writing advice

Characters: sympathetic, interesting, or both?

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This post is partially inspired by John Gwynne’s epic fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen. I’ve read three books of the series, and overall I have enjoyed them quite a bit. If I had to make comparisons for the series, I’d say it’s what you would get if you crossed the Belgariad with Game of Thrones. Somehow, that mix works. I recommend it for those of you who want to see a modern update on a more classic type of fantasy.

But there’s one aspect that trips me up a bit as I’m reading it. There is a significant amount of point-of-view time given to characters that quite simply are not sympathetic at all. Some of them are still interesting characters, but I don’t care what happens to them (other than perhaps rooting for them to die). This results in an uneven reading experience for me, and when I’m reading these chapters, I simply want to get back to the characters I like.

This brings me to a larger question. What are readers looking for? Would people rather read about sympathetic characters or unsympathetic characters who are still interesting? As a reader myself, I don’t mind occasional time spent in the head of an interesting but unsympathetic character. But then there are books that take this to an extreme. An example of this, for me, would be The Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker. The characters are all complex and interesting people, but I couldn’t stand reading about them because I honestly wouldn’t have cared if they all died.

On the other hand, you can give me a flat character who’s sympathetic, and while I might not love the story I’m reading, I’ll still root for them. Maybe that makes me a heretic. After all, it seems these days that the trend is to write about antiheroes. For me, antiheroes are good as a spice. Maybe you have one or two point-of-view characters who fit that description. In Gwynne’s series, it still generally works because you don’t spend nearly as much time with the unsympathetic characters. A lot of that time is meant to reveal what the antagonists are up to, which can be difficult to establish when you’re using third-person-limited point of view.

This same issue has been my biggest struggle with some of the bigger fantasy series out there (A Song of Ice and Fire, Malazan, The First Law trilogy, The Broken Empire, etc.). I don’t hate the books by any means. I see what others like in them. But when I read them, I don’t enjoy them nearly as much as something by Brandon Sanderson or Jim Butcher, authors whose characters may not be as complex. But I like them.

In my own writing, I have to be careful to strike a balance between what I enjoy as a reader and writer and what other readers will enjoy. Most of the time, it isn’t too hard. I know my audience is more Brandon Sanderson readers than George RR Martin readers. My books have a fair amount of violence in them, but they wouldn’t be considered Grimdark by any stretch of the imagination.

Modern fantasy has influenced me in some ways, however. I will admit that I kill my fair share of characters (perhaps some GRRM influence there). But I still write in a world where there’s at least a fundamental theme of hope, where heroes screw up but still try to do the right thing. And, yes, I do sprinkle in a few antiheroes (and anti-villains–they’re so much fun to write).

So I’d say I strike a balance on this spectrum. I want my characters to be both interesting and sympathetic. Of the two, I’d say I lean more toward sympathetic, but I don’t want to write boring characters either. It can be a delicate balance, and to make my characters interesting, I make sure that they make mistakes. A perfect hero is a boring hero. Flaws are what make us (and characters) human. And yet I believe a hero can be flawed without being a terrible person.

Now I fear I’m rambling on. What are your thoughts on this question?

Handling Bad Reviews

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One of the scariest parts of being an author is the fact that people will be judging your work. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. When those reviews are good, it gives you that warm and fuzzy feeling. Somebody enjoyed your story. That’s a great feeling.

But inevitably you’re going to run into those one-star or two-star reviews. Your first reaction is that feeling of being stabbed in the gut.

However you might feel, this is not the time or place to be defensive. The only way to engage with the reviewer is to thank them sincerely for their review. If you start attacking the reviewer, you are sure to undermine your credibility as an author. People are going to start viewing you as one of those authors who can’t take criticism.

The best thing to do is take it in stride. If reading the review bothers you too much at first, don’t read it. Wait until you’re in a place mentally that you can look at things with a more objective eye. Perhaps the reviewer has some good points you can use to improve your writing in the future. Perhaps they’re completely off base. Either way, there’s no point in arguing with them.

