Category Archives: Characters

Write What You Love.

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Since the beginning of my writing adventure, I have often heard it said that you should write what you know. And I agree with this statement.

Of course, it doesn’t mean that you need to be a quantum physicist in order to describe a new form of space travel in your science fiction books, but you need to at least do your research and consult with one to make sure that your ideas are not too farfetched. It also means that when you are creating your own world and magic system, you need to think it through, put down the ground rules and stick to them throughout your book.

So this is sound advice, but lately I have come to the realization that there is another piece of advice that works even better for me – Write what you Love.

I know this might be self-explanatory and some of you will think that I’m reinventing the wheel here, but I felt like this was an important realization I wanted to share with my readers. So let me explain what I mean by that statement.

 

  1. Write in the genres you love reading.

What books do you enjoy reading? What TV shows, movies or video games you like the most? Chances are, that’s the genres you will find the easiest to write in because you know them inside out by now. Also, if you are excited about something, if you love your idea and your genre, your readers will feel that. Hence, your book will be better for it.

For example, I really love fantasy and science fiction, with a dash of paranormal, a good mystery, and a sprinkle of horror from time to time. Now if I look at the works I’ve finished so far, what do I see? Of Broken Things is a science fiction mystery. The Choices we make is definitely set in a fantasy world. Mists of the Crossworlds is also a kind of weird fantasy. And The Eye of the Norns cycle leans more towards dark fantasy and horror.

Those are all the genres I love reading, so I naturally gravitated towards them because that’s the kind of stories I love telling. Would I be able to write a non-fiction self-help book or a romance? Probably… If I REALLY put my mind to it. I would suffer every step of the way and the end result would probably not be worth reading though.

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  1. What characters do you like? What characters do you feel the most involved with?

We all have our preferences, certain types of people that I would find absolutely fascinating, or could relate to, but would leave you unmoved and bored. And this is wonderful, because this means that no matter how strange, or damaged, or bookish your characters are, there will be someone out there that would love them. This also means that when we write about the characters we love, they tend to come out more “alive” because we are invested in them so much more…

I have a funny (and eye opening, at least for me) story about that.

I had an interesting discussion with one of my best friends and fateful beta readers the other day. We are both fans of the Dragon Age games and, girls being girls, we were talking about the different romance options. I told her that I found it weird that I found the romance with Cullen in DA: Inquisition so satisfying when I couldn’t stand romancing Alistair in Dragon Age: Origins. I always picked Zevran over him (and Fenris over Anders in Dragon Age II).

So I told her, “I guess I’m just a sucker for strong, if slightly damaged men.”

And she answered, “Duh, it’s kinda evident from your own work.”

I must admit that I had never thought about it before, but after she said that, I went back to analyze my own characters and I had to admit that she was 100% right. Aiden, GMS798, Sky, Brand, Gabriel, all of them are exactly what I told her – strong if slightly damaged men. So I think this example perfectly illustrates the truth of this statement.

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  1. Forget the genres, write what you love or genre hopping is permitted.

A lot of writing and publishing advice tells us to pick a genre and stick with it, because that’s what your audience would come to expect from you. I might be stating a controversial opinion here when I say bull&$#!

Write what you like. Does your story shape out to be a hybrid between fantasy and science fiction? Go for it. After all, Iain M Banks did exactly that with Inversions and it turned out to be an excellent book. You feel like adding a good murder mystery to your fantasy world? Why not? You don’t feel like writing science fiction stories your whole writing career and want to try your hand at horror? Go ahead.

My point is, write what you love. As long as you love the story you’re telling and the characters you are writing about, the readers will feel it. They will love or hate your characters, depending on their personal preferences, but they will stick around to find out what happens to them regardless.

 

All good characters should have scars.

When you read the title of this post, you probably thought, “What is she talking about? Has she jumped off the deep end?” Nope, I’m doing well, thank you, and I promise that the title will make sense after you’ve finished reading the post.

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All the wonderful characters in Dragon Age: Inquisition.

