Mar 27

How to Raise the Stakes (and Prevent Your Protagonist from Becoming a Tourist)

I mentioned a couple of posts back that one of the best pieces of advice my editor, Kathleen Dale, gave me was to give my protagonist a problem that he's trying to resolve right from Chapter 1.

Not only do we identify with someone who's trying to solve a problem, they're a lot more interesting to read about. I've read a few books lately in which the would-be protagonists are actually more like tourists. They get on the airship (literally, in at least one case) and watch out the window as what plot there is goes by. Other people do things, and the viewpoint character acts as a kind of mobile lens that observes without much participation. Sometimes, they seem to be there mainly to tour the author's wonderful setting and exclaim over it.

This is boring. Protagonists should protagonise.

Therefore, set your protagonist up with something they want that they're going to have to work for.

Raising the Stakes

The next obvious question is "why does the protagonist care?" If the protagonist isn't invested, the reader won't be invested. They need to have some skin in the game.

This is where raising the stakes comes in.

You could not do better, at this point, than to head over to Writing Excuses and listen to their podcast episode on Raising the Stakes, because they do a great job. One of the things they emphasize is that it's not necessary to use what I call the Alderaan Gambit in order to raise the stakes. Blowing things up, or threatening to blow things up, is not necessary. It's not even sufficient. What you're setting out to do is to give a compelling reason why the character is emotionally invested in a particular outcome (and then you put obstacles between the character and the outcome, and suddenly you have a story).

Here's what I did, following Kathleen's advice and the advice of the Writing Excuses crew. Kathleen noted that I didn't need to make the Chapter 1 problem the main problem of the book, but as it happened that worked better than anything else I thought of, so my character's problem is that the Human Purity movement is gaining in power and popularity in the realm he's supposed to be ruling.

So why is that a problem? Well, he's supposed to be in charge, but he's feeling like he's not in charge, so...

No. Stronger.

He's educated in history, and he opposes their racist philosophy because he knows it's built on a foundation of lies and distortion, and...

No. It needs to be much stronger than that. Make it personal.

Now, I knew that Determined, the protagonist, and Admirable, the antagonist, were around the same age and had both gone to the College of Ancient Turfrae. Could they have met there? Could there be history between them?

And then I thought about my own university experience of becoming involved with a (much less sinister) group which had a particular ideology, and how they trained me to see everything through that ideology, and to identify with their "in" group against the "out" group, and this is what I wrote. Determined is talking to his ally Victory.

...

“All right,” he said. “The Countygold of Upper Hills and I were at the College of Ancient Turfrae at the same time. Actually he was there first, he’s a couple of years older. By the time I started, he was already establishing himself as an important leader in the Human Purity movement, which had begun a few years before with a small group of professors and students. Simply a theoretical thing at first. Silverstones — as he was then, he hadn’t inherited the County yet — took it and made it a movement.”

He flushed, and rubbed the back of his neck. “There was a girl I wanted to get to know, and I heard her say to a friend of hers that she was going to one of his meetings, so I went along, hoping, you know… And I didn’t see her, but I listened to him speak. He was good. Brilliant, really. Inspirational. In those days he was more subtle, his arguments were more sophisticated, tuned, I suppose, to his audience. I started going regularly, and he took notice of me, cultivated me. In retrospect it was obviously because I was related to the Realmgold, but at the time he made it seem like it was for me, myself, that he respected me and valued me. He was good at that. He did it with everyone who he thought he could use, more or less, but I didn’t pay attention to that. I… I became a follower. A passionate one. I was looking for meaning in history, some overarching story, and Silverstones and his group provided it. And I was looking for a group to belong to, as well, one that made me feel like what I did and said and thought was important.

“At that time a lot of the history faculty were starting to come over to a Human Purity line. But there was one professor, an older man, near retirement. He was my favourite teacher, because he made everything so interesting and vivid. He would take us walking around Ancient Turfrae and describe things that had happened in the places where we stood, and you could almost imagine they were happening in front of you. I still remember his lecture in front of the Column of Willing practically word for word.

