Characters

All stories are character driven. That’s the first thing Donald Maass calls out in this chapter of Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s a no brainer but worth emphasizing.

When I wrote my first novel, I really tried to have my main character be the focal point which was part of the problem. The character wasn’t driving the novel but just had a big spot light on him. My character wasn’t engaging enough; meaning he was too ordinary. Folks are not reading novels for boring characters – they want complex characters that are larger than life. My approach was a try not a do. I missed the mark here; my character was interesting but not breakout interesting.

Another key point on characters Maass makes, goes back to the larger than life concept. These characters do whatever they want  and say whatever they want. We, as people living in reality, can not. Or we can but not get very far in life. Characters are supposed to be conflict driven at all times – if they’re not who’s going to read about them? The conflict the character is involved in is supposed to keep us  engaged and turning the pages.

And to keep the pages turning, Maass recommends that characters be deep and many-sided. Have supporting characters that create contrast in order to achieve balance but also to create more conflict. These factors can create rich, complex characters that should produce a great novel.

One other note on characters; I’m fan of the anti-hero. He’s not a bad or a good guy but does his own thing. While I like these types of characters, they can’t be indifferent all the time. They have to have redeeming qualities in order to gain sympathy from a reader. Maass discusses this in his book and I’m glad he did. It completely makes sense. The anti-hero can be viewed as a selfish jerk sometimes but during a novel or movie has a few moments that allow you to sympathize for him. It’s this way for a reason. If the character was a complete bastard all the time, the novel (or movie) really wouldn’t have to many redeeming qualities hence not that interesting or engaging. Something to keep in mind if you’re like me and attracted to unique character types.

Artificial Intelligence

As I explore science fiction themes, I’m reminded how much closer fiction is becoming reality. Case-in-point, artificial intelligence (AI). Every once in a while (or more often than that) we hear how scientists get closer to developing some robot that can reason, play a game, instrument, or take orders.

Of course, the folks like myself that think of how this can all go wrong. Call it the Frankenstein complex. Basically, I usually link the creation of AI to something destructive (I guess it’s the pessimist in me). I think about the worst scenarios possible. Like, an AI apocalypse. Robots one day decide that humans are bad and destroy everyone – like in the Terminator series. Or maybe tone it down a little – how about an AI controlled society? Robots have a quest for power and control how humans live.

Then, there’s the more positive side of AI. Issac Asimov’s writing has focused on the integration of AI into society. I’m guilty of not reading any of his material, but I am familiar with it. I’m blown away at the level of hard science fiction that Asimov writes so it actually deters me from getting into his stuff. In most cases, this positive side of AI has the humans as authority over the robots. This weaves together some interesting stories. Think Star Wars and all the androids used to aid the humans. Fifty years from now, I think a future in AI will look more like Star Wars and less like the Terminator.

Wherever this genre of science fiction goes, I feel that in the not so distant future we will all be living with some form of AI. The day is coming when you walk into your front door and the lights come on, your favorite music is playing, dinner will be ready in ten minutes, and you’re being briefed by a hologram on all the days events…like the coming AI apocalypse!

Time and Place

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been summarizing chapters from Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel. As far as books about writing, this is a must have. It gives good insight on writing and what it takes to “breakout”. 

For time and place, Maass stresses the importance of putting these assets to work in a novel. Both need to bring depth and substance to a scene. It’s not enough to describe a setting in order to put things in perspective for the character, but it’s supposed to give the reader some information on the world they’ve entered. Same goes for time; it’s an opportunity to comment on social and political themes and not be heavy-handed.

A couple of interesting tips I picked about time and place. In order to make place matter, have the main character have a psychological or emotional tie. Does a place bring back good/ bad memories for a character? How does it make them feel when they hear the word of the place? Answer those questions and place suddenly takes on a different meaning. Just line listing attributes to a place is boring. I should know, I did it in my first novel. I was hell-bent on describing the weather, the furniture, the architecture, etc. What did it mean to the character? I have no clue. I do know that the setting was taking up space and not working for my novel.

Maass’ insight on time is also valuable. He encourages writers to convey the sense of the times. Avoid the pitfall of just describing that it’s 1942 and the US is at war. It’s important but what does it add to a story? I would guess if the character worked at ammunition factory to help support the war while her husband served in the Europe: That paints a picture and readers will have sense of the times not just an arbitrary date.

The points I’ve summarized might be obvious for established writers, but to me, it confirms what I’ve thought but never to ventured to write. Tying both time and place to the character moves the story forward with out slowing down the pace of the novel.

Dystopia

For the next few posts I thought it would be interesting to focus on science fiction themes. Dystopia being one of my favorites. What’s not to love about a futuristic society that has gone down the tubes with an overbearing, repressive government?