I have been playing Dragon Age Inquisition for the past two weeks or so, and yes, I know that I’m really late to the party and the game came out in October last year. I was in the middle of my first draft of Choices, so I didn’t want to have any distractions. Getting DA: I was my reward for finishing it.

Now I am a big fan of the Dragon Age series and I’ve played all the games and expansions since DA: Origins. Bioware managed to create a complex and compelling world worthy of some good epic fantasy novels. I enjoy roaming around the different zones and collecting books, letters and codex entries, but you know what keeps me coming back to those games? The characters.

I think I spend more time in camp or in Skyhold talking to all my companions and learning their stories then I do exploring different locations, doing quests and killing baddies. I’ve been knowns to stop dead in my tracks just to listen to the random party banter and switch the companions I run with around just to see how they interact with each other. To me, unlocking a new dialogue option for Zevran, Cassandra, Cullen or Fenris or any other companions is more exciting than defeating a new boss.

So to me the success of Dragon Age franchise has everything to do with the complexity of the characters, and you know what gives them this complexity? Scars.

Cullen battles his lyrium addiction every day.
Cullen struggles with his lyrium addiction every day.

And I’m not talking only about physical scars here, though some of the companions have plenty of those as well. And all those physical scars tell a story. Both Cassandra and Cullen are fighters and their faces and bodies are scarred by countless battles. Iron Bull lost his eye saving the life of one of his Chargers. Fenris in Dragon Age 2 has a different form or scars – the lyrium tattoos that his master branded into his body…

No, what makes all those characters interesting are the psychological scars all of them bear on top of those physical ones. They make them seem more human and fallible and also so much more endearing. We all have scars. They define us and determine how we interact with the rest of the world. They make us unique. They make us real.

The procedure of branding Fenris with lyrium was so painful that he forgot everything he was before that.
The procedure of branding Fenris with lyrium was so painful that he forgot everything he was before that.

That’s why nobody wants to read about perfect characters – they are not interesting. Perfection provokes detachment instead of empathy. Would I want to hang around someone who has a perfect life, always does the right thing just because, and never seems to struggle with anything? Hm… probably not. So why would I spend hours reading about them or interacting with them in a game?

Scars give the characters depth and purpose other than following your main character around. They hint at a life outside of the story you are reading / playing. Each one of Dragon Age companions could be the hero of their own story. In fact I WANT to read their stories or play through them.

And so Cullen fights the ghosts of his memories at night and the demons of his lyrium addiction during the day. Solas has a whole pantheon of ghosts and regrets to deal with every day. Varric jokes and hides behind words, but his devotion to Bianca hints on a heart that had been deeply wounded and is still bleeding. Cassandra might come across as harsh and unbending, though as nails, but she hides a much softer romantic side under all that armor. Dorian jokes and jests, but cares deeply about his home and what’s happening there. And Liliana has evolved from a young and somewhat idealistic bard from Orlais into this cold and uncompromising master spy, the Nightingale that everybody fears and respects…

There is nothing left of the young bard Leliana we saw in Dragon Age Origins in this master spy.
There is nothing left of the young bard Leliana we saw in Dragon Age Origins in this master spy.

 

That’s what makes Dragon Age such a great game and keeps you coming back to it even if you’ve already invested over a hundred hours into the game. You come back for the story, but you also come back for all those side stories and character interactions.

I think this is a lesson every writer should remember. If you want to keep your readers engaged and make them stick with you until the end, you need an interesting story, but I think (and some of you might disagree of course) that characters are much more important. Create a protagonist and secondary characters that the readers invest in and they will follow them even through the moments when the story slows down because they will want to spend time with them and get to know them better. Give your character scars.

 

Raymond Reddington or a characters doesn’t need to be likable to be memorable.

Back before the whole NaNoWriMo madness started in October and I plunged headfirst into the first draft of Choices, I had started a series of posts about memorable characters and why I found them so. You can read the post about Sephiroth or the importance of a good antagonist, or A Shadow Hero – Severus Snape. Now that I’ve finished my first draft, I decided to continue this series.

