Character Agency

My parents are avid readers, so I love talking to them about what they’re currently reading. A few weeks back, it was Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. While both my parents were iffy on it, my mom was especially irritated.

“The main character never makes any decisions for herself. Everything she does is just a reaction to what’s happening to her. She just lets things happen to her, complains about it, and does nothing to change it.”

My dad agreed with her, and when I talked to them about it later, neither had finished the book.

While I don’t know the accuracy of what they said since i haven’t read Outlander, it brings up an important point about agency in our characters. Chuck Wendig defines agency as this:

 A demonstration of the character’s ability to make decisions and affect the story. This character has motivations all her own. She is active more than she is reactive. She pushes on the plot more than the plot pushes on her. Even better, the plot exists as a direct result of the character’s actions.

It’s about being proactive versus reactive. When characters choose the latter, readers become frustrated. Is the point of your character that they are a passive person? Then work with that. But if it’s not, then you need to prove it by having your character move the story forward because they want to.

Your character’s agency is going to be determined by their motivation, desires, goals. If you figure these out, you can then go on to discover how the plot will proceed. This is also how you can create more character-driven stories rather than plot-driven ones, granting your writing a whole new level of interest for readers.

TROPE OF THE WEEK: Ruthless Leader

red skull

This big bad rules his flock with an iron fist. Anyone who dares step out of line serves to become an example for others on how not to behave. While sometimes stepping out of line can mean that you failed your mission horribly, the boss might also decide to kill you just because you looked at him the wrong way. This villain can rule a company, a country, a religion — as long as he’s got power and minions.

Why this can be bad: There is some truth in fiction here: from rulers like Josef Stalin and Henry VIII to people like James Cameron and Steve Jobs. While some are obviously more reprehensible than others, all of them found ways to abuse their lackeys. For some, it worked; for others, it didn’t. When it comes to fiction, however, leaders can sometimes be out of control in their tempers and badness, making the audience question why anyone even follows them. If the leader has no redeeming qualities, then why should he have an army of henchmen waiting to serve him? While people can put up with a lot of abuse, if you don’t give them a reason to stay, you won’t. Even then, everyone has a breaking point. Yet for some reason, these people still follow these cold-hearted, ruthless hell-spawn and almost never think of leaving.

How you can fix it: If you have a ruthless leader, remember that there are going to be consequences for everything. Killing the wrong person or too many people can result in an uprising. Not paying your employees? Good luck keeping them. If your leader is cruel, make sure the behavior of his lackeys follows suit. Need a reason for those lackeys to stay? Give the leader some redeeming qualities; he got to this position somehow, right? Whether it’s how generous he is with his money, he has a soft spot when you talk about your kids, or he’s generally kind unless you cross him, he needs something that’s going to inspire loyalty in his men. And if it’s just fear that’s controlling those men, then prepare for the upcoming rebellion.

Bottom Line: Even fear has its limits, and it will take more than that for a ruthless leader to control his lackeys.

Book Covers

We say “don’t judge a book by its cover,” but who are we kidding? We do it all the time. And if you look at a cover, you can pretty much get a feel for the book’s topic and, perhaps most importantly, its quality. While it’s not always 100% accurate, it’s correct often enough for readers to decide then and there if they’re even going to read the blurb.

Traditional Publishing or Self-Publishing?

Traditional publishing restricts you the most in this regard. If you’re publishing with a big company, you’re going to have no say in this at all. Sorry. Them’s the brakes. You may be able to make some suggestions when dealing with smaller publishing companies, but once again, you’re probably not going to have the final say. You’ll just have to deal with it.

If you’re self-publishing, you have all the freedom in the world here. After all, that’s the beauty — and the curse — of being independently published: you’re the boss. But if you don’t have an eye for graphic design (or even if you do), then maybe you need to evaluate exactly how you’re going to go about this.

Hire or DIY?

Hiring comes with two paths: pre-made or commission covers. While pre-made are cheaper, they also come with the challenge of not being completely unique to your book. You may also have to do some serious hunting here. However, there are some really great sites that do pre-made book covers out there, and these same artists often do commissions as well. My personal favorite is Go On Write, which has hundreds of options in a huge range of genres and styles. Author Marketing Club also links to a list of people who create pre-made covers.

If you want something custom, you have a lot of options: commissioning an artist from a site like DeviantArt, putting up an ad on Fiver, hiring someone who already makes pre-mades. The world is your oyster! If you’re not working with someone who traditionally does book covers, though, you’ll need to put some thought into what it’s going to look like.

Same goes for doing it yourself. You want to make sure this looks high-quality. No one should be able to glance and tell how much you paid for it or if you made the cover yourself. This can get especially tricky when you start working with CreateSpace, too, as you’ll need to include a spine and book blurb. Assuming you already own a decent photo-editing software, then this is definitely the cheapest option, but it’s also the most risky and time-consuming.

