Making Readers Care

Does the reader actually care about the protagonist? If they don’t, it doesn’t matter what happens – they just won’t care.

I am indebted to one of my readers who reminded me of this scene from Pixar’s Up (and the uploader… and Pixar). I can still remember being affected by it at the cinemas when I first saw it. In just four and a half minutes, we are deeply emotionally attached to the protagonist.

It shows massive skill when a cartoon (that we know is entirely fake) can cause a strong emotional response in an adult. (In fact perhaps they did it too well, I think that sad-feeling lingered with me throughout the movie).

Looking at the components of the clip:

  • it starts by showing us two people in love.
  • They establish their life together and have hopes and dreams, which they start out achieving. They are romantic and optimistic.
  • They prepare for the future with children and then their dreams are dashed with loss of the child (and the dream).
  • He does what he can to lift her spirits and they start to dream again, making a promise to one another to achieve it.
  • Then life happens. They are still in love, enjoying one another’s companionship.and then he realises their chance of reaching their dreams has almost passed.
  • And then, before he can remedy the situation, unexpectedly illness strikes. No longer together, he must live on without her.

At this stage the hurt is palpable in the watcher. I can feel it in my throat as it tightens.

This is such a powerful scene because we can relate to it.  We all want the best for our loved ones, to have their dreams and to always be with them.

Now I just need to work out how to do this with words (without being cheesy). Any recommendations of stories where other authors do this well? Continue reading

VWC Revision: Renaming Characters

Still learning how to write, I don’t always do the right thing at the right time.

The writing luminary Orson Scott Card has rules for naming characters (here and here). The primary rule is that character’s names should not start with the same letter or sound. A sensible rule.

The image below lists all of the named characters in Vengeance Will Come and highlights the problem.

VWC Named Characters Original

(Those in grey are minor characters who don’t get a point-of-view. Some appear repeatedly, and others are only in a single scene).

Too many names?

There are, arguably, too many names and if possible I’ll cull a few of them during the course of the revision by de-naming them.

The reason for so many characters is two-fold. I admit I find it awkward and unnatural to refer to someone multiple times without assigning them a name. Occasionally I’ll give them a nickname (like “Tuxedo” or “Double Muscle”), but doing that too often also feels unnatural – unless that’s a point of view character quirk. Also, like a good fan of Robert Jordan I plan to take a few of the minor characters and elevate them in subsequent books.

Breaking Uncle Orson’s rule

This is a problem I should have fixed much earlier, but better late than never. You’ll also notice in the original image there are a heck of a lot of characters named with similar letters (S, T and M). So here are my proposed changes:

VWC Named Characters Revised

I’m achieving a few goals with these changes:

  1. I’m de-stacking the heaviest use letters.
  2. I’m strategically changing the gender of Teskan (see upcoming post about gender balance).
  3. I’m structuring names in-world. It’s always bothered me that some characters have two names while others only have the one. This was just how it was and I had no good reason for it. Now I do: important individuals (the elite) in the world get two names, whereas everyone else gets one.

The only difficult, and possibly controversial change I wrestled with was “Three”. My opinion pivoted like a see-saw.

On the one hand some reviewers found it understandably difficult, because it’s a real word with a different meaning. It can therefore trip the brain up for a while.

However some respected reviewers liked it and were upset at my thoughts of altering it.

It does breach Uncle Orson’s rule, and is especially dangerous because another major character (Terefi) use the same letter. I can’t change Terefi because of the origin of his name.

But I was also really fond of the name. It’s so different that I think it helps put an “other world” spin on it. (Which, in hindsight, is kind of ironic because we have some crazy names being used on this planet). As I originally conceived it, it is also more than just a name, though that won’t become apparent until later in the series.

So eventually the see-saw motion stopped and Three remained.

A final warning

The other draw back I’ll warn you about is using words that the grammar checker will work itself into a lather over. Because three is a legitimate word, but capitalising it in the middle of a sentence is not kosher, the grammar checker has a perpetual hissy-fit. Even worse (and I’m not sure I should admit this) “Three” started off as “X”. Just a bad move; I don’t think I could get the spellchecker to ignore the single letter.

Hopefully these changes will help to balance out name-usage and make it easier for my readers. Now it’s just a matter of retraining my brain and muscle memory to type the new names instead of the old.


Help over the fence

Want a beta-reader? I’ve been helped in my development process by other beta readers and now it’s my turn to ‘pay it forward’. Each month I’ll read a chapter of someone’s story and comment on it. To be eligible, just comment on one of my posts with “*Review*” in the comment and you’re in the running.

A Reformation is Needed

One of my earliest posts on this blog was about creating a Story Bible – an in-world encyclopaedia to go with my novel.

It’s somewhat depressing to read in that post:

I am getting closer to finishing my first novel…

and be still talking about the same novel, two and a bit years later. Well, I guess technically any progress is moving closer… and (in some respects) I have finished it; now I’m just polishing.