Last week, we watched the first season of The Blacklist on Netflix, and yes, I know that I’m late to the party and that the show is almost through with season 2 already, but at least I got to bilge watch the whole first season at once.

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And I must admit that I fell in love with Raymond Reddington. I think he is the best example of a memorable character that is, at times, less than likable. Red is not a good person and, more importantly, he doesn’t pretend to be a good person. He is a criminal. He has done a lot of questionable and downright horrible things in his life, and some will argue that he is no better than the criminals he helps the FBI catch and neutralize…

Yet we can’t help but feel attracted to this character. Not physically attracted,  mind you, though some might be, but emotionally enraptured by his cheer force of personality. I don’t know if it’s the excellent acting by James Spader or all the work the script writers pored into this character, but Red commanders all the attention every time he enters the room. He doesn’t have to do anything for that, he can just sit there and give his handlers that look and we all know that he is already several steps ahead of them in the situation.

So yes, he is a perfect example of how the viewer, player, listener or readers (because this is true to any medium, be it a game, a movie, a radio show or a book), can become emotionally invested in a character, even if that character is not exactly a knight in shining armor. In case of Red, he is more of a shadow cardinal.  He is smart, he is charming, but more importantly, he always delivers on his promises, whether this promise is to help you or to make you pay for double crossing him.

Reddington Quote

 

And I get a bit irritated with Liz and the rest of the special task force for constantly throwing this “You’re a criminal. You’re no better than the people you help us put away” argument to Red’s face over and over again. I mean duh, he never pretended to be anything else. He never pretended that his motives were altruistic.

Yet, somehow I could care less about what happens to all the other members of the task force, especially not Liz, though Donald Ressler starts showing some potential. But I want to know what happened to Red’s family. I want to know what pushed him towards the path he chose or what his connection to Liz is… I care enough to watch episode after episode even if I could give a rat’s ass about the rest of the cast.

And this is the true magic of a well made character – whether he is good or bad, the readers (viewers, gamers, listeners) care enough about him to follow his story to the end.

The importance of a good antagonist – Sephiroth from Final Fantasy VII

A good plot is driven by conflict, and there what better than an antagonist thwarting our protagonist at every turn to escalate that conflict until it has us turning page after page at 4am in the morning because we just need to know what’s going to happen next? And then we feel like zombies at work because we only managed maybe two hours of sleep…

However, the more I read, the more I discover that good antagonists (ha, talk about an oxymoron there!) are hard to come by. Most often, we are presented with a cookie cut villain with absolutely no depth or character, and who does evil because hey he is evil. Or the antagonist is so bland that he or she gets lost in the light of the protagonist’s awesomeness who manages to thwart his evil plans almost effortlessly. Sometimes they are somewhere in the middle: you can see that they are there to drive the conflict, but no real effort had been done to make them interesting and tridimensional. That’s why whey I come across a story with a better than average antagonist, it tends to stay with me for a long time.

So for this post, I thought I would share with out what I think is one of the best antagonists I have ever seen in a book / movie / video game. And, strangely enough, he doesn’t come from the written page, but from the screen of a video game. Back in 1997 (good god, almost 20 years ago, time does fly), I picked up my first ever Final Fantasy game. It was Final Fantasy VII and I still think it’s the best game of the franchise (Final Fantasy X comes a close second, but will never dethrone it for me). It had managed to create a rich and complex world and told a compelling story with interesting characters. But what makes this story so awesome is the presence of the main antagonist – Sephiroth.

Sephiroth

Part of what makes Sephiroth so awesome is that he is present throughout the game, even if we don’t see him at all until we are about a third of the way through. But we hear about him: he is a hero, a famous General, the greatest SOLDIER in the history of SHINRA, the monster that burned Nibelheim, presumed dead, but rumors of his sightings spread all over the continent. He is shrouded in mystery, his past a secret, the reason why he went mad and decided to burn a whole town unknown. During the length of the game, we are one step behind him, walking in his footsteps and seeing the ripple effect of his actions.

