When Last We Met…

Yesterday, Sunday September 27, The Magic City Writers met to review the first chapter of Lindy’s new story, The Night Things.  We also gained a new member, Kyle Strickland, and for the first time ever Nicole missed a meeting.  (She felt under the weather and stayed home instead.)  I shall get into the details of the meeting itself right after our on going segment I like to call “Lets Torture Alex by Mentioning What We Ate”.  Granted, this is a long title, but it’s just so darn descriptive (and evil) I can’t resist it.

Kathryn made ‘pork chalupas by putting uncooked pinto beans, a pork loin roast, chili powder, onions, stewed tomatoes, and cumin in a crock pot for 8 hours.  The pork was then pulled apart, and the pork and beans were served over a bed of bite-size Tostitos chips and topped with chopped tomatoes, sour cream, sliced avocados, cheese, and salsa.  As a snack she made pumpkin bread using a civil war recipe.  It was especially good when sprinkled with cinnamon.  I followed this up with a chaser of Neurontin, Flexeril, and a heating pad, but I digress.

Now back to the meeting. 

Literally, just seconds ago, it dawned upon me that I forgot to record the meeting.  Lindy, I am sorry.  I shall blame the Neurontin for making me a scatterbrain. 

Lindy’s new story starts off with an extremely well-written first draft of her first chapter.  In fact the group consensus was that she should break what she showed us into two good chapters.  It was not perfect, but I have seen published works that were worse than what she wrote.  Speaking for myself, I thought she had good descriptions, well-defined characters (though some need to get their meds balanced), an intriguing plot, and a foreboding style that created a wonderfully creepy atmosphere at times.   If she wrote an entire book at this level of quality I feel confident she could find a publisher willing to help her edit the rough parts.  Congratulations Lindy, you deserve it.

Lindy also introduced us to her friend, Kyle Strickland, who decided to join our group.  Kyle is a freelance writer who has had several short stories published and also writes for the site http://www.neverborncomic.com/.  Kyle’s view of the writing industry was quite different than the one we got from authors Bill Drinkard and Jeremy Lewis.  I think we all learned a lot talking with him.  With luck, we will even be able to entice him into positing some of his manifestos on this site.  Welcome to the group Kyle.

Kyle also has the dubious distinction of being the tenth person on our mailing list.  This is the limit for BlogSpot, unless I can find a way around it.  This means that those of you receiving these posts must now take it upon yourself to forward them to everyone you know.  I’m sure I can count on each of you to either do your part or ignore this not-so-subtle suggestion.

After the meeting, Lindy and Kathryn retired to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, and I read an insightful e-mail upon…uh, I mean…on my own writing from a dear friend and former professor, Ada Long.   (Yes, there is a private joke in the middle of that sentence.  If you didn’t get it, it wasn’t aimed at you.  Which, I  suppose, is the whole meaning of the word private in the previous sentence.  Oh…dear…god.  I’ve started analyzing my post on analyzing writing while I’m writing it.  If I don’t move on, this whole post could get sucked into a metaphysical black hole formed by the weight of its own cyber-drivel. )

Ada and I recently exchanged writings in an informal way and she send me a very nice letter that contained both high praise and thoughtful criticism.  Ada admits to having no interest in fantasy, but nevertheless said she thought my first two chapters were, “terrific”.  Ada’s positive influence on my life has been considerable, and her knowledge of literature is quite deep.  Therefore, I think you can understand why I am feeling a little proud myself at the moment. 

With regards to her criticisms, some I immediately addressed, while others I must consider more carefully.   Especially since they touch upon…uh, I mean…on my long running war with grammar. I do not wish to elaborate in an already overlong post, so perhaps I shall ruminate about her advice later.

That covers it for this meeting.  It was a good day, and I think everyone enjoyed themselves immensely.  Y’all take care and have fun.

