The “Everyman” Is Not Dead

It’s been awhile! I did manage to complete Draft 5, or as it is known now, Draft 5.5 :P Unfortunately, I have decided to rewrite the first 40 pages of my book before passing it on to Beta Round 2. That sure did escalate! But why?

Although I am happy with the plot changes, I am still annoyed by the first third of my book. Both Austin and I agree that the opening of Paradisa is too awkward, oddly paced, and unbelievably random. (To her credit, H.K. Rowe called me out on this too!) I basically drag two normal people into a strange world because of a life-or-death situation, but that life-or-death situation gets fixed in Chapter Four. And, you know, they’re already there, so they decide to join with some deities and save the world.

I’ve tried to build in doorways of no return and urgency and moral pressure that forces the characters to abandon their normal lives. None of it works. None of it seems any more believable than the supernatural characters asking them point blank, “So, do you want to be the main characters of a fantasy novel?” How can one write an everyman into fantasy in a believable way?

Well, here are the methods previous authors have used. And as you can tell, they’re all complete clichés now.

  • “You’re the Chosen One, or you’re Special in some random way that attracts important, more powerful characters to you.” (Jupiter Ascending, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Divergent, True Blood, Twilight)
  • “You have secret powers you don’t know about yet!” (Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, The Mortal Instruments, Eragon)
  • “Your parent/cousin/uncle/someone you know got themselves involved in some crap that’s now fallen on you, or they were secretly powerful in some way. Or you are secretly a royal and a throne is waiting for you.” (Percy Jackson, The Mortal Instruments, Star Wars, Pendragon, Wanted, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones)
  • “You accidentally fell into some nuclear waste and now you have powers!” (Every comic book ever.)

To subvert these situations, modern fantasy writers often give us protagonists who start the story as a supernatural entity, fully aware of their abilities, and their books are about disturbances in what passes as their ordinary world.  Unfortunately, urban fantasy has beaten this method into a trope as well. If I see one more half-human/half-vampire protagonist struggling with their human side vs. their monster side, I’ll throw a book.

Some writers manage to overcome all these tropes. Artemis Fowl hunts down the mystical world himself, in order to sell its secrets and fund his father’s rescue. Katniss Everdeen brings herself into the larger story by saving her sister’s life. The protagonists of Narnia are curious children who discover a beautiful new world – an escape from their country torn apart by war – and are compelled to help save it because of a kind-hearted Jesus Lion.

I still don’t want Connor and Clara to be ‘special.’ I still hold that the everyman can be a good protagonist. One of the things I love about Doctor Who is that his everyman companions are the true heroes. They’re the ordinary human beings who take a chance on a crazy, mystical, eccentric man. And despite their meager human existence in the shadow of the Doctor’s technology and powers, their depth of humanity is always what saves the day and endears the Doctor to them.

Likewise, one of the major themes of my story is the duality and codependence between deities and humans. I need my heroes to be human.

It’s been a struggle to write this story in a way that brings Connor and Clara into the fold as ordinary people, but also makes the reader believe that they’d stick around with some angels and gods. So, I asked myself “Why did the other memorable, legendary characters of epic stories become involved in their stories? What were their motivations?”

It became clear to me that Harry Potter, nor Tris Prior, nor Katniss Everdeen began with the goal of saving the world. Harry Potter was simply asked if he’d like to go to a school for wizards. Tris was asked to pick a Faction. Katniss was metaphorically asked if she wanted to save her sister. These characters made choices that only affected themselves. Only later, when some antagonist emerges and the characters are forced into unusual circumstances, does saving the world or defeating a villain even become their macrocosmic goal.

Start small. Start with what a character wants. Then, what they want will lead them to the bigger story. Don’t drag the character into the big story and then ask them to stick around.

So, I’m rewriting the first third of my book, and I think I have a good idea for what draws Connor and Clara into the fold. They know their father has been murdered by a creature they can’t explain, and they want answers to what it was. When answers come knocking, it’ll only be natural that they’ll follow.

Think it sounds promising? Do you struggle with realistic character motivations? Do you struggle to avoid cliché?