This build up is so expertly done that by the time we actually see him in Cloud’s flashback, Sephiroth is a figure extremely hard to forget. I must admit that the game designers went all out when they created his model: he is a head taller than anyone else in the game, clad in black and with long silver hair. But perhaps the most memorable detail about him is Masamune – the extremely long katana that he wields one-handed, as if it was a feather, not a huge damn sword.

Sephiroth
Sephiroth

What makes him such a good antagonist though is not his looks or the mystery surrounding him, but the fact that the creators of the game put a lot of thought into his character and his background story. The player uncovers different facets of this story during the game. And during all that time, we can’t help but admire Sephiroth’s might, feel sorry for him when we discover certain painful details about his upbringing, and hate him after that fateful episode in the City of the Ancients, but never ever are we indifferent to what he does or what he is.

The game developers managed to create a character who has such a gravitational pull that the whole story revolves around him. This makes the protagonist’s journey and personal growth even more meaningful, and the last battle, where Cloud manages to finally defeat Sephiroth, feels like a real, but very bitter-sweet victory. And this, for me, is the true mark of a good story and a good antagonist.

And before I leave you to ponder about this, let me show you a small example of how the game developers manage to show just how much more powerful than the protagonist Sephiroth is. At one point, your party wanders into a marsh they need to cross and is attacked by a giant snake, the Midgard Zolom. If you are anything like me and haven’t read the walkthrough (I never do unless I’m absolutely stuck), you will get stomped to the ground in all kinds of new and painful ways by that snake. So you go back to the previous area, you kill generic monsters and level up as much as you can, you stock up on potions and go back to face the snake. When you defeat it this time, it feels like a real accomplishment. Then you cross the marsh and just before going into the next area, you are greeted with this sight:

 

Snake skewer, anyone?
Snake skewer, anyone?

Yep. It took you a party of three to kill your snake and you threw everything you had at it, and Sephiroth just single-handedly skewered it on a tree and didn’t even break a sweat.

Why I love reading fanfiction and why I can’t write it.

I must admit that I absolutely love reading fanfiction. I think it’s because sometimes I like the characters or the world so much, that I feel sad leaving them behind once the book is finished. I think most of us feel the same way, as the sheer amount of fanfiction written everyday can attest.

Fanfiction gives the readers a chance to explore the world the author created a bit further, or to shine the light on secondary characters that had been mostly on the margins of the original story. Sometimes it even lets the readers reimagine the story itself if, for some reason, they didn’t like the ending the author gave them. I know that I love reading fanfics that I will never forgive Rowling for pairing Hermione with Ron, or for killing Severus Snape off (and in such a lame way). So I particularly enjoy reading fanfics that explore other paths Hermione could have taken after Hogwards, or those where Snape survived and finally got a chance a normal life.

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I think it’s normal to want to read and write fanfiction, and I know that many writers started their writing careers by writing fanfics for books that really touched them. It’s also an excellent form of exercise, because it lets your imagination run free, but at the same time give you a set of rules consistent with the world of the original (unless you are trying to write something totally AU). It’s also an easily accessible (and free) way of staying a little bit longer with the characters you like.

The downside of this is that there is a lot of drivel out there. Stories that are poorly written, with characters that are so OOC they are unrecognizable, and a plot that is pure wish fulfilment on the part of author. I have noticed a lot of that last one when the authors try to introduce an original character into the story and she / he end up being a better (in their mind) version of the author him / herself (that’s where all the Mary Sue and Gary Stu come from). So, sifting through the muck can be a painful and mind-numbing process, but sometimes you find absolute gems – fanfics so well written, that they keep you hooked just as much (if not more sometimes) than the original book (movie, series, graphic novel) did.

