Review: Midnight Library

The Midnight Library by Haig, Matt (9781786892737) | BrownsBfS

I jumped into Midnight Library as a book club recommendation with zero expectations – and I must say I really was quite happy with the experience of reading this book.

At first I confess the opening pages did not seem as uplifting as promised, however needn’t have worried! The story is challenging, and at times deeply sad, but ultimately will not destroy anyone’s sanity (I hope)

What I think I like best about Midnight Library is the premise is presented as somewhat fantasical, and could very easily fall off the rails of believability, yet somehow Haig manages to pen quite a grounded story around a far out idea. It’s often the hallmark of brilliant writing when you pick up a book and immediately feel you are where the character(s) are.

MILD SPOILERS

I did have a couple of wierd thoughts about the story the book. As Nora explores parrallell universes I couldn’t help but recall some psychology studies that show that people do tend to be specific in their regrets, in that after an adverse event we’ll often ruminate on tiny changes close to the event that could have changed it, we often don’t ‘go wide’ e.g. after a fender-bender we fantasize about tapping the breaks a little earlier, not something like leaving home earlier that day which would have definitely avoided the accident. But the point is the story of Midnight Library kind of catches that thinking as Nora explores further and further into different lives.

Another odd thought is I was reminded a litte of Rick and Morty which is obviously not grounded, but I did have a moment where I wondered if Nora woudl stumble on a more bizzaro parrellel universe.

One final thought – and this is very much a commentary NOT a criticism, but I did find that I am probably a key audience member of Midnight library being the same age as Nora and finding her at times gloomy/nihilisitc thinking relatable. But I did consider that there is an element of entitlement or priviledge to the story of Midnight Library. I couldn’t help but imagine a similar tale but for someone more disadvantaged or whose struggles were more inflicted upon them rather than having a book of regrets. As said I don’t say this as criticism, and obviously the story is specifically about the nature of regret not a literal journey through parrallel universes, it was just a thought I had while reading.

All in all, Midnight Library is a great read – bit of a mid-life crisis type book which is OK. 5 stars

(Discworld Reread) Equal Rites

The Annotated Pratchett File v9.0 - Equal Rites

Actually finished this a month or two ago but its taken a while for me to get off my butt to review it…

Equal Rites is an interesting one – being the 3rd book of the Discworld and the introduction of Nanny Ogg, one of the more standout characters of the Discworld. I’d only read this book once before embarking on my re-read-thru.

The first thing that strikes about Equal Rites is the that the story is much more ‘grounded’ than Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic, or more specifically has a narrower focus on the main characters, and while having a bit of a journey there really are just two settings of note, and (hopefully obliviously) the social commentary is much more pointed.

In Equal Rites you can really see the refinement of Prachett’s ability to write phenomanal fantasy, while still not dropping the humour. There are scenes where you could almost forget that you’re reading a form of satire and are actually in the middle of a classic fantasy novel.

Couple of quibbles. Equal Rites is strangely short. I’m not sure if there is a specific reason for this, such as a publisher demand, or a creative decision to keep the story streamlined. It does feel a little like a let-down in that there is an amazing build-up of both magical and socialogical tension and the 3rd act is relatively rushed and resolved faster than the more elaborate novels to come.

Just a note on the message of Equal Rites – for those unaware its basically about a girl destined to be a wizard in a world where girls = witches and boys = wizards. Pratchett is a master of tangling and untangling the issues into a non-preachy story, this is done through a cunning use of character to communicate prejudice and change. Rather than having a polemic type setup where characters tend towards a black-and-white opinion about equal rights, the characters of the book are varied and conflicted even within themselves. No-one preaches (well not much) and no-one is perfect, all the characters struggle and the issue is addressed through this conflict.

Strangely enough I think this book is still pretty relevant today as the fantasy genre continues to have controversy and discussion attached (e.g. see the Will Smith Netflix Movie: Shine) and Pratchett provides a master class in how to address the world through fiction with humour and power.

On Writing: What if readers think I share my hateful characters’ views?

Slightly different topic today – every now and again this sort of question pops up on writer’s forums, and while I don’t have every answer I figured I’d at least lay some thoughts down.

Image result for evil writer

By the way by hateful views, we’re kind of talking about various forms of bigotry, particularly racism and sexism – Dr Evil type villainy is not usually hard to deny as an author!

First of all I want to address whether this is a non-issue or not. The worry that one’s readers may assume that an authors hateful characters share said authors POV fits into the broader discussion about whether its OK to ‘offend’ people as a writer. A subject which to say is somewhat divided is probably an understatement – however many pundits express that offense is an inevitability, and at times a necessity of writing and effort to minimize or reduce this is needless worry.

