with the Benjamin January series, you may recall Chloe, Henri’s wife. Henri is the “protector” of Benjamin’s sister’s Minou, as you may know, and when this marriage first looms on the horizon, it is presented as a serious threat to Minou because Chloe is cold as ice and possibly truly vicious. Then we actually meet her and wham! our perception is radically altered within a sentence or two.

This is so characteristic of Hambly’s storytelling that when I was reading Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton, when the same kind of sharp perceptual shift happened with Lieutenant Coldstone, I immediately said, “I bet this is really Barbara Hambly,” and looked for confirmation online. Sure enough, “Barbara Hamilton” is Barbara Hambly. No doubt the sentence-level writing contains all kinds of tells, and I might have picked up on those subconsciously, but it was this abrupt shift from presumed-enemy-to-actual-ally that made me sit up and say, “This is Hambly’s writing.”

None of this is the same as the sometimes rather artificial dislike-to-love arc that’s so very common in romance. That kind of arc can work, of course, though it’s so cliched it’s hard to make it seem sufficiently real and natural to satisfy an experienced reader. I can think of several examples that worked for me, or at least didn’t really irritate me. But the relationship between Audrey Camherst and Aaron Mornett is very different. Here, Audrey’s opinion is not remotely based on a misunderstanding, and sorting out that relationship would take, not a change in perception nor a decision by Audrey to tolerate a slight flaw in Aaron’s character, but a real change in Aaron’s ideas about right and wrong.

I hope I’m right that this book is the first in a series, because I’d enjoy watching that happen.

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Is it possible to mechanically construct lyrical prose?

Here’s a recent post at Well Storied: Three Tips for Crafting Lyrical Prose

Tips are all very well, but this gave me pause. Can you teach someone to write serviceable prose? Sure. Can you actually teach someone to write lyrical prose? Um. Can you provide three tips that make an actual difference? Um …

Well, I am skeptical, but let me see.

Tip 1: Use different types of repetition. The author is talking about alliteration, consonance, and assonance.

Hmm. The first thing that sprang to my mind was none of the above. I thought first of repetition of words, and the book that sprang to mind was The Silver Chair by CS Lewis. In that one, Lewis might have gone a little overboard with repetition of certain words, such as “moonlight” and “silver.” He might not agree that he overdid it; I read in Planet Narnia that Lewis specifically liked repetition of words as a way of achieving lyricism in prose.

CS Lewis also used plenty of other techniques, including alliteration, as here in The Screwtape Letters : “Was he not unmistakably a little man? A creature of the petty rake-off, pocketed with a petty joke in private and denied with the stainless platitudes in his public utterances.”

Tip 2: Set your syllabic style. The post appears to mean, stick either to shorter words or longer ones.

That seems weird to me. Though the author of the post does say, “Now, this doesn’t mean you have to use the same syllable count throughout your entire short story; instead, you just have to keep some syllabic consistencies within certain sections of your prose.”

… No, that still seems weird to me. I guess I would think of this as part of the style, but only part, and not necessarily worth focusing on especially. Word choice is surely at least as important as number of syllables.

Two syllable words that anybody would use:

Christmas, special, garden, midnight, happy, future, Monday, water.

Two syllable words that not just anybody would use:

adjure, ersatz, verdant, feckless, ribald, inure, nuance.

Number of syllables actually has little to do with style. I mean, I guess it’s a contributing factor to style, but pulling it out as one of three factors on which to focus seems, yes, weird. It seems to me that it would have been better to say Set your style and discuss that, as opposed to focusing on number of syllables.

Tip 3: Consider sentence structure.

The author of the post says: “A short, punchy sentence conveys abrupt truth, sureness, and practicality. A long, flowing sentence, however, can usher in a lyrical feel and a sense of elasticity.”

Here I agree. However, I’d roll that into “style,” and I’d add that it’s important to note that a short sentence only has maximum punch if it’s surrounded by longer sentences. Let me see . . . no, nothing here about how varying your sentence length could be important.

Pretty sure that three fairly simplistic tips are not going to guide anyone from serviceable prose to lyrical prose. Pretty sure that ten tips won’t do it either. I think what might is reading a bunch of novels written with lyrical prose. After reading ten or so, maybe that would be the right time to ask yourself what the authors are actually doing and begin to dissect sentences.

So, fine —

Ten authors who write lyrical SFF, in no particular order

1.Patricia McKillip

2. Guy Gavriel Kay

3. Ursula K LeGuin

4. Jane Yolen

5. Catherynne Valente

6. Peter S Beagle

7. Gene Wolfe

8. Joy Chant

9. Rachel Neumeier

10. ____________________________

Who else? Pick someone to fill in the blank.