If I Can’t Like You, I Might As Well Fear You

Something has disappointed me about modern cinema, literature, and television. The art that’s held to the highest esteem these days seems to concern the most wretched personalities. Fight Club, Black Swan, Wanted, Looper, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, anything and everything on the FX network (American Horror Story, Sons of Anarchy, Archer, The Americans, It’s Always Sunny…jeez. It’s like FX is the a-hole network!), Gone Girl, and even Seinfeld.

Some of the above, I enjoy. Most, I do not. I’ve heard writers say “you can make a character unlikeable as long as you make him interesting,” but I don’t think that’s the *key,* exactly. Because it depends on what you define as interesting.

I can’t relate to Walter White. Or Joe, from Looper. Or Natalie Portman’s character from Black Swan. To me, they’re all just terrible or messed up people and I really can’t put myself in their shoes or care about their stories because I never would have gotten myself in their situations to begin with. I don’t have sympathy from drug addicted characters. I don’t have sympathy for characters “forced into a life of crime.” I definitely don’t have sympathy for characters who are snarky jerks just for the sake of being snarky jerks, or any other example of What’s Wrong With This World. If a character tilts back his seat on an airplane, I’m done – you, character, are a monster that I don’t care knowing!

Pictured: A deranged sociopath collecting his next victim.

Pictured: A deranged sociopath collecting his next victim.

 

Now, before you accuse me of rose-coating fiction, let me make one thing clear – I know that characters should be flawed. Characters should not be perfect people. They should have weaknesses, they should do crappy things to one another, they should have biases and -isms.

But think about your friends and family. None of them are perfect either, yet there’s something about them that makes you want to keep knowing them. Maybe they have some controversial views, or they drink too much at parties, or they’re flaky, or they’re late. Yet, the good qualities outweigh the bad.

On the other hand, if you’ve ever known a needy, drug-addicted self-destructive emo creep Holden Caulfield wannabe in real life, most people will probably tell you to defriend them on Facebook and cut all ties immediately. No, you probably don’t want to stick around and see if they “turn out okay,” or if they ever “redeem themselves.” You just want out of that relationship, and will probably never look back.

So, here’s my philosophy for what makes a good “damaged” character: make them say stuff that the reader will agree with and relate to. This is why The Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and Gordon Gekko in Wallstreet and Amy Dunne in Gone Girl were all so terrifying. They’re not really protagonists – they’re antagonists – yet they fascinate us because we agree with so much of what they say. Everyone has some degree of dark thoughts or secret judgement, and the best “dark” characters are those who address it. Not just some whiny, anarchist rebel who may represent a “phase” we went through when we were younger (at best), or the type of person we’d loathe to be around (at worst).

Think about it this way – the only “bad” people who are your friends are people who are “bad” in the same ways you are. Maybe they’re cynical like you, loud-mouthed, or equally as forgetful. You can’t really blame them for being the way they are, because you’re that way too. You understand them. Austin nor I are “nice” people by most standards, but we get along in our mutual misanthropy.

So, if I’m going along with  your story, the characters need to be likeable people, or they need to be so similar to my dark side that it terrifies me. The first are simply enjoyable to read about and the latter make me see the world in a different way. On the flip side, I just don’t get what completely irredeemable characters offer to the reader/viewer. If I’m not relating, I  don’t care. And if I don’t care, it doesn’t matter if they turn their lives around before the end.

Can You Use Real People As Vectors For Characters?

I’ve returned from my Dallas trip, and I’m ready to write again! I’m halfway through Chapter Seven in my current edit, so I’m about 30% done.

So, back to blogging. I’ve wanted to write this post for a couple of weeks now, but haven’t had the chance. Basically, is it advisable to base your characters on people you know, or even celebrities?

First, some advice from the professionals. Lawyers say it’s not advisable to create a direct-from-life translation of any real person, especially if you portray them in a negative light. You could get sued for libel. This is how Lindsey Lohan keeps suing companies like Grand Theft Auto for supposed portrayals of her (although most of them are bogus and just show vanity on her part). I’ve also heard that it takes 3-4 real people to equal one good book character. Most people are too mundane to read about, although they have aspects to their personality, when combined with others, that can make for a larger-than-life character.