The essence of character analysis

There are certain things that make a story’s character unique. Whether it is the kinky hairstyle, the way they always chew a toothpick, or their unerring strive towards justice, there is something that makes them special. But, your person is more than just that one unique quality. They are many stones that build up the base of your character’s personality, even if only one or two of them are easily recognized. One of the best ways I have found to create (or flesh out) a character is to write up an analysis of their character, what makes them tick. Here is my personalized list of what I do when trying to flesh out a hero, heroine, bad guy, or sidekick for my stories.

    Physical Description
    – Full name, including nicknames, maiden names, and aliases
    – Height, weight, age, sex, and race
    – Hair color and style, eye color, face shape
    – Tattoos, body piercings, scars, moles, freckles
    – Clothing, makeup, and jewelry preferences
    – Physical movements or quirks
    – Talkative or silent? Morose or happy? Introvert or extrovert?

    Writing Description
    – What words would you use to describe the character?
    – What phrases would be good to associate with the character?
    – What objects are associated with the character?
    – What places are associated with the character?
    – Are there any manners or morays of the time the character is in that affect the traits of the character?

    Morality and Motivation
    – What is the character’s moral compass set to?
    – What is the character’s core motivation?
    – Will this character change throughout the story?
    – Will this change in the character also affect the moral compass?
    – How will this change affect the others?

    Action
    – Are the characters actions normally wise or unwise?
    – Does the character think before acting, or more spur-of-the-moment?
    – What is the effect of the character’s actions on others?
    – Does the character have special moves or ways of doing things?

    Author’s Preference
    – What do you like about the character?
    – What do you dislike about the character?

I hope this outline of a simple character analysis helps anyone who is having trouble making their characters real or unique. At the very least, I hope this spurs whoever reads this into making a character list of their own.

The Moment Of Epiphany

I am late with the posts this week  for two reasons.  First because of issues with my back, but more importantly I had and epiphany about my story, Gods Among Men.

It was strange for a plotter like me to admit this, but I had until recently put precious little thought into the machinations at the end of the story.   Which is not to say I did not know the ending, merely I hadn’t figured out how to get there.  The distinction is important.  Knowing the endpoint is a matter of plot, getting there is a matter of character and story.

I had all the characters, I knew I needed all of them, but I was uncertain why I needed all of them.  I knew many things I needed Damon to do, but it was all tactical maneuvers; I was missing a strategy to  tie the details together.

When insight strikes, you notice.   It is like when a puzzle makes sense, or a math proof becomes obvious.  Archimedes may well have yelled, “Eureka” at such a moment.  I, on the other hand, whispered something a trace more vulgar and gaped at mid-air.

I now know why Damon is doing certain things.  And I can explain, simply, the importance of each action to his plan. I understand the twisted plot now in a way I could not before.

And so, for perhaps the first time, I shall jot down what my story is about in a way anyone can understand.

This story is about Damon Roth. 

Its tag line is: One man’s quest to change himself starts with his attempts to change the world. 

The plot is about the fall of one empire and the founding of the greater empire that shall follow it. 

Damon Roth sees a threat so far in the future that for him to even talk of it makes people think him insane.  He takes it upon himself to save the world, even if it means destroying whole civilizations to do so.   The price of failure is his soul.

Damon will destroy the old empire and create a new one dedicated to confronting the future threat.  He will not rest, nor falter, nor turn aside in his quest to become the god of a new age.  To become known as Demiurge, God Among Men. 

But first he must  defeat the old Demiurge and steal his power.   Then he must identify the enemies and traitors who might move against him or  Tara Rihtwis, the woman he has chosen to rule the new empire.  He will empower these enemies until he is ready to destroy them, and in the process slay the old empire.

Damon is the hero of the story.  And he may well be a power-hungry madman.

The Unreliable Narrator

Most of the time, the reader can safely assume that the writer tells the truth.  That what appears on the page is an accurate version of events in a story.  This is not meant to suggest that characters do not tell lies to each other, or that the events themselves are plausible, merely that what is written on the page did in fact happen in the story. 