“Anyway, he had always stayed quiet on Human Purity, for or against. His great work was a translation of an old Elvish book. He’d spent twenty years on it. And one day I arrived in his office for a tutorial, and he was excited. He’d been working on his translation, and he’d found, he said, evidence that when the elves had brought us, humans, to this world, they’d changed us somehow so that we could do magic.”

“Interesting,” said Victory. “They would certainly have been capable of something like that, from all I’ve read.”

“Yes, they would. Both technically and morally. But of course the first thing I seized on was what that would mean for Human Purity. It would mean not only that we weren’t pure, but that nonhumans had shaped us, made us what we are.”

“I suppose I can see that. You argued?”

“I was an insufferable little snot, if you call that arguing. Ended up storming out and going straight to Silverstones.”

“What did he say?”

“Thanked me for drawing it to his attention.”

Determined shifted uncomfortably in his chair and ran his hands through his hair, then squeezed them together. “The next day, there was a fire in the professor’s rooms.”

“His translation?”

“Yes, and the Elvish original. But he came in unexpectedly, and somehow he hit his head, and… Well, between that and the smoke… He was an old man.”

...

Now there is a character who is not going to sit in the airship and watch things happen. (If you enjoyed it, it's from Realmgolds, and you can get it from Amazon through that link.)

Mar 02

The Unspoiled Protagonist

This is a follow-up to my post on the Spoiled Protagonist, which seems to be resonating with a few people. Since I wrote that post, I've read another book with a seriously spoiled protagonist. How spoiled? Would you believe, the villain has his minion rescue her from certain death, reunite her with the only weapons that can stop his evil plan, and help her get to where he is - and all he seems to get out of it is a brief villain-gloat?

Characters like that are what I call "plot puppets". They do things, not for reasons that make rational sense within the world of the story, but in order to advance the author's preordained plot. Plot-puppetry is a particular risk if you're writing to a formula, like the Monomyth or Hero's Journey.

How not to spoil your protagonists

It doesn't have to be that way, though. I recently read and very much enjoyed Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon (the link is to my review on Goodreads).  His plot is as old as the hills: kill the monster. We've been reading that plot since Marduk and Tiamat. But what he does to make it interesting and fresh is that he gives each of his characters something they desperately want but can't have, and something they must do even though they don't want to. These elements are almost completely apart from the main plot, but they upstage it because he does it so well.

There's the secret to avoiding plot puppets: Give each character a clear agenda. If everyone, definitely including your villain, is acting out of obvious, understandable motives that are consistent with who they are, your protagonist won't get the chance to be spoiled, either. The grim, duty-bound, important people she meets in the course of her adventures won't neglect their responsibilities in order to help her, for example.

Some of the best advice Kathleen Dale, my editor for Realmgolds, has given me is to give my main character a clear goal right from the outset. I'll write another post soon about how I raised the stakes for that character and made his goal more personal, but as soon as I did so, the book picked up momentum. A pressing goal that's emotionally important to a character is one of the best gifts a writer can give them to help make them a strong protagonist.

It's not all about you

Here's the other part of not spoiling your protagonist, and I owe it to Robertson Davies.

Robertson Davies was a Canadian academic and novelist. He wrote literary fiction with a weird twist, sometimes, though not always, supernatural. But to me, the most interesting thing about his writing is the way he wrote his trilogies.

As specfic readers, we're used to trilogies that tell one long story. Davies' ones don't, or at least, it's not that simple. What he tends to do is take minor characters from his first book and put them at the centre of the next book, relegating the main characters from the first book to relative or complete obscurity. Or he tells the second book from the perspective of someone who doesn't even appear in the first.

The extreme example is his incomplete "Toronto Trilogy", his last work, of which only two books were written. In the second book, The Cunning Man, the narrator obsesses over the son of his mistress, speculating (despite her denials) that he is also his son. The young man is tremendously important to him, and yet when you read the first book, Murther and Walking Spirits, which is narrated by that same young man, he never mentions The Cunning Man's narrator even once. The older man apparently has no significance in his life at all.

