A Writing Journey

Posts tagged ‘Harry Potter’

Every Character is Their Own Hero

Writing fantasy (or any genre, but it seems especially true for fantasy) takes a lot of characters. Because I write fantasy, I’ll be talking about that and largely ignoring other genres. Sorry!

I saw a chart recently that listed the characters introduced in the first chapters of some popular books. They were all upwards of 20 characters. In fairness: that does not necessarily mean 20 named characters make an actual appearance. Some of them are mentioned by other characters, some of them are unnamed. When it comes to fantasy, there are a lot of characters to keep track of and remember. In chapter one of QFS I have 10 named characters, one unnamed character, and 3 groups of characters (“others,” “diggers,” and “healers”). I don’t think info dumping 20 characters is a necessarily good idea, but it depends on how long the chapter is. If I doubled my chapter length, 20 would, I think, be a good fit.

BUT. I’m not about to spend a whole post talking about how many characters appear when. I bring it up only to make a point about how many characters we writers must take into consideration.

In fantasy we usually have a core group surrounding our main character. Sometimes they are a single unit and any division is a big deal, as in Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings. In others, the MC has a group, but flits in and around them more (as in the Farseer Trilogy). And all around the MC and their core group are the Other Characters.

Those others may get a few speaking lines, a brief appearance to illustrate a point, move the plot forward, or to contribute to realism. Our MC only sees one aspect of these others – a one-dimensional snapshot that is, often, of little importance. What if we flip our point of view? What if that other character looks at our MC and sees an irritable, crabby, person, intent only on their goal with no interest in the lives of those around them?

Every character, named or not, recurrent or not, is their own hero. We hear this all this all the time. There is difficulty in accepting it our writing it out because we ourselves are limited to our own viewpoint. We can’t hop into another person’s shoes and know their lives (even though we can empathize, it is NOT the same as understanding who that person is on the inside of their mind). We are all different “I”s. When we don’t accept this “everyone’s a hero*” mentality, our supporting characters are flat. And flat is boring.

How, then, do we combat this? Back story. When we create our MC’s and secondary characters, we give them elaborate histories that elucidate their motives and actions.

Okay, step back a minute. I know I have a complex history that informs my behavior. In my life, I am the MC (we’re all the MCs of our own lives). Around me are my family, my boyfriend, my friends, my co-workers. The people I have direct contact with everyday. I know that they, too, have complex histories, even if I don’t know every aspect. There are also people I interact with at my work place that I see once or maybe a few times – but I know nothing about them. There are people on the street that I pass everyday but never speak to. All the people at the grocery store – I may recognize the cashier but I don’t know her name, even though it’s on a name tag. They all have stories too. They are all a MC. They, each and everyone, have a complex history that started before they were even born. (Yes, our ancestors’ stories directly inform our own.)

Let’s jump back in to novel-land. Every character that our MC encounters has a rich background, just like every person that we encounter does. Does that mean we have to right an in-depth back story for every single character we write? No. It does mean we should give it thought. It means that if we have a character that has more than a few lines, more than a scene, we should really think more about who they are. Because everyone really is a hero in their own eyes.

Write on,

Emily

*in their own way! Thanks, Captain Hammer

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Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 5, Magic

When it comes to magic, fantasy writers usually go one of two ways: learn the spells from the book or magic is in your blood and you don’t have to learn any spells. Both of these have problems.

Learning spells or “words of power” is, in my opinion, a massive cop-out (unless, of course, you are writing Harry Potter and that is integral to the way the world works – but usually it is not). If your characters can just go learn a new spell every time the need to, it ruins the tension. We all know that they are going to get out of this mess too (that was my one big qualm with Buffy the Vampire Slayer – they had a spell for everything). The only way this can actually work is if you have some sort of school or family tradition or something, and then the spells go wrong, or sometimes there isn’t one, or the cost is too much and the magician refuses to use the spell or something. But when all the problems can be solved with a new spell, there is no point in reading more.