There are, however, exceptions to this rule.  The author can deliberately lie to the reader by relating events on the page, only to reveal that those events never actually happened in the story.  The narrator of the story becomes unreliable.

As an example, consider the movie, A Beautiful Mind, in which the principle character suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and has constant delusional episodes.  His delusions are presented to the viewer as if they are really happening.  It is not until much later in the movie that we discover that much of what we have witnessed on the screen never happened.  We are required to search our memories and decipher what was real and what was false.  What actually happened during those delusional moments is left to our imaginations.  The narrator of the story, in this case the director, has lied to us and is therefore unreliable.

This technique of storytelling dates back over a thousand years and is used for many different effects.  In A Beautiful Mind it is used to both explain the nature of paranoid schizophrenia and to make the central character more sympathetic than he would be without that understanding. In other works it is used to set up a surprise ending, or to make the reader/viewer think about something in a new or different way.

I make use of the unreliable narrator technique in my epic fantasy, Gods Among Men, as a means to:

  • Describe a major event
  • Build a mystery around that event
  • Lay out the social order
  • Explain the military structure
  • Establish the limits on the powers of normal wizards
  • Show how the protagonist, Damon Roth, exceeds those limits. 

In an earlier post, I wrote about how my late wife, Ellen inspired me to change three places where characters describe a major event and make those tales into flashbacks told from their point of view. 

Making this change was problematic  because the tale the characters were telling was not entirely true.  Their minds had been altered and parts of what they related were fictions placed in their consciousness.   They were unreliable witnesses to the event, which is not quite the same thing as being an unreliable narrator.   They believed what they said was true, and clues that their recollections were false were given to the reader even as they spoke.

Once I wrote those scenes as flashbacks, and turned their delusions into events that would appear to be true to the reader, I became the unreliable narrator.  I started lying to the reader by describing events that did not happen the way I wrote them on the page.

This opened up possibilities and gave me great advantages as a storyteller. The flashbacks became exciting, action filled scenes, each one building on the last.  In each telling I added details–private thoughts, worries, desires, and observations–that the character wouldn’t include when telling their version of events to others, but which gave important information and insights to the reader.  The downside was the reader was forced to think about what was real and what was imaginary.  To sort through the clues and decipher what really happened, and what were parts of a magically induced delusion.  These were problems I could live with.

Since then, I have thought much about the unreliable narrator technique.  Were I to use it too much, then the story would become unreadable.  If nothing can be believed then the essential suspension of disbelief  is forfeited and the reader loses interest. 

Therefore I decided upon a simple rule: I will only use the unreliable narrator in flashback scenes, and those scenes will only be told from one point of view.   In non-flashback scenes, what the reader sees on the page will be true and reliable.

For example, I have an extended flashback where Artemis Arrowsmith relates the events that led to the death of her lover Marcus.   This scene will be told solely from her point of view, albeit in third person fashion.  Her actions, thoughts, feelings, and memories will be told to the reader directly.  For other characters the reader will only be told what Artemis sees them do or hears them say or has related to her by another character.  Artemis might misremember certain details, or lie, or misinterpret events because of her own biases or preconceptions.  Thus she becomes an unreliable narrator of her own tale. 

But what she and others say and do both before her flashback starts and after it ends will be accurate and factual descriptions to the best of my abilities.  The reader can rely upon the scenes set in the present as containing only the truth.

The unreliable narrator is a powerful technique that allows authors to explore ideas, emotions, and experiences in ways that would be impossible otherwise.   In some cases, such as mine, it provides easy routes for including details that would otherwise be awkward or impossible to introduce.  It is an approach that puts unique demands upon the writer’s skill, and challenges the reader to think about what they read in new ways.  It is not the right choice for most works of fiction, but it is an option that should never be dismissed lightly.