I take a different stance to this, but perhaps not because of the obvious reasoning. Hateful characters seem like an important part of fiction, and they are going to make some uncomfortable. Authors, I think, should take steps to distance themselves from such views through their skill at writing. So not so much writers should worry about offense, but that they should take steps to ensure proper characterization.

Now I’m not saying that writers should be polishing their disclaimers, pre-writing interviews or adding footnotes to repudiate their characters. Rather I think that if they are playing with hateful views that some extra care and attention is giving to character voice to ensure that the views are firmly entrenched within story not without.

Like many points I make, this may seem like common sense, however fiction often prompts a number of assumptions, for example if a view-point is expressed by a protagonist its usually assumed to be a virtuous viewpoint. Well sort-of, one of the key parts of fiction is of course MC change, usually including some sort of learning experience. however even though this may be a change from a “wrong” viewpoint the whole change is assumed as normative or OK. That probably sounds like gobbledygook – what I mean is for example Frodo Baggins starts LoTR complaining its a shame Gollum wasn’t killed earlier in the piece, to becoming a strong pacifist, while a big change in POV occurs the whole character arc fits relatively comfortably as a viewpoint (e.g. Frodo doesn’t go from serial killing to passive or something).

All of this is a very long winded way of saying that characters viewpoints are important, and if not handled then writers should worry about hateful viewpoints being misconstrued, not necessarily because its “offensive” (highly sarcastic scare-quotes intended) or that an author should be too precious about what readers think of them, but more because strong hateful views will stand out to the reader and easily break immersion.

So pontificating aside here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

  • Ensure that character’s views are expressed in a characteristic way, that is probably embedded in a believable story consistent with their overall character. If a hateful character is setup as a stereotype or they are forced into situations which expose their nasty point of view it can feel contrived, which in turn makes a reader feel like the POV has taken precedence over story

 

  • Show don’t Tell. Sometimes the tritest advice is the most useful. As we know shown drama is more powerful than told, and its more likely to be interpreted as in story, rather than author’s opinion.

 

  • Make use of foils. I often struggle with this concept, but it makes sense. A foil is a contrast or  comparison character within the text that helps shape the narrative. A foil can be a character with opposing views, similar-but-different views (for example if your MC is mildly sexist, their best friend might be outright misogynistic). It needs to be said that this probably shouldn’t be too obvious or you might find yourself in another ‘author intruded into the story camp’ where the reader gets sick of the writer trying to hard to distance themselves! The use of foils though is creating perspective, again within the story, of the hateful POV if your story show-cases multiple stances a reader isn’t going to assume the writer holds any particular one of them.

So just to recap, my view is not that writers should be overly freaked out that readers will assume that they are their characters worst viewpoints, however we should freak out that our stories actually seem like stories and not extensions of ourselves. Whether a viewpoint is hateful or not we should worry about this, although it is likely that stark hateful views bring along some additional baggage requiring more TLC than more run-of-the-mill views.

 

Just my thoughts on a slightly different topic: are there any other strategies that need to be added?

What are your thoughts on handling characters hateful viewpoints?

 

On Writing: Is Courage a requirement?

I mean obviously it is for the writer!

Giclee Print: Wizard of Oz, 1939 : 24x18in

But I’m actually talking about Protagonists here. On an interesting Twitter poll in the last couple of days, someone asked about most important traits for an MC. Courage was the clear winner over intelligence, strength and beauty (I think those were the other options can’t find the darn link.)

The poll prompted some thoughts from myself. Not only could I not think of any Protagonists that were not courageous, at least in some way – whether it be socially, physically, emotionally or even internally, the only MCs that lacked courage were of course within stories about them gaining said courage. If This link is anything to go by, cowardice is generally speaking, a much hated character trait, and probably death on a main character.

Why is this trait so important? I mean when it comes to other aspects of people we tend to enjoy a broader range right? We like both heroes and anti-heroes, relate to klutzes, laugh along with doofuses (doofus’s? doofui?).

Yet we don’t tremble along with cowards…

I suspect there are a few elements to this trend:

First from a fictional point of view it ties in with our need for action. Whatever the faults of an MC, its commonly agreed that pro-active characters are a must, people do not like plots that consist only of things happening to a character. Granted this isn’t synonymous with courage or cowardice, however a certain degree of courage is needed for a character to take action, and cowardice stands as a potential barrier to said action.

