I actually did have a post planned for today just before I jump into a fairly extended stretch on my blog tour. Incidentally the next five days I will be bouncing all around the place and I hope you will come with me to some amazing blogs (links below). However, I re-read my post and realised that what had begun as a discussion about why I had been disappointed by a trilogy I recently gave up reading had actually degenerated into a rant and I decided to scrap it and try again.
Here is my second attempt.
I recently began reading a trilogy of YA fantasy books and was instantly hooked by the first book. There was this interesting (if a little generic) female protagonist who did some reasonably unexpected things and over the course of the first book I came to really want her to succeed in her goals. The villains were a bit on the melodramatic side and their scheme was clearly delusional and set to fail before it began but you can forgive that in YA because overblown villains are the norm and when stupid people reach for the moon, of course they fail. The story was enjoyable and the side characters well fleshed out.
Enter book two and we see our heroine in a new location only now she’s less interesting because she has nothing left to reveal and this time the actual complication of the story isn’t introduced until half-way through because they are so busy trying to get us to see the protagonist in the new location. Instead of some dark past haunting her every step, we now have petty annoyances and domestic squabbles that fill in time until somehow there just happens to be a serial killer stalking around in her new home and somehow she just happens to be the one who is going to solve everyone’s troubles. Not that she isn’t out of her depth and completely lost and with no actual reason to involve herself at all. In point of fact, the author spends a bit of time trying to convince us that she becomes emotionally attached to one of the almost victims, but this doesn’t really sit right with the protagonists character and ends up just being a plot pointer.
By book three, I was more or less over the protagonist. However, in the grand tradition of trilogies, the danger is now upped to the point where it is so overblown and melodramatic that you fully expect the sky to darken at any minute. And yet, I just didn’t care. The characters of the first book were now mostly too far removed because they had all but been completely absent (other than a tokenistic appearance) in the second. The characters of the second book hadn’t endeared themselves to me at all. And the third book seemed determined to rush us into a complication that made very little sense as fast as possible.
I’m going to point out at this stage that I didn’t finish reading the trilogy. I made it half-way through the third book and then realised I was hoping that mysterious, overblown, master-mind villain guy would just wipe them all out and call it a day. At that point I realised that I’d completely disengaged from the story and there was no point in my finishing it.
The point of this was my wondering where it all went wrong. The first book won me over. I loved it. I was totally hooked into this world and these characters. In all honesty, I think it was the big shift in scenery that lost me. I loved the world that was created in the first book, but in the second we were in an entirely different setting and I didn’t really feel it. I missed too much of the first setting. Perhaps that is a petty quibble but as a reader it threw me.
So my question to the readers out there is this: How long will you read when you know you have disengaged? Do you give up straight away, or do you plow on and hope for a big finish?
Tomorrow Laura Diamond is sharing a post here on the realm and I am off to her blog to talk about females in fantasy writing.
First things first, I have to thank Cassandra for this opportunity to write a guest post on her blog. I’m an admirer of her writing style and I thoroughly enjoyed her novel, Death’s Daughter (a review of which can be read on my own blog, The Rhapsodist).
As an amateur reviewer and aspiring writer, I’ve gone into quite a few stories over the years—short stories, novels, TV shows, films, and even a few video games. Some of these stories entertained me, some of them were thought-provoking, and a fortunate few were able to do both. And there were more than a few stories that didn’t really grab me at all.
I’ve had some time to think about this matter and the conclusion I’ve reached is that it helps to really know the premise of your story and flesh it out as best you can.
It’s all too easy to have an idea. You’re sitting there, minding your own business, and then wham! You can see it all in your mind’s eye—the protagonist, the antagonist, the conflict, the setting. And you go to your notebooks or your computer to start to writing it all out… and you realize it’s not the best thing you’ve ever done. The premise is kinda cool, maybe you’ve got a few bits of dialogue that are too hilarious not to be used, but not much else stands out.
So you stick it in your drawer or save your notes on your hard drive, and go back to the rest of your life.
I think some of the best stories are built off those randomly-written notes. You start collecting them after a while and maybe you begin to mix and match things up—the hero in this story idea is now the villain in another concept, the sidekick maybe gets some real development, and you might jump through ten thousand different genres and sub-genres before you find something you really like.
Revision is a painful process, but it wouldn’t hurt if it didn’t care about producing your best material. And I can think of so many stories I’ve read or experienced where it seems like the author didn’t want to bother with a second or third draft. However, if you don’t put yourself through the misery of producing a really good story, you just might be giving that pain over to your readers, who’ll be miserably picking their way through your tale, trying desperately to understand what’s going on.
