Aliens & Fairies: Non-Human Characters Acting Badly
Jul08

Aliens & Fairies: Non-Human Characters Acting Badly

  Most speculative fiction writers have a tendency to include a non-human character or two in their novels these days. Hard science fiction writers like to throw in a random bug-eyed, slime-dripping menace with which to threaten their heroes. Soft science fiction writers prefer the friendly alien races who act and speak like us, but have some physical differences. Fantasy writers tend to adopt a couple of aloof elves, maybe a few rabid dwarves, a dragon or two, and a cute green-skinned goblin for good measure. But is there any point to these additions? Motives Is your central plot driven around your protagonist being chased and terrorized by a rampant alien attack? Perhaps your aliens are there because a slime-dripping critter torturing people would be fun to write. Maybe you wanted your humans to colonize a new world, but needed them to overcome the “vicious natives” first, before making friends and living happily ever after. In each of the cases above, alien characters are not truly required in order to make the story work. Ask yourself if that attack might not be even more fearful if conducted by people they actually understand. Perhaps that poor critter dripping slime all over your command deck actually expresses pain through its secretory glands – that would take all the fun out of writing a cool goo-dripping creature. Take a closer look at your own motives for wanting a non-human character in your story. If you suddenly find that it isn’t necessary for an alien to be in your story, then replacing that character with a human counterpart who thinks in an alien way might be more productive. If the inclusion of non-human characters into your story is simply for the ‘cute’ factor of having someone non-human to play with, then maybe all your characters should be human. If the story itself needs the inclusion of an alien, then make that creature as believable as you can. Characters By now, you would have spent extensive amounts of time developing and realizing your protagonist’s character. You would be aware of his personality traits, his weaknesses and strengths, his looks, and most importantly, his innermost desires. And, if you’re truly serious about becoming a pro in this profession, you would have done the same background research on your villain too. But how many writers actually take the time to research their non-human counterparts? The word “Alien” does not necessarily mean “a creature from outer space”. It can simply mean anything which is perceived as different, or even as coming from another country. The Oxford Concise Dictionary lists the word “alien” thus: noun 1: a foreigner,...

Read More
Do You Trust Your Readers with Your Character Descriptions?
Nov29

Do You Trust Your Readers with Your Character Descriptions?

  Did  you know that the act of writing could be considered a form of thought transference? Some might even consider it to be almost a psychic ability, maybe even telepathic! You don’t believe me? Let’s try it and see if we can do it – you and I. I’m going to send a thought directly from my mind to yours. I’ll form an image and we’ll see if you can see the same image I’m seeing. I won’t speak. I won’t even open my mouth. In fact, chances are I’m on a completely different continent to you, but let’s try it anyway. Are you ready? Here goes… I’m imagining a German Shepherd dog standing in a garden holding the shreds of a daisy bush in his mouth. Did you catch my thought? Can you see the same image I’m seeing? Of course you can! Excellent, isn’t it?   I’m certain you saw the same image I wanted to portray; a young black-and-tan German Shepherd dog, whose ears don’t even stand upright yet, wearing an orange-red nylon collar. His ears are lowered against his head, which hangs in shame even though his brown eyes peer up at me dolefully. His long black tail is drooped low between his legs as he stands trying to hide behind a tree, while still chewing my favorite miniature purple daisies. You saw the same image both times, didn’t you? Probably not. The difference between the two descriptions is simple (and should be obvious). In the first, I trusted you to supply your own details. You were given only enough information for your mind to provide your own image. I trusted your imagination to create the finer points of an image for yourself. You could have guessed easily that he’d been chewing a daisy bush and you would have surmised that he looked like almost all other German Shepherd dogs. If the first description was a part of a larger story, your focus would not be taken away from the plot line or the events of the tale unfolding around the solitary image. In the second description, you were told precisely what to imagine and how to imagine it. I didn’t trust you to see the image I wanted you to see, so the second description is overly pedantic. If the second description was written into a larger story, your focus would have been jolted away from the plot long enough for you to stop and actually consider if you were picturing the right image or not. Besides, it reads a bit like a text book. Boring! Let’s try the same exercise with a character from...