Why I stopped outlining.

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In the plotter vs. “pantser” (one who writes by the seat of their pants) debate, I used to be firmly on the plotter side. I’m generally a structured person, or at least more structured than a lot of creative types. I’m an Electrical Engineering student in addition to being a writer, so I use a lot of my left brain.

Because of that, I always thought I should outline my books. At times, this has worked for me, but I’ve discovered more and more that I get my best ideas as I’m in the flow of the story. Outlining is an entirely different process. I don’t quite feel the story the same way, and my ideas are less inventive.

This becomes especially clear when I write series. The farther I get into writing a series, the more likely I am to deviate from my original outline. I got to the point where I was doing this so much that I decided I should just throw out the outline altogether.

However, that might be too extreme of a response. I don’t quite make up everything as I go. I form a mental outline. I know where I want to get, but if I discover something more interesting along the way, I’m perfectly happy to alter my mental plans.

This can lead to some inconsistencies between books, and that’s part of the reason I’ve decided that I will generally write an entire series before publishing any of it. That way, if I introduce something important in book 3 or 4, I can go back and throw in some hints toward it in book 1. A lot of planners are able to do this kind of thing because they outline the entire series in advance. I’ve tried, and it simply doesn’t work like that for me.

When I was considering trade publishing, I always had issues with throwing away the outline because trade publishing tends to work differently. You rarely write the entire series before publishing any of it. I know Michael J. Sullivan (author of the very good Riyria Revelations, Riyria Chronicles, and Legends of the First Empire series) does this. But he did start out self-publishing.

Now that I’ve decided to go with self-publishing, I can write my series however I want, and writing them this way helps me to give you a plot with a lot more interesting twists and turns.

That’s not to say I throw away the outline completely. I’ve been known to outline a few chapters ahead of where I am. That can help me write more quickly during my writing sessions because I’m not figuring out what’s going to happen next. More often, my mental outline is good enough to carry me through, and I’m able to figure out the details as I write.

The key thing as a writer is finding a process that works for you. This process works for me right now. In the future, I may decide to go back to outlining. I don’t think you should ever get stuck thinking there’s only one way to write that works for you. Writing is a continual process of experimentation, and every story is going to have different needs.

Fantasy Video Games: Distraction or Inspiration

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As a fantasy writer, I am naturally a fan of the genre in all its forms. Books, movies, video games–basically, if it’s fantasy, I’ll probably be a fan of it. But that raises an important question. As a fantasy writer, should you focus on books alone, or should you branch out into other areas for inspiration?

Personally, I think there’s a lot to be gained from fantasy video games. But I could be biased in that. Part of the reason I got into writing fantasy was from playing some of my favorite Square RPGs as a kid on the Super Nintendo. Those games helped me fall in love with the genre (and then I read Harry Potter, and I was doomed to be a fantasy fan and writer for the rest of my life).

One of the biggest places where video games help me is in crafting my settings. The best video games these days, in all their beautiful graphical glory, depict some absolutely stunning settings. I’m a pretty visual person, but I would have trouble coming up with some of these settings on my own. However, now that I’ve seen these beautiful images, I can use them as inspiration and make them into something that’s all my own.

Some of the best story-driven games also feature characters you fall in love with. The great thing about these games is that they are usually forced to show instead of tell. Generally, in a video game, you do not see a character’s internal thoughts. Everything must be conveyed through dialogue and visuals. And some games do this quite well. For example, I recently played the remastered version of Final Fantasy X. I felt such a strong connection to the characters in this one, and the story had me in tears a few times.

When it comes to stories, though, you have to be careful about how much inspiration you take from video games. In an RPG, you face a lot of minor battles, which are interesting in that format. In a novel, however, you cannot have your characters fighting Slimes every two pages. That’s going to get old very quickly. If you’re going to have battles, you have to be careful about which ones you show, or you’ll risk making your story repetitive.