Now, the bulk of this post is going to be about the magic that is inherent in a character – they’re either born with it or they’re not. There are usually categories of magic in fantasy: healers, summoners, elementalists, seers, and others. The problem with magic (and I am honestly not sure how we as fantasy writers avoid it) is that it’s all been done. I think some of the only room for creativity in magic is in how each person can use it, the cost, or even how many people have access to it.

That being said, it is difficult to come up with new and creative ideas for magic. In my WIP the creative part is magic’s source, and how it came into the world. The magic itself is, I’m sorry to say, fairly average (and probably more so than I would like to admit).  My suggestion is to experiment in your writing. Read a lot of fantasy where magic is at least part of the story so that you can see what has been overdone and what is still hiding in the shadows. Learn to write magic well, even if you stick to the norm. Create a system that, if not entirely original is at least consistent and interesting.

And for the love of everything good, don’t make magic this scary thing that has been banned for centuries and people are killed for using it. So overdone.

Take care, fellow travelers.

Another post about this subject by a friend of mine over at Write-Minded Razo can be found here.

Reclaiming Fantasy – Part 4, The Plot

There’s a prophesy about a chosen one and the destruction of the world. The chosen one, after initially refusing to accept that they have a destiny, is faced with a life crisis that makes them care about this world. The chosen one embarks on a journey, faces dangers, and eventually defeats whatever evil is threatening the world.

BORING.

I’ll admit though, I use this basic formula (sans prophesy) as much as any other fantasy writer. But you know what? I really hate reading books like this. To that end, I’m trying to cease writing based on this plot. It has been over done and quite honestly, is rarely done well. (The only case of it having been done well that I can think of is Harry Potter.)

Before we talk about what can be done to reinvigorate the fantasy plot, let’s talk about why we are stuck in this rut. First of all, we see it in the media and in books so often that we assume (again) that it is the “right way” and people want it. I don’t know about the wanting (other people surely have different opinions than mine) but just because it is a predominant plot doesn’t mean it is the right one. Second, I believe it has to do with the characters we choose. When we as writers focus on nobility, knights, and royalty, the “saving the world” can seem like the only option for a decent plot (it’s not, by the way).

So what do we do? Well, as I said in Part 3, the characters have to shape the plot. Start with an interesting character that is not typical in fantasy, and develop them first. When you know their desires, goals, and beliefs you can shape the plot around them, rather than forcing your characters into a plot that doesn’t work for them. (This is also the way to make your characters more interesting. If you develop them solely to fit the plot, they don’t do anything interesting, they are static and boring.) Let the plot have a direct impact on the life of the MC and the people she/he cares about. When we make the plot more personal to the character, it will feel more realistic. When we make it more personal, the simplest conflict will have as much tension as the doomsday plot.

I’m not saying that we fantasy writers should never have end-of-the-world drama, or high-born characters. What I am saying is that we have to be aware of the cliches of our genre so that we can navigate them and either embrace or reject them. After all, it’s our imagination – why stick with what’s already been done?

Take care, fellow travelers.

Here is a link to a post about the rebirth story-arc: http://writeontheworld.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/writing-the-rebirth-plot-arc-rathilde/

 

Fiction and Real Life

Last Wednesday, I mentioned that I have started work on a pet project, and that it is YA. In my attempts to procrastinate working on various tasks, I came across some articles and posts about how certain books and TV shows exemplify and work through real life issues. Now, I’ve said this a few times before but I will reiterate: fiction, regardless of genre or medium, needs to reflect real life. This is especially true for YA, because teenagers are often struggling with issues that they keep hidden, or have no resources to help them work through it. Sometimes the only way they know that they aren’t alone is by reading a book, and seeing characters going through the same things – even if there are fantastical elements to the story.

