In this blog post I discuss how I came to realise that I had a gender balance problem while writing my novel, Vengeance Will Come, and the steps I took to overcome it.
It’s a classic device in fantasy writing that a mentor will educate the hero or help them along in their journey.
Partly it’s an excuse to explain to the reader the rules of the magic system or society. It’s conveniently feeding them, at the same time as the protagonist, bite-sized pieces of information.
It also dovetails nicely with the protagonist’s character arc, developing competency and knowledge. The mentor teaches, and then stands back and watches, offering correction as best they can. Eventually, the mentor leaves – or is killed – and the protagonist must survive on their own, to show how capable they have become.
In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is a mentor-archetype. It is he who explains to Frodo the urgency of the mission and points him in the right direction. Gandalf helps to construct the fellowship, leads it and finally protects it when confronting the Balrog. While in some respects Gandalf is hands-off (frequently disappearing on side missions), he’s also a super-mentor. He pretty much knows everything and can be trusted to do the right thing. I don’t think I can remember him having a weakness or character flaw?
I really like what Patrick Rothfuss has done in The Name of the Wind. The lead character Kvothe is a child among the Edema Ruh, travelling performers of great repute with an eclectic mix of talent. After a tragedy befalls them, he lives alone in the forest for the summer, and then becomes homeless for many years in a crowded city. Circumstances occur so he can join the University he’s dreamed about as a child.
Kvothe’s vast range of experience, and the various mentors he’s had in life, enable him to believably possess a wide repertoire of skills. It’s a clever move by Rothfuss – putting him in such environments and contexts.
It is an epic-length read, but I’m greatly enjoying the book. Rothfuss has a great way with words, and I suspect I’ll be forced to read the entire series.
Still learning how to write, I don’t always do the right thing at the right time.
The image below lists all of the named characters in Vengeance Will Come and highlights the problem.
(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:
I’m achieving a few goals with these changes:
- I’m de-stacking the heaviest use letters.
- I’m strategically changing the gender of Teskan (see upcoming post about gender balance).
- 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.
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.
When you use your real name as a domain name you’re making yourself something of a public figure. (Possibly in the loosest sense of the word, just go with me for now). When you’re a public figure you have to be very careful how and what you say, so as to not unintentionally offend.
If you want to be a writer of fiction and you haven’t listened to the Writing Excuses podcasts then you’re flat-out crazy.
It needed to be said.
And perhaps you needed to hear it. You’re welcome.
As an amateur writer when I insert a character into a story I’m aware of their motivations and how they’ll interact with the other characters and situations. (At least I try to be).
When one of the Writing Excuses podcasters puts a character into a story their aware of so much more on a fundamentally deeper level. When it comes to constructing stories, while I build a lean-to in a slum they build a Palace fit for a King.
In a recent podcast (s9) Dan Brown talks about how his main character is a sociopath. The problem with sociopaths is they’re not really very likable people. So Brown puts in even more unlikable characters around the sociopath. Relatively speaking therefore the reader likes the sociopath. He also gives him a healthy dose of gallows humour (pun intentional).
Just a small example of how they’re thinking way beyond the sentence structure. When you have to take some time out from writing, you’d be wise to listen to Writing Excuses. It’s fifteen minutes of informative conversation interspersed with humour that will have you laughing out loud. Probably best not to listen to it at funerals.
On the long weekend just passed I’d intended on getting a good chunk of writing done. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
(Sidebar: In On Writing Stephen King wrote, “I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops.” If I may take literary license, I believe King was close: the road to hell is paved with good intentions, which are described in adverbs yelled by the travelers on the road).
The derailment of my writing weekend began innocently enough. For months the beautiful Mrs Ezard and I had been discussing the need to re-mulch our garden but had been either busy or the weather had not played along. However on this weekend, the fine weather and the empty calendar dovetailed together perfectly: This wasn’t an error. Even though I had planned to do writing on Saturday (after a few other errands) the garden did need mulching, and I like to look after what I own. So we called in the truck and shoveled mulch, spreading it far and wide. (Too high, it turns out I was told by a well-meaning but ill-timed piece of advice). Too late now; fight-to-live or die, garden.
Even though the work was done in just under 2 hours (an epic job), I was exhausted. The remainder of the day was spent recovering on the couch. No choice there; the body was sore and weary.
Sunday afternoon was also slated for writing; it didn’t occur. Due to laziness, I admit. It was, I realise now, a fault of thinking: I considered that I had a choice whether or not to write. Writing, however, for me, should not be treated like a hobby but a job. If I want to write full-time, then I must take it seriously. There is no choice, just like my Monday to Friday job. You must turn up to write, no choice involved. There is always Monday I thought, I can write all day Monday, I promised myself.
The brain, I think, is like any other muscle: you must exercise it. If you let it be lazy, then it likes to be lazy. All of Sunday on the couch watching TV meant my brain wasn’t in any shape to work creatively on Monday. Sure, I squeezed out a few hundred words – but my brain has been trained to be lazy. I’ve unwittingly shown it how. Being lazy for one day, can mean more than one day is lost in productivity.
My next mistake was trying to be too focused on a single project. I was trying to write chapter 2 of The Hostages. I did some of it, but then I persisted trying to do more when it wasn’t flowing nicely. What I should have done (earlier) is switch projects. So, if writing The Hostages hit a wall, I could have swapped to revising The Rebel Queen. Ordinarily I like to focus on a single project at a time plot threads don’t mix or character motivations don’t muddle. However, progress on any writing project is preferable to a complete lack of progress. Also I might have tried to skip ahead in the story; there is nothing to say a story has to be written chronologically. I knew this, of course, but the knowledge was different to explicit internal permission to do so.
