Monthly Archives: July 2009

Writing the Good Guys: Give Them Black Hats

A casual exchange in #writechat, Twitter’s Sunday writing discussion, led me to think a little bit more about writing the good guy in fiction. I stated that I found writing a hero more challenging than writing about the villain. Villains are fun. They are people I don’t need to make likeable, honorable, or virtuous, and yet we are all a little predisposed to get a vicarious thrill out of that bad boy doing what we wish we could. The hero might have flaws, even fatal flaws (one that leads to her demise), but we still need to be relating to her and rooting for her.

A good writer friend of mine at Pan says: “People adore Dexter. He’s a serial killer. How can you like him or hope he doesn’t get caught? Because he fights his insights and sticks to his code.” Dexter is a good example of the hero role turned upside down, or an anti-hero because even though he seems to be a prime example of a bad guy, he has an unshakeable code of conduct.

But what about a good old-fashioned hero?

Clementine Proulx (a nom de plume of one of our excellent Pan Historia writers who is also a published author in the real world) advises: “Readers have to care about your “hero.” She doesn’t have to be lovable or even likable, but she has to have something that makes them want to invest in her.”

I write the historical character of Wyatt Earp. I use the historical record to provide him with the flaws needed to make him a believable human being and not a TV show stereotype. The controversy surrounded Earp supplies me with plenty of ways to show that my hero is not just a nice guy. He was a gambler who consorted with prostitutes, but he was also a fearless lawman who was prepared to crack a few heads along the way. He even arrested a judge. His brother Virgil arrested Wyatt once. That kind of single-minded adherence to duty is both honorable and a flaw. Rigidity is not a likeable character trait.

Back to Clemetine Proulx:

Almost all the best heroes are essentially not so nice people overcoming their not-so-niceness. They do it throughout the story which in Hollywood is a character arc. Really “nice” people or “good” people are rather uninteresting heroes unless thrown into a plot driven story. I think of a Stephen King—The Mist—where the decent dad faces unbelievable situations. A hero is always reluctant at first, has character flaws, but eventually makes the satisfying choice. The more flawed the hero, the more he struggles, the more we care for him…so yes, Dexter could be called an anti-hero (like Hannibal who only eats rude people), but he is still a hero because he can’t help who he is, formed by one of worst childhood experiences I can think of, but he struggles against it to do – ultimately – good. Sure we all want to kill bad guys. Actually we all want to kill people in our way. But Dexter follows a code that is essentially the code we all follow…only his is obvious and spelled out.

Clementine really knows what she’s talking about. In the collaborative fiction novel FLESH she writes a character that is notable for being everything you don’t expect in a heroine. She’s old, ugly, pudgy, a fanatic fan of Tom Jones, with few social skills who was overjoyed when her mother was consumed by flesh-eating zombies, but her wit, spunk, and ingenuity gets the reader rooting for her nonetheless. In fact it is her flaws and her history (she was picked on mercilessly in school, had a sad and lonely family life) that causes the reader to love her with a passion.

In the same novel FLESH we have started a new chapter and my personal challenge is to create a hero that is essentially pretty unlikeable and yet, in the end, it is my hope that the readers are rooting for him to succeed. Michael is proud, pompous, prejudiced, and overly rigid in his thinking and actions. He’s about to be thrown into a situation where he has to help the very people he’s been alienating for years: his neighbors. You can check out my writing for this character here on my writing blog. I would love feedback, as the story progresses, about how well I’m doing at creating a flawed hero that you might hate to love.


Everything I Learned About Realistic Characters I Learned from British Telly

I was watching Torchwood last night and thoroughly enjoying it and not for the usual sci-fi adventure reasons but for the reasons that really make Torchwood and the new Doctor Who stand out from the crowd of usual suspects in TV viewing these days. British TV is perhaps not what it used to be (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t lived there in nearly twenty years) but it still remains sharply differentiated from American TV in some very important ways.

One of the things I was particularly enjoying last night was that everyone was just a bit pudgy. No one was spending regular time at the gym, and it looked like the entire cast had been spending too much time in the pub between series. There were no defined abs and impossible bulging calves. I know this because, of course, there was plenty of semi-nudity because the British, in general, are way more casual about the human body in general. Even our most attractive lead characters were only as attractive as people you might meet at work or at the pub, and the rest of the cast were just as ordinary as you or I.

Stereotypes were played with so each character is believable: Gwen, the attractive spunky ex-police officer, has an adorable chunky boyfriend who spends time cooking beans for the team while they’re hiding from the law; Jack the virile action hero with the mysterious past is gay (and wow, not interested in Gwen). This same attention to the human in characters can be seen in the powerfully funny Shaun of the Dead where ordinary blokes and birds combat the horror of the living dead.

I remember when I was first exposed to British television and I commented on the strange almost washed out quality of the lighting in their shows. I was told that this was because they used natural lighting for many of their comedies and dramas. At first I was put off by the coolness of the tones, but over time I have come to see that it is part of the national aesthetic which seems to favor a naturalness over extreme artifice in contrast to American movies and TV shows. In America’s CSI: Miami everyone is glamorous and too cool for their own skin. Even in shows that I enjoy, like Bones, everyone is gorgeous. In Doctor Who the hero is a skinny charming but flawed buffoon, and his female sidekicks run the spectrum from annoying to adorable.