But how will you know what’s your best story? Well, that’s something every writer has to decide for himself or herself. You might produce ten thousand non-starts before you hit on the One Good Idea that forms the heart of your best work. It will be whatever gets you writing more and writing better. And when you reach something like that, you can sit back and smile, basking in the glow of your creation.
Just don’t smile for too long, because then come the editors, the literary agents, and those critical readers who will tear your beloved work to shreds. And your cycle of pain and beauty begins all over again, and again, and again…
Note from Cassandra: Thanks Alex for your wonderful post today, and for all your support with Death’s Daughter. And thanks for hosting me today as I continue my blog tour.
We all know that tension and conflict are essential to an interesting plot, but sometimes stories just start to feel that little bit melodramatic. They take themselves so seriously and every little thing is a major drama for all the characters. Or a character enters the story – about a third of the way through – and their only real purpose seems to be that the middle of the story was getting boring and someone decided that they needed more tension to keep it moving. This can work if the problems caused by this character somehow link back into the central conflict, or it can feel like an add-in if the character comes, antagonizes people for awhile, and then when the story gets moving again, miraculously either has a change of heart or disappears.
There is virtually no end to the list of different ways you can add tension to a story. Sometimes those seemingly simplistic moments can become very tense (and not in an overly dramatic way when handled well). As a reader, these are my five favourite ways that authors introduce tension for their characters:
1. A secret is uncovered and the character is trying to prevent the knowledge from spreading. I always like intrigues and character dilemmas. You always wonder just how far is this character going to go to keep this a secret. And when the secret is revealed, how will they react? Admittedly, as a reader I like to be in on the secret and then the fun is seeing if the other characters in the story catch on.
2. Forced waits. I’m going to confess that I love this as a plot device because in real life this is what causes the most tension. You know what is coming, you know what you need to do, everything is progressing and then it all just stalls. You can really relate to the characters as they get frustrated and impatient and desperate to act while others use the time for further preparations and others still simply work themselves into a bundle of nerves.
3. Rivalry. It may be a cliché but I do love rivals when they are both well established characters and their both given a fair showing. The play between the two as they try to one-up the other, while not admitting that they care what the other thinks, can make for an intriguing and interesting story and can also create some really interesting tensions between the other characters as they realise what is happening.
4. RAS (Random Acts of Stupidity). Everybody is stupid at one point or another and when a character has clearly done something incredibly dumb, I like that to be addressed by the other characters, rather than simply ignored because it is convenient to the story. This can create really interesting group dynamics and the tension in the scene where someone confronts the character about their action can be excellently executed.
5. Anticipation. I remember reading a book in high-school (don’t remember which one) where a girl was having her thumb chopped off (various political reasons leading up to it). But they announced this at the beginning of the chapter. Guy has hold of the girl, blade drawn. She’s crying. Then someone else comes in and there is discussion and another speech and they keep coming back to this girl who has tears streaming down her face. The whole chapter you’re wondering – are they actually going to do this? Is she going to get away or be released? If they had made me wait to the next chapter to find out I probably would have given up reading the book because essentially nothing would have happened in the chapter, but this book was brilliantly executed. Just when you couldn’t take any more and you had to know, the answer is revealed and then the chapter ended.
What are your favourite kinds of tension to read? Or to create for the writers out there.
I was recently visiting Nancy Kelly Allen’s blog and found some excellent advice on critiquing a manuscript. I must admit however, I was drawn to Nancy’s advice on the main character.
Is the main character active in carrying the plot forward? The main character should be responsible for solving the problem or reaching the goal. Uncle Hamm or an older brother should not step in and save the character that is experiencing the trouble.
This advice I have heard before. I don’t recall which blog I read it on but the author explained that the problem with book 6 or the Harry Potter series was that Harry was spending all of his time trying to win a sporting trophy rather than trying to solve any of his problems. In point of fact, Dumbledore deliberately kept Harry in the dark about what most of those problems were which meant that the reader was cheated out of a possibly more interesting story than the one we were delivered.
The fact that I’ve heard this advice before didn’t stop me from sitting and going ‘oh’. Mostly because it is one of thousands of things that when you think about it should be obvious but sometimes when you are looking at a draft completely eludes you until someone else points it out. It helps to be reminded, often, and it is a really important point.