What kind of look?

Go look at the top-sellers in your genre. What do those have in common? That will give you a great starting point because that shows what kind of covers attract your audience’s eyes. I’d suggest being pretty specific when looking through genre covers, but don’t feel like you have to go looking in ultra-niche categories. If you’re writing something that crosses genre, you can still observe what similarities exist between the themes, colors, and content of those covers and use that to help your design.

On a final note, remember this cover should also look great as a thumbnail, too, because chances are your reader’s going to be browsing the online catalog and your cover is going to need to stand out from the rest.

Motifs in Storytelling

A motif is a recurring element in a work that can act as a symbol or as a way to tie the piece together. This can be anything: an image, concept, theme. These are tools used by the writer to bring attention to something and make you pay attention. You can also do this through parallel storytelling. But how do you do it so that instead of your audience saying, “Not this again,” it says, “Oh! This is interesting and I should pay attention”?

Let me show you two examples.

The first is Supernatural, a show whose quality has spiraled drastically over the last half a decade. The central story has always been about family — bound by blood or bond. In the first five seasons, the show did a decent job of putting a couple episodes in a season that showed the importance and strength of family. Much of this centered on how lying and keeping your feelings a secret ultimately backfires and makes things worse for everybody, something the Winchester brothers still haven’t learned after 11 years. After season 5, however, and the departure of show creator Eric Kripke, the show spiraled. Instead of having these motifs occur every once in a while, they’re now so frequent and have lost so much meaning that it’s become a running gag in the fandom. Now the motif has not only lost all meaning, but it has also gotten to the point that audiences groan when it comes up.

On the other hand, let’s look at Life is Strange, a choose-your-own-adventure type video game that utilizes an object-based motif. A deer is a recurring image throughout the game, whether it’s obvious or not. While the game has one episode left in it’s five-part run, and therefore the true meaning of the motif has yet to be revealed, one thing is for sure: it all shows the interconnectedness of Max Caulfield’s world and timelines. While there is a ghostly deer that appears occasionally throughout the story, deer imagery also appears on Max’s clothing, books, and other places where it could be totally innocuous until you finally pick up the trend. By staying subtle, this motif is able to not distract from the story. In fact, once it’s noticed, it becomes something to enhance the playing experience, making the player hyper-aware of any imagery and how that might relate back to the story and mystery at hand.

Motifs work best when they retain some subtlety and add something to the story — whether that’s reinforcing a theme or knitting different parts of the story together. But motifs should never be distracting: they should always enhance engagement with the work and never distract from it.

Death Rituals

Death is perhaps the one true fact of life. It is common in all living things, and as humans, we’ve developed a myriad of rituals and customs to help us deal with the inevitable. Vikings buried their dead using water and fire. Most Western cultures now see burial in the earth as the proper way to do things, though some people choose to be cremated. Others still have their bodies left on mountains to be devoured by nature. But the rituals of death go beyond just how the dead are put to rest; they also deal with how death is treated by society, how it’s talked about, and how it is accepted.

If you’re writing a fantasy story, chances are someone will die — either of old age, murder, or a horrible spell. So figuring out how your new world faces death and the issues it crops up is an important part to understanding the world your characters live in and how they’ll interact with it.

What are the attitudes towards death?

This will be the most important factor in determining what the rituals surrounding death will look like. Is death a thing to be feared? Or is it accepted as a way of life? Is it just a waypoint on the path to another existence? The angels in Death Defiant can fall prey to a domino effect of death, thousands dying from grief when ze learns of the unexpected death of a loved one. Therefore, angelic culture sees death as a transition to a new life. Dying of old age is seen as honorable, while dying in battle is seen as the result of unnecessary brutality. Therefore, the angels stay out of all wars and encourage universal empathy in order to limit what they see as preventable deaths. While it’s not often talked about, death is considered an unavoidable fact of life, and juvenile angels go through lessons to learn how to accept and come to terms with their own mortality and the mortality of their families. These kinds of details helped shape the world of DD and better the world-building.

Are there mourning rituals? What are they?

If you’d like to see some intense mourning rituals, look no farther than the Victorians. Their mourning lasted years and came with strict dress codes and burial rites. Some even paid professional mourners to come cry at funerals, though that’s a profession that’s leaked into modern day as well. Dress, burial, preservation — all of these things and more are involved with the affairs of the dead, and it’s important to have an idea of what the details of them are, especially if you’ll be having a funeral scene in your story. George R.R. Martin alludes to many of these in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, the death rituals often deeply ingrained in the faith followed by the people affected.

What does this culture believe happens after death?