Secondly, for a more controversial stance, I believe cowardice is in fact too relatable. I know we’re told many times to make characters sympathetic to readers, however I think cowardice, if not presented as a trait to overcome that is promised as part of the book’s progression, is just a little too cosy with our own traits. Let’s be honest, we all suffer fears, and I’m going to go out on a limb here and say most of us have probably either done (or not done) something out of said fear. Now, this sort of commonality, could in theory be gold for fictional relatability, however its an uncomfortable reminder, the very definition of “commiserate.” We might like flawed heroes, but we still need them to be heroes and preferably not remind us of our flaws.

This idea does perhaps add another reason that Horror is a tough genre to write. We want scary content, but brave protagonists – so solve that one writers!

I think its a great tip that Protagonists, whatever they are doing, do so with courage, or on a journey to. Bear in mind as mentioned above courage doesn’t necessarily mean action star physical danger, it could be political, social, even just getting out of bed in the morning.

Ultimately it kind of remind me of a bit of psychological advice, its much healthier to focus on what you want, and try to obtain that, rather than what you don’t want and try to avoid. And it seems that is what we want in our characters too!

 

What are your thoughts on “courage”? Do you know of any MCs that are not courageous in some way, or do not fit the thesis above?

 

 

On Writing: Thoughts about Trigger Warnings

Image result for warning boring

For those unlikely few that have not come across this concept before, Trigger Warnings (in general) are the idea of placing a suitable content warning (in the case of books) prior to the work beginning to adequately warn readers who do not want exposure to said content.

Just before I say anything else, I’d like to clarify that I’m not some ranty idiot who thinks the world has gone soft, or that people need to drink concrete or whatever, trauma is quite real, and fiction is one area that can easily spark pain and I think its a totally valid point to have some sort of content warning in books.

In saying that there are some interesting points to bring up… First of all books don’t follow rating systems in the same way that television, movies and indeed video games do. That is to say you don’t find R18 books (even though there are “R18” books) there is no penalty for libraries of bookstores for selling explicit novels to children, and there is no content regulation system for books.

There are a few reasons for this.

For one its actually a practical matter, significantly more books are published per year than even games and TV shows and content many more hours of content than visual mediums. It’s unlikely that any censor has the time or resources to scour all the worlds written work for disturbing content.

Second and interesting from my point of view, the nature of written content is much different than visual mediums. Typically for games and movies content is whatever is shown on screen, rarely in some cases what is talked about or implied. Some of the rules are so silly developers and SFX people can change the colour of blood to avoid rating censorship. In written works everything is written down and left to the imagination of the reader. A fade to black before something terrible happening to a MC can be more harrowing than a full account, the fact of something happening to a MC can be worse than an innocent bystander. The tone or prose of a work can make a tonne of difference too.

Thusly how on earth is a censorship panel supposed to assess fairly what is restricted content and was it not?

In saying the above, I couldn’t find actual numbers but I have a sense that books have been and are more frequently outright banned than other mediums. This could be an offshoot of no rating system (although I don’t think so) but if more about how we orientate to books as a society, something like American Psycho is horribly violent and explicit with it, but it was also culturally positioned to be opposed. People aren’t consistently looking to ban similar content, when the book was pegged for release they took exception to that book.

There is an element of self-modulation within traditionally publishing too. Obviously agents, editors and publishers will select and guide their representative works towards the right audience including managing content. So of course you’d be generally confident that children’s books won’t contain graphic content, however more broadly there is nothing stopping anyone accessing adult grade stories and of course what is an appropriate level of content for YA is hugely controversial.

All of this is to come around to the point that books are in fact fairly free of censorship or content regulation. When you pick up a tome there really isn’t any indication of what sort of material might be present other than reviews that may or may not be focused on that.

And I just want to plug two psychological points. First for those who have experience of trauma or a negative reaction to some content, one doesn’t want to be completely avoidant, or at least not in a state of avoiding reading wholus bolus due to risk of triggering. A Trigger Warning could empower a person to brave content they want to build some resiliency to, OR choose to skip at that time.

And then it’s also important to point out that the written word can be very powerful, we tend to assume that being exposed to a visual depiction of something graphic is the worst possible thing, however prose not only goes inside character’s heads, because writing prompts our own imaginations it can make material even more intense – e.g. rather than seeing something you’d rather not, its like actually thinking an believing something you’d rather not.

What about detractors?

Well I think a reality check is somewhat needed. I doubt that trigger warnings will ever be a legislative requirement – as above its too hard to consistently regulate, judge and cover the breath of material that may be problematic.