Linking back to Harry Potter, one of my biggest problems with the series was that Harry was given the starring role in the first book but was almost the least interesting character in it. Hermione solved most of the problems while Ron randomly ran into things that may have helped and occasionally Harry would do something pretty stupid that turned out to be good. Harsh, but at the time that was how I saw it. The second book in the series was even worse as far as establishing Harry as the hero. Even in a coma Hermione was more useful than Harry turned out to be. She gave him the vital clue that made everything in the conclusion possible.
I actually do like the Harry Potter books and I’m not pulling them to pieces, just the main character who was always a little underwhelming to me.
Thanks Nancy for reminding us of this excellent advice.
What is the best advice you’ve been given about character recently?
I love watching old movies. The good guys all wear white or at least tan and other pale colours and manage to keep their hair in perfect formation (maybe one strand will blow across their face) and they save the day with minimal loss and pain. Perfect feel good moment. I hate reading stories like this though.
Maybe it is because I look for different things from the movies I watch to the books I read. Movies can have a terrible story, bad acting, awful effects, it doesn’t matter as long as I’m being entertained. Yes, I prefer movies that actually have a story and good actors, the effects can go either way, but entertainment is all that is required. From books, I expect far more. I expect an intelligent and intriguing story and characters with depth that draw me in. I expect that the good guy won’t just be good because he’s (she’s) written that way but that they are actually given some sort of purpose and motivation.
My favourite protagonists when I read, have flaws. Massive and horrible character flaws usually. While I love reading David Eddings stories (the Elenium Trilogy is amazing) there is only one David Eddings character that ever made my list of favourite characters and that was Althalus. All of his other heroes are good because they are good and work together because it is the right thing to do. Althalus on the other hand was a thief and was coerced by a goddess disguised as a cat into saving the world. That appealed to me on a number of levels.
People in real life are never all good or all bad. And they aren’t the same in every situation and around different groups of people. I think characters in stories should reflect that to an extent.
That said, just going entirely the opposite direction and having an anti-hero can feel a bit old as well.
Who is your favourite good guy and why?
I recently cam across this website (The Fantasy Novelist’s Exam) and had a lot of fun reading some of these questions. The exam is supposedly set up to determine whether or not your fantasy novel is actually original and the instructions say that if you answer yes to any one question then you should abandon the novel immediately. Now when question four is:
Is your story about a young character who comes of age, gains great power, and defeats the supreme badguy?
This doesn’t leave a lot of room for the vast majority of fantasy stories and so while the quiz does reveal some of the more cliche parts of the genre I don’t think anyone should be taking the instructions overly seriously. We all know that there are very few ‘new’ ideas out there. That said I think most of us can agree that if you answer yes to the following maybe you are going to have to work really hard to make it sound fresh:
Is the evil supreme badguy secretly the father of your main character?
How about “a wise, mystical sage who refuses to give away plot details for his own personal, mysterious reasons”?
Does your story involve a number of different races, each of which has exactly one country, one ruler, and one religion?
What I found really fun was trying to think of at least five books I have read that the question would apply to. It actually was a lot of fun though there are a few cheap shots taken at Robert Jordon throughout as well as RPG’s which aren’t necessarily a bad thing though probably shouldn’t be used to plan the plots of novels.
So here’s the challenge for the fantasy lovers out there. Pick a question, any question from the list, and see if you can think of at least five novels that it applies to.
I’m on holidays at the moment but I’m reposting some of the more popular posts from my old blog, Darkened Jade. If you leave a comment I’ll be sure to catch up with you when I get back.
You may have already noticed, but I am a female. As such, most of the stories I enjoy and most of the my writing tend to focus on female characters, or at least have female characters doing more than fainting and swooning over the hero of the tale.
Females have come a long way in fiction. Even though I was born in the eighties, I grew up watching a variety of television shows that were dated even then (battlestar galactica and buck rogers to name a few) and what used to trouble me was that even the women who came on tough in the beginning would ultimately end up waiting for some guy to rescue them. Or in the case of Apollo’s wife (battlestar), they would just shoot her in the back on some planet and that was the last we’d ever hear of her.
The nineties were an amazing time for females in fiction. On television we saw Xena, Buffy, Charmed, Alias, Dark Angel, and on and on the list goes of females who were taking control. Not always convincingly and sometimes one had to wonder why there wasn’t a single capable male in the Buffy-verse (not taking a swipe at Angel but seriously, even when you turned evil your girl-friend ran you through with a sword and sent you to hell).