I believe that the primary focus of writers should be to tell a good story, but I don’t think a story without a message can ever live up to the enduring prestige of those stories that say something important. There is no doubt that this belief has been influenced by my study and love of Russian literature. Many classic books (whether they are Russian or not) have important messages that echo throughout the ages. Crime and Punishment questions whether a person can do whatever they want just because they are “better” (or if some people really are better than others)While I don’t think YA books need this level of  musing, it is important to have a purpose behind writing.

Now, by no means am I saying that books need to be preachy or overtly biased in the message: it is up to readers to interpret what we writers are trying to say. I merely mean to make the assertion that there ought to be room for people to connect and interpret. The best way to explain is through examples, and so I have some for you. They are from both books and TV, and mostly from what I would consider to be YA fiction.

Many articles have been written on the real-life relevance of Harry Potter. Integral to the plot are messages about prejudice, abuse, death and immortality, betrayal, loyalty, oppression, and sacrifice. When the books first came out, I never saw these themes (I was a kid, after all), but as I grew and kept reading the books, it became obvious that they had relevance to real life. This wasn’t just the story of a boy who found out he was a wizard. This was the story of a boy determined to make a change in the world around him. He grew out of terrible circumstances and did something amazing, as did the people around him (heck – look where Neville ended up!).

The Hunger Games is another YA book series that has an incredible message. It is about children being exposed to (and forced to participate in) violence. It is about standing up for what you believe in and thinking of those you love. It is also, in my interpretation, about peer pressure (particularly in Mockingjay, book 3 of the trilogy).

The Farseer Trilogy, though not YA, deals with difficult real-life issues such as addictions, depression, and if people should always be obedient to authority.

Books aren’t the only medium in which reality informs fiction. The best TV shows and movies do the same thing. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Buffy and her friends deal with a myriad of issues from relationship trouble to the death of loved ones to doing the right thing even though they know it will hurt to doing the wrong thing because they are in so much pain. M.E. Kinkade recently had an excellent post called High School as Hell: Buffy the Vampire Slayer about – you guessed it – how the show (at least the first few seasons) is about how rough high school can be. Stargate, a show about traveling through a wormhole to other planets and encountering other civilizations, deals with cultural issues, prejudice, and imposing one person/group’s values and morals on another person or group.

Stories – be they books, TV shows, or movies – need real life relevance. A story without something to say to me, no matter how good it is, leaves me feeling unsatisfied.

Do you think that books should have messages? Do you have a favorite book (or show or movie) with a message?

Take care, fellow travelers.

Editing Aloud

My parents always read books out loud to my brother and me when we were kids. It was the best part of the day, that hour that we would sit down and listen to a story unfold. We read all the Harry Potter and Narnia books together and many others that, unfortunately, I have forgotten. I have always loved hearing the written word become the spoken word. I love poetry only when it is read aloud, and books become something to share when read them with someone else. Perhaps that is why my favorite part of editing is reading the story out loud.

I have seen, occasionally, advice about reading a WIP aloud as you edit. This is important for a variety of reasons. When reading silently, we often skip over words and sometimes sentences, but when reading out loud we can find those places that we would skip and cut them. In addition, reading aloud helps smooth the flow and brings into the spotlight those places that “sound like writing.” (The emphasis should be on the story, not the writing itself – unless that is the voice you are going for.) Speaking the novel can show us all the things that need improvement. And, of course, it will help prepare your story for those people like me who love to read aloud. See, reading in our minds and reading with our voices are two completely different processes. Words and phrases that are fine on the page become awkward when spoken aloud.

I’m working on this step of editing right now. I’m on chapter six of my manuscript, and I’m taking it slow. So far I’ve caught typos and grammar mistakes and some really awful turns of phrase. I have lots of places highlighted that ought to be cut, or at least revised, and I don’t think I would have caught them if I wasn’t reading out loud. We go slower that way, and tend not to skip as many words.

This story probably isn’t one that people will read out loud, and that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean that it is not important to edit out loud. I really encourage any writer to try this method.

Do you read your work out loud when you edit? Do you like to read other books out loud?

Take care, fellow travelers.

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