On the other hand I do think that publishers will increasingly include forewords and messages to that effect, as the industry becomes more diverse and interested in supporting communities.

Some are concerned about spoilers or softening readers. To the latter I always find such attitudes pathetically paternal, people have a right to manage their own hardship as they see fit, life is horrible and surprising enough without idiots demanding we don’t look after each other in case we get too ‘soft.’

As for spoilers there are plenty of practical solutions – I have no doubt that there are already such sites, but making use of reviewers or online resources for trigger warnings makes sense. Secondly warnings can be easily placed on a book cover to not dominate front and center – it may depend on intent, if you want Trigger Warnings to catch a naive reader who hadn’t thought twice about reading a book  its going to need to be obvious, although my gut sense on the topic is that people are empowered enough to consider whether they want a content warning or not (although as above it tend to rebel against anything paternalistic or assuming people’s frailty).

What are your thoughts on Trigger Warnings?

On Writing: Magic Systems (part 1)

Carrying on a theme of ‘magic’ I saw an interesting question on Twitter the other day about what was important for Magic Systems

 

Any book that helps a child to form a habit of reading, to make reading one of his deep and continuing needs, is good for him.  ~Maya Angelou

For those that aren’t somewhat immersed in Fantasy, Magic Systems is essentially referring to the magical elements of world-building, how magic works, who can cast spells, what spells, where the limits etc.

It’s a super interesting question, and even more interesting to try and answer coherently.

I’m not expert, so I’m going to draw on a couple of (IMO) very different Fantasy works to make sense of it – Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. I’ve reflected on these three works because I believe they each have quite a different approach to magic and how it works with the stories within.

Firstly I think there is a bit of a risk focusing too much on the ‘system’ part of magic. This is going to sound counter-intuitive, and maybe even controversial. But I don’t think that the ‘rules’ of any magic system are that important.

WOT?

The reason I saw this is controversial is most writing forums will focus heavily on issues of consistency, logic, proper setup, avoiding dues ex machina with magic and so forth. Yet my stance is that some of the most popular and successful fantasy worlds aren’t that well setup, at least in the sense of having a logical treatise on their magic.

For a really popular example, Harry Potter. I’m sorry team if this is upsetting to read, but the world of Harry Potter despite an incredible amount of magical material is anything but logically coherent. There’s time travel, weird rules about house-elves and clothes, giants – it’s not even explained where the heck magic actually originates from (well AFAIK).

BUT my point is not to diss HP, far from it. What is coherent and masterful about the magic system of Harry Potter, is that it ties in with character and story. Throughout the story there is any number of magical spells, or artifacts or whatever revealed and explained, have you noticed that the significant ones often require something of character to interact with? Whether its Harry getting brave to use a patronus, or Dumbledore making a sacrifice to destroy a Horecrux, pretty much everything Snape does.

The point yes there is an elaborate, I’d say even eloquent, magical world portrayed by Rowling. But the key isn’t writing a textbook of spells and rules that fit together and prevent nit-pickers from finding errors, it’s leveraging that magic to truly test the characters.

In Lord of the Rings an almost opposite approach is made in terms of how magic is presented. Barely a thing is explained in LoTR (I’m not included all the other world-building tomes) other than a few rules of say the actually Ring and maybe a Palentir or two. Gandalf isn’t even really explained. Again though, magic is largely used to test character, or to flesh it out.

So in some respects the issue isn’t to have enough world-building or design of the magic system to prevent bad-story telling, its to ensure that its entrenched in character. I think were many writers fail, is to view fantasy writing as a bit of a video games, wanting a character to level up and learn new spells and eventually vanquish the enemy. The key difference between a book and game is that the reader isn’t in the drivers seat and ready to enjoy magic first hand they need a character to relate to first.

So for me I think that’s the crux of magical systems, not what the lore says on whether elves can beat Balrogs or whether HP should have used the time-travel spell at several other points – it’s how character challenges translate into magical ones.

In saying all that I think this topic deserves a part II (or more honestly I have to go to work now) to discuss how to ‘sell’ or suspend disbelief re: magic, because I don’t think that character driven magic systems is an automatic pass to do whatever one wants!

On Writing: ‘good’ and ‘bad’ powers

You’re to have to forgive me if some of this theorizing is obvious to others!

(SPOILERS FOR CAPTAIN MARVEL AHEAD)

"... dunnest smoke of hell... nor heaven..." Shakespeare uses the references of heaven and hell in the same section as he tries to show the distinct line between what is good and what is bad, and that Lady Macbeth's plans are bad.