Then we come to the all-important question. How much time should you spend playing fantasy video games? These games can use up a lot of your time, and if you’re not careful, you’ll spend your time playing games instead of writing.

As a writer, you should always focus on your writing. Whatever your writing goals are, it’s important that you hit them with consistency, and if playing video games is using up too much of your time, you’ll have to cut back.

Consistency is Key

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When it comes to writing, I’ve heard from many writers that the biggest thing you need for productivity and longevity as a writer is the ability to write consistently. You don’t write only when you’re inspired. Even when you don’t feel like it, you sit down and put your fingers on the keyboard (or typewriter or longhand, if you’re so inclined). It doesn’t matter how you get those words down. Just get them down.

I recently wrote about setting word count goals. I’m not sure I’ll make my 50,000 words a month goal, but that’s okay. I’m writing consistently and productively. I’ve hit at least 1,000 words 10 of the last 11 days. Over that time, I’ve written over 18,000 words. Per day, it doesn’t seem like a lot of words, but those words add up. At this write, I should manage three books in a year without too much of a problem. Of course, there’s also the revision process, which I need to get better about.

Word Count Goals

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For those of us who are writers, word count goals are a love them/hate them kind of thing. We love them when they remind us to keep our butts in the chair and our fingers on the keyboard. We hate them when we feel like we can’t ever reach them.

There are many benefits to word count goals. You see this from something like National Novel Writing Month (or as it’s more commonly known, NaNoWriMo). A lot of writers take advantage of this month to actually finish their stories.

However, it has its drawbacks. Some writers cannot write at the 1,667 words per day required to hit that goal and do so while writing something that isn’t complete crap.

Thankfully, I’ve never had that problem. I believe I’ve finished early every time I’ve ever done NaNoWriMo. But it is a problem for a lot of people, and what’s the point of writing a novel if it’s so bad you’re just going to scrap it? You have to find some middle ground.

And that means you have to set some kind of goal. It could be a daily word count goal or perhaps a monthly word count goal. That’s what I’m leaning toward at the moment. Due to an unpredictable work schedule and varying amounts of schoolwork, it is difficult for me to set aside the same amount of time every day for writing.

That means that there may be days where I write nothing or crank out just a few words to keep the creative juices flowing. On the other hand, there may be also days when I hit 5000 or more words. In fact, I wrote over 12,000 in one day when I was finishing up my World in Chains series.

The point I’m trying to make is this. Come up with a word count goal you can actually stick to. In some ways, it’s like dieting. Most diets don’t last because people take on more than they can handle. That’s not the way to do it with word counts either. You’re just going to end up resenting the time you spend writing, and if you aren’t enjoying yourself, what’s the point?

So that’s the key. Find out what word count goal you’re comfortable hitting (whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, or even yearly). Then hold yourself accountable to that goal. It sounds simple stated like that, but it isn’t always easy to put into practice.

Let’s hope I can do so myself because I need to get better about writing consistently.

Writing Advice: Sensitivity in Writing

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I had a recent Twitter debate that started with the idea of authors using racial slurs in their books and how POC (People of Color) don’t want to see any of this, even if the writer is well-intentioned. At first, I didn’t understand, and I thought it was an attempt to censor other writers. But as I continued on in the debate, I came to understand that it’s not about censorship. It’s about respect. It’s about listening. It’s about understanding that POC have experienced life in a very different way.

This conversation was the first time it dawned on me just how different life can be based simply on the color of your skin and where you live. I’ve always felt a little angry at the idea of White Privilege. I’ve never been all that well-off. I’ve felt I’ve earned everything I’ve fought for in life. But that’s because there are many forms of privilege (and lack thereof), and it’s not always easy to see the way you benefit from privilege if you’re struggling through life in general.

Privilege is about the idea of “all else equal.” All else equal, a black person will face many more disadvantages in life than a white person simply because of the color of their skin. It’s an entirely different experience. Sure, there are racial slurs against whites, but whites have always been in power in this country. It’s easy to laugh that off. When there’s such a long history of outright hatred and systematic discrimination tied to racial slurs that describe POC, it’s an entirely different experience.