In Torchwood last night Ianto when to the shops to stock up on supplies. He didn’t forget the TP. In the heyday (sadly past now) of HBO the same attention to detail and naturalness was applied to The Sopranos with its bulky, sometime endearing, but threatening hero, and all the ugly duckling henchmen, and of course the realism of Janice. A character dies on the crapper. Life is what happens to ordinary people every day, and even sci-fi fiction can remember that in the details of toilet paper and chunky cuddly teddy boyfriends who like baked beans.


Other People’s Characters and the Voices in Your Head

As those of you that read my blog regularly know by now I write collaborative serial fiction. I got to thinking, recently, that writing with other author’s characters is not so different than writing solo. It’s certainly not what I would consider the main difference between writing a novel or short story and what I do. One of the most common experiences I have noticed with all fiction writers is that they talk about their characters coming to ‘life’ and having a voice of their own. Often writers will claim that they cannot force their characters to behave in a certain way – that each character has a will of their own.

This is totally true for me whether I write the character or someone else does. The only difference between my characters and the characters of my co-writers is that I don’t hear the voices in my head. I have to have conversations. Since I do all of my collaborative fiction interaction online that comes in the form of e-mails, message-boards, and instant messages so it’s damn near to voices in my head or my general writing experience. Just like when I’m creating my own characters it has its ups and downs. I have to work to be fluid enough to accommodate a writer being true to their character’s personality, and keep us on plot, as well as not make my character the ‘star’ all the time. Just like with any successful living character I can find that they can bring something new to the story that I hadn’t imagined but is better than before, and since this is collaboration their character has equal billing.

It’s the same whether you are writing by yourself, maybe trying to stick to a plot and a synopsis, or whether you are in discussion with another person – sometimes a better idea comes along and you need to be flexible. In the case of a novelist it might be your own inner critic but it could equally be an objective reader, an editor, or an agent. You also have to know when to stick to your guns. Sometimes characters are wrong – what they think is good for them is not good for the overall storyline. It really doesn’t matter who the author of that character is at this point.

My biggest problem with characters written by someone other than myself is not them being true to themselves but when they are out of sync with how my characters are. This doesn’t usually come up with people I write with regularly, but with newer collaborators. When I first started out on this path and style of writing it used to happen far more regularly particularly because my main character was an historical person Wyatt Earp. People had very set preconceived notions of Wyatt based on their previous knowledge of the character whether from fictional accounts like the movie Tombstone or from skewed historical perspectives. More than once I had to ‘buffalo’ a few tough skulls to get it through to them that they needed to be reacting to my version of the character, not one previously written and engraved in their head.

That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a disparity in the way that one character views another. I think that can be very convincingly done in collaborative writing as long as each writer remembers that they might be omniscient but their characters are not. I still write fiction set around Wyatt Earp and I encourage those that write Cowboy characters to view Wyatt as a bully and a pimp, even if Wyatt sees himself as a righteous upright citizen. There is a huge difference in perceiving an event or set of behaviors through your character’s spectacles and another between having characters act out of character.

What I think I enjoy the most about working with other author’s characters is that they often have backgrounds and sets of experiences that my characters have no inkling of. Much as I might be able to imagine a full pantheon of unique characters with interesting backgrounds they all still share one common denominator: me. Other authors bring in their own unique life situations and that gives them a range of choices that can often be surprising to me. Sometimes it’s unpredictable, but after the taste is acquired, collaboration can be a beautiful and inspirational exercise.


The Decade of Our Youth

bo-derek-10I went grocery shopping last night after work. Exhausted though I was we were completely out of food and I’d gone to work in the morning with a stale croissant from Safeway and Starbucks (possibly the worst supermarket and worst coffee franchise ever) so I was resolute in my desire to fill a shopping cart with a basket of good food from a different food chain. Taking my time I was drawn to the magazine rack as I strolled by leaning heavily on the handle of the cart. People Magazine had put out one of its glossy special editions “Celebrate the 70’s“. The cover features the Bee Gees, Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Bo Derek, and Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease. The back cover is: Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Nixon, Mark Spitz, Star Wars, Patty Hearst, Donna Summers, David Cassidy, Burt Reynolds, and the Village People. I mention the cover images in detail because with the exception of Mark Spitz I could, without hesitation, name very single celebrity on the cover and the movie or show they were famous for or being featured in. This is particularly a feat considering Bo Derek was pretty much solely a phenomena of the 70’s – known for one bouncing boob moment and a, at the time, unusual hair style. It’s also amazing because if you gave me a cover of the 80’s, 90’s, or the 00’s I would be lucky if I got 25%.

