Characters We Like

Last week, Nathan Bransford talked about what he feels makes a character sympathetic. He gave this formula: "charisma - action = redeemability" and suggested that if a character's redeemability dropped below a certain base line, that character would lose the sympathy of the reader, and if that character is the protagonist, or any other character that's supposed to be likable, the story's in big trouble.

It's a good way of looking at it, but from this author's point of view it's a little too vague to be workable. So I present to you this almost-checklist derived from Orson Scott Card's Characters & Viewpoint.

10 Things We Like in Characters
  1. Courage: Does what's right even if it's risky.
  2. Fair Play: Doesn't cheat. Isn't sneaky or underhanded.
  3. Humility: Doesn't brag. Is modest or shy about praise. Doesn't argue to defend themselves when criticized. Takes responsibility for their mistakes. Doesn't whine or complain about their problems, but tries to solve them.
  4. Draftee/Volunteer: Related to humility. If a job requires great courage, but won't bring much glory or reward, the sympathetic character will volunteer for it. Conversely, if a job will bring glory and reward, the sympathetic character needs to be drafted.
  5. Dependable: Keeps their word as much as possible.
  6. Clever: Thinks of smart solutions to difficult problems.
  7. Victim: We pity a character who is a victim of suffering or jeopardy, but you have to be careful. Too much of a victim seems weak; after all, a real character would do something about it. This works best if we know the character has tried their hardest and still can't get out of the situation.
  8. Savior: Rescues those in need. Readily defends someone who is being criticized unfairly.
  9. Sacrifice: A character who sacrifices themselves for something is hugely sympathetic, but only if the sacrifice is necessary and if it's for something important and worthy. Otherwise, we'll think the character is just stupid.
  10. Goals and Dreams: In general, sympathy will increase with the importance of the character's goal and the amount of effort they've already expended to try to attain it.
Of course, there are no hard rules in writing. Like everything else, these are guidelines.

It's also not a checklist. If you try to imagine a character with all these qualities, you may find yourself sickened of them. A perfect character becomes unbelievable and unlikable. The best characters - our very favorites - are ones who are mostly sympathetic, the ones who have some small, understandable flaws that make them real and (strangely) lovable.

There's also a very fine line for some of these. For example, a character who is clever is likable, but a character who knows they're clever, and acts like it, is just the opposite. I'll talk about that a little more in the next post: Characters We Hate.

Night Sky in Chiang Mai

(For Nixy Valentine's Writing Adventure Group)

Of course I understand the physics of it - suffusion of light, a terrestrial observation point, and all that. Even so, I am dumbfounded at how a handful of heated wires and gases can reduce billions of celestial furnaces into a countable collection of hazy dots in a not-quite-black sky.

MORE INFORMATION (added 3/9): The assignment was to describe the sky. This was observational, so writers were encouraged to use descriptive words more than metaphors or emotive words. Follow the links below to see how other people took the exercise:

Cora Zane - Stars Will Cry

Sharon Donovan

Adam Heine - Authors Echo

Nancy Parra - This Writer’s Life

Criss - Criss Writes

Carol - DMWCarol

Nixy Valentine

Marsha Moore - Write On!

Jesse Blair - SexFoodPlay

Jackie Doss - The Pegasus Journals


JM Strother - Mad Utopia

Actual, Physical Writing

Last week I was at a homeschool conference for a couple of days. One of the days, there weren't any workshops I wanted to attend, but I still had to be there with my kids. That meant either sitting in a classroom I didn't want to be in, or waiting around for a few hours.

I chose the latter, because I'm good at waiting (I always bring 2 or 3 things to do on plane trips to the States, for example). In this case, I decided to take Tobias Buckell's advice and write on paper. I took out my old moleskine, given to me by a friend like 4 years ago. I've done lots of brainstorming and pseudo-outlining in the notebook before, but never actual writing. That is, I've never written anything in the notebook that I transferred directly to my manuscript. Tobias followed his own advice and shared his experience, so I thought I might as well do the same.

