Monday, July 31, 2006

On Characters


In the middle of a conversation with one of my beta readers about a week ago, I suddenly realized we were talking about my characters as if they were real people.

"What do you think Diane will do when she finds out about Lilleth?" I asked, knowing full well what Diane would do, having dreamed up her reaction some time ago.

"Oh, Diane will slap her silly," Beta said. "Wait; no, Diane isn't like that. She might want to, but she won't, she has too much self-control."

"You think so?" I asked. Beta will be in for a surprise, apparently, as will Lilleth.

And then I asked Beta if she thought it was strange that we were discussing inanimate characters in a novel as if they were real.

"Yeah, it is, sort of," she said, confirming my statement in my last blog that all writers are HBOP, and a goodly portion of readers likewise.

When readers like or hate my characters, I take this as a very high compliment indeed: it means they have formed some kind of relationship with the character, even though that character is a figment of my imagination.

Well, partly.

I construct my characters from people I have known in real life. I never bring them into a story whole, though, because along with a sincere desire to avoid litigation, I want them to fit certain profiles. I will take something from this person, and something from another, maybe a third or fourth, put it all in the oven and see what rises.

Of course this applies only to my protag and the supporting characters, not the villains, which I dredge up from the inner recesses of my own dark and brooding psyche. Next I'll give you a hot stock tip...

Since I write fantasy, I must acknowledge and pay homage to certain cliches, since that is what defines genre to an extent, otherwise I might as well write in the Genre that Takes Itself Much too Seriously to be Enjoyed. Fantasy readers have come to to expect such, so long as it's not overdone, or too obviously imitative.

Take for instance the Raven-Haired Warrior Queen/Huntress. My character Diane is cast squarely within that mold - but she is also Miss Manners, with unexpected vulnerabilities. I like using cliches; the reader, quite reasonably, expects things from such characters, most of which I give them - until I lower the boom, on the character and the reader...

This is part and parcel to me of the sort of thing I talked about in Sleight of Verb: verbal misdirection and manipulation of interest. My writing plan consists of creating characters that are as real as I can make them, in settings likewise, using real people as templates or cooking ingredients (take your pick), inviting or deceiving the reader (again, choose) into a relationship with the characters, and then manipulating the reader's interest and emotions (...) by having terrible things happen to the characters.

Dang, that sounds callous.

So far, it seems to be working, though...

Thursday, July 20, 2006

To Sleep, Perchance to....


I mentioned in my Virgin Blog my perverse desire to drown all my readers in the fictional dreams that I call my writing.

But what are dreams, anyway, and why should a writer care? I suppose I could get technical here, and trot out Merriam-Webster's definition, or even Solomon's (it's verse 3...), but I prefer my own, at least when it comes to writing. I suppose that makes me conceited; but whoever heard of a writer without an ego? Writers are so bloody needy: if you're a writer you know already what I mean. Have you ever watched someone read something you've written, just to see if they gasp, or laugh, or become horrified just at the right moment? It's a disease we all have. But I digress...

I believe Dreams are imagined memories.

This may be why some writers go mad, and why normal people think writers are all at least a half bubble off plumb, and why the normal people are, of course, right.

First of all, the dream has birth in the fertile (or well-fertilized) brain of the writer, who transfers it frantically to paper, or a hard drive, before the dream dies. Something is always lost in the transfer, translation, and recording, another source of authorial angst and neurosis. A reader happens along, reads it, as readers tend to do, and falls in. Now they are caught; they see what the writer saw, hear what the writer heard, smell what the writer smelled. Steven King calls this mental telepathy, thought transferance by use of the written word. The writer dreams the story before writing it, or sometimes while writing it. I can only speak for myself, but when I write most often all I see is the scene before me, not the keyboard.

Now memory is a funny thing, as Henry Hay taught us, and can be manipulated, directed, controlled to a degree. One of the strangest things about it is that false memories and real memories play back in our mind's eye in precisely the same way. This is why I always look upon so-called 'repressed memories' recalled under hypnosis as suspect; is it live, or is it Memorex?

Try it yourself. Close your eyes and think of a real memory, something meaningful, like graduation, or marriage, or your first cup of Starbucks. Now open your eyes and read the next set of instructions; do the same with a scene from one of your favorite books. Be careful. If you're an avid reader blessed with a good imagination, the second exercise may well be the most vivid. Which is why readers are also at least a half bubble off plumb.