By the way, if you are a fan of Harry Potter fiction, the wonderful Loten has some beautiful (and very well plotted) stories. WARNING – there is explicit content and most of the stories are about Hermione Granger and Severus Snape. I would especially recommend her Post Tenebras Lux.

But I got sidetracked. Moving on. I think I pretty much covered the reason of my love for fanfiction, so now I have a confession to make. I absolutely, totally suck at writing it. I CAN’T write fanfiction to save my life. Every time I get psyched up about a show or a book and want to write a story about it, I end up thinking about it for so long that by the time I sit down to write, I have created my own world and the characters populating it have nothing in common with their prototypes.

For example, my first novel Of Broken Things started out as a fanfiction idea when I watched Star Trek Into Darkness. I had been so impressed by the portrayal of Khan by the wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch, that I remember thinking, “What would someone like that do if he fell in love? And then lost the woman he loved? Oh, but it must have been an exceptional woman to catch the eye of someone like that.” And I started thinking about plot and character backgrounds, world building and politics, and ended up with a story that has nothing to do with Star Trek. Yes, one of the protagonists in it is a genetically modified soldier, but that’s the only think GMS798 has in common with Khan. I started with a fanfiction idea and ended up with an original book.

The idea for my next book also came as a result of watching a popular TV series. I was so impressed with one of the characters that I wanted to play with him myself. Only he didn’t want to talk to me. He kept pushing other characters into the light instead, none of which were present in the original show. By the time he finally decided to step into the light and tell his story, the only thing he had left from that character in the show was the face. And I’m thankful, because he brought me a wonderful story that I can’t wait to tell.

I think the reason why I can’t write fanfiction is because I don’t feel comfortable playing in somebody else’s sandbox. I can’t help but start changing the rules, modifying the backstory and starting to build my own castles. So I might was well go to my own sandbox and do it there, at least then I can have some fun without feeling guilty about it, and even discover wonderful stories in the process.

So what do you guys think? Do you read fanfiction? Do you write it? Do you think fanfiction is important? And question for published authors out there, do you read fanfiction about your stories?

Do you need to be married to your job to be good at it?

This post was born out of a brief exchange I had with a friend on Twitter. She had mentioned that in all the popular TV shows, the cops always hang around the office after hours (and sometimes late into the night), even after the case is done. Why don’t they go home? Don’t they have a life outside their work?

That conversation made me think. I also took a hard look at the shows I like on TV to see if I could confirm or deny that statement. Well, the verdict isn’t pretty – it seems like the TV wants us to think that you cannot be a good specialist (be it a detective, a CSI, an agent, etc.) unless you are literally married to your job.

 NCIS crew courtesy CBS NCIS crew courtesy CBS.

In NCIS, for example, Gibbs has been divorced three times and the relationships he had during the show never lead anywhere. He lives in a house that looks more like a cheap and ran down motel and spends most of his time in the basement working on a boat. Ducky was sharing his home with his mother until she passed away and now lives alone. As far as we know, he has never been married and is not in a relationship. Tony’s romantic life had been a train wreck after train wreck. All of them practically live at work.

CSI, another popular series, also shows us a group of workaholics with almost non-existent social lives or failing relationships. Nick, Greg, Julie and Morgan are all single. Sara’s relationship with Grissom ended a few seasons ago and Brass still has problems with his ex-wife and step-daughter. Heck, even the family man D.B Russell is starting to feel the strain in his personal life.

CSI courtesy CBS.
CSI courtesy CBS.

And there are plenty more shows like that. Heck, the latest example of this was shown in Rizzoli and Isles, when Jane chose her career over marriage to the man she loved, because it meant following him around.

My problem with that portrayal is that it slowly convinces the viewers that if you want to be good at your job, you need to prioritize it above everything else, personal life included. You need to be married to it, even obsessed with it.

Well, I have a beef to pick with that. First of all, obsession is never healthy. Also if you structure all your life around one single thing, once this thing taken from you, your life crumbles. Have you noticed that when those series show us a retired cop, he is usually either a heavy drinker, struggles with depression or bitter at the world? And how many characters took their own lives when they were declared unfit for duty for one reason or another?

