Archive for April, 2007

Continuing a Character

April 26th, 2007

Over the weekend I read a thriller which got me thinking about the pitfalls of writing series with continuing characters. I’m two and a half books into a series with a bunch of continuing characters, so this is a question of more than usual interest to me. My problem with this book and this character is that over the course of the dozen-or-more books in which he has appeared he has become an unpleasant guy to spend 350 pages with. The character (Alex Delaware, in Gone, by Jonathan Kellerman) is a child psychiatrist who gets drawn into LA police cases. In the first book or two of the series, he was actively working with kids, and his empathy for his patients and the people he encountered (even the bad guys) was palpable. It made a nice counterpoint for the carnage and dysfunction of the killers and rapists and con men who showed up in the books. Now he seems cynical and angry and depressed, and we don’t get to see him being a caring professional, because he mostly lives on his investments now (gives him more time to solve crimes, but cuts down on his human side). People change, sure, and given the unpleasant and downright dangerous situations Delaware gets into, it’s not surprising that he’s hardened somewhat. But I can see a point coming where I won’t want to pick up another of these books because the character has become too jaded and bitter. If I were Kellerman, in the next book I’d have Delaware put in some serious time with some kids, to remind us what makes him an interesting, complex and humane guy.

Still, the question remains: how do you keep a character from turning into someone your readers (and you) won’t want to spend time with? I have no answers here–I’m still in the making-it-up-as-I-go-along phase.

When I watch House I am constantly amazed that the writers have created this wonderful, horrid, brilliant guy who is absolutely rivetting to watch. Even when the medical stuff lags (and it has lately) the characters are such fun. With House, the character work is not so much about seeing him grow and change (although he does, in teensy increments) as to see new facets of his horridness revealed and very occasionally, glimpses of his better self. And the people around him change and grow and relate to each other, and that keeps them fresh. I keep showing up to watch House because I’m still learning about his character, and I guess that’s one way to do it: just keep peeling back the layers of the onion.

TV is not, of course, always a good model (although TV writers are constantly dealing with continuing characters, so the temptation to look there is pretty powerful). When I was a kid the characters of continuing players were usually fixed in stone: the Cartwright brothers, for example, loved and lost on a regular basis but never seemed affected by the love or the loss. Now TV stories are presumed to have character arcs as well as story arcs–Buffy is not the same girl in season seven as she was in season one. But when you’re writing a book with continuing characters and each book is a story in and of itself, how much do you want your characters to be affected, in book two, by what happened to them in book one? How different do you want your characters to be in book ten from what they were like in book two?

Remember, I guess, what the character’s core values are. What made you interested in writing about them in the first place? Because that’s probably what hooked your readers, too.

Anyone got any thoughts?

My First Novel Question: Multiple First Person Narrators

April 23rd, 2007

Lynn wrote:

I have one author who writes the first half of a one chapter story in the first person singular, and then in the second half, she changes to write in the first person singular of the opposite character. When I told her it was confusing, she lashed out at me about how she was a teacher and it was correct writing.

OK, I found myself writing a long answer to this question and decided not to bury it at the bottom of the My First Novel pile, because first person narration is dear to my heart. I love the feel of living an adventure so close to one of the participants – both reading and writing. Before Transformation was published, I never knew there were readers who held an antipathy to first person. Many of my all-time favorite books are first person, and, I suppose, what bad first person books I’d read would have been bad no matter what “person” they were written in! But since I’ve been reading more pre-published fiction, I understand way better. (And I’ve a few other pet peeves to go along with bad first person, but I’ll leave them for another time.)

So on to Lynn’s query…

There is certainly nothing technically wrong with multiple first-person narrators. It is no more “incorrect” than using multiple third-person points of view or present tense or omniscient POVs or whatever else. For those of us who love first person done well, multiple narrators can alleviate the biggest downside of writing first-person narrative, which is getting only one character’s view of the action. All of my nine books are in first person, and I have used multiple narrators in four of them.

Of course, as with any technique, you have to work at it. Here are a few things I concentrate on:

– first and foremost, I always make sure the reader is clear about whose head we’re in. I only switch at chapter breaks, and I always delineate the speaker in the chapter head. Some writers switch at scene breaks–or even more often, which gets dicey, in my mind–but I prefer using a chapter break, even if it means variable length chapters. On the other hand, I do try to minimize switching, giving a sequence of chapters in one voice, and then one or more in another. But, of course, the storytelling must ultimately decide this. I would like to think that my characters and their voices are distinctive enough that they are instantly identifiable – but every reader is different and I don’t want to pop them out of the story by leaving them confused. Continue Reading »

New Signing Date and Time

April 22nd, 2007

I will be reading and signing at Borderlands Books in San Francisco at 5 pm on June 2. Carol Berg will be doing the same thing before me at 3 pm, so y’all come! You’ll get to see a double header. :-)

The Ur Texts — Library for Ziggurat Con

April 21st, 2007

Back during the 1st Gulf War, there was a call for folk to send letters and care packages to soldiers, with a note that letters addressed to “any soldier” were especially appreciated, because it’s particularly awful to be stuck in a war zone with no family or friends who remember you’re there. I packed up a few books I’d enjoyed and sent them off, adding the extra flourish of addressing them to “any soldier who likes science fiction and fantasy,” since that would likely describe someone in any given company and you might as well make sure you send someone a present they’ll enjoy. When my first novel came out, I took a copy and did the same.