The thing I liked least is no surprise: it's slow. I can type almost as fast as I can think (or at least as fast I can decide what to say). Writing by hand bugs me because by the time I write a few words, I'm thinking 3 or 4 sentences ahead, and I forget how I was going to finish the first sentence.

I also didn't like being away from my notes (my timelines, my outlines, my character bibles, my maps...). I'm a planner, which means I have faith that my outlines are pretty decent to start with - there's a reason I plan. As I spent time writing without my notes, I felt like I was getting farther and farther off my plan.

There was one really good thing about it: it forced me to keep going. There was no e-mail to distract me, no World Doc to write sudden world-building thoughts in, no dictionary or thesaurus to ache over word choice. No notes meant I didn't spend time hunting down details, so when the protagonist referenced something that happened "4 years ago," I had to write "X years ago" and move on.

One of the things that forced me to keep going surprised me: there was no room to edit. Often when I get stuck on something (even if only for a few minutes), I end up looking back and revising. But writing single-spaced in the notebook, there was only a small amount of room to edit. Once I'd changed a word once or twice, there was no more room to change it, and I was forced to leave it and move on.

In the end, I wrote 1,000 words in 1-2 hours. That's about the same speed as my normal rate (although I still had to retype the whole thing once I got home). I'd definitely do it again, if given the opportunity, but I think I'd have to study my notes ahead of time to make sure I stayed on track.

Maybe the next time I fly to the States, I'll bring my notebook instead of my laptop. It's easier to carry around and setup anyway (especially with 2-year-olds in the next seat).

The Voices in my Head

Tony Jay is an English actor, best known for his voice acting in various cartoons and video games. He's played many roles, but it was always his villains I loved. His smooth, British baritone lent an air of danger and superiority to characters like Shere Khan (though not the one in the original Jungle Book) and Chairface Chippendale.

Now you may have no idea what I'm talking about. You may never have seen Tale Spin or The Tick. Odds are good you've never played Fallout, Torment, or Icewind Dale either, all of which starred villains voiced by the late Tony Jay.

But for me, these were some of my favorite stories, and now it's presenting an odd sort of problem. See, the other day I discovered that no matter who my villain is, no matter how well I know them or plan their background and character or even pretend to talk like them - when I sit down to write the dialogue of that villain I involuntarily write the voice of Tony Jay.

Like Arad, the nigh-omnipotent tyrant of Travelers. In my head, he speaks with Tony Jay's voice. Now I didn't realize this at the time because the voice fit. Arad is a dangerous being who considers himself superior to, literally, everybody. So I thought it was just Arad's voice.

But then the other day, I was trying to write Jacobin Savage, the cruel pirate captain from Azrael's Curse (slash Air Pirates). The pirates in this world tend to speak like something between the Irishman from Braveheart and Pirates' Captain Barbosa - fast and flippant, with heavy use of slang and light use of grammar. Savage was supposed to be no different, but when I tried to write his dialogue he sounded less like Captain Barbosa and more like Commodore Norrington.

The difference is relatively subtle on the page, I suppose. For example, Tony Jay's Savage might say, "You want to change the world, isn't that it? You want to rid it of folks like the Imperium, and you think by hitting military targets instead of random merchants, you might do that. What you don't see is that you're just scratching an itch."

But Savage's words need to be more like, "You want to change the world, aye? Want to rid it of the Imperium, and you reck you can do that by hitting Navy marks 'stead of chance merchers. But you're just scratching an itch."

Subtle differences. And for all I know they both sound like Alan Rickman in your head. But it's hard when I want Savage to have a unique voice, and all that comes out is Tony Jay.

So thank you, Tony, for portraying such memorable villains that I can no longer imagine evil in any other voice. You've simultaneously enriched and ruined my life. Well done.

I Heart My Alpha Reader

I have beta readers who will read the novel when it's finished. In the meantime, I have one person who is willing to read each chapter as it comes out, even if it's weeks or months between, even when the chapters she gets are a confusing mess.