I’m currently revising Vengeance Will Come, hopefully for the last time (pre-publication or pre-free-release), and I’ve noticed that only best intentions weren’t enough to keep my story bible well organised or up-to-date. If only I’d used best intentions and discipline it’d be in a better state.

The question is do I use valuable editing time to tidy up the story bible, ensuring it’s true to the current version of the story? The answer is yes. Vengeance Will Come is book 1 of a series, and so I need my source material to be easily accessible (and accurate) for when writing other books in the series.

I’ll however keep editing for a while longer while my brain is sharp. As the Writing Excuses podcast would say, “‘Smart Ben’ can edit. When ‘Dumb Ben’ subs-in later, he can work on the story bible.”

Examining Character Balance: The Rebel Queen

One of the things I’d recommend before getting into the actual revision of a writing project is to take a step back and look at the character balance.

To discuss this topic I’ll be using my second novel The Rebel Queen and examining how regularly each character gets a point-of-view turn. (To do this I’m using an Excel workbook that I intend on making available soon).

Does a character rarely get a point-of-view?

Every time there’s a new viewpoint the reader needs to create a little box in their memory to store the character’s personality, opinion and experiences. The reader can only keep track of a small number of boxes, so adding too many is problematic. (Sidebar: George RR Martin is famous for his huge cast of characters, but I think I was halfway through the first book before I could differentiate properly between characters. Occasionally throughout the series I also read scenes not remembering who this particular character was).

Minor characters clog up your reader’s memory and are also likely to be under-developed, crude caricatures of what a character should be. Sometimes a minor character is legitimately required; that’s the only time they should be used.

If a character only has a small number of viewpoints my first preference will be to eliminate them as a point-of-view character. I’ll ask myself:

  1. What is their viewpoint providing?
  2. Are those outcomes critical?
  3. Can another character or a change in circumstances deliver the same outcomes?

In The Rebel Queen the worst two offenders are clear. Den-ta, who gets a single scene in the final chapters of the book is definitely going to be cut. The Prior, who is an important plot aspect is a little harder to determine. I’ll try to cut him first, but if that doesn’t work I’ll resurrect him and pad him out.

However, if the character’s viewpoint is irreplaceable and necessary then I’ll be looking for ways to give them more “air time”. If I can’t kill ’em, I’ll try to make them stronger. Can they be involved in more scenes? Can they replace another character’s viewpoint on some scenes?

Draft Cal POV

I’ll be looking for a few more scenes for the character Cal; trying to raise her prominence.

Are there characters who get introduced too late?
My current rule of thumb is that I don’t want to introduce any new character viewpoints after halfway through the story. By that point everything should be moving towards resolution, not continuing to expand. (Sidebar: Interesting question: Does that hold true in a series? I think so. I prefer the method Robert Jordan uses, taking a minor character who doesn’t have a viewpoint until a later book). Introducing a character towards the end of the story also risks them being a deus ex machina (“person or event which provides a sudden, unexpected solution to a story”).

In George RR Martin’s A Dance with Dragons poor old Uncle Kevan waited approximately 900 pages for a viewpoint, and dies at the end of the scene. As a reader, it felt like a completely unnecessary death; almost like Martin realised he hadn’t killed anyone recently, so someone had to die. The problem was, I didn’t know who Kevan was, so I didn’t care at all that he died.

Draft General Pkar POV

Returning to The Rebel Queen, even though General Pkar is a significant character in the story, I discover that he doesn’t get a point of view until too late. I’ll be looking to give him a scene or two earlier in the story, so the reader know he’s important.

Are there characters who go silent?

This aspect is more complex to work out (and it seems, to describe too). I’m looking at the gaps between points of view, when combined with plot developments. In the image above General Pkar goes silent for 4 chapters (15-18) but in this instance that is okay – the plot-action is happening elsewhere.

But if there was a plot thread that General Pkar was chasing down and he inexplicably went silent for multiple chapters, that might be a problem.

Note however that they don’t necessarily need a point-of-view; it might be enough to have them mentioned by another character, so that we know they are still around.

Mind Blowing

Developing a Writing Tool

A quick blog post to announce what I’ve been working on. Some might call it procrastination and not writing, but I prefer to think of it as tool development for myself and for you.

I’m working up an Excel workbook which can be used to keep statistics, plot information and whatever else I think of adding to aid in the writing process. I’m actually pretty close to finishing v1.0, but I really should do some writing so I will try to shelve it for today.

As a taster, here is the Character Point-Of-View chart which can be used to visually display how often a character is getting a turn. This chart is automatically generated based off information entered into a table. Using the drop-down list next to “Select Character” you can highlight an individual character. (This is an evolutionary improvement on my earlier visualisation).