I can try to understand this intellectually, using the sense of empathy I’ve developed as a reader and writer. But I can never truly understand how it feels emotionally to see these words in print: words that have always been used to dehumanize people who look like you. The closest I could come is society’s attitude toward mental health (since I have bipolar disorder). But even that is not nearly as pervasive. It’s simply the closest I can come to understanding emotionally what POC go through, and that shows just how big a gulf there is between my understanding and the lives POC live every single day.

 

Now you might be asking: But what if it’s true to your characters to use racial slurs?

This is where I ran into trouble in this debate, where I got a little angry and therefore failed to listen as well as I should have. I thought it was stupid to say you couldn’t ever use racial slurs. Now I’ve never had any intention of using them in my own writing. I don’t believe racial slurs have any place in civilized society. Plus, I tend to write in secondary fantasy worlds, which do not have the same racial histories as our own. But I did argue that writers should be free to use whatever words they’d like. In one sense, I still believe this is true. Writers are free to use racial slurs, but readers are also free to denounce them for doing so. Publishers are free to refuse to publish them. That’s the nature of free speech. You’re free to say whatever you want, within reason, but you also have to suffer the consequences for your words.

Now you might be asking: Then how do I portray a racist character?

That’s where it comes back to the old advice: Show/Don’t Tell. Or, more accurately, you could say the difference between lazy characterization and stronger characterization. It’s easy to have a character throw around racial slurs. It’s like a giant signpost saying, “Look! This character is racist!”

Instead of using a slur, you could show how that person treats POC. In the end, this would be richer characterization. It’s harder, yes, but it makes a better story, and it shows more sensitivity to marginalized groups. In my Twitter debate, it became very clear to me that many POC don’t want to see these words. At all.

As writers, we want to bring out emotion in the reader, but it has to be the right kind of emotion. Reminding them of injustice and privilege is not the way to do this. Especially in the fantasy genre, many people read to escape the harsh realities of our world. Or they’d like to see a story in which people who look like them are the heroes. I’ll admit that I haven’t been great on this front. I have a few darker-skinned characters in Empire of Chains. The God War is much better in this regard, as most of the important characters are POC in a secondary world. But I could still stand to do better in this regard.

 

You might also ask: Does this mean I can’t write stories about racism at all?

The short answer is that I wouldn’t recommend it. As I said above, it’s difficult to understand exactly what POC have been through. As a white writer, am I really in the best position to write a story about a black person’s experiences of racism? Even if I do extensive research, even if I consult with all kinds of black beta readers to make sure I get it right, it’s still not the best way to go about tackling the issue of racism.

Instead, what we can do is support POC writers who are writing these experiences. We need to read their books to come closer to understanding the struggles they’ve been through. And even if it’s in a secondary fantasy world, we can still read their fresh perspectives on things.

N.K. Jemisin is a great example of this. I’ve only read three of her novels, but I have really enjoyed the different perspective she’s brought to the genre. The Fifth Season was especially good. Jemisin’s stories don’t explore racism in our real world, but they do depict fantasy worlds in which POC serve very important roles.

There is a lot to be gained from reading more diverse perspectives. It opens our minds to experiences other than our own. Most importantly, if we support POC writers, we will get more of these important stories. And it’s not like supporting POC writers is going to take anything away from other writers. Reading is not a zero sum game. You can still be successful as a white writer even if more POC writers are in the genre.

 

In conclusion, it goes back to the idea of “Write what you know.” When it comes to fantasy, this advice becomes more nebulous. How can I know what it’s like to ride on a dragon? But that’s not really what this advice means. It’s more the idea of “Don’t write things you’d get wrong, things that would actually hurt people when you get them wrong.” It doesn’t matter if it’s intentional or not. Sure, it changes your value as a person, but it doesn’t change the hurt that people experience.

Again, it’s about respect, and it’s about listening. I may not always listen as well as I should, but I’m trying to grow as a person and a writer.