What reading Robertson Davies taught me is that everyone is at the centre of their own story. When I'm walking down the street, I often look around at the people I pass and think about that fact. Each one of them has their own story, as important to them as mine is to me, and I don't know, and will never know, what that story is.

While I work on the last edits of Realmgolds, I've started the next book, currently called Hope and the Clever Man. It's set during the same time as Realmgolds, not far away, and some of the events in each book very much impact the other, but the main character isn't even mentioned in Realmgolds. And yet her story is very important to her and the people around her, and without her the events of Realmgolds would have gone very differently.

She lives in a Robertson Davies world. Despite her considerable talents, I hope that will help keep her from becoming a spoiled protagonist.

Feb 18

The Spoiled Protagonist

I've read a couple of books lately which have what I've started to think of as "spoiled protagonists".

"Spoiled" in the sense that everyone treats them like a princess (or a prince - one is male), even though they're very ordinary people. When they come on the scene, people with serious responsibilities will neglect them in order to help with whatever the spoiled protagonist is doing. Villains go out of their way to give them grief, but it's all right, because everyone else is their humble servant. Their relatively small successes are treated as world-saving  triumphs and the cause for endless gratitude. They break the rules, or even the law, and are blithely forgiven by the toughest authorities when they explain their reasons.

If they want to go stupidly and unnecessarily into a dangerous situation (and they do), they only need to whine a little and stamp their feet for people who should know better to let them do so. Nameless spearcarriers or even minor characters will then be sacrificed to protect them, without a cross word being spoken to the precious spoiled protagonist.

It didn't take me long to work out a theory of why this is happening. The authors have been reading too many Chosen One stories. The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One by stealth.

See, a Chosen One is typically of humble origins, but everyone in the world wants to either oppose them or help them. They're destined to save the world, but first they have to grow up, and that involves making stupid decisions that have a cost mainly to other people. Because they're the focus of the Prophecy, it's literally all about them.

The spoiled protagonist is the Chosen One without the justification of the prophecy. They're a person who actually is ordinary, injudicious and inexperienced who's stumbling around, doing a poor job of dealing with a situation that they weren't prepared for. The unrealistic part is that everyone is downing tools and either helping or hindering them as if they were the most important person in the world.

To the author, of course, the main character is the most important person in the world. The world exists because of the character. But the other people in the world shouldn't act as if they know that.

Stop spoiling your protagonists, authors. If they're whiny, headstrong and inept, drop the consequences on them, not on hapless, uncomplaining minions around them. Better still, don't make them whiny, headstrong and inept in the first place.

Jan 13

Beautiful language and good stories

I was reading this post about period language on Wondermark this morning, and it got me thinking about language in fiction.

I love the English language, for all its quirks. My long-ago master's degree is in that field, after all. I love to see it well and skillfully used, something which is becoming sadly rare. Perhaps it always was.

I've recently left a popular writers' community on Google+, only partly because of the high volume of posts. What really drove me out was the high volume of posts that were along these lines: "So im wanna be a writer lol any advise?" I exaggerate only a little.

And to weave in another thread to my thinking, I was reading i09's best science fiction and fantasy books of 2012 post today, having got there from a comment on N.K. Jemisin's blog, and read this comment:

Is there anyone out there who is unimpressed by NK Jemisin? I keep reading these glowing reviews of her novels and how they're destined to be classics, but all I could think when I read The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was that it read like mediocre fanfiction, especially the interactions between the protagonist and the scary love interest dude.

I mulled that over, and what I realized was that I enjoyed that book mainly because of the skill of the language, and not so much because of the story, which is largely made up of tropes. (Apparently her later books get better.)

I loved Emma Bull's War for the Oaks, too, and was surprised to read reviews on Goodreads from people who just didn't get what the fuss was about. They were bored by the 80s music references and all the band stuff, they said (honestly, that didn't do much for me, either), and disliked the main character. Again, I loved it mostly because of the language.

Language by itself, though, isn't enough for me. In both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and War for the Oaks, the central characters have a strong moral core, which they act upon. They are actually strong women, not the fake "strong women" that you get in so much contemporary writing who are actually headstrong women, and cause most of their own problems, while relying on others, usually men, to solve them.