However, real people certainly inspire and influence authors all the time. John Green was inspired to write The Fault In Our Stars after befriending a real cancer patient named Esther Earl. Hazel Grace is NOT Esther, and her plot does not represent things that happened in Esther’s life, but the combination of Green’s friendship with her, his experience as a parent, and his time as a hospital chaplain converged into this bestseller. It’s also well documented that Cornelia Funke based her Inkheart protagonist, Mo, on Brendan Fraser. Which turned out delightful for her, as he starred as Mo in the movie, and narrated the audiobook to its sequel Inkspell.

Personally, I often base physical appearances of my characters on living people. Usually actors, although sometimes it’s friends/family. This helps me lock onto an image of the person I’ll be writing about. For whatever reason, I have a difficult time coming up with physiques of characters, although I always know the general weight/race/physical features I want my people to have. I knew I wanted Connor and Clara to be Middle Eastern and I knew Raphael should have blue eyes. I knew I wanted Aphrodite to be a dark ash blonde. From there, I locked onto a few famous faces – Cillian Murphy, Lea Michele – and wrote the story from there. Some of their physical features have deviated from the base actor over time, which is great. The actor is only used as a template. I also advise using people who are marginally famous. No Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, George Clooney – all too well-known.

But even more than a face, it helps me to hear a voice. I know what Cillian Murphy sounds like. If I embody Raphael as Cillian Murphy, I can better hear Raphael’s voice in my head. This helps a LOT with dialogue.

Yeah, the Mary Sue Litmus Test would probably fail me instantly for the above exercise, but here’s my philosophy – so long as you’re not casting famous people as your characters 1) to make them exceptionally attractive, 2) to fulfil a celebrity crush wish fulfilment between the celebrity-insert and a self-insert, 3) to actively draw attention in-text to how much they look like Attractive Celebrity or 4) to model ALL aspects of your character, not just their appearance, I think it’s probably safe. Personally, I am a movie-minded person. I mentally cast actors for my books in the way I would for my screenplays. Because I straddle both fiction and film, there are some filmmaker things that come off in my books and some literary things that come out in my (future) movies.

It’s more rare that my characters are based off people who I know, but sometimes I get in the right mindset by thinking “hey, Character behaves a bit like Friend…” For example, my friend A. has a dark past with a lot of pain. But while he holds people at arm’s length and has trouble trusting, he’s one of the most helpful and genuine friends I’ve ever met. He’s also very ambitious and determined to leave his past behind. I tried to endow Connor with this personality – someone who has trouble trusting but is still a friendly, nice guy. In fiction, we often see characters with such a dark past as loners, grumpy, or hardened assassins. Rarely are they line cooks with a friendly shell. That’s the only thing A. and Connor have in common, but I couldn’t have pinpointed Connor without knowing A.

What about basing characters on yourself? This, I avoid. It’s dangerous to write a larger-than-life version of ourselves, because we often forget to include our flaws. When writing a fictional person, we can be more objective.  However, I am considering writing my next book in a pseudo-me perspective – mostly just my first person voice, about a character with much different interests and circumstance. But because that entire story follows one character, in her own mind, with no other human interaction,  I’m latching onto emotions that are universal for all humans – fear of mediocrity, fear of dying with regrets, disappointment at letting our dreams die, fear of death in general. I’ll probably change the voice when I figure out the story more (it’s still in its “two pages of scrawled notes” stage). But for now, I’m getting the creative juices flowing by thinking “what if this happened to me? How would I feel? What would I think?” Empathy is necessary for an author and shouldn’t be condemned. A self-insert a la “I’m going to write an adventure about me and a rugged explorer searching for relics and then he falls in love with my ravishing beauty?” Not so professional.

Overall, I feel that using real vectors for your characters is nothing to be ashamed of. The most important part is that all of your character doesn’t come from one place. Throw in aspects of a few of your friends. Combine one person’s face with another’s sense of humor, or personality. Throw in yourself. And don’t forget to throw in a some original aspects which turn your character from cardboard into legend.

Realistic Characters: Expectation vs. Reality

I’ve been planning this post since last week, upon responses from betas that my characters are not “happy” enough, or have too much self-doubt. There seems to be a generational divide between capable, carefree “vicarious” heroes like Indiana Jones, and realistic, human characters like Walter White. Still, how does Walter White become a character we love, with how vicious and unsympathetic he could be seen?