The final lesson is the need to learn lessons. I’m sure if I trawl back through my blog I will see the same themes, if not exact words. On my to-do list since January has been to extract the key lessons from my 2016 posts onto some of my other resource pages. I haven’t done that yet, but I need to if I don’t want to repeat the same mistakes again. And again.
I’ve written previously that when writing I’m try to remember to consistently refer to the character-related attributes. For example if a character has “daddy issues” then that should appear (albeit expressed differently) in a number of places. The last thing I’d want to do is mention it once and have it like a cheap paint job.
I worried earlier that I’d failed to maintain consistency. Now I realize that wasn’t my issue. I can best describe the situation with an analogy. My novel was like a theme park with each character like an individual attraction. In the early chapters you get to know the characters. However when the plot really kicks in it’s like you’re on a roller coaster. The thrill of the plot is so intense that for the moment you’re not thinking about other issues. If you’re in the middle of the plot and thinking about anything beyond the immediate surroundings then the author has missed the mark.*
I have realized that my current speed bump is that my plot has changed gear. The engine has been racing but now the plot calls for some simmering instead of boiling. Wow, that’s more analogies than you can poke a stick at, which probably counts as another one.
Chapters 5 through to 9 are completed in 7 hours of story-time (13,000 words). The subsequent chapters will be over a number of days which is far less intense for the reader. My first thought was that I needed to find a way to keep the pressure on. That if I was unable to rush the timeline I needed to add pressure or intensity elsewhere.
I think that was also a wrong turn. There is an alternate view which says that too much intensity wears the reader out. The reader must get breathers between action.In a way I think we see this in movies like Jaws. The prolonged presence of danger can be more terrifying than instantaneous danger. Not that I’m writing a book that is terrifying but I think that same intensity can translate across genres. Even James Bond has some time to wine-and-dine his female counterparts between bare knuckle street-fights.
Not entirely sure how I solve this issue of gear-changing, yet.
On another note, by way of an update. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time you have probably noticed I overuse commas and semi-colons. I’ve been going over my earlier chapters of Vengeance Will Come and correcting that. Consequently, the progress bar hasn’t moved (in fact, it has actually dropped as I found more words to cut). Hopefully it is a better story for the haircut.
Some of the columns are not actually comparable, given I’ve moved the chapter order around a bit. It’s now down to 97, 452 words. At the current rate of editing I think it will be down to about 75k by the time I finish, which is a good first-book length.
* There is a school of thought that says the plot should be character-driven. I don’t think I am breaking that rule.
Here on BenEzard.com I’m sharing my writing journey which includes the ugly and the good. If I’m being generous to myself I’d say its a ratio similar to the chemical composition of Hydronium: three ugly for every good.
A while ago I created a method of secret communication for my novel, Vengeance Will Come. (Lacking expertise in this area I have no idea if this is a plausible solution…) The idea was that one tremendously large file hid the secrets of anyone who paid to use the storage service. To any observer, it would appear just one long piece of encrypted text, with no way of knowing where one message began or ended. Only the sender/receiver would know the coordinates of their message, and the encryption keys to decrypt it.
This was my first attempt at ‘writing it’ (many, many moons ago).
He went to the DataBank site which required no login and no password. After entering his credit card details – one of the number of fake identites he had on Drasius – he entered two coordinates. The Databank held a single file stream which was yottabytes in size.
Unmarked portions of the file ‘belonged’ to the tens of millions of users – individuals and companies who wanted to store data securely. Any person could upload/download any portion of the stream (paying per megabyte). The trick was, only you knew the coordinates in the stream where your data began and ended, and the encryption used on it. Without knowing where the ‘data ownership’ began or ended, or the type of encryption that was used, decrypting it was nearly impossible.
Cameus entered coordinates that were hundreds of megabytes on either side of his desired data block. This cost far more money, but also meant that anyone tapping the planetary-net would have to try decrypting a lot more data. The download process to his computer took a few minutes. Cameus then disconnected from the net and entered another two coordinates into the computer with the encryption details.
These coordinates were where his message was, ignoring the padding on either side. His computer was powerful and compact, but the decryption process would still take about twenty minutes. Cameus headed back toward the warehouse.
Congratulations if you read each of those 226 words. You’d be among the minority, and I don’t blame you if you didn’t make it all the way through. No one – except for me and a very rare egghead care about how the encryption specifically works.
For this reason in the next editing pass I savaged my creation, diluting its so-called brilliance for the sake of brevity.
He went to the DataBank site which required only one of his false identities credit cards. Entering in coordinates that were only known to him and his employer he began to download data. The Databank held a single file stream which was yottabytes in size, the unmarked portions of the file ‘belonging’ to tens of millions of users on Drasius. Cameus had downloaded hundreds of megabytes on either side of his desired data block; which cost more but would exponentially increase the difficulty for anyone trying to locate his message. The download process took several minutes after which Cameus entered the two precise coordinates of his section with the encryption details. His computer was incredibly powerful for its size but the decryption process would still take about twenty minutes.
So I had cut it severely down to 129 words but it was still not enough. The passage was a mouthful without flavor – calories without enjoyment – ready to frustrate the reader. I don’t know about you, but if I’m absorbing calories I want enjoyment: reading is no different.
So now my creation is rendered invisible, for the greater good of the story:
On the roof of the drinking shop he used his wrist computer to connect to the dark side of the net, downloading the encrypted stream from the DataBank. Cameus started the decryption algorithm and headed back to the warehouse at a run.