She's my alpha reader. The following is a random list of things I love about her:
  • She claps in excitement when I tell her I have a new chapter.
  • It's fun to watch her read. She winces and laughs and gets scared at all the right moments.
  • She asks me all kinds of useful questions, especially when what I wrote doesn't make any sense.
  • She doesn't put up with me when I try to argue why something I wrote is right. (Don't argue with the reader!)
  • Even if a chapter sucks, she encourages me by telling me what she liked.
  • Having her read each chapter, when I haven't finished the novel yet, helps keep me going. It helps me believe that what I'm writing is worth reading - or can be.
  • Knowing she'll read the ending as it happens forces me to plan everything leading up to it, so it (hopefully) strikes her well.
  • Her questions, and her convictions about what "has to happen next," give me ideas I hadn't considered and make the novel better.
  • She doesn't give me ideas often (usually preferring to let me do the writing), but when she does they're always good.
  • She believes in me.
Everyone's got their own process. For some, an alpha reader might just get in the way. For heavy planners like me, though, I recommend finding someone who can tell you how you're doing, chapter by chapter. They don't have to be a writer, just a reader. My alpha reader (who's also my wife, if you didn't already figure) has as much to do with the quality of my manuscript as I do.

She doesn't even like sci-fi or fantasy.

Random Sentence Meme

I'm mutating a meme for writers (don't worry if you're not a writer, I still have instructions for you below):
  1. Open up your current work in progress. If you have no WIP, go to step 3.
  2. Leaving it in its current formatting, copy the 5th sentence on page 21, and paste it into the comments of this post. If your WIP does not have 21 pages, go to the last page divided by 2 (round up).
  3. If you have no WIP, use the 21st page/5th sentence of the book you are currently reading.
  4. If you are not currently reading a book, then get off the internet right now and read one.

A Spectator's View of Publishing's Future

UPDATE: See the comments for two more interesting articles on this topic.

Everyone's been talking about the future (or sometimes the end) of publishing lately. As a spectator, I am totally unqualified to talk about it, but I'm going to anyway because it's my blog and that's the way I like it. (Likewise, if this is a little stream-of-consciousness, I apologize. I'm kind of thinking out loud.)

I used to think that authors write the books, then publishers do all the printing, marketing, and selling of it so that we don't have to. It turns out that's not true (people have been talking about that too). So if all but the best selling authors are expected to do their own marketing, what is the publisher doing?

As far as I can see, they (1) get art for your cover, (2) pay for the printing, (3) get your book in bookstores, and (4) get your book in at least the basic review places. Those are good things. It's very hard for regular people to do any but (2), and if you are self-published, you can't do (3) or (4) at all.

But how many people read those reviews and then buy the book? Is that a lot of copies there? It's some, certainly, but it's not your main readerbase (well, certainly not in my genre). Similarly, who is buying books at bookstores (other than MattyDub and me, who would live at Borders if they let us)? That's some copies as well, but the bookstores seem to be dying which implies that fewer and fewer people are buying from there. That trend might not continue, but what if it does?

What I'm saying is, if the majority of my readerbase is coming from my own marketing efforts, then what do I get by being with a publisher?

Okay, okay. You get a lot of proofreaders who know what they're talking about, which makes your book a lot better and gives it Credibility. I don't want to knock that. Credibility is good. But it's possible to write a good book, and get a huge readerbase, without the credibility of a publisher. It's hard, but no harder, I think, than getting a publisher to begin with.

I guess my real point is that all the trends seem to be moving the advantages of a publisher away from them and into the hands of small authors. The internet is enabling us more, the slow death/metamorphosis of the publishers is requiring us to take on more. If the publishers don't figure this out soon, someone on the internet will find a way to hand out Credibility to self-published books, and then it will all be over.

Well, not over. Different.

(Bonus Question: how do I self-publish books on the Kindle? No print runs, no art required. I think that would undercut almost everything that's left of Big Publishing, if it can be done.)