Read More
Adding Character Depth Through Perception
Nov28

Adding Character Depth Through Perception

  How do you describe your character’s physical appearance? It’s not always easy to describing your characters without resorting to the cliched “She looked in the mirror and saw…” Likewise, setting the scene for each part of your story is an important element of building your fictional world. In fact, some authors go to great lengths to describe the weather patterns, the scenery and the passing traffic in detail so that the reader has a sense of the world around the characters. This kind of descriptive narrative can sometimes be long and cumbersome. It can also bog down the pace of your story if not done right – especially when all the experts are saying Show – don’t tell! Many authors are careful to explain exactly what is going on in their fictional worlds. What people look like, what objects around them look like, what characters are thinking about, how the weather is behaving, the precise color of an object, what characters are seeing around them… all of which means the author is telling the reader what to see. But not many authors actually take the time to write HOW their characters are seeing the things that are going on around them. This is where the author should be showing the reader what’s happening. Your own characters are a perfect tool to use when you need to show events or appearances or even moods. Let me explain… Every person on the planet sees life through their own personal perceptions. How they choose to interpret those perceptions is largely up to that person. In fact, their perceptions can be affected by a multitude of factors. These differing perceptions are what make us unique as human beings. What excites one person may repel another. What one person sees as attractive, another may find repulsive. What one character yearns for may send another character into panic attacks. That’s the beauty about being individual. For example: A sunny day might brighten the mood of one character and seriously frighten a person with a phobia of skin cancer. The same sunny day would therefore have a completely different effect on the latter character and would skew many of his other perceptions, too. The same is true for personal relationship preferences. Some people are attracted to curvaceous women, while others are repelled by them. Still others prefer the gorgeous occidental features of Asian people while others veer toward the svelte, slinky blonde types or have a stronger preference for fiery red-heads. Because we all have such different tastes and opinions, these perceptions of what we find appealing and unappealing will color your descriptions of those...

Read More
Creating Villains People Love to Hate
Nov27

Creating Villains People Love to Hate

      Every story has a bad guy. There wouldn’t be much conflict for your protagonist to overcome if there was no antagonist to stir the pot. Yours might be the evil villain who opposes everything your hero (or heroine) does. He might be the treacherous double-agent from the past, or the psychotic evil scientist, or maybe just the “other woman” fighting for your hero’s attention. Who ever your villain is, making sure he is believable is far more difficult than simply creating a character who does bad things to hold up your protagonist’s progress. Your job here is to make your villains credible, logical, and believable, but not likeable. You want the reader to understand what they’re doing that is such a negative thing for your hero. But it’s more involved than just explaining their adverse actions. Your readers need to understand why the antagonist is doing what he does, and why he believes his actions are justified and rational. Basically, you need your villains to be real, three-dimensional people. Unfortunately most “bad guys” are shown as being shallow, narrow-minded creatures whose only ambition is to be as evil as possible. This approach to an antagonist loses the respect of your reader for two reasons: 1 – You lose any emotional impact your story had if your readers can not completely believe the threat to your hero is real, or threatening enough. It also lowers the reader’s esteem for the hero who they know can only beat this unthreatening villain. 2 – A completely evil character equates to a totally weak character to a reader. If your villain’s only motivation is evil, this does not give him enough depth of character to become real in your reader’s mind. Giving your bad guy only one driving motivator is not enough – especially if you choose a lightweight surface motivator like “evil” or “greed”. Think about when you created your protagonist. Most likely you created someone you admired, a character with strength and integrity. I’m guessing you took the time to get right inside your hero’s head and understand what made him tick. Your villain is no different. In order to be considered a worthy opponent, you must portray your antagonist honestly. You must be able to get inside his head, too, and learn what drives him to act the way he does. Remember here that no one sees themselves as mean or evil or bitchy or insane or stupid. Your villain won’t either. To him, his actions and his logic are perfectly justifiable. Show your readers this side of your villain’s logic and you intensify your story’s suspense...

Read More
Writing Dazzling Dialogue
Nov23

Writing Dazzling Dialogue

  Before I begin, it’s important to understand a little about dialogue in fiction. Regardless of what you might read on the page, dialogue in a story is NOT about two people talking to each other, nor is it written speech. Dialogue is one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. It should represent, but not mimic real speech. And it should impart vital information. The good part here is that it is not as difficult as it seems. Dialogue as Conversation Consider doing some “official dialogue research” sometime soon and you’ll understand what I’m talking about a little better. Go and sit in a coffee lounge, or in a crowded cafe, and eavesdrop. If you have one, take a pocket-recorder, like the ones reporters use, to a party or family gathering. Whichever you do, listen carefully to how and what people are saying. The stutters, the pauses, the idle chit-chat, the mundane trivia, the interruptions, the incomplete thoughts and the abbreviations are all filtered by our brains as we listen, but to type it out EXACTLY as it is spoken would bore a reader to tears. Concentrate on refining and focusing a conversation so that it flows smoothly and reads like a real exchange between how we would imagine two people would interact. It should seem realistic, but the human oddities and inflections should be removed. Dialogue to Give Vital Information The exchange between your characters should impart more than just inane chatter. It needs to propel your plot forward, show your character’s personality, reveal something about what your character is thinking or feeling. While you are worrying about adding all of those inflections, remember that the way a character speaks to another will also show a reader a little about his social standing, his education, his background and beliefs. Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? This overly-technical description does not need to be a frightening step in creating great dialogue. Here’s an example: “I would expostulate that the inverse of said trajectory is infinitely more plausible than the former theorem,” said the professor. “Huh? Whaddya mean?” the janitor said. Okay, those characters are a little typecast, but you get the idea. I’ve (hopefully) managed to highlight a little about both character’s education levels and social status in just two lines of dialogue. Uncharacteristic Dialogue You would never give your protagonist the wrong information or let him speak with the wrong accent, would you? Surprisingly, a lot of writers do, and it only serves to destroy the trust in you as a writer that you’ve built with your readers. For example: “I would expostulate that the inverse of...

Read More