During the nineties I started reading Traci Harding and Katherine Kerr, who were the first female authors I encountered who were really trying for epic fantasy. There were probably others out there, but I hadn’t really encountered them, and this was a really great moment for me, because it made me feel not so out of place for enjoying the genre. Katherine Kerr particularly managed to show a balance of characters in her Deverry Series with strong, weak and every character type in between, for both men and women. Her characters were dynamic and realistic, they evolved over time and just read very well.
As a writer, I have been working hard over the last few years to improve my inclusion of male characters. Reading some of my earlier story outlines, every significant character was female. The female princess with the female bodyguard (envied by all the male soldiers who of course were completely useless), who was then attacked by the female assassin who was sent by the female evil sorceress, and on it went. That was highschool.
In all honesty I was probably trying to counter Eddings – who I read a tonne of and was very influenced by, but had this nasty tendency to have only one or two female characters who would sit on the sidelines and assume the role of mother and nurse and that was it.
And here’s the link if you haven’t yet checked out the blurb or excerpt for Death’s Daughter.
I wasn’t supposed to have a love triangle in my current WIP. I’ve gone back through all my ideas and plans and nowhere in it does it suggest that character B likes the protagonist. Yet while I’ve been writing, certain things have been developing.
Character A and the protagonist are getting along swimmingly and things are right on schedule for them but Character B is just so rugged and wild and tempting that I’ve definitely been seeing some sparkage between him and the protagonist. The question becomes do I figure out what this means for the story, develop the relationship properly and then have a full love triangle, or do I try to steer the story back to its original course? Given that the original romance was really just a side plot to a quest story with a little bit of horror thrown in for fun.
It is a question I’ll have to answer soon because otherwise I’ll be too far along one path to easily change without a lot of rewrites and I try not to rewrite until after I’ve finished the first draft. Otherwise I just keep rewriting and the draft never finishes.
So – advantages of going with the love triangle scenario:
1. It is going to add tension between the characters and it will help flesh out character B’s role which in the original plan was clearly not well defined.
2. It will help slow down Character A and protagonists relationship which is going a bit too well at the moment.
3. It makes sense. It wouldn’t make sense for the protagonist to utterly ignore the fact that there are sparks between her and Character B, even if she only acknowledges it long enough to end it.
4. It will be easier to edit out a subplot that doesn’t work later than it will be to add it in after the fact.
1. I don’t like love triangles. I find them a little cliché.
You’re opinion? Are you for or against love triangles? Have you ever created one in a story?
I usually have a lot of fun dressing my various characters. Mostly because I have such a strong mental image of the character and few of them ever dress for what they end up doing – plus I set them in fantasy worlds and so I don’t really worry about whether people dressed like that in any particular era or not.
That said, the protagonist in my latest WIP is giving me all kinds of trouble. I have a strong mental image of her but the clothes keep changing and they are always very practical, clothes. Lots of leather and denim and most of it torn and patched, which given the hostile nature of the world I’m building makes perfect sense. But it isn’t all that fun to write about. Still, every time I try to dress her differently I just think, there is no way she’s going to wear that skirt and she certainly isn’t going to wear bright colours and try to attract a lot of attention.
I did destroy her denim jacket though. Which lead to the very touching boy lending her his brown vinyl jacket scene which wasn’t really an improvement on her look but was an interesting interaction between the two characters.
Dressing your characters? Fashion statement or practical? Or both? Love to hear your views.
Following on from yesterday, where I sent out the call for bloggers to tell us about their favourite female protagonist, today I am sharing mine.
I went through all of my fantasy and looked longingly at old favourites and yet I knew right from the beginning who I was going to pick as my favourite.
The winner is: Nest from the Knight of the Word Trilogy by Terry Brooks.
Nest is such an interesting protagonist. She isn’t little miss confident and she doesn’t run straight over every other character. She is quiet and thinks things through. She’s afraid and yet determined. As the series goes on she progresses from a child looking for guidance to a woman who is ready to create her own path. Nest is definitely my favourite protagonist and she owes it to the strong character development that takes place throughout the series.
Favourite Nest moment: Has to come from book two, when Nest is really transitioning from girl to woman and she meets with John Ross for the first time since she was a child. The subtle shift in their relationship is so beautifully constructed.
Close runner up, Tori Alexander, just couldn’t match the development because Tori started her trilogy already fairly confident and determined and didn’t undergo as much change. Jill from Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series is always great fun but her transition isn’t as smooth or as logical at times. I could have picked Calandra but I think I’m biased on that one.
If you haven’t added your link yet – visit yesterday’s post and add your blog. Can’t wait to find out who your favourite female protagonist is and why.