Thursday, April 30, 2015

Hero…or Not?

Today I want to talk a little about heroes and villains, and our perceptions of them as readers. We look at the antagonist of the story as the bad guy, and the hero as the one who saves the day, right? Well, did you ever hear the saying, "The victor writes the history books"?

Think of it this way: Each antagonist is the hero of his or her own story, and the hero is the villain. It's all subjective to perspective. It's been said that you can never create a truly rounded bad guy until you've considered this.

We tend to forgive the hero of a little more than we should - he is "forced" to kill, to steal, to destroy, but we sympathize with him because it took such a huge toll on him, right? But the villain does the exact same and it's an excuse for us to condemn him a little more. We distinguish between the two by their motivations, their conscience, and their actions.

But like I said, it's a well-known fact that the victor writes the history books.

So before you pick up a pencil and draw evil eyes and a swirling mustache, think about it from his perspective. If you can bring out the hero in the antagonist and the villain in the protagonist, you've created characters - and by proxy, conflict - that will stay with the reader long after they've closed the book.

Readers, what are your thoughts? Writers, what are your experiences with the hero and the villain?

Lisa: I have never thought of a villain in that way, being the hero in their own story. I have considered motivations for what they do, etc., just never considered just how justified they feel when they're creating havoc. My problem is that I feel like I create a well-rounded villain in my character study, but those details never find a way into the story. Hopefully, readers get a sense of their justification...but who knows?

Caitlin: I have a hard time accepting a story where the villain isn't at least a little good. Maybe I'm too pollyanish, but I just don't believe that anyone is 100% bad. Even the absolute worst people in our societies often have severe psychological problems and rough environmental factors that contribute to what they do. Does this mean they should be absolved of all crimes? I definitely don't think so, but realizing that they are human too, and trying to understand them, is interesting to me. And, ultimately, I think that's why I read and write, because I enjoy trying to understand various aspects of humanity. So, yes, heroes need some villainous traits and villains need some heroic traits.

Dan: I'm certainly a fan of certain anti-heroes -- like Locke Lamora and House M.D. -- whose status as the protagonist lets us forgive them for acts for which we'd curse a villain's name. I certainly do love villains whose complexity and moral ambiguity makes them unpredictable. I almost enjoy the unexpected heroic moment of a villain more than I enjoy it for the protagonist.

Another reality of the modern world is that there's not always a right or wrong: gray areas (in law, in ethics, etc.) can encompass a lot. Not everything is black and white, and as Karlie pointed out, much of history was told by one side (often in their own favor).

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Developing Character Relationship Arcs

Hello, it's Dan today and I'm here to share some relationship advice. Not in the way you think. I'm talking about making character relationships dynamic in fiction.

Books and classes for new writers often focus on the character arc as one of the most important elements of story structure. There is good reason for this, of course: we want to see our characters change enough so that they are not the same people we met at the beginning of the book.

There's another important character-related arc in fiction, however, and that is the dynamic nature of a relationship between two characters. A relationship arc, if you will. In the romance genre -- which I confess I do not read nearly as much as my co-bloggers do -- the character relationship arc is often more visible than individual character arcs. Will they get together, or won't they?

Another popular type of character relationship arc is the "cop buddy" drama, which pairs up a team of unlikely partners (e.g. detectives with completely different styles) with a common mission. The mismatch produces conflict right away and keeps the tension high until that satisfying moment when the two partners finally become pals. At which point they usually start kicking ass and taking names.

There are other kinds of character relationships to be exploited or to change in storytelling:

  • Friends become enemies, or enemies become friends
  • Student-teacher or acolyte-mentor relationships
  • Rivals forced to become allies, or vice-versa
Now it's your turn: what kind of character relationship arcs do you enjoy reading or writing?

Lisa: I like enemies or opposites who are forced to be together, hence forced to learn more about each other, which leads them to a truce. There's always room for comedy there, and I like for there to be almost as much comedy as there is drama in a book. But I do hate the obvious routes: the cheerleader and the goth girl. I like to think of "couples" who you'd never think of having so much conflict, but once you see them together, you're like: Oh yeah, I guess they actually would have a hard time getting along.

Karlie: Like Lisa, I prefer the more subtle opposition - not the really obvious clashing characters. I also like the idea of allies turning into rivals - there's so much to explore there. Better yet, let's put a different spin on "girl meets guy, hates guy's guts, falls in love" angle. In one of my novels, a girl is forced to work with a man who committed terrible atrocities against her family, but as the book goes on, the things revealed show that he might not be to blame for what he did. She falls in love with him but part of her is always remembering the man he used to be, and it eventually drives them apart. So I love that kind of conflict - emotionally torn in two with very good reasons for both sides.