This will greatly affect how your characters react to death. While the death of a loved one or death of oneself is a hard thing to cope with, the ideas that the dead find peace in the afterlife, are punished for their transgressions, or are reborn can have different effects on how your characters will treat death. Many people have died fighting for their religion or country believing that they will be rewarded for their valor in the afterlife, but if your culture believes that the afterlife is a painful void, characters will have a much harder time coping with loss.

What is done with the bodies?

Burial? Burned to ashes? Entombed? There are many options for what can happen to the body after death, and it’s going to rely heavily on the issues discussed above. Many of these traditions are rooted in the myths, legends, or religions of that culture and belief of what death holds in store. It’s also important to consider what will be done with the deceased’s belongings. Is it passed on to family? The state? Is the deceased buried with it? Is it offered as a sacrifice?

These questions should help guide you into thinking about how your fantasy world operates and give you a clearer picture of what it would be like to live in it.

Overuse of Punctuation

Sometimes, in order to make our sentences look flashier or create flow in our prose, we begin adding punctuation that maybe doesn’t need to be there (or doesn’t even fit at all) – colons, semicolons, ellipses, even commas – in the hopes that the prose will be better; rather than make our prose better, however, it can often weaken it by wearing down the reader’s endurance (periods often act like little rests for our brains) and creating a sentence that needs to be read several times before it’s actually understood.

Wasn’t that horrible?

Punctuation is a tool meant for communication, and writers often adapt it to be part of the storytelling. Overdoing it, however, can be more detrimental than helpful. Part of the problem is that oftentimes the writer doesn’t have a strong grip on the rules for a certain punctuation mark, like the semicolon. Other times, the writer tries to use the mark to show importance for a specific part of the story, but the overuse of the mark makes it not special at all, like the use of the ellipsis.

As far as reader endurance, we need to have some rests in our reading. On a larger scale, we get these in the forms of part breaks and chapter breaks. At the micro scale, we get these as paragraph breaks and periods. These rests act as times to breath, separating information into easily understood chunks. If your sentence is obscenely long and held together by a dozen different, non-period punctuation marks, then that rest doesn’t come for a long time. And if sentences like that are packed back to back? Good luck keeping your reader’s attention at all. While of course you want to vary your sentence lengths to keep the prose flowing smoothly and your reader reading, overdoing it isn’t going to help.

There are other punctuation marks we use in an attempt to make a statement memorable and mark its importance. We usually see this with colons, ellipses, and parenthetical statements. Think about the last book you read. Unless it was some experimental thing like House of Leaves, its use of the aforementioned punctuation marks was probably sparse. Because these are rare in the sense that we don’t see them often used in prose, these act as little markers to our brain that the information contained around these marks is vitally important. But if we start seeing these more than a few times a chapter or, I shudder to think, more than a few times a page, they lose all importance and just contribute to the confusion caused by decreasing endurance.

Use these marks sparingly, and when you use them, make sure you actually know the rules. There are plenty of website that offer great grammar tips and guides; Grammar Girl is one that comes straight to mind. Also, always remember one very important rule, one that should always be followed to a tee: if you’re going to break the rules, you damn well better know what they are to begin with.

Describing POC Characters

I was going to do a trope today, but I got this message on tumblr from an anon and decided I’d go ahead and address that today instead.

Anonymous asks:

All of my characters are POC. As a POC myself, I just want to be blunt about my characters description and say this one’s Black and this one’s Puerto Rican, but it feels like I’m just taking the easy way if you know what I mean. Any advice?

Disclaimer: I am a white person, so this is all coming from a white perspective.

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that (as long as you’re in a realistic setting, not in like Westeros or something. If you’re writing fantasy, though, check out this). In fact, for a lot of (white) readers, that’s going to be the only way to really get through their brains that this character is a person of color.

If you want to say it without spelling it out in narration, you can always work it into conversation somehow. In Death Defiant, I had a white character tell Cherifa (the main character who is Moroccan but has unnaturally blue eyes from her demon father), “Don’t see many Arabs with eyes like yours.” This got across blatantly that Cheri’s not white and that she has a certain “look” to her based on a white perspective. The situation makes it so that the comment doesn’t feel shoehorned in because it comes from a white person – someone of privilege and outside Cheri’s race. The comment couldn’t have come naturally from anyone else because she spends most of the book with either non-humans (who don’t have the same sense of race as us) or with other Arab people.

And if neither of those work for you, you just have to be on point with the descriptions. writingwithcolor has a lot of great articles on this and can give you better tips than I can on the subject, but one of their big tips is to think beyond skin tone when describing a character. Feel free to describe other characteristics as well in order to hammer home that this character should not be viewed as white. You can also include cultural indicators or details from that character’s history if you think that will help.