I came to an odd realization watching the recent Captain Marvel, for those that don’t know (and don’t mind the spoil) in the movie the shape-shifting Skrulls are originally portrayed as the villains, only for a mid-movie switcharoo that reveals the Skrulls as refugees and victims.

The realization was nothing in particular to do with the film, but more how easily the Skrulls were presented as baddies, due to their shape-shifting abilities there is a natural tendency to see the aliens as deceptive and somewhat creepy.

This got me to thinking about how ‘powers’ tend to fall along good and evil lines. That probably isn’t news to many fans of fantasy and sci-fi, at least the more obvious ‘powers’ but digging a little deeper I find it quite interesting to examine this.

For example ‘good’ powers tend to fall along the lines of nature – I’m looking at you Captain Planet – which is intended to overtly to be so, in general though harnessing or powers based on nature and ‘elements’ are commonly associated with good-guys. On the converse ‘bad’ powers tend to harness either the noxious parts of nature – e.g. poison, decay, illness OR pervert nature somehow.

In a related vein, ‘good’ powers tend to be enhancements or exceptionalism on basic attributes. Super-strength, speed and so forth. Now bad-guys often have similar powers but are presented as a twist or malfunction on nature. For example in Captain America both The Red Skull and Cap’n used the same super-soldier serum, but Red Skull obviously suffered a terrible consequence.

I’ve also noticed that like the shape-shifting mentioned above certain powers tend to fall into evil hands and visa versa. Telekinesis tends to be an evil power, common among villains, and in my opinion this is in part that it has undertones of cowardice. Similar to telepathy and mind control unless its portrayed as more a natural empathy as opposed to outright mind reading.

[ now some of you might mention Jean-Gray and Xavier from X-men, to which I would rebut both become villainous at times throughout the plot arcs of the team. Also X-men in part tends to subvert some superpower tropes, e.g. the character Beast being a ‘beast’ but a compassionate genius  ]

Other powers spring to mind, invisibility typically is bad – Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth is of course ‘good.’

Broadening the scope a little, I also wondered about the ‘mindless army’ trope in many books and films (you know the one I mean, whether its orcs, robots, zombies, aliens) where the enemy is typically presented in mass amounts. This is usually assumed to a. dehumanize the enemy so the audience/reader doesn’t mind the casual slaughter, and b. to demonstrate the epic power of the heroes and finally c. to emphasize the individual clash of hero vs villain.

But I think there is a different reason too, having small groups of elite enemies is somewhat too heroic, too elite – mass production is seen as a ‘bad’ thing and more fitting for the baddies. Even in say Lord of the Rings where the trolls are plenty powerful, individually they are also huge and grotesque, another trope often used for ‘bad’ guys, basically saying that the villains are not exceptional they are just unnaturally huge (see the end of Iron Man 1 where Stark faces off against Iron Monger).

Now I’m not saying that powers are locked in, and that one must follow certain conventions, after all one of the most powerful tools in a writer’s arsenal is the power to subvert expectations. Of course giving heroes potentially evil powers is a great source of tension.

What I am saying is that our perceptions of powers seems to suffer from naturalistic and elitist fallacies. Powers that deceive, manipulate or pervert nature are automatically seen as evil. This is important to consider in our plotting and world-building.

 

What are your thoughts on powers – do you have any examples of exceptions to the theory?

Writing Amnesia: a risky trope

After recently watching Captain Marvel, I’ve been reflecting on the relatively common fiction trope of amnesia. Specifically that is when main characters have a piece of or indeed their entire past wiped from their memory, and a significant if not entirely of their story is about trying to discover or rediscover their lost memory.

As a side note its a particularly at odds trope with reality, amnesia (as depicted in most fiction) is not a particularly common occurrence, especially not as a tidy difficulty where the ‘facts’ of one’s past are obscured yet much of the persons character is intact especially without any other neurological difficulties. Oddly the portrayal in the film Memento where the MC cannot form new long term memories, is closer to ‘real life’ amnesia, however because the trope of a characters losing their past is so common in fiction the story of Memento seems like the outlandish one.

View our entire collection of image quotes that you can save into your jar and share with your friends: Don't lend people money, it gives them amnesia.

Why is amnesia a popular trope?

I believe the trope is common and popular because its a bit of an instant mystery for the story, we automatically see a persons past as important for their character, and not knowing said past creates an immediate problem to be solved. Amnesia also creates a bit of a ‘blank-check’ for a writer and creating tension, because their is a gap in the established backstory for a character, you can always throw in something from their past, without much fear of inconsistency (although more on this later as I think its a double-edged technique)

So why is amnesia “risky”

On reflection I think there are some real writing risks with using amnesia as a plot device, which I will list out below. I’ve called these risks, because I don’t think they definitively cancel amnesia as a plot-point, they are more cautions.