John Gardner talks of crafting the fictional dream, a wonderful phrase that I have stolen without remorse, and he maintains that several things are necessary. One is the use of vivid physical details that 'engages us heart and soul; we not only respond to imaginary things - sights, sounds, smells - as though they were real, we respond to fictional problems as though they were real: We sympathize, think, and judge.' Another is continuity. Distractions from the dream are deadly to the story. There are many ways to do this, apparently, far too long to list here, and besides, it would rob you of the untrammelled joy of reading his classic book The Art of Fiction.

But there's something more.

I believe good writing not only creates a cohesive and vivid fictional dream for the reader, but that it also touches something deep within, yearnings inexpressible, groanings that cannot be uttered. This is ( I think) what C.S. Lewis meant when he said that good stories bring to us '...a scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tone we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.' It is at once completely familiar and yet totally other, and when we read it we recognize that we had known it all along, though we do not altogether know what it is.

Stories that have that scent, a whiff, perhaps, of elanor, the golden singing of the Sindarin, the speech of Numenor.

I want to write like that, to have readers see only the dream that I have crafted, to smell, taste, touch, hear the dream...but more, I want to touch that deep, unfathomable as-yet unimagined place...

I have to be at least a full bubble off.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Write what you Know?


The title for today's missive is trotted out as the collective wisdom of Those that Know Things in the writing world. I've seen the phrase repeatedly in writing primers, forums, and blogs. Ok, I said to myself, and sat down to write.

The problem is, I write fantasy. So how do I write what I know when I have to invent a world, and possibly creatures, hitherto unknown, and factually non-existent?

My first reaction was that this was a false trail, a red herring, laid down by devious Pubbers to shrink the slush pile by screening out ignorant writers: I haven't altogether given up the idea, since some Pubbers repeatedly refer to the high percentage of queries that are "crap". One high-profile Pubber has even revealed the use of interesting (but foul-sounding) device, a Crap-o-Meter. One wonders what units of measurement it uses. However, lacking proof, this must remain only a working hypothesis, like European assumptions that George W. Bush is an idjit.

Secondly, I wondered if readers really do want to hear what I know about certain of my relatives. Do they really want to know that Auntie has been styling her hair in the same fashion since the Roosevelt Administration, or that Brother eats peas 'n rice with corn syrup? (Actually, not all that bad...) And if readers do, do I really want to run the risk of Auntie's retaliatory wrath? Will my Internal Editor let me? And how in the chicken gumbo do I make it interesting?

Thirdly, though I realize that the internet has opened up resources to the writer never before seen ( and some better not seen), from blogs in Chaucerian Englyshe, to catalogues of useful ancient stuff, to Pubber Facts and Figures, these help mainly in researching details. A non-fiction or freelance writer, if they run out of Things they Know, can always, you know, learn about something Else; a fantasy writer still has to make stuff up.

So I decided that while this hoary piece of writing wisdom may work for other writers, it did about zippitydooda for me.

So I asked myself, "Self, what kind of book do you want to read?" and I myself answered my Self (follow me now), "I want to read a different kind of fantasy." So I myself sat down and wrote the kind of book that I My Self wanted to read. Others have read it, and so far most of them like it (Pubbers excluded, thus far), so I think I'm on to something. What it is I don't altogether know, but it must have to do with writing stuff I like.

Which brings up the subject of Genre.

For me, choosing to write in my favorite Genre, i.e. what I like, is more liberating than writing What I Know, because I am writing about things I love, or hate, or would love to have, or hate to lose. And as a Fantasy writer, I don't think I am any different from other writers in other Genres; my world has to be just as coherent, my characters just as believable, my details just as precise as those who write Mysteries, or Romances, or Thrillers. Maybe more so, since I may be asking my readers to suspend disbelief in a totally non-factual world.

I left out Literary Fiction, since nobody seems to be able to give a definition for it. ( I made up my own: Books that Take Themselves Much too Seriously to Be Enjoyed). I also left out Mainstream Fiction because that brings up unfortunate mental images of test strips that have to be held mid-stream...

There is something, though, that writers in every Genre have to do, I believe; get the reader to dive into the page and surround himself with the Writer's crafted Dream. I believe that the authentication, or 'proof', or persuasion, that the writer uses toward this end is the use of specific, concrete, vivid details, both in description and characters.

But that's a blog of a different color.

Probably Purple.