Character POV chart

Mind Blowing Reading

I’ve been reading through Weird Life by David Toomey. Here are two quotes that describe how cells work (page 86 and 87 respectively).

To take one example, when a cell somewhere in your body needs insulin, certain proteins inside the cell pull apart a section of the DNA molecule pairs, exposing the particular sequence of base pairs that signifies one of the many amino acids needed to make an insulin molecule. Other proteins read the sequence and make an ad hoc and temporary copy called messenger RNA. Then, still other proteins work over the messenger RNA, slicing and splicing until they’ve fashioned the amino acid needed. Finally, the molecules of protein and DNA called ribosomes (the structure that, you may recall, may set the lower size limit of a cell) pull the newly formed amino acid together with others made the same way by other proteins, and coordinate with other ribosomes, all now pulling and pushing their own amino acids to assemble a molecule of insulin.

And then

As complex as chores necessary to maintaining a metabolism are, they are in some ways mere prelude and preparations for the main event: reproduction. Familiar life can reproduce, of course, because cells divide. For cells with nuclei, it all begins inside the nucleus, when proteins don’t pull apart merely a section of the DNA molecule; they unwind and unzip the entire molecule along one strand, make a copy, correct and repair proofreading errors, and, from material in the surrounding cytoplasm, fashion a matching strand that winds together with the copy, base locking neatly to a base. Then the parent DNA, its own strands zipped up and rewound, is pulled to one side of the nucleus, the child DNA is pulled to the other, and the nucleus itself is squeezed in the middle until it splits into halves. Shortly thereafter the cell does likewise, with each half holding a nucleus. Where there was one cell, now there are two.

I don’t know about you but to me, that is absolutely mind-blowing.

The irony is, even with talk of having nanobots in the future, all they will be doing is replicating (and improving on) to what our body already does.

Personally I think it takes more faith to believe in creation big-bang style than it does to believe that God’s hand and mind were at work.

Struggling to not-edit

There’s been a lot of times recently where I’ve been sick to death of editing Vengeance Will Come. I thought that it would never finish…

And now, I just want to edit The Rebel Queen. I don’t want to read it or only look for certain aspects (which I wrote about only yesterday). I just want to edit. I just want to write.

As I write, I’m starting to build up a collection of laminated notes that I’m going to stick to my writing desk. Some of this is all-writing information (like grammar rules) and also can be story-specific prompts (character voice).

The latest addition to my notes is from Robin Hobb (Writing Excuses, Season 11, bonus episode 1). It isn’t anything new, but it’s good to remember and she says it very well:

“So, when I sit down with my character and I begin typing and the character is speaking in first-person to me, things are unravelling and the world is being built entirely from that person’s point of view. … I’m experiencing it completely from that point of view.”

“If you’re writing from the first person if you are an assassin who walks into a room and there’s three people there what he notices is going to be very different from the child character who runs in the room and is totally fixed on finding the toy they left there earlier, and the three people standing around talking don’t matter at all.

In everything you do, you put on that character like you put on a coat. And you wear it, and everything is from that characters point of view and their value system. If you’re writing a villain, and you put on that coat, no matter how you feel about it personally, you’d better share all of her opinions and justifications, and everything she feels about it. If she is paranoid or outraged… from the time you put on her coat you have to be 100% on her side.”

 

 

On Robert Jordan

375px-robert_jordan
“Robert Jordan” in 2005

As I’ve written numerous times the quality of writing is subjective; Robert Jordan was occasionally too verbose for my liking.

Having said that, I must immediately leap to his defense. He is writing epic fantasy which is known for its length and exposition. He has also written a mammoth series, so the occasional ‘loosening’ of passages is unavoidable and entirely forgivable. His Wheel of Time series is beyond popular (over 11 million copies) and he has legions of fans in 25 countries.

Though I may find fault with the occasional element of his writing I am awed by his formidable writing quality. He does so many things excellently.

I would love to know how he plotted, how he could seemingly see books in advance and lay the foundations for epic plots. Was it all in advance or did he throw things in and decide how to use them later?

His world building has produced fertile ground of a vast scale that deserves to be transformed into a multi-season TV series and numerous computer games. He inverts social norms but leaves it cohesive and structurally sound. Each civilization is distinct, unique and rich.

Each character has a journey, likable traits and weaknesses. He does character perspective and voice like a stage performer. The reader is dragged along, following the diverse but connected adventures of each of the many characters.

I sit in the huge shadow that he casts. There is nothing like standing next to a giant to make you feel small. I am somewhat depressed at the gap I see between our writing skill. I must remind myself that he had been publishing stories since 1977 and had 18 years experience before The Eye of the World was published. I have only just not-yet begun.

It is for these many reasons I consider Robert Jordan to be among one of my vicarious writing mentors. He was a master of the writing craft.

(I have been analysing The Eye of the World chapter-by-chapter. Part 1, 2, 3, 3b and 4).