I don’t agree that you have to sacrifice everything to be good at your job. I think that in order to be good at something, you need to be a healthy and balanced person. That means having more than one “obsession”, a hobby that you would enjoy doing during your free time, plenty of friends (and not only colleagues), and a good family life / personal relationship. That way, if disaster strikes and you fail at one aspect of your life, you still have all the others to fall back to and help you through. And your work won’t suffer too much, if you leave on time to enjoy a good dinner with your family. On the contrary, you might come to work happier the next day and ready to tackle oncoming challenges.

So that’s the characters whose stories I want to read and watch. I want well-rounded people. I want people who are not defined only by their job, who can balance profession and personal life, and be happy doing both. Those people are not boring. They have their own challenges to overcome. And there is so much more that can be done with characters like that as an author.

So what do you think? Do you think that being married to your job is unhealthy? Do you think that we, as authors need to create more in-depth characters who actually have a life to come home to? I would love to hear from you all.

The Shadow Hero – Severus Snape

At the beginning of this month, I had started a new series of posts about literary (and movie) characters I really liked and the reasons why I liked them. If you are interested, here is my first post about Doctor Who. I would like to continue this series with another famous character that I dearly love – Hogwards Potion Master and spy extraordinaire Severus Snape.

severus snape

I need to warn you now that this post will contain SPOILERS for all seven books, so if you haven’t read them yet for some reason, proceed at your own risk.

Alright, this warning out of the way, let me explain why I love this character so much. I think it’s because he is so complex and has such hidden depths that even the author didn’t suspect until she started writing him. I also think that Alan Rickman fit into this role perfectly in the movies, even though his Severus Snape is a lot older than the one in the books (who, after all, was only 38 in the first book).

Everything in the books is seen through Harry Potter’s eyes, and he takes an instant dislike to his taciturn Potion Master, so of course everything Snape does will be painted in negative light. Oh, don’t get me wrong, Severus Snape is a miserable bastard. He is bitter, angry and full of self-hatred as well as hatred at the world in general, and the way he treats Harry or Hermione is simply inexcusable.

But let’s set aside his horrible personality and consider his actions instead. In the first book, he does everything to try and protect the Sorcerer’s stone and he spends most of the quidditch match muttering counter spells to prevent Harry from falling off his broom. In second year, he is responsible for brewing the potion that would save all the kids that had been petrified by the basilisk, including Hermione.

I think that we see the true mettle of that man in book three though, when he rushes out of the castle and into the Shrieking Shack even though it’s the night of the full moon and he is about to confront a werewolf that almost killed him once already. He doesn’t hesitate though, because the lives of three children are in danger. The image bellow shows it perfectly well – even when faced with one of his worst nightmares, his reflex is to defend the children, even if that means die a horrible death himself.

Always protecting students, even those he hates.
Always protecting students, even those he hates.

I like Severus Snape because, even though he is a profoundly damaged man, he is also a man of honor and principles. He basically sacrificed his entire life to bring the downfall of a madman and thus to repent for a mistake he had made when he was barely out of his teens. He became a double agent, despised and distrusted by both sides, friendless and alone, with nobody to turn to for comfort. He was asked to do unspeakable things for that cause.

I can’t even imagine what the last year in Hogwards must have been like for him, when he had to play the role of the Death Eater Headmaster and bear the scorn and open hatred of his former colleagues and students. Yet, he made sure that none of the students were permanently harmed, even with two clearly unstable Death Eaters on the premises. Not to mention that Harry would never have gotten the horcruxes destroyed without his timely help. No, I am certain that without Severus Snape and all the sacrifices he had to make, Lord Voldemort would have won and Harry Potter would have been the boy-who-died… along with many others.

And even though I don’t buy into the idea of Snape’s undying love for Lily Potter as the driving force behind everything he had done, I can’t help but admire his extraordinary force of character. He truly is the greatest shadow hero of this book.