With in a lot of fiction, the elements of a dystopia are masked by a utopia. Which makes sense. It usually takes an average person to uncover that the utopian society that they live in is not what they seem. Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-four immediately come to mind. Characters in both novels try to expose their world for what it really is.

Dystopia can also go in a couple different directions rather than just a look at society. Politics and economics are also strong themes prevalent in this subgenre which tend to be oppressive and go over the edge of fanaticism. The best intentions are meant in the outset but corruption and idealism takeover souring what could have been perfection – which leads into the state of dystopia.

I guess what draws me to dystopian themed science fiction (books and movies)  is that main character lives in a world where individual freedoms and expressions have little or no existence. It’s this main character (s) that tries to break through either on a global or personal basis to change the current state of affairs. Typical situations would be a character rising above poverty or a strong handed police force. I think it’s the rising above aspect that interests me. I like underdogs and long shots and that’s typically the type of characters one can expect dystopian fiction.

I can cite numerous examples of my favorite types of dystopian fiction but I’ll just mention a few and welcome any additions from anyone reading this blog:

Books: Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, Atlas Shrugged, A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, The Hunger Games, Liberation!

Movies: Blade Runner, Escape from New York, Gattaca, The Running Man, Strange Days, V for Vendetta

Raising the Stakes

Something I didn’t do a very good job in my last novel was raising the stakes. I didn’t layer the stakes or really challenge my protagonist. I was actually pretty nice to him now that I think about it. He only had one public stake one: stop an evil corporation. How is that important? For one it’s not very interesting. If stopping an evil corporation was the only thing my main character had to do, then what is he doing for the other 200 plus pages? Looking back at my novel, a lot of “stuff” happened with little at stake. See my point? His personal stakes were minor, and not enough to matter to a reader.

Public stakes matter to everyone. Can the protag stop the war, stop the bomb from going off, save the town, etc. What the protag does or doesn’t do affects people globally. The flip side of that are the personal stakes. The protag saving his wife from getting eaten by zombies, a lawyer defending someone wrongly accused, a mother trying to keep her family together after a tragedy. Both typres of stakes are important to a novel but need to be used correctly. A bunch of public stakes and you don’t care about the characters all that much. Too many personal stakes and the characters are not relevant to the reader. But the right combination equals a solid page turning novel.

This issue was covered in great detail in Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel. The book has been a valuable source of information, but I also did a Google search for personal and public stakes in writing and came across this blog post from  L. Jagi Lamplighter’s blog on writing.

So to keep the tension up in a novel, raise the stakes. Make the character work hard and challenge them to beyond their limits.

Brasília: City from the Future

The title is a little misleading. The city-state of Brasilia still exists and is the capital of Brazil (much like Washington DC is for the US). I decided to do a post about this city as a Science Fiction topic because of what Brasilia represents. Planned and developed in 1956, Brasilia was to be the city of the future. Almost utopian in design, the idea of Brasilia was to have become a place of progress and for future living.

Fifty-four years later, that’s really not the case. The city remains an important place as the country of Brazil prospers economically and will have the world’s stage for the 2018 Olympics. I’m still fascinated by the city but think the future living really hasn’t lived up to it billing just yet. The post-modern architecture captures my imagination of what it must have been like to live in the city around the late 1950’s. Maybe at that time, the city enjoyed the novelty of its future mindset, but the country as a whole never caught up. Brazil has been economically and politically unstable for years but not recently.

However, it was the concept of Brasilia that piqued my interest. A segment on 60 Minutes highlighted Brasilia and instantly I thought it would make a great setting for a novel. I know New York is the muse of many novels, movies, TV shows, etc. But a city like Brasilia brings a fresh take as a back drop. The city inspires me for my next project and like to make the attempt to incorporate some of that 1956 imagination into what I create as a city of the future.

What If?

I’m about half way through Donald Maas’ Writing the Breakout Novel, and really pulling some great information as I begin work on my next novel. In developing a breakout premise for a novel, Maas likes to ask the question, “what if?” for  brainstorming. As a writer, I’m constantly doing this in my mind but not putting it down on paper or on a Word file. But I know where Maas is going with the question. He wants the writer to challenge him or herself and think outside the box (cliché, I know).

What does it mean to ask “what if?” For starters, it’s challenging the status quo. Think of a topic and then start asking questions. Like, what if there were no more fossil fuels? Go from there and see if you can flush out a story. What if baseball no longer existed? What if cars were never invented? I’m sure this tactic is not new, but I did this exercise for the project I’m working and liked the results.

The next steps would be to take those results and try to formulate a plot. According to Maas, if the plot sticks, there’s potential for a premise. Half the challenge is let your guard down and explore. Give it a try.