First off, I agree with my betas. Out of my five leads, one of them is a complete spaz every time something goes wrong, one of them is pathetically self-conscious and grumpy, one is afraid of what he’s capable of, and the other is deathly afraid of trusting others. Only Aphrodite seems to have a solid foundation. I recognize this and intend to fix it.

It is important to keep my characters well-rounded, though. I can’t slice all these negative emotions and struggles out of the story, because I wouldn’t have a story! Stories are conflict – internal and external! If all the conflict was external, I’d have a bunch of overpowered superheroes being shoved around with a plot broom.

This past weekend, I read a lot of books on writing, and it’s helped nail down my opinion on this immensely. Particularly, I read On Becoming A Novelist, by John Gardner, and Writing The Breakout Novel by Donald Maass (both snagged at a used book store on Friday. I know, I’m woefully overdue on reading both. Most beginning novelists start with these, but I’ve already got a 10-year-old collection of writing books on my shelf).

Both men agree that characters need to be larger-than-life in order to be adored. A larger-than-life character is one who reflects the hopes and aspirations of humanity and doessomething about them. You may have always wanted to climb Mt. Everest, but you don’t have the money, stamina, or courage – good characters do. They do things that are difficult, but not impossible, because they have character traits of actual people who are driven.

If you’ve every worked in food service, I’m sure you’ve felt the desire to dump a bowl of chili on a mean customer’s head. Where you would show restraint -“I might get fired, I need to pay rent, I don’t want to burn bridges” – a protagonist (or an antagonist) would take the plunge. Good characters also think up their witty comebacks and burns now instead of later.

See how none of these are completely unbelievable? Certainly there are witty, daring, strong people in the world. It is not unrealistic to write such people. But they’re larger and more grand than the average reader. That’s what makes us want to follow their adventures.

However, balance is key. Internal struggle and moral dilemmas are both necessary for a relatable, sympathetic character. Donald Maass pointed out – and I did a fist pump when I read this, because it’s identical to what I’ve said all week – that the world does not look for heroes like James Bond anymore. No one wants to read about flawless self-insert playboys. This is the age of the reluctant hero, like Harry Potter. Harry Potter is extraordinary in his own world, let alone in ours. But he’s reluctant. He’s unsure. He’s untrained. He has to grow into being a competent wizard. And he shows fear in the face of death; he shows concern and loyalty towards his friends. Harry Potter faces things that you and I would cower at, making him a larger-than-life character, but his emotional responses make him believable.

So where does that leave me? Well, I’ve been advised that my pathetic grump Hephaestus could be fixed if I tell a bit more of his backstory. My girl Clara needs to have *one* moment of self-doubt (instead of three) before steeling herself for the rest of the story. My self-fearful angel Raphael will probably remain unchanged, as readers seemed to enjoy the humanity of his wariness. As for my hero Connor…well, it’s a long haul of editing, I suppose. At least now, I feel more prepared to figure him out, and I know the correct path between expectation and reality.

Follow Friday! – Millie Ho, YA Writer and Artist #FF

Today, I strongly recommend that you follow the friendly Millie Ho. She is near my age and both a writer and an artist, so twice as talented as me! You can learn more about her writing advice and WIP at her blog, or you can check out her cute, snarky webcomic Sorrowbacon.

Talked to Dad last night. He’s 2/3 of the way through with Paradisa now. Since it took him a month to get through the first 30 pages, I never thought he’d get this far! Some of his comments during our phone call were actually fair and will be fixed. Some are fair but will be ignored. And some are like “you obviously skipped a scene, didn’t you?”

One critique I’ve gotten across the board from my betas is that my characters have too much self-doubt. When bad things happen, they don’t always keep their chins high. I agree to an extent, but I also insist on making these people behave realistically. If you were a normal person, thrust into a world of danger and mind-blowing revelations, would you just take it in stride? Or would you worry about yourself and your loved ones? Would you worry about dying? Would you worry about being good enough to fight?

Dad says “no one wants to read that. No one is happy in this book.” In my defense, my characters are not nearly as angst-ridden, self-loathing, sad, or self-destructive as some fantasy protagonists, but they certainly have a lot of fear.  I understand that reading about a character being really scared all the time is probably no fun, and that it should be fixed. But no one wants to read about impossibly confident people either. Would it make sense for characters to be “happy” when they’re facing the apocolpyse? Would it make sense for them to be okay with killing if they’ve never killed before, or be proficient in combat if they’ve never held a weapon?