Playing with the past

In general good fiction moves forwards – backstory and flashbacks are also tricky techniques that are generally best used sparingly and wisely to maintain a sense of forward momentum and a story happening in the ‘now.’ Having an amnesia missing past storyline almost guarantees that the story will be mired in the past. That’s not to say that readers don’t care about characters histories (they do) but its hard to make a characters past significant enough to drive a story forwards when intuitively backstory is something that flavours the current story as opposed to completely drive it.

Oddly unrelatable

As we writers all know, main characters are supposed to be relatable. Now this is totally my opinion, however amnesia story-lines are inherently difficult to relate to. Don’t get me wrong, I think that most people want to know their own past, and put in a situation of not remembered would want to. However for the most past, the sort of forgetfulness we suffer is trying to remember a name just before we introduce someone, or the answer to an obvious test question. It’s hard to really comprehend what it would be like to miss large chunks of one’s personal history, furthermore most amnesia story-lines involve a high level of motivation and effort on behalf of a MC either to find out their past and/or pursue the plot around them and there is a catch-22 in this: not knowing said past, its hard to get behind a motivation to discover it or act in spite of it.

Usually for MC’s we find ourselves rooting for them because they try and fight for good, or secure a relationship with their fated lover, or escape evil and so forth. Things that we can imagine ourselves doing. I’m sure most of us would be curious about a lost past, but not enough to risk life and limb (which most fictional characters do)

Also backstory/pasts are a powerful way of communicating character to a reader. With a gap readers often feel a little cheated or at risk settling on how they feel about a character. As I said above, while a blank slate of a past can be a useful tool in fiction its a double edged blade as the lack of backstory can leave a reader feeling like the character is equally lacking.

Hard to satisfy

I think we all know that writing is quite hard, particularly pulling together multiple plot and character points together in a satisfying conclusion. Using amnesia hamstrings a writer by forcing them to incorporate that lost past into the story. They need to make the reader not only care about the lost memories, said memories also have to be pretty relevant to the ongoing story, and while it may seem like an easy source of twists, the potential of simply annoying the reader is high. I think readers have a sense that the author does have a bit of a magic hat in the form of a forgotten past and feels cheated if anything about that past becomes a magic wand to fix the current tensions, feels too on the nose or just generally doesn’t deliver on the expectations setup by the story.

So can it be done right?

Personally I think this trope can be used really well, it’s just about avoiding the pitfalls and above and taking some things into consideration:

Who knows what: Most amnesia story lines force the reader/viewer to experience the discover of the past alongside the character, however careful use of dramatic irony (the reader knowing stuff the character does not) can actually strengthen the story.

For example letting the reader know a piece of information about the lost past first, and letting them see the MC flounder or make bad decisions can be a good source of tension (or a frustration, be careful).

My thoughts are that if the reader and MC discovers their past at the same time it needs to be well crafted to fit with the story, the reader will intuitively care more about story relevant elements not necessarily points that the MC will (e.g. who their best friend in school was)

Meshing with the story: One challenge is portraying amnesia in a way that doesn’t just seem convenient, but also is relevant. Even if the main thrust of a story is an MC trying to discover their past there needs to be some other motivations and goals in there too. E.g. let’s say a character feels they cannot commit to a marriage until they find out about their past, said past has got to in some way relate to their relationship goals. It seems like common sense as I write it but the reveal needs to have an impact – and preferably not just a melodramatic ‘oh I’ve done bad things in the past but have been a good person the entire novel so its actually pretty irrelevant’ type thing.

The Reveal: finally I think lost pasts need to be handled carefully, a readers suspension of disbelief can only go so far, memories rushing back when a person returns to a location, dream sequences, minor characters who are happy to explain in great detail are all common cliches that if not presented well can remind a reader that the author made all this up, and it actually wasn’t much of a challenge to thread it together because they just made it all up!

 

Anywho, need to go to work – what are your thoughts on amnesia tropes? Am I too harsh, do you like memory loss plot-points?

Let me know!

On Writing: Stakes

Ok you guys have probably heard too much about Marvel Movies this year, so its time to get back into thoughts on writing.

4' Bamboo Stakes - Plant Support & Cages

Too much?