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For love of the comma

I found this article via a link from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog:

For Love of the Comma

What I’ve learned 18 books later is that, while other punctuation has a distinct and undebatable purpose, the comma remains ambiguous. A period signals a stop. A question mark demands an answer. An exclamation point should be used sparingly and never in threes. …

The comma is an enigma. Loved and loathed. Bound by personal taste rather than rigid rule books.

In a social media–saturated world where everybody is screaming the loudest that they’re right and you’re wrong, the comma lives in gray areas of uncertainty. It asks us to take a breath, reflect, and listen. It reminds us to consider words and meaning. For a small piece of punctuation, that’s a profound gift.

Entertaining essay! Fine, okay, sure, I agree the comma is ambiguous in the sense that the overall rule is: Use them for clarity first, follow rules second. Some of the rules offer less wiggle room than others, however. Comma rules that are unbreakable:

a) commas must be used in a series of more than two items.

b) commas must be used to set off parenthetical phrases (unless you’re using something else to set off those phrases).

c) commas must be used to set off transitional expressions such as “however” and “moreover.”

d) commas MUST be used appropriately to begin or end dialogue. Nothing looks worse than incorrect periods in dialogue.

But there are a whole bunch of places I think require artistic judgment, because it’s surprising how often you want to break the rules:

e) commas should not be used between two complete sentences, unless you want to introduce a rushed feel to dialogue or thoughts, and then you might use comma splices to achieve that.

f-a) commas should be used in front of conjunctions that introduce independent clauses, unless the clauses are very short

f-b) ditto, unless the sentence is really complicated and has a lot of truly crucial commas in it already. In the latter case, rather than taking the sentence apart, you may choose to omit a usually required comma, and this particular kind of comma may be a good choice.

f-b) ditto, unless you want to promote that comma to a semicolon. This is sure to be queried by a copy editor (as is most of this stuff, I guess), but if you decide you really do want that semicolon there, then you can do that. It’ll produce a slightly exaggerated pause and emphasize both the clause before and especially the clause after the semicolon. I got this technique from CJ Cherryh and think of her when I stet a semicolon of this kind during copy edits.

g) commas should be used between adjectives unless you choose not to put them there. Either choice will produce a distinctive feel to the prose. I’ve done it both ways, most dramatically in The City in the Lake, where I omitted most of those commas because I liked the more poetic feel this gave the prose.

h) commas can be used to set off conversational tags, unless you choose to omit them. In general, I think it looks better to say “Now, now, Bob. Don’t lose your cool.” than to omit the tag commas. I think it looks MUCH better to say “Yes, sir.” than omit the comma. But certainly I’ve seen writers choose to omit it.

i) commas can be omitted after short introductory clauses, and how short is short is up to the writer.

Which leads into this comment from Kristine Kathryn Rusch about the linked article. The author of the comma essay, Kate Dyer-Seeley, says:

Copy editors have differing and unwavering beliefs how best to use the comma. When my first manuscript went through copy edits, every introductory comma was removed. I made note and intentionally didn’t use a single introductory comma in the next manuscript. 

And KKR responds:

She tried to learn what her editors “wanted” when it came to the comma, rather than telling the original editors that she believed in the introductory comma, at least for the piece she had written for those editors. Dyer-Seeley’s subconscious had believed the introductory comma needed to be there, so she had put it there. And then meekly removed it when asked by someone who “was in charge” or “knew better.”

I have three responses to this conundrum:

First: The copy editor does know the correct punctuation rules, or should. The author should cherish the opportunity to think carefully about breaking those rules and may very well decide that the nonstandard punctuation originally chosen may in fact distract the reader or otherwise not be worth pursuing.

Second: Sometimes the author is right about the artistic effect and in that case KKR is correct: the author should defend her own usage by profligate use of “stet.”

Third: Sometimes, however, the punctuation in question is actually pretty trivial and the author need not feel committed to defending it. It’s okay to use or not use commas after some or most introductory clauses. That’s all right either way, as long as the author doesn’t think it matters all that much.

There have definitely been times I have let a suggested change go forward because I just felt, Well, whatever, this is fine either way. That isn’t even rare! It happens dozens of times during copy edits. I’ve had editors email me about some last-minute sentence level thing and I have literally emailed back, Either way is fine with me, whichever you prefer.

My last copy editor took out a good many introductory commas and I thought that was perfectly okay. I liked the sentences fine the way she preferred, let her take out most of those commas, and decreased my use of commas after introductory clauses not because I let my artistic judgment get overruled by the copy editor, but because I let my judgment get influenced by the copy editor. Which is fine! Everyone’s judgment gets influenced by all kinds of things! The important thing is to make a deliberate decision based on how the change feels to you artistically, not cling like grim death to the way you’ve done it in the past because you just don’t want to consider alternatives when those are suggested.

… So, anyway, both KKR’s post and the original post about commas are worth reading. And if you now find you pay a lot more attention to commas in the next book you read, sorry! I’m sure punctuation will once again fade into the “feel” and “sound” of the prose shortly and become much less visible.

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