Or should we see fiction as a mere form of escapism? As a way for us, as readers, to vicariously live through a person who is stronger than we are? Are we supposed to remember and love Indiana Jones for shooting a guy dead in the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark scene, and not think about how unrealistic it is for a professor of freaking archeology to nonchalantly murder a dude?

So next week, I’m going to write a post about “Expectation vs. Reality”, and the struggle to present a realistic human hero who is also confident enough to root for. It’s probably the biggest struggle I’m having with writing this book. Perhaps the companions of The Doctor will be the best mold to go by – ordinary people who make the choice to leave their mundane lives behind. It’s hard to do without a “chosen one” crutch to fall on ;)

Strong Female Characters Aren’t Men With Boobs!

As most of the web knows, Marvel made a huge announcement yesterday – the comic book Thor is now a woman.

She wields the hammer because Thor can’t. This is different because for reasons we can’t disclose quite yet, Thor is unable to pick up the hammer. There are a number of women in Thor’s life, and we’re going to tease out for quite awhile the identity of who this woman is. But one of the women in Thor’s life picks up the hammer. She is in fact worthy. And she becomes Thor.

There’s only one Thor in the Marvel Universe. The character we know as Thor will not refer to himself as Thor anymore.

link

I’m not a comic book reader. But I am a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I know the importance of female representation in media. Especially geek culture, where some of the harshest misogyny lies. Still, I am ambivalent about this announcement because it seems like Marvel is looking for a feminist pat on the back by doing a gender swap instead of creating an original character.

From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense. Thor is a pre-established dude with a famous comic line. A female-centric Thor story appeals to a built-in fanbase. An original female character with new powers and a new storyline would be a tough sell in Marvel’s eyes (although I’m sure if she was well-written, she would do just fine. Market research shows that 45% of comic fans may be female.)

Ultimately, the Thor thing will probably go fine. Whoever this “woman in Thor’s life” is, I hope she’s strong, smart, and developed in her own right. I would assume so, if she’s worthy enough to wield Thor’s hammer. If they were retconning Thor to be female, I’d probably be more irritated, but I have no problem with them giving a woman a chance to be “the” Thor.

But such an announcement reminded me of a huge issue I have with how “strong female characters” are often written: putting boobs on a man does not make that character a strong female. I am sick of seeing the perpetual lazy writing of “strong female characters” where authors simply write men and put a girly name on them. You don’t get a cookie for that, authors. I know it’s hard to write a marginalized group without doing it wrong, especially when you’re not in that group, but women can show empathy, emotion, attention to detail. They can show the conditioned doubts and internalized misogyny that women are raised with. They can think and feel like women, they can like “girly” things, and still be strong. They’re allowed to fall in love. They’re allowed to cry. They’re allowed to fear. They also don’t have to have muscles to be tough, and there are different ways for them to be strong.

Sure, women exist like the characters Michelle Rodriguez plays. But it’s important not to consistently equate femininity with weakness and masculinity with strength. I love seeing gung-ho chicks like Captain Holly Short cry. I love seeing someone as smart and powerful as Hermione get doubtful and flustered, or for her to enjoy looking pretty at the Yule Ball. I loved seeing Black Widow show terror when faced with the Hulk in The Avengers. Equally, I think “strong male characters” shouldn’t be afraid of showing such emotion either, as again, emotion and “feminine traits” are not weakness. They’re a sign of humanity.

Most people are a blend of both masculine and feminine.

When it comes to all genders, you should intend to write well-rounded human beings. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has vulnerabilities that can be targeted by the antagonists, and it’s okay for your characters to get upset sometimes. Or sad. Or heartbroken. Or overjoyed. It’s also okay for them to make mistakes and do regrettable things, so long as your audience sympathizes with them in advance. Instead, equate strength with usefulness. Is your character useful to the story? Do they have a talent or skill that makes them a part of the team, that allows them to solve the plot, that gives them confidence in themselves? Does their personality and presence give strength to others? There you have it – a strong character. No gender swap needed.