I think the character issue is why I can't stand Gene Wolfe's books, and have a love-hate relationship with Neil Gaiman's work, although both are generally admired for their prose by people who love the more literary end of speculative fiction. Gene Wolfe's protagonists are so emotionally alienated that I can't even understand them, let alone identify with them, and Gaiman's are often far too dark for my taste. I enjoyed American Gods, but I stay well clear of Sandman. It's brilliant, but emotionally it's too much for me.

What I'm teasing out here, I think, is that there are several different ways in which a book, or a writer, can be "good". There's language, facility with prose, which the authors I've already mentioned do well. There's story, which includes things like pacing, suspense, the right mix of foreshadowing and surprise, as well as the structural elements of plot. There's setting or worldbuilding, coming up with a world of wonder that has a believability to it, or at least a majesty or a richness to it. And there's character and its close cousin situation.

Alongside these multiple ways to be skilled, there are matters of taste.

I don't mind a little period language, since I'm well-read in English literature back to Beowulf (with a gap, I'll admit, in the 18th century), but some people struggle with it. Those people shouldn't read my book City of Masks, which has a "period" style taken from no actual period, and nor should people who obsess about historical accuracy. And for me, period language done ineptly is a complete turnoff, whereas for some people it won't matter at all. Likewise, some people will give a book four or five stars even if it is full of incorrect homonyms and punctuated on the Jackson Pollock principle, but for me, that's tiresome and distracting.

I personally don't mind a story that's constructed mostly of tropes, if it's done well and the book has other merits. I also can enjoy a book that's well-plotted even if the other elements are weak. J.K. Rowling, whose prose is often held up as an example of what not to do, whose worldbuilding is ridiculous and whose characters are thin, still holds my attention by weaving intricate plots, even if they have big holes in them. Personally, I like neat, happy endings that still leave the possibility of future problems open, but other people want their endings to be more ambiguous.

A wonderfully imagined world full of possibilities will seize my interest, but only if those possibilities are explored with characters who appeal to me (which is why I don't read much hard SF, or China Mieville). This is actually one of the hardest things to do, and there aren't many worldbuilding writers who come to mind. Tolkien, of course, is one. Part of the problem is that richly imagined worlds are hard to convey without either bogging down the story in exposition or leaving your readers confused for the first third of the book. I'm reading, or trying to read, Walter Jon Williams' Aristoi at the moment, and it has the latter problem. I'm a worldbuilder, and I can tell you it isn't easy.

You don't need a completely original world to get a good review from me, but on the other hand, mashing up Jules Verne and Indiana Jones and hotgluing brass gears over the joins is not going to grab me. I like to see some effort.

There are kinds of worlds I don't like and kinds of worlds I do like, too. Cruel empires, post-apocalyptic wastelands, and oppressive dystopias, however well done, have an uphill struggle to appeal to me.

Finally, I have strong and definite tastes in characters. I don't like antiheroes, though unlikely heroes I'm all for, and I love a good rogue with a heart. Passive or silly women, Gene Wolfe's alienated people with no recognisable human emotions, anyone cruel or over-the-top villainous, casual adulterers, these will not get my vote.

What I'm saying, as both a writer and a reviewer, is that there can be many reasons why a book may or may not appeal to me or you. There are matters of craft and skill. At the moment, there are a huge number of first-time authors putting books out. Those who persevere and improve their craft will rise, and if I see an author whose craft is a mess but who shows imaginative flair and originality, I will write them an encouraging review and urge them to get some editing and coaching.

And then there are matters of taste. I've written lukewarm reviews of books I thought were well done, because despite that they weren't quite my thing. I've abandoned, partially read, books that are critically or popularly acclaimed, because they contain elements that I personally dislike. I try to distinguish in my reviews between "it's not good" and "it's not for me".

And for my potential readers: I'm still learning the craft (of course I am, everyone is, but I'm early on in the process). I know I'm an above-average writer of sentences, and I'm working hard to become at least an average teller of stories. My books have highly inventive settings, simple plots, and main characters who are fundamentally moral, adult and in reasonable mental and emotional health, though they also tend to be socially awkward and unpopular. If that's your thing, I hope you'll read them.