A helpful guide for preparing, cooking and serving steak. - Imgur

Ok I’ll stop now

Sorry, sorry its a been a week so my brain is getting silly (I can’t even remember which stake to write now)

Stakes is an area of writing that I feel is well known, but often neglected. We’ve all heard about raising the stakes, making the stakes real and so forth, but I feel there isn’t too much advice on how to really make a reader worry about whats going to happen in a story. Most advice around the place is more about how to make a scene tense, which is obviously an integral part of the subject, but also creating a sense of what might happen as an outcome of a scene is super-important. So I paid some attention to some books and movies and this is what I’ve noticed about stakes:

First of all some common mistakes, or tropes that miss the mark:

Genre confused stakes

This is a little tricky to explain, as one would think that most ‘stakes’ are fairly common, after all death, as an example, is dire in any genre of story right?

However I think this ties into suspension of disbelief – whatever style or genre of story one writes there is a kind of implicit contract with the reader to accept the story as real for the sake of enjoying it, part of that contract is that whatever threatens the characters or the story as a whole fits into that believable framework.

An example to make this less gobbledegook, in romance stories sometimes some sort of life-threatening situation arises for the hero or heroine. That can work just fine, however if the issue is that the writer hopes that fear of the MC’s death will raise the tension on its own they are likely to be wrong. Most readers know they they haven’t picked up a romance novel just to have a character randomly suffer and die 2/3 through.

The reason I called this genre-specific though, is that I’m not just talking about plot-armour making main characters feel invincible, but also that whatever ‘stake’ is proposed needs to fit with what fits with the story and genre that has been established otherwise it automatically feels like its not going to happen anyway!

Fake Stakes

The second thing I noticed about “miss-stakes” (can’t believe I only just thought of that one) is we are often ‘told’ some stakes not ‘shown’ them. An obvious example of this is B-grade horror where often a bunch of characters that are about to get slaughtered talk about their backstories to try and get some sense of empathy, the most obvious attempt for heart-strings being people with children at home or an expecting wife.

Interestingly I don’t think the problem with this sort of thing isn’t that we need to be ‘shown’ the stakes, because backstory is often pretty boring whether its just revealed in dialogue or shown in flashback or prologue, its actually an odd trait I noticed about reading (or watching) a story that as readers we are somewhat selfish or perhaps more accurately self-involved with a story, than affected by actual events. Which brings me onto my key example where I’ll flip into what makes stakes ‘real’ or not.

Melodrama and “in-story” stakes

The final error I see in stakes is a ubiquitous problem, that is having or threatening events that seem dramatic for the sheer quality of the event, death, dismemberment, divorce. As we should all hopefully know is what makes events significant and powerful in a story is the impact on the character(s) and their journey, but there is a subtle point about stakes I want to highlight.

The most powerful stakes are ones that will impact the story going forward. 

Now to some that will sound like a no-brainer, or seem like a simple point. But ultimately what is at threat at any scene or turning point is the reader’s experience of the story. The reason that backstory families, side-quest stakes or whatever often fail to worry a reader is what we are really thinking about is our own experience with the story coming up.

So really we don’t care about the MC’s love-interest getting kidnapped, unless we’ve been treated to some scenes earlier in the story that were a tonne of fun, and their death means no more scenes like that. Or even better there are some unresolved issues between them, again their death leading to those issues being unresolved.

Game of Thrones is well-known for being horribly fatal, but the truth is there are plenty of books filled with mortality, even of main characters, but GRR Martin’s deaths are hugely significant for the story, it’s not just “oh I like that guy” it’s “holy crap we’re not going to see X happen then are we?”

Now I’m not talking just about character death here though, break-ups, failure, loss, change there are multiple stakes to be held in stories and the most powerful are those that a. are likely to happen within the context of the story, and b. if they happen will change the story-world for the reader.

So I was going to waffle a little further about how perhaps to raise stakes, however I think my main insight of the day is this idea around including the reader in the stakes is my main point, so I will leave it at that for now…

 

How do you raise the stakes in your stories?

 

Do you have any other examples of common errors in “staking”?

 

On Writing: Populating a Novel with Characters part 1(ish)

I’ve been stewing on this topic for a while now, and like many writing subjects Characters could probably take up a whole book, let alone a blog post – nonetheless I’m going to try and explore a few insights that I picked up from Save the Cat! Writes a Novel which oddly wasn’t majorly focused on character outside the MC, but the few pointers were really insightful ones.

caricaturas en vectores

I suspect I’ll have to do another post about what makes an MC or not, but for now I’m going to assume a solid MC has been developed, and just going to talk about the rest of the merry gang that makes up a novel’s characters.