Much as I thought I hated the 70’s at the time it is clear from this example that I am a child of the 70’s. While I was born in the 60’s and have always sort of revered that particular decade and felt the one that followed was really a pallid and sometimes laughable shadow of the previous epoch shattering decade, it is the 70’s that stand out in my mind with a clarity that no other set of years will ever achieve – no matter how important personally to me. It’s truly the nature of the beast that is called human. When we come of age is, for the majority of us, marked permanently in our brains in a way that no other time of our life ever really can match. We are marked forever by the intensity of our youth. We are moving from childhood to adulthood on a cresting wave of hormones and adventure. The life in front of us is full of the unknown and of promise. We are actualized hope and we soak up life like a sponge.

As artists, whether writers, painters, poets, musicians, or sculptors, we need to soak up the world around us with the same intensity all the time. For those of us mature in years enough to have gotten some distance from the decade of our awakening the line might seem quite clear from when we were almost entirely alert (though maybe not terribly self-aware) to the years that followed when, no matter how we tried, the lights became less bright, and the world started rushing past us so fast we couldn’t hope to catch every image, every emotion. We all get tired out from so many hours spent washing the same dishes, going to the same supermarket, working the same job, but as artists we have to recapture the wide-eyed all-encompassing gaze of our youth. Your mind should be like a camera recording snapshots of life that you can paste into the album of your work. Age is what makes the selection of the images more discriminating.

I bought the special edition of People Magazine only to find that what I had once found to be banal and boring (oh the irony that when we are most awake we are also at our most opinionated and jaded!) to be bright, full of hope, and yes, even innocence. The 70’s now seem to me to be halcyon compared to the decades that followed and I challenge anyone to disagree. I won’t be watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels anytime soon, but I can remember watching them the first time around far more clearly than I remember what I watched last night.


Announcing the Pan Press Project

guildimagePlans are moving ahead for the re-launch of the Pan Press as a division of a small publishing house. We had our first business meeting to discussion the structure of the operation. We have a couple designers ready and primed. My idea is to start with some of the best of the best of Pan Historia for the long overdue second Pan Birthday Book.

The Pan Birthday Book was published in 2004 as an anthology of all the various writing that could be found on the collaborative community’s forums. It included sections from the role-play novels as well as essays from the reference book section, poetry, and in addition some great original artwork from some of our more graphically inclined members. It was sold solely on the site to the membership of Pan. It was a great fundraiser for the site and a great snapshot of where we were then.

It’s five years later and I want to take our second Birthday Book just a little further. First of all it will be available via Amazon and other online booksellers and give our authors and artists a bigger potential audience. Because of my desire to showcase our creativity beyond our ‘borders’ I plan to run a contest for the entries with specific guidelines. The entries should be short stories that can stand alone for the pleasure of the reader. They can be collaboratively worked, based on storylines from the established novels at Pan, but tailored for inclusion in an anthology that might be read by people that have never visited Pan Historia.

If the second Birthday Book goes as planned I will start work on published versions of several of our collaborative novels, and hopefully members of the community will join in to create a shelf of work that can be treasured forever. The potential is limitless. Imagine being able to take your favorite online novel with you to the beach next summer? Imagine running your fingers over the pages of a novel you helped to write? I know I can’t wait to see my first edition of my original fantasy story The Midnight People or my zombie horror collaborative FLESH And yes, I plan ebook versions if possible.


I Love the Smell of Paper Pulp in the Morning…

I think about it sometimes. How would I feel if my work was published in an eBook format? I mean it’s publication right? It’s getting my stuff out there? So what that it’s electronic? After all most of my work appears on the internet as pixels vibrating on your computer monitor, exactly as it is happening right now as you read this blog, so how would it be different? And yet it is. @mikecane is a huge advocate of eBooks and he’s got me convinced that I need to invest in a reader – but still something more emotional and archaic tugs at my heartstrings when I think about myself as a published author.

I want to hold a book in my hands. I want the smell of paper, possibly the stain of ink on the pads of my finger. If I could have it I would want rag paper with watermarks and a stitched binding with a nice sturdy hardcover and fancy dust jacket. On the cover itself it would be nice if there was embossing, say in that beautiful glossy ink, or maybe in gold. Remember that scene in American Psycho where Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) shows off his business card only to be outdone by his rival? Here was something so low-tech in a high powered high tech environment but the touch of the rag card, the subtle embossing, the texture of the raised text with the right depth of ink…

Ok, I admit it. I could get worked up over a paperbound edition of my work way more than I could over a virtual facsimile downloadable from Amazon.com. So while I would get very excited to see big fat royalties checks because my novel was selling in the thousands across the world, I would miss it if it were not also sitting on my book shelf. Just ask @fannyfae has she feels about ‘real’ books as opposed to eBooks.

With all this in mind I hope to relaunch Pan Press by the end of the year – creating beautiful editions, print on demand, of work by collaborative and solo writers from the Pan Historia community. Of course I will be looking into the option of eBook versions, I believe that most people, myself included, will want a copy of their own book on their bookshelf. While I appreciate that much of the sales of such volumes will be to friends and families, it’s not inconceivable that full length novels and anthologies of completed works could garner wider appeal – who knows? We may one day produce a best seller. There is certainly enough talent on the site.