Oh, I should mention here: I recently set it up so that, if you sign up for my mailing list to be notified when I put out new releases, you also get access to free short fiction and permanent discounts on my older books. You can also be notified when I review a new indie book that I liked, and get these blog posts emailed to you (both of those things are opt-in). Just go to the right-hand sidebar on any page of the site and put in your email address, and software I spent far too many hours tinkering with will do the rest.

Jan 06

On Writing Strong Protagonists

I grew up in a family with a lot of strong women: my mother, my grandmother, and my two sisters. Perhaps inevitably, I married a strong woman too. I often work with strong women, and get on very well with them. I have a number of women friends whose strength impresses me every time I talk to them. I'll talk about what I mean by "strong" in a minute.

I've recently completed the fourth, and second-to-last, draft of Realmgolds, as the first Gryphon Clerks novel is now known. Most of what I did in that draft involved incorporating beta feedback, and the biggest changes had to do with strengthening the protagonist.

Determined (that's his name) is a bookish young man who wanted to be an historian, but ended up in a position to make history instead. In my earlier drafts, he leaned a lot on Victory, his female counterpart. She made the decisions and solved the problems.

My betas didn't like it. Now, I should point out that the beta who particularly didn't like it is another strong woman, a self-described Jewish mother, so this isn't about unevolved males reading it and saying "The dude needs to not listen to the girl so much, that's weak." Not at all. This is about who the protagonist is.

The word "protagonist" means "someone who struggles for something". If you have a main character who's mostly observing the action, who's yielding to other people to make the decisions, or who's relying on someone else to solve the problems, that's not a protagonist in the true sense of the word.

Unfortunately, that's a type of main character I often see in genre fiction. Actually, what I commonly see is this: the "protagonist" is a young woman who says "I'm strong and independent, I can make my own decisions", makes incredibly poor decisions that get her in trouble, and has to be rescued by a man.

I see that most often in urban fantasy, but urban-fantasy tropes are appearing more and more in steampunk and secondary-world fantasy these days too. Including, unfortunately, that one.

Sorry, but that's not what I think of when I say "strong woman". Or "good story", either. The protagonist needs to solve their own problems, at least once they get past the early part of the book where they're mainly reacting to what's thrown at them. To refer to Dan Wells' seven-point structure, the "midpoint" is where the protagonist makes a decision that they need to do something active to solve the problems, and in my mind, that so-called midpoint needs to come within the first 30% of the book if it's to keep my interest in the character. Even before the midpoint, when they're reacting, they have to be trying to do something. Even if it's only "stay alive".

They don't have to succeed at what they're trying to do all the time, of course - that's what a try-fail cycle is all about. But the point of a try-fail cycle is that it's a cycle. They keep trying, even when they fail. This makes them a protagonist. They're trying to solve the problem.

I've messed up a couple of short stories by having a viewpoint character who isn't the protagonist, so when my beta reader pointed out the issue, I jumped on it. It turned out not to be that hard to rewrite the scenes so that Determined, who's very intelligent, was the one solving the problems.

My worry was that, in making Determined a more active character, I would take away from Victory. She's a very powerful and capable woman, respected, if not necessarily liked, even by her opponents. I tell the reader this early on through the mouth of a minor character. I was concerned that she would be one of those awful woman who the author tells us are strong, but who don't do anything to show it. I didn't want to be guilty of strong-woman tokenism.

I needn't have worried, as I discovered when I did my complete read-through on a printout. As soon as Victory walked, elegantly and confidently, into a scene and started ordering people around just by looking at them, my concerns evaporated.

I read a quote from Joss Whedon recently to the effect that strong men are those who are comfortable around strong women. I like that. It makes my protagonist Determined a very strong man, because he can respect Victory without wanting to take away her power, and at the same time call her out when she becomes imperious and high-handed.

So when will the book be out? Currently, I'm waiting for my cover guy, who's heavily booked because he's good. I'm also talking with a heavily-booked editor about whether I should work with her or someone else. So the answer at the moment seems to be "March-ish". I'll keep you posted.