Some years later, I got an email thanking me for my first novel — from Bosnia. The last care package had somehow made its way to the next international conflict and the soldiers there were grateful for something to read. I’d made some fans, but more than that, I’d help make the world a little brighter for people in a dark place (ironically with a dark fantasy set in Europe.)
Continue Reading »

Uses and Abuses of Multiple Languages in SF/F Worldbuilding – A Question

April 13th, 2007

Jason writes:

I have a question concerning the inclusion of multiple languages in a novel. I put a great deal of effort and pride in developing the histories and different culture, reasons for certain beliefs, mythologies and law, arts and so on. In my paradigm, I have four different cultures on a single large peninsula. Two of which are off shoots of the same people, one is an older civilization from the south and then the dominant culture who were migratory raiders turned Empire from a different part of the continent entirely.

Now while I have a passing interest in linguistics, I am no Tolkien. I am curious how one goes about creating a believable world, flush with exotic and distinct civilizations and language without actually building a complete language from scratch. And beyond that, how I should include enough of those languages in the novel without confusing the story and making readers groan every time the big, gravely voiced Syvrian foreigner appears on stage with the learned Republican.

I’ve dealt with this so far by having most main characters speak the dominant culture’s tongue, but there is a character that was married into a foreign culture and the dominant culture just ain’t so dominant there. I wonder if I am creating headaches for myself by worrying the problem to a nub, but can’t seem to convince myself that I should let it go.

Three initial thoughts:

1) no, you are not worrying the problem to a nub

It’s well worth thinking through how you mean to deal with the issue of multiple languages in far greater detail than ever gets on the page, in part so that you know what is going on and in part because once you know what is going on and how you are going to deal with it, you may find that it takes less complicated maneuvers than you believed it might to get your point (of multiple languages) across.

2) less is more

You’d be surprised by how much you can suggest through a few well chosen words, phrases, or misunderstandings. Mostly readers do not, I think, want to wade through text heavily-laden with foreign words, whether real or made-up, but that doesn’t mean such words can’t be used sparingly to good effect.

For instance, as a single example, one rule of thumb is to introduce such words in specifically important contexts and at spaced intervals so that the reader doesn’t have to juggle a bunch of new stuff all at once – same way you introduce new cultures, new characters, new landscape. Beware infodump, of course.

As for the character who has married into a foreign culture, I think how you deal with it depends on whether s/he understands the foreign language or must use a translator.

3) Remember, always, that language is a window into a culture and can say as much about how a culture looks at the world and interacts internally as does clothing, architecture, political structures, religious rituals, etc. Emphasize those parts of language that illuminate cultural differences rather than layering in a bunch of different words for the same thing.

I specifically want to throw this question open to comments because I happen to know there are some folks out there with actual expertise in this matter.

Additionally, I’d be interested in hearing people’s opinions on examples of languages done well and done poorly in stories.

So, please weigh in, all.

Gates of Damascus chili — the spice trade and worldbuilding

April 4th, 2007

One of the most valuable reference books I have in my fiction writer’s library is The Complete Book of Spices by Jill Norman. It details, simply and photographicly, the history of the world spice trade and the major regional spice blends. From a writing standpoint, this helps to flavor a world, because few things give a sense of place so much as the cuisine, and nothing places a cuisine so well as the spice.

The meanderings and peregrinations of the spice trade are why cardamom is so favored in Swedish desserts, Indian black pepper replaced African grains of paradise in European cuisine, and Texas has chili cookoffs.

I’ve never cooked chili before, but a group of friends has been doing potlucks a couple times a month, and the challenge was given to have a “chili cookoff night” which then became a more sensible serial chili cookoff, where so far we’ve sampled two different chilis and now it’s my turn.

Of course, being a writer, nothing is ever simple and everything is research, and I like research. And, as a number of years ago a scorched pot of apricot jam was saved by turning it into apricot-ancho chili barbecue sauce, I knew that apricots worked well with chili, so why not postulate a world where the tomato had never gotten to the Old World and Texas-ish chili con carne was invented somewhere else with the local produce? Like, oh, say, Damascus, also noted for its apricots?
Continue Reading »

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Season 8

April 3rd, 2007

It’s a comic book.  Season 8, I mean.

Today’s U.K. Guardian tells us all about it.

 [ “Joss Whedon, the show’s creator, has launched “season eight” of Buffy – not as a TV series, but as a comic. There have been other Buffy-related comics since the TV show finished, but this is “canon“, the official Whedonesque version of events post-season seven. In America, the first instalment, from Dark Horse Comics, sold out in a matter of days.” ]

After reading the description of this first installment of “Season 8” this reader thought it sounded so dreadful that it is just as well the thing sold out and she shall never see it in this life.  If she’s good.  Not bad.

In other tenuously related Buffy news, Jane Epson, on her website, passes on the information that Danny Strong, who played Jonathan Levinson in the nerd trio that constituted Buffy’s Season 6 Big Bad, has sold a script to HBO.  The project is a movie about the 2000 U.S. election, focusing on the month during which the dems challenged the pubs, and what happened.  It is to be directed by Sydney Pollock.

Love, C.