First of all I might address how I used to develop characters and how now I’ve realized that isn’t quite right, or probably more accurately didn’t lead to as stronger writing as it could. Ironically my characters tended to come from a logical place or essentially randomly generated. Which probably sounds oddly dialectical, however I bet many writers have done the same. By ‘a logical place’ I mean I generated characters based on who would normally or rationally be around the MC or the setting. For example if the MC was a teenager then I’d generate friends, family, teachers and so forth. Or if I was going random I’d already have a character that I wanted in a story somewhere so I would just insert them.

Now you might be thinking what is wrong with logically inventing characters, or using characters you’ve already invented? Well it’s not wrong per se, it’s more what is missing from such a process, i.e. I didn’t invent characters based on the MC’s story arc needs. And this is the crux of what I want to get at in this post. In my early (ha pretty much in most of my writing) I haven’t had a good sense or understanding of how other characters can deepen our main story.

In my defense I don’t think its that easy to get one’s head around. I’ve heard for years terms like ‘foil’ and ‘subplot’ but it hasn’t really been until reading Save the Cat! Writes a Novel that the interaction of Main Characters and Secondary, really sunk in.

One of the issues, which again probably warrants more page time, is the distinction between what some people call the A story and the B story, others might call is the context and the subtext – basically the difference between overt and external tensions and the ‘internal’ thematic and characterization tensions.

For example when one sits down and reads Lord of the Rings and we see the Fellowship get put together we don’t automatically realize that the eight other characters aren’t their to help Frodo dispose of the One Ring, they are really there to make Frodo’s journey to dispose of the one ring a much deeper journey by: providing guidance (Gandalf) antagonism (Boromir) contrasting form of heroism (Sam).

What I’m trying to say is it would be easy to try and generate your Epic Fantasy squad by wondering what sort of team would be needed to get to Mordor, when what you really should be reflecting on is how the squad will flesh out the MC’s journey as a character.

Even writing this is starting to sound like gobbledygook to me, so to continue with the same story LoTRs I’ll try to explain how characters can deepen the MC’s journey.

So Frodo in Lord of the Rings is basically a fairly ordinary, humble individual bar their deep love for The Shire and a strong motivation towards doing what is right. The nature of his journey is to continually make difficult moral decisions that ultimately mean the one ring can be destroyed, however the journey is so difficult and traumatic that The Shire is not saved for Frodo.

A lot of people say that Sam is the true hero of LoTR, and he is definitely a hero, but I’m, afraid his literary existence owes very much to emphasizing Frodo’s journey. Isn’t it that much more heartbreaking to see Frodo suffer in contrast to Sam who is able to return to an idyllic life after everything? It’s much more intense to see Frodo interact with Gollum and show mercy, when Sam is also present suggesting they do not.

Anyway to repeat the point, it’s easy to assume that two hobbits simply makes more sense for sneaking into Mordor than one, but ultimately the point is that Frodo’s journey has that much more depth and impact when compared and contrasted with Sam’s.

So there are many ways that secondary characters interact with an MC’s story:

Same but different: Often a secondary character will have a similar story arc to an MC, this is particularly common in romance stories where a friend of the MC is also unlucky in love, however will often secure or resolve their relationship before the MC – this often emphasizes the MC’s fatal flaw or problem – and hits home how if that problem isn’t resolved they won’t succeed.

Foil: This word gets thrown around a lot but often not explained too well. A foil provides contrast to the main character, often emphasizing the MC’s good points. For example a side-kick is often a super-hero’s ‘foil’ they’ll be on the same side but the side-kick will often not be quite as brave, moral, or strong as the hero. Villains and Antagonists can also be foils often having direct opposite traits of a MC, although clever writers will often make some points of similarity. A foil isn’t necessarily a ‘hype-man’ for the MC either a Foil can also highlight the MC’s flaws.

The point of a Foil is to bring more attention and exploration of the MC’s character – we will often see a Foil succeed or fail, again in contrast to an MC’s traits, for example a common superhero story is the side-kick who sick of living in the shadow of the hero tries to save the day on their own – only to result in the hero having to save them and the day after they fail.

Choices: Another function of secondary characters is they can represent or show the outcome or nature of different choices. In some respects Boromir from LoTR represents the choice to not take the difficult and sacrificial path of destroying the One Ring.

I’m actually going to keep studying this topic and possibly come back for round two – the main point of this post is to talk about how to generate characters, not based on the logic of the story context, but the subtext of the MC’s character development. And while I’ve only mentioned three, I think there are many many ways that other characters can deepen the story of the MC.

(which I will explore further next time)