Dec 16

Dan Wells’ Seven-Point Story Structure

Dan Wells has an excellent set of YouTube videos on story structure, made at a conference in 2010. I don't necessarily remember information very well from videos, though, so I decided to take notes and publish them here. Since he got the idea from a roleplaying game book, and I'm giving full credit to him, I assume he won't mind.

The first video is here:

There's also an episode of the Writing Excuses podcast that Dan does with Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler in which he explains the seven-point structure. I haven't re-listened to that to add to my notes; they're solely taken from the videos.

Whether you are an "outline" writer and do the seven points upfront and then write the story, or a "discovery" writer who writes first and then incorporates the seven points during revision, the system is still useful.

Start at the end, with the resolution - the final state of the characters/plot - and move back to the hook, then the midpoint, the two plot turns in order, then the two pinches in order.

Here are the seven points.

1. Hook

In the hook, the character is in the opposite state from the state they will be in eventually. For example, if they are going to end up strong, start them out weak.

(Harry Potter lives in a cupboard under the stairs.)

2. Plot Turn 1

Something changes that puts things into motion. New ideas, new people, a Call to Adventure or inciting incident, starts the movement from the situation of the Hook to the situation of the Resolution.

(Harry Potter learns he's a wizard, enters the wizarding world.)

3. Pinch 1

Something goes wrong that forces the character to step up and solve a problem.

(Harry Potter and friends fight the troll.)

4. Midpoint

This is the point at which the character moves from reaction to action, decides to move towards the end state (knowingly or otherwise). It doesn't need to be in the middle of the story. In a mystery story, for example, where the midpoint is deciding to take the case, it can come very early on.

(Harry Potter decides that people who suck blood from unicorns must be opposed.)

5. Pinch 2

Something goes very wrong, much more so than in Pinch 1. These are the jaws of defeat from which victory must be grasped. Mentors die or vanish, allies prove unreliable, plans fail.

(Ron and Hermione fall to the magical traps on the way to the Stone and leave Harry Potter to go on alone.)

6. Plot Turn 2

The character receives the last piece needed to create the resolution. "The power is in you!" is a classic Plot Turn 2. Grasping victory from the jaws of defeat.

(Harry Potter looks in the Mirror of Erised, and because his motives are pure the stone goes into his pocket and he knows that if Voldemort touches him it will harm Voldemort, not him.)

7. Resolution

This the climax, what you're leading up to, what the story's about.

This can be plot or character. For example, the character makes a moral decision and becomes a different person from the person they were when they started. The problem of the plot is resolved.

This can be a state rather than an action (example of Poe's "The Telltale Heart", where the resolution is that the narrator is insane).

(Harry Potter defeats Voldemort.)

A tragedy plot reverses the order of "all is well" and "all is terrible". The former is the hook, the latter the resolution.

This is the bare skeleton. Round characters, rich environments, try-fail cycles, subplots flesh it out.

The Ice Monster Prologue

The name of this is taken from Game of Thrones. Because the magic and action don't appear for a long time in the book, there's a prologue to introduce the promise that they will eventually arrive. (The hook itself isn't necessarily exciting, because it's the opposite of the final powerful state of the character.)

Try-Fail Cycle

Before heroes succeed at anything important, they should earn their victory by trying and failing multiple times. A problem that can be solved first go isn't big enough to be interesting.

A try-fail can show the consequences of failure (Indiana Jones, the guy who drinks from the wrong chalice). It can look like a victory (Princess Bride, where defeating the swordsman, the giant and the Sicilian brings the Man in Black closer to his goal but he doesn't reach it yet.) It can be an actual failure (Inigo Montoya trying to avenge his father.)

Plots and Subplots

Plots, subplots and character arcs can each be mapped out with the Seven-Point System. Spread out the events to create good pacing; line them up (have more than one advancing in the same scene) to create powerful moments, e.g. the resolution of one is the pinch of another. Character and action resolutions can come in the same powerful scene.

I hope that's as useful to you as it will be to me. Thanks to Dan Wells for laying it all out.