Caitlin: I really like it when you have two characters in a romance and you think, how is this going to work!? Not because of personalities, so much, but because of the situation. Kate Sherwood's The Mark of Cain comes to mind. Cain killed Mark's brother in a bar, before he even knew Mark. When Cain is released from jail, Mark and his family are devastated. I'll admit for the first 30% or so of the book I kept reading simply because I was thinking "How is Kate Sherwood ever going to pull this off?" But in the end it's a really adorable romance and you're rooting for both characters to get over that whole killing thing and fall in love already, because they're perfect for each other.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Book Covers

Caitlin here. Writers hear it all the time. This business is subjective. One person’s favorite book may be another person’s most hated book. And yet another person might shrug and think that book was just okay.

Well, the subjectivity doesn’t stop with just the finished book; book covers can also entice love/hate/eh reactions. This can be frustrating as an author because book covers are one of the most important elements in getting readers to say “hmmm…I want to check that out.”

I like to say I’m drawn to anything that’s stunning or quirky. But, hell, I’ll also go for a sexy cover, or a mysterious cover, or a humorous cover. So, really, I’m a horrible test subject. 

I even like these covers, which just use fonts and colors!

So, what about you? What kind of book cover piques your interest?  

Lisa: It's hard to say what makes me actually like a cover. I just know it when I see it. I have done tests on myself in book stores. Here's what happens: I keep my eyes down as I'm walking to a book shelf, then I look up and quickly note the books that catch my eye. In doing this, I've noticed that my eyes are drawn more to covers that have a dark color scheme. A lot of the time it's a darker scheme then a splash of bright color - it could be the title in bright yellow or  simply a white tree. As far as font, I tend not to be drawn to titles done in a script. Other than that, there is no rhyme or reason as to which book I end up purchasing. Sometimes the book I buy ends up not being one of the covers that caught my eye. Upon second or third look (and reading the back), I decided I'd rather have a different book with a less "popping" cover.

Dan: This is sort of embarrassing, but I do pay attention to covers. Especially when picking out a fantasy (big colorful scenes, with weapons and horses and possibly some kind of military banner) or a sci-fi (absolutely has to be a star-field background with exploding spaceships and "lasers"). It's not make or break, because I'll read the jacket copy and possibly check out reviews online. But covers matter, and I like the eye-catching ones.

I just learned recently that European releases often have different titles and different colors than we get in the U.S. Which I think is awesome -- I want the European version of all of my favorite SFF novels.

Karlie: I love covers with a steampunk element, and I also love black and white. I do prefer them to have a more modern look, like the first example featured on this post. Prime examples of my favorite covers ever: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.

I tend to not go for simplistic or clunky covers, but honestly, as long as the plot looks interesting enough, I'll pick them up too. :)

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Dear Me

Hi! Lisa here.

There was a recent movement on Twitter for people to message their younger selves bits of advice, notes of encouragement, etc. I loved it, and decided that we writers should have one that pertains more toward our craft. What would you like to say to your younger, blossoming writer self?

Dan: I'd actually go back farther, and tell myself to get into writing sooner. I was always interested, but never buckled down and got serious until my late twenties. I didn't know how important it would become to me, nor did I recognize how long it would take to get to where I am now. Which, admittedly, is not really that far. I wish I'd started sooner.

The other bit of advice I'd offer my former self concerns critique partners. Now, I fell into an excellent writing group when I started out (the members of my fiction writing classes). We still critique short fiction for one another. But it took me a long time to realize that my novels could benefit from that kind of feedback, too. It's a lot more to ask of someone. It also requires finding the right partner for you and your writing. But CPs, once you find them, are worth their weight in gold.

Karlie: I would definitely tell my younger self to lay off the drama - looking through old manuscripts of mine always makes me cringe. Most of my stories read like soap operas then! Thankfully, with great advice from awesome betas like Lisa, I learned to tone it down and make it fit the story. Like Dan, I would also tell myself to write more. It took me awhile to really appreciate the wisdom of writing every single day, even if it was just a sentence or two.

Caitlin: I think it would be to tell myself to not be so afraid of being a bad writer. I've been into writing for a long time, but I think I could have been more prolific (and still could be), if I allowed myself more freedom to just "play." We all have limited time to devote to writing, so I never want to "waste" it, but I think that pressure of trying to only work on "worthwhile" projects actually hurts my productivity level. If I had figured this out a long time ago, maybe I would have written more.

Tell us what you think of our advice to